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11 tips for riding in the dark
Once a year, the summer evenings draw in and from October through till March we are often riding in the dark, often to and from work. Once we lose the long daylight hours, how can we sharpen up our night riding? Here are eleven ways to deal with the darkness.
Avoid dark visors - whilst useful riding directly into a low sun, half an hour after sunset they are a liability. They flatten shadows, making it more difficult to spot potholes and damp patches. Whilst it is possible to swap to a clear visor, a far better option is an internal sun shade (but keep it clean and scratch-free) or wear shatterproof sunglasses which can be taken off when the sun goes down.
Fit a new visor - this should be obvious; if the visor is at all damaged, fit a new one. It's always amazing at how those tiny, almost invisible scratches make it harder to see at night. If I need to replace the visor, I nearly always do it for autumn so I have the best possible vision through the winter. Keep it clean and scratch free. A few years back RiDE advised against using furniture polish claiming it "can make the plastic go brittle", but for the last twenty years I've followed the advice of an Arai helmet technician who should know what he's talking about, cleaning my visor with Mr Sheen. Spray on, cover with a damp tissue, leave for a few minutes, then wipe off and polish with a soft cloth. The film of wax helps rain drops bead up and run off, and protects the visor from grit and bugs, which lift off the surface more easily - the result is less damage to the antiscratch coating. It's worked so well that the last visor outlived the helmet. But do avoid Rain-X - it is intended for glass and destroys the antiscratch coating and should be avoided.
Check, clean and adjust the lights - check all bulbs actually work - it might sound obvious but as soon as dusk falls, I see plenty of riders with a missing tail light. Ensure the headlamp lens is clean (the inside too if you can reach it) then get the headlamp aim right. Illuminating tree tops won't help us see but will annoy drivers coming the other way. Too low and we won't pick up hazards till too late.
Upgrade the lights - a 60/55w halogen bulb is the legal maximum, but check that's what is actually fitted. Some twin headlight set-ups use low power 35/35w or 45/45w bulbs. Check your alternator output but most bikes over 250cc will cope with a single 60/55w bulb. If you have twin headlights, be a little more careful. If, after fitting, you detect no more light it may be you need to fit a relay - some Hondas need this. An easy upgrade to a standard 60/55w bulb are Xenon bulbs - they are a legal 60/55w but offer higher light output - up to 150% according to the advertising - and having tried them they are definitely brighter. Avoid the 'bad weather' blue/yellow bulbs if riding on unlit roads. They look cool, and might help to distinguish a motorcycle in urban traffic - see my Science Of Being Seen project - but despite the claims, they really reduce the light output. And don't fit aftermarket HID kits or LED headlight bulbs. They are illegal if not a standard fitment, and many screw up the focus of the beam too. If you have 6v electrics M&P sell 25/25w and 35/35w halogen bulbs in a variety of fitments which should be a direct replacement for your standard bulb. They also do halogen fitments for bikes with 12v non-standard fitments.
Dawn and Dusk - riding at dawn and dusk is particularly difficult. Something riders tend to forget is the sun. Near the horizon it can be blinding, and during winter it spends more time there than usual. We can anticipate the problem. Shadows reaching towards us show the sun is ahead of us, so if we're about to ride into the sun, expect to be dazzled. It would be a good idea to slow down early (rather than hit the brakes when we realise we can't see anything). When riding into the sun, look for road signs to warn of junctions and other hazards. When riding OUT of the sun, we can see clearly but drivers looking towards us are blinded, particularly at junctions. Be particularly careful if the road surface is wet - the combination of direct and reflected light can be absolutely blinding. Immediately after the sun has set comes the most difficult driving time - twilight. The eye is adjusted to the lighter sky, which makes it difficult to see where the shade is deep. Take extra care.
Riding under street lights - where roads are well-lit, it can be almost as easy to see as in daylight, but where the lighting is not so good, we need to pay attention to areas in deep shadow and to remember that other drivers' lights will be concealing us so we're harder to spot. But don't be tempted to ride on main beam "to be more conspicuous". The glare from the light obscures the bike behind it.
Riding on unlit roads - this presents another challenge althogther. We're limited by how far our lights show the road ahead, but don't forget - it doesn't matter how good our lights are, as soon as we need to dip the main beam, our long view will be cut short. No matter how good the lights, set your speed to ride well within the 'distance you can see to be clear'. Look as far ahead along the route as possible - don't just concentrate on the patch of light but search out road markings and signs to help work out where the road goes. Even in the country, it is very rarely pitch black and we can often get a clue where the road goes from the outlines of hedges and trees - but like these clues in daylight just don't rely too much on them. Other vehicles lights will often give an idea of where the road heads. A glow ahead will usually be warning of a junction or roundabout. A single light often marks a side road. We can try to position to 'see and be seen' but remember that our lights probably won't stand out from vehicles behind us. There's some evidence that twin headlights can be mistaken for a car a lot further off. There is no point in blaming the SMIDSY driver, and trying to make eye contact in the dark is pretty pointless. We need to be ready to take evasive action. When other vehicles are approaching, try not to look directly at the beams, but to the left and the nearside edge of the road. Having a good idea of what lies ahead comes in useful. A line of tiny lights appearing over a crest is a truck. Dip lights early because the driver sits high above his own lights. Another biking annoyance is sitting right behind the car ahead, when our higher lights shine straight in the back window of the car and blind the driver. But if there are no reasons not to, use main beam - an astonishing number of riders seem to use just dip! Don't forget that it also warns drivers ahead and out of direct line of sight of our presence.
Learn about cats-eyes and reflective marker posts - if they're on the road, use them. Amber cats-eyes mark the right edge of the road, red mark the left edge, green ones are found where you can leave (or others join) via a sliproad. White cats-eyes separate lanes. Similarly, white marker posts will always be found on the right, red on the left. If white cats-eyes in the middle of the road get closer together, we're approaching a hazard - it's the same as the hazard line. Learn the difference in markings between lanes and slip roads - that will help you avoid the crash I had years ago when I ran off the A1 late at night in heavy spray. Following the left kerb, I went up a slip road leading to a Little Chef and ended up on my backside sliding over wet grass. Kerbs can and do disappear into side roads, bus stops, drive ways and ditches. Watch out too for awkwardly positioned central islands and width restrictor 'pinch-points' installed as traffic calming. They are often poorly marked and hard to spot at night.
Avoid 'advanced' positioning - a more 'middle of the road' line will give us room for manoeuvre if we don't read a bend correctly, but avoid the temptation to turn in too early. Nor do we want to be braking hard approaching bends - the headlight beam will dive as well as the forks. Get off the brakes and on the gas before steering, so the machine and beam are levelled out before we have to steer. On left-handers, the beam will tilt to light up the outside of the turn and dazzle on-coming drivers. But the part of the beam illuminating the nearside will move back towards us, which doesn't help in seeing where the road goes. Although most bikes have a reasonable spread of light allowing us to see round corners to some extent, a few - like my old CX500 - are focussed like laser beams. It made a thirty hairpin alpine pass a 'never-to-be-forgotten' experience. To see around corners, dip often has a better spread than main beam. It'll also work a bit better coming over the brow of a hill than main beam. We can get a bit of extra light on dip by using the headlamp flasher button to illuminate main beam too. But only for a second or two - any longer will melt the fuse! And avoid accelerating until it's clear where the road goes next. The slow-in, late turn 'Point and Squirt' approach works just as well in the dark as it does on blind corners - because effectively a dark corner IS a blind corner.
Dealing with cars on main beam - a common problem is encountering a driver with headlights blazing on high beam. If we dip our own lights promptly when we see the lights of a vehicle coming the other way, it's usually enough to get the other driver to return the courtesy. If they still forget, a quick flash of main beam usually wakes them up. But in some cases, the problem is a car with badly-adjusted beams or which is heavily loaded.
If we're not seen, we might be heard - even though it's technically illegal to use the horn in a built-up area between 11:30pm and 7:00am, if I thought a driver hadn't seen me, I know what I would do!
If you need some help on getting used to riding in the dark, why not check out the Survival Skills 'Basics' course? We start just before it gets dark, ride through the twilight and into full darkness to see how our perception of the road changes and have a chance to employ the strategies in this article.
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