Saturday 4 May 2013

Safely Commuting by Bike at Night

Too often recently I've been seeing (bad choice of words) invisible ninja cyclists cruising past me in the dark during Melbourne's evening peak. If performing covert operations on bike paths and roads is their objective then they are certainly successful. But if, like me, their aim is to get to their destination safely then they are seriously testing their luck.

Last night, I nearly ran into one of these rogue cyclists when they appeared out of nowhere along an unlit section of bike path. They had no lights, no reflective gear and were wearing dark clothing. A very bad combination! I didn't see them coming towards me until they were less than 5m away and luckily I just managed to avoid them at the last moment. Not only was this guy a danger to his fellow cyclists but also a danger to himself. If fellow cyclists struggle to see you, imagine how difficult it would be for cars!

The key to riding safely at night is to be seen and to always assume that other road users have not seen you. Riding defensively is also very important. As a cyclist you are the most vulnerable road user and so you need to take extra care compared to other road users. Here are my tips for riding safely at night.

  • Use lights and reflectors: The most important accessories on your bike are your lights. Always have a front head light, rear light and tail reflector. Not only will these make you easier to see but they are legally required and you risk getting a fine from the police without them. Its worth paying a bit more for good quality lights with high visibility.
  • Set your lights to flash: Human eyes are sensitive to movement so a cyclist with flashing lights is much easier to see than one with steady lights. Flashing lights also identify you as a cyclist to other road users and they will take extra care as they approach you. If you need a steady headlight to illuminate the path in front of you in dark areas, its probably worth having two lights with one set to flash. Be careful to point the steady light downwards so that you don't blind fellow riders traveling in the opposite direction.
  • Wear reflective gear: I've got reflective straps on my backpack and also tied onto the front and back forks of my bike. I've also got reflective panels on my pedals. When a car's lights shine on me, they'll see me from a reasonable distance away.
  • Wear bright clothing: It's much easier to see someone in a bright yellow top than a black one.
My bike is all ready for night time riding.
Front lights, rear lights, pedal reflectors and reflectors on
the front and rear of the bike are clearly visible.

General cycling safety tips

  • Wear a hemet: Not only is this legally required in every state of Australia but helmets also do a damn good job of protecting your head if you get knocked off your bike. I've come off my bike a few times over the years and have almost always bumped my head. Even a slight bump can give you a nasty headache or worse so its worth putting up with helmet hair to protect your head.
  • Slow down: The darker it is, the less visibility you have of hazards on the path in front of you. Riding slower gives you a better chance to avoid broken branches, broken glass and other debris. Not to mention other hazards such as cars and pedestrians!
  • Indicate your turns: Whenever you're turning left or right make sure you indicate. I'm also in the habit of doing a head check to see if there's a cyclist about to pass me. I have been the victim of an accident where I ran into a cyclist who turned right without indicating or doing a head check while I was trying to overtake them.
  • Get a bell and use it: One lesson I learned from that accident is to use my bell when overtaking other cyclists or pedestrians. I do this all the time now. I do get some looks, especially from pedestrians, but it helps make sure that the person I am passing is aware I'm there.
  • Follow the road rules: Follow the road rules and ride in a predictable and safe manner. Don't weave in and out of traffic or change direction suddenly.
  • Don't listen to music while riding: It's important that you can hear whats going on around you in order to be able to avoid hazards. This includes other cyclists ringing their bell and cars around you.
  • Avoid busy roads: This is not always possible because there may not be a viable alternative path but where there is use it!

Remember, be seen and stay safe. I hope that helps all you ninjas who want to come out of the shadows!