Tuesday, August 30, 2005

What Works at Night

A new bike must be delivered to the customer with a white reflector on the front, a red reflector on the rear, white reflectors on the wheels and orange reflectors on the pedals.

To ride at night, New Hampshire law requires a white headlight visible for 300 feet on the front of the bike and a red reflector on the back visible when struck by a light from 300 feet away. Pedal reflectors visible for 200 feet are also required. Reflectorized leg bands are a legal substitute.

The required reflectors provide a minimal level of safety. The state-required headlight provides a little more. But what really keeps you safe?

Reflectorized leg bands are better than installed pedal reflectors, because they generally have reflective material that wraps all the way around the rider’s ankle, providing visibility from the side as well as just the front and rear. They’re light and compact enough for even a weight-conscious cyclist to carry them in a pocket in case of need. You can even strap on a couple of extras.

A rear reflector is a little better than nothing at all, but an active tail light really does the job, especially one that blinks. At dusk, motorists may not yet have their headlights on, rendering reflectors completely useless. Therefore, one or more blinking beacons provide both the active illumination and the motion necessary to catch the motorist’s attention.

A headlight that meets the letter of the law still doesn’t give the rider a functional view of the road. A generator light or a large battery light not only produces a brighter light to attract attention, it also puts out a useful beam so the cyclist can actually see to ride. Generator lights are no longer common, but bright lights with rechargeable batteries come in a variety of styles and price ranges to suit all types of bike and rider.

Wheel reflectors, while fun to look at, should not be considered much of a defense. If a cyclist is crossing the path of a motorist at night so closely that the motorist has to respond to the wheel reflectors, the cyclist has made a serious tactical mistake. If the cyclist is crossing clear ahead, the wheel reflectors are irrelevant. In addition, wheel reflectors can throw a wheel out of balance, making the bike feel somewhat unstable at times. Should they happen to fall off, it’s not as serious a loss as having a light burn out, or forgetting your reflector leg bands.

As inconvenient as it seems, the last line of defense is, “When in Doubt, Bail Out.” At night, I don’t ride in cleated shoes, and I keep a constant eye out for places to get off the road if I have a bad feeling about who might be coming up. This is just about the opposite to my behavior in daylight, when I will enforce my right to the road without reservation. Just never get off the road because a motorist ordered you to do so. The only appropriate response to that involves a single finger giving a widely recognized gesture of defiance. Or better yet just ignore them and hope they go away.

If the motoring public ever decides to declare open war on cyclists they can kill us all within a day. That’s not how we do things in this country, at least not yet, so thousands of riders still get to pursue the invigorating and delightful activity of cycling. But riders have to remember that the motoring public has limitations they themselves do not even realize, encased as they are in glass cubicles, watching the scenery outside as if it were a movie. If you want to be seen, you have to make a scene.


Brian C. said...

I've been trying to find reflective tape for sale on-line with no luck. I want to add some reflection to my forks (and cover up some rusty bits). Do you know of an on-line retailer for such things? (This is a nice blog, by the way.)

cafiend said...

Hard to believe anything would be hard to find for sale on line. I haven't really looked for reflective tape, so I don't have any leads. I like to make visibility optional. Sometimes it's good to be able to vanish. So all my lights and reflective items are easily removable.

Thanks for the kind words about the blog. I wanted to have some info for the real-world cyclist. You can take this activity as far as you want, but there's always a place for the basics.

Jeffy said...

http://www.identi-tape.com/ (Reflective tape and lots more!) Keep Cycling!

Brian C. said...

Thanks for the web site. I think I'll get some. I didn't need them before in New York City as there are plenty of street lights there. But in Lexington, KY, many streets are dark (and I think the drivers are worse).