Biking at night is one of my favorite things to do. As we wrote in our 2013 bike light story, “a nighttime bike ride can turn a simple errand into an existential experience.”
It’s true. The pace of the city slows way down at night. All the wooded areas come alive. The magnificent vistas transform. The experience forces meditation and self-reflection, a vital part of a healthy life that is so easy to neglect in a busy city.
But you gotta have lights on your bike to ride at night. The law requires a headlight and a rear reflector, but a rear taillight is highly recommended.
Unfortunately, bikes in our country don’t just come standard with proper lights, and there are a huge array of confusing bike light options available out there. This is a frustrating legacy of the U.S. bike industry treating bikes as recreational sports equipment rather than practical transportation machines. Most people just want whatever lights they need to be safe and legal, and then they never want to think about their bike lights ever again. Can you imagine if cars were sold without lights? Of course not.
Here is Seattle Bike Blog’s advice for buying and using bike lights:
- Buy lights. That’s the most important rule of all.
- Make sure you have a way of keeping your lights charged. This is the most important bike light feature for avoiding frustration later. USB-charged lights are great. So are lights that can take AAs or AAAs, since those rechargeable batteries are common and cheap. Avoid lights that require annoying (and expensive) watch batteries.
- Bring your lights with you at all times. Sundown will keep creeping earlier and earlier, and you don’t want to get stuck out without them.
- Keep your headlight on steady instead of flashing. Flashing headlights might make you feel safer, but they may actually disorient other people and make it more difficult to pinpoint your location. Some people with epilepsy can be harmed by strobing headlights. A flashing headlight is also illegal (makes you wonder why they even have a flashing mode, doesn’t it?).
- Don’t point your light in people’s eyes. It can be very easy to not realize that you are blinding oncoming people. A lot of people just don’t realize how bright their lights are. You should angle your light slightly down so most the beam hits the ground somewhere in front of you. This splash of light on the road will make you more visible to people driving than shining the beam in their eyes, and it will help you better see potholes.
- Use your lights whenever it rains or when the sun is low in the sky, not just at dark.
- Don’t leave your lights on your bike when you lock up. They will get stolen.
- Use your common sense, and do what feels safe to you. Some people prefer to get decked out in reflective gear and light up their bikes like a Christmas tree. If that’s you, then go for it. Others, like myself, feel comfortable with a set of good front and rear lights.
If you have a few hundred bucks, dynamo lighting (powered by the spinning of your wheel) is probably my favorite bike upgrade. You will need a new front wheel, and the lights themselves aren’t cheap. But once installed, you almost never have to think about your lights or charging batteries again. They turn on automatically when you start biking and turn off automatically after your bike has been stopped for a few minutes. And the headlights are typically focused to illuminate the roadway very well without blinding other people, similar to a car headlight.
While not that long ago dynamo lights were pretty weird in the U.S., many bike shops around town do dynamo light upgrades these days. You should swing by or call your local bike shop and ask if they sell and install them. If not, I’m sure they will have a shop to recommend.
Bike lights are one of those topics that seems to consistently start fights on the Internet. Some people get so mad at people who use blindingly-bright lights or have bright flashing headlights. While I understand why such light use is frustrating, I think it’s also important to consider that the person with the blinding light may not realize how blinding it is. And they only bought such a bright light because they are trying to be safe and visible while biking. It makes sense, on a certain level, to think that a brighter light is better, and blinking in more visible than steady. That’s how emergency vehicles do it, after all.
So instead of getting mad or yelling at people, being calm and helpful might be more appropriate for the situation. If it’s easy to mention to them that their light is shining in people’s eyes, then that’s great. It’s not their fault that the bike light market is so open-ended and confusing. Not everyone is interested in reading an 800-word blog post about bike lights.