For some reason, we are still adjusting our clocks so that evening commutes are in the dark

Light Up Your Commute poster. November 7th 7 to 9 a.m. Westake Bike Path near South Lake Union.Washington, Oregon and California have all passed laws saying that they are ready to switch to permanent Daylight Saving Time, but we still need to meaninglessly and abruptly plunge the evening commute into darkness next week because Congress has not yet approved the West Coast time zone change.

That means sunset today is 4:47 p.m. today, so you need to make sure your bike lights are in good working order if you aren’t used to biking in the dark.

Commute Seattle is hosting its annual Light Up Your Commute event 7–9 a.m. Thursday on the Westlake Bikeway near Lake Union Park. You can get swag there or just grab a breakfast burrito and some coffee.

If you are new to biking, lights are not optional. Not only is a front headlight and rear reflector legally required, but lights are vital for your safety. We have ranted about this many times before but it is ridiculous that lights are not a standard feature on bikes sold in the U.S.

tldr; Buy a headlight bright enough to see bumps in the road, don’t put it on flashing mode and don’t point it in people’s eyes.

We’ve written about bike lights many times over the years. And the good news is that LED and battery technology keeps improving, so quality lights that are easy to keep charged are plentiful. Whether you go with a USB-charging light or a light that can take rechargeable AA or AAA batteries is up to you. Just avoid cheapo lights that require little watch-size batteries: They are usually not bright enough and you will pay a lot more later buying those expensive little batteries.

Though a taillight is not legally required, you should have one. Luckily, those are usually cheaper than headlights, and most taillights out there will be just fine since they don’t need to illuminate the road like a headlight should.

It’s best to angle your headlight slightly toward the ground. This does three things: It prevents you from blinding someone coming the other way (including other people biking), it helps illuminate the path in front of you, and the splash of light on the road helps people driving to see you.

Do not use the flashing mode on your headlight, especially if it is a powerful light. It seems like common sense that a flashing light makes you more visible. After all, emergency vehicles have flashing lights. But a flashing headlight can be disorienting, especially for people heading in the other direction. It can also make it difficult for people to pinpoint your location. A steady headlight is best.

If you want to use additional lights, that’s up to you. Whatever makes you feel more comfortable on the road is great. I won’t tell people they need to wear reflective vests or wrap their bikes in Christmas lights, but I also won’t tell people they shouldn’t. You do you.

Oh, and you should really take your lights with you when you lock up. Light theft is unfortunately common.

If you want to never think about bike lights ever again, ask your local bike shop about dynamo lights powered by your bike’s movement. This is my favorite bike upgrade, though it can be a bit pricey since you will likely need a new front wheel. But you can keep them on your bike when you lock up and they turn on automatically when you start riding. They’re almost magic.

Once you have lights that work for you, biking at night can be wonderful. It’s empowering to know you can get around by bike 24 hours a day. And if you’re going to commute through winter, you’re going to need to bike in the dark a lot.

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24 Responses to For some reason, we are still adjusting our clocks so that evening commutes are in the dark

  1. Jesse says:

    I agree a good front dynamo light is amazing. A rear magnetic-loop one is great in addition as it will flash anytime you’re riding.
    The B&M dynamo lights are absolutely top notch fantastic. Definitely recommend.

  2. LL says:

    THANK YOU for the PSA against flashing lights! Blindingly bright flashing LEDs (headlights and taillights alike) are so irritating and distracting.

    • Ballard Biker says:

      Bikers need to test their own lights on themselves to understand the impacts on other bikers. It’s clear that a bunch of people just buy the absolute brightest light they can and can care less how much they are blinding people.

  3. asdf2 says:

    Of course, if we didn’t fall back, then most morning commutes would be in the dark. There’s just not enough daylight to go around to have it both ways.

    • Teee says:

      Agree. And leaving an hour later in the morning can be enough time to avoid some of the worst frosty patches during the winter.

  4. John Porter says:

    I’d like to see a discussion on mounting a headlight on handlebars vs helmet. I personally think the helmet mount is borderline unsafe due to how high off the road the light appears to oncoming traffic. The closer the light is to the ground, the closer your bike will appear to approaching vehicles. The higher from the ground the further away it appears to be – it’s all about perspective. After I plowed into the side of a car pulling out in front of me I switched to a handlebar mount.

    • Stuart says:

      I used to ride with a helmet light, but I started thinking about how a helmet-mounted light would affect the ability of the helmet to perform its function in a fall. Would it snag on the road surface and snap my head back? thinking about that scenario, I removed the helmet light and stuck with a bike mount.

    • bill says:

      I almost pulled out in front of a cyclist like John once. Preparing to turn right, I looked left. Just street lights. I looked right, nothing. I double checked left, and damn if one the streetlights hadn’t moved!

      There is also the problem that if you are looking around with your helmet light, it might not be directed toward a driver when the driver is looking in your direction.

      Headlights should be mounted like the lights on other vehicles, roughly between the top of the wheel and the handlebars, so that you are clearly identifiable as a vehicle.

      On a fully dark road where the only light is your own, you want your light below your line of sight so that debris and road irregularities cast shadows. If your light is on your helmet, shadows will largely be hidden behind the objects that cast them.

    • bobco85 says:

      My answer is: why not both? I use a headlight on both my handlebars and helmet. The handlebar one (bright light) points downward and shines on the path/road ahead of me, and the helmet one (medium brightness) allows me to look at things that are not directly in front of me like deer or folks coming from the side. The difficult part is choosing a light that doesn’t awkwardly fit on your helmet.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      I personally don’t have a strong opinion about helmet headlights. By that point, I’m just glad they have a light! A lot of people are just reusing a camping headlight they already have, which is definitely the cheapest option :-)

      If you have a really bright helmet light, though, you just have to be conscious not to shine it in people’s eyes. Other than that, I think it falls squarely into the “you do you” category.

  5. Jeffrey Fisher says:

    I found that a light on the helmet and a light on the bike works well.

    You can aim the light on the helmet to look around corners, to flash at cars backing out of places, way down the road when you need to, at signs, etc. See down over small things that would be in shadow from a lower light. That’s all great.

    However, as Bill said above, you can’t see bumps with it well because the light is aligned with your eyes so closely that there is very little shadow.

    So, both. Also means if one of them doesn’t work one day you still have one to make your trip.

    Also get yourself a light colored jacket and helmet.

  6. Gary Yngve says:

    I’d much prefer biking my kid to school in daylight and commuting home from work in the dark than vice versa.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      I hear you there. A point I should have specified in the post is that far more trips happen during the evening commute than the morning (because most trips are not work trips, but those non-work trips are more likely to be in the evening than the morning). The result is that there is a spike in traffic injuries and deaths when DST ends: https://time.com/3549442/daylight-saving-time-traffic-deaths/ There’s also speculation that losing an hour of sleep is a contributor, but I find the data around sunlight in the evening to be more convincing.

  7. dave says:

    I like biking to work in daylight in the morning. I don’t mind the dark after work so much. Amen to no blinking headlights!

    • jda says:

      +1 for standard time to be the standard instead of daylight savings time. dark mornings are way sketchier than dark evenings in my experience.

  8. Jack says:

    I commute through busy downtown traffic and find a bright flashing headlight is a safety requirement during the day to get any chance of being noticed by drivers. At night, I use a low power flash while in a bike lane and switch on the high power flash when maneuvering past vehicles while taking the lane. Otherwise I’m invisible. I’m careful to turn my light down very low when in a 2-way BPL. Must say at night on bust PBL’s like on 2nd, it’s very hard to discern a standard bike light coming toward me in the opposite direction from the 1000’s of other street lights. Flashing is the way to go, don’t buy into the rules designed for cars only! And just be thoughtful of your fellow bikes and peds!

    • Nate T says:

      Jack, your low powered flashing headlights in a bike lane are (1) less useful for you than a steady beam and (2) more likely to disorient oncoming cyclists. Do what you will in traffic, but please switch to steady light in bike lanes. We are you.

      • Jack says:

        Forgive me but the anti-flashing bike light issue seems to be a suburban/low traffic/car culture-centric issue–or something. I get your gripes if applied to a dark road/path.

        But imagine riding a bike in a two-way bike lane traveling against the flow of car traffic on a very busy urban street like northbound on 2nd in Seattle, in the rain, in the dark while wearing glasses Unless you are biking very slowly, it’s not safe to assume you can quickly discern between the bright oncoming car headlights, the many and various urban lights (all blurring from the drops on your glasses) in order to avoid your oncoming cyclist friend with a small steady light that blends into the background. However, you’ll notice and safely avoid that same rider if she has a low powered flasher.

        And if she’s like me, she’ll switch that flasher on stun when the inevitable uber/lyft/rando oblivious driver pulls into the bike lane or otherwise cuts her off, thereby doing her part to help car drivers learn about sharing the road.

        Flashers forever- end car culture!

      • Nate T says:

        Hey Jack, I appreciate that you feel safer with the flashers, but my old eyes can’t quickly adapt if your flashers are in front of me, meaning I am more likely to hit a pothole or other road obstruction. I commute daily into the city and have done for over a decade, so I speak from experience. Thanks, no offense intended.

      • Jack says:

        Cool Nate, I’m only talking about riding in the busy City. My low powered flash doesnt have the lumens to effect even the oldest eyeballs—just enough to set it apart from the 1000’s of other lights on the road to make folks think, “there’s something not like the others”.

  9. Kirk says:

    Just keep the time at standard time all year. Noon at the peak of the sun. Simple. Adjust your schedule as you see fit.
    For the night riding I always like to wear a bike hat with a brim. It is invaluable for blocking out bright headlights. Also, learn to adjust you light. If you angle it down, you will see that all lights have a top cutoff, whether it is a simple round light or a nice european spec top cutoff. Adjust your light in a nice dark area with a pole or fence so you can see where the top end of your light is. Adjust it so that the top of the beam is no higher than about four feet, below eye level.

  10. ronp says:

    bikes on the burke are doing better!!! fewer blinker tail lights and less blinding headlights! I wish we did not have daylight saving time! But we will get through the next seven weeks together!

  11. Tom Payne says:

    I have a question about dynamo lights: When you stop moving, do they go dark? Or do some (which brands?) have capacitors that store energy so the lights stay on, and you stay visible, say when stopping at a stop sign?

    • Gary Yngve says:

      They stay bright and dim over the course of a minute. Long enough to annoy bus drivers when you put your bike on the bus rack and they demand that you turn off your light… :)

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