Night rider: Top tips for riding a bike safely in the dark

Cyclist in motion riding past bright lights

Clare Barry

Posted March 22, 2021

As the days get shorter, here are seven expert tips for cycling safely at night.

Riding a bike is a whole new experience in the dark – the same rules apply but an extra layer of vulnerability means that as the days get shorter commuters need to get organised.

“It definitely is more intimidating riding in the dark in winter,” says Donovan Roberts, lead trainer at social enterprise bikeshop Good Cycles. “There’s the lack of visibility and worrying about being seen, and also it’s a bit colder and harder to get motivated.

“But if you’re commuting you’re likely going to be riding home in the dark at some stage so it’s good to be prepared for it.”

Seven tips for riding safely in the dark

Get the (legal) basics right

Legally you must have three things on your bike when riding in the dark – a white light at the front, and a red light and red reflector at the back. The lights must be visible from 200 metres and the reflector from 50 metres. 

Choose your lights carefully

Get set to confront a bewildering array of lights at the bike shop or wherever you intend to buy. Most are powered by batteries or are chargeable through a USB point and have different modes and settings. Prices can range from a tenner up into the hundreds. Donovan recommends using USB-rechargeable lights. “You’re not replacing batteries so there’s less waste and everyone has USB ports on their computers, but it can be a case of remembering to charge them up,” he says. Modes will switch between a solid beam to light your way, and flashing modes so other road users can see you. Some lights will also let you alter the strength of the beam. If you have a new commuter bike in your sights, consider one with a built-in dynamo that charges your lights – and even your phone – using the friction of the rotating wheel.

Carry a second set of lights

Donovan recommends always having a second set of lights on hand. “You want to have a backup in case of a flat battery – you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you’ve got no lights,” he warns. “And if you’re riding in a situation where you feel a bit intimidated on busy roads and want to be even more visible, you can put both sets of lights on flashing and really increase that visibility.”

Don't dazzle your road mates

Car drivers know the frustration of being blinded by an oncoming car with its lights on full beam. The same can apply to bikes when street riders choose ultra-bright lights intended for off-road riding. Talk to your bike-shop attendant about what lumens count (brightness) you need, depending whether you ride city streets, shared paths or country roads. If your commute is a mixed bag of terrain and overhead lighting levels, use the different settings on the lights to run at a lower setting on streets, then a brighter setting when you reach a lower-lit bike path. Try out your lights in the backyard, and remember to check that your rear flashing light won’t dazzle cyclists riding behind.

Choose reflective gear you'll actually wear

Wearing hi-vis or reflective gear on a bike isn’t mandatory, but at night you might feel safer wearing reflective clothing that lights up under headlights or other lights. There’s a plethora of options – vests, jackets, pants, gloves, sash-style strips worn over the torso, backpacks… Donovan says it’s almost impossible to buy cycling clothing that doesn’t have some reflective element on it, even if it’s just piping. “You can get jackets that are wow, so bright, and if you’re concerned they’re a fantastic option because no one’s going to miss you.” But buying what you feel good wearing is vital. “If you’re going to wear it because it’s comfortable or stylish then that’s the best thing for you.”

Add a leg strap for good measure

A simple and cheap reflective leg strap can work wonders for night-time visibility. “Studies have shown motorists really identify that movement of the leg going up and down,” says Donovan. “Anything you can have around your ankles or legs that’s reflective is really good because the motion is so unique to bicycles and drivers can clock it from hundreds of metres off.”

Take extra care

Once you’ve got your lights sorted and have the right reflective gear for you, Donovan makes a couple of points about night riding. “You need to know your route and be a bit more vigilant,” he says. “All the same dangers as in daytime apply, but things can look a bit different at night and you have to focus even more on being seen.” Choose as well-lit and separated a route as you can, look out for easy-to-miss hazards like wet leaves, potholes, tram tracks and unlit bollards, signal your intentions earlier, and slow down if visibility is poor. 

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