By: Steve Lita
It’s inevitable. One of these days, you’re going to have to ride at night. While it’s not difficult, there’s no denying that motorcycle riding in the dark is riskier. Most bikes have only one headlight and one taillight, limiting the ability to see and be seen.
Night riding is a skill that doesn’t seem to have been covered in depth anywhere. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation devotes a whopping two paragraphs to the subject in its instruction manual, and one recently released riding skills book succinctly states, “Don’t ride at night.” Gee, thanks for the tip.
So, we polled our intrepid RoadBike staff and friends to assemble a list of useful night-riding tips. While it may not be the definitive list of nighttime dos and don’ts, we hope you’ll find at least a few tips you can use the next time you venture out after dusk.
You can prepare your bike and your gear for night riding long before you hit the road after dark. Here are some modifications that won’t affect your daytime riding and will help keep you prepared at all times.
When shopping for riding gear, choose apparel with built-in reflective panels or piping. Almost every manufacturer offers gear with reflective details. They may call the reflective material by different catchy names, but the most important thing is, simply, the more reflective area, the better. Another good source for reflective items is your local bicycle shop. Bicyclists face the same nighttime riding hurdles as motorcyclists, if not more, and most bicycle shops carry an array of reflective sashes, armbands, and vests. In addition, the motorcycle aftermarket offers reflective tape and stickers that you can put on your helmet, gear, and bike. You can also pay a visit to your local sign shop to see if it offers reflective tape — you might even be able to get a special design cut for you.
Equipping your bike with more lights will greatly improve your visibility to other drivers. LEDs are the hot thing, and bike parts catalogs are packed with offerings. Lighted license plate frames, extra signal lights (some flashing, some not), and auxiliary driving lights will all help make your bike more visible at night. Just make sure your front signal lights don’t reflect back at you in your windshield.
It’s also important to adjust the aim of your headlight, you can often upgrade your stock headlight or taillight with halogen or LED bulbs. You might also want to carry a spare taillight bulb wrapped in foam in a 35mm film case. If your bulb burns out at night, you may not find an open auto parts store.
It’s also a good idea to carry a flashlight in your tool kit or saddlebag. You’ll need it if you break down on an unlit road after dark. Some lights come with straps to wear on your head, to shine light where you’re looking. And some flashlights are even small enough to be key fobs. Don’t cheap out on your batteries, either — pay a little extra now for the strong cells, and you won’t be wondering whether the flashlight will work when you need it.
Just before you depart for a ride at night, you’ll want to do some last-minute preparations. When the sun goes down, it takes the heat with it, so dress warmly or bring along your jacket liner and other layers. Just because you’re comfortable when you leave doesn’t mean you’ll still be warm when the temperature plummets in a few hours.
If you wear a full-face helmet, make sure it has a clean, clear visor (though some people like riding with a yellow tint at night). Ditto for your eye protection, if you’re going to be wearing sunglasses or goggles. Make sure your visor or goggles are free of scratches and smudges. A mar in the lens will light up like a Christmas tree when oncoming headlights hit it.
The next time you start up your bike, pay attention to your dashboard indicator lights. Know where each one is and what it stands for. If one of those lights comes on at night, it will be much brighter and may startle you, especially if you don’t know what it means.
Adjust Your Riding
You’ll need to use some different techniques while riding at night. Here are our suggestions:
• Use the headlights of other vehicles traveling in the same direction as you, so you can see farther down the road. It’s free, and it works.
• Don’t over-ride your headlights, meaning don’t ride outside your range of sight. You’ll probably have to ride a bit
slower than you do during the day.
• When you’re hit with the headlights of oncoming vehicles, avert your eyes to the right. This will keep you from getting temporarily blinded, and will help you stay on your path.
• Be extra alert for animals that are known to enjoy traveling at night, like Bambi and Thumper and their friend Sam the Armadillo (don’t ask).
• When approaching a stoplight, tap your brake lever a few times to make sure it’s visible to anyone behind you. And while you’re waiting at the stoplight, flash your taillight to alert approaching vehicles.
• Use your horn and high beam lights only when necessary. There’s no sense in upsetting other motorists when all you’re trying to do is better communicate your location.
• Get plenty of rest and stop riding if you’re drowsy. Take a walk around, kick the tires, do whatever it takes to bring yourself back to alertness.
For riding in the rain on a bike equipped with a windshield, one thought comes to mind: good luck. Every drop of water will shine like a star when light is refracted through it. You might want to try using a rain-repellent coating on your windshield or face shield to keep it free of drops. This is a good tip for driving your car in the rain, too.
We mentioned large animals earlier, but don’t forget the small ones. Bugs are nighttime party animals, and you’re likely to find the front parts of your bike coated with the tiny critters at the end of an evening ride. But if you’re vigilant about waxing the front of your bike, the bugs will come off easier the next time you clean it.
Perhaps the most annoying bug that comes out at night is the human party animal. A drunk behind the wheel of a three-ton SUV is the bane of humanity. Unfortunately, there’s no repellent for this type of beast, but you can at least be on the lookout for its weaving, erratic driving.
Above all, remember that you’re always at a disadvantage when it comes to being seen and recognized by other motorists, especially at night. So, if you choose to ride after dark, get yourself in a defensive frame of mind. Use the right gear, and take extra care while riding.
Originally published in the October 2005 issue of Roadbike.