Unlit cyclists, illustrated and castigated

by Raymond Parker on December 20, 2012

in Advocacy, Cycling, Technical

“After dark. all cyclists are required by law to have a front white headlight visible for a minimum of 100 metres, and a rear red reflector visible for 100 metres when directly illuminated by a car healight.” From Bike Sense: The British Columbia Bicycle Operator’s Manual (pdf)

On a dark, rainy night in November, I was driving home from the ferry terminal. It was a stressful drive, not only because it was dark and raining and many other motorists don’t see such conditions as reason to modify their driving habits, but also because I had to anticipate the many unlit cyclists along the way. And there were plenty.

I tweeted my experience and received several messages indicating I was not the only one baffled by the sheer number of lightless bikes.

In fact, every winter, social media contacts and/or VeloWeb readers tweet, text and comment their bewilderment about how commonly they come upon cyclists riding at night without so much as a reflector on their bikes. On any given night, it seems as though half of cyclists choose to risk their lives.

As December progressed, and the days got shorter, the nightly news reported a rash of car-pedestrian and -cyclist collisions, with the expected outcomes: injury and death … a replay of last year’s carnage and subject of a discussion in recent VeloWeb comments.

Wherever individual blame lay in each incident—and there was plenty to go around—all I can really say is that I am at as much of a loss as my correspondents to understand why people choose to put themselves at risk by dressing as Ninjas and going lightless.

Are they unable to afford lights? This may be the case for a minority of bike commuters, and “Get Lit” programs in Seattle, sponsored by Bicycle Alliance of Washington; in Portland, through the Community Cycling Center; and in Toronto,  have distributed hundreds of bicycle lights to low-income cyclists.

This is all good, and I support such initiatives. However, I’m not convinced that many Ninja riders I’ve seen are short of funds, going on their bikes and other gear. I’ve seen more than a few shadowy roadies zipping along on multi-thousand-dollar machines, completely un-illuminated. Better dead than Fred?

So what’s the answer?

I have personally appealed to local police (again, via Twitter) to enforce the law. Am I a traitor to our tribe? I don’t think so. From the perspective of a driver, I’m aware just how terribly dangerous, not to mention frightening, it is to suddenly encounter a blacked-out bicyclist. As an experienced night rider, I also know what it takes to maximize one’s visibility after dark.

As you can see from the accompanying gallery (below), I’ve been lurking in the shadows photographing urban cyclists (this time) at night. It didn’t take long—about 5 minutes, in fact—to come upon a Ninja. These photos were all taken on one recent rainy night.

I have to say, I saw some well-lit cyclists, but as a minority. A much greater number were either unlit or under-lit. The latter apparently unaware that their small LED battery lights (often blinkies) become just another confusing twinkle among the reflections, streetlights and Xmas decorations on wet roads.

Several cyclists had lights which presumably they had either neglected to turn on, or the batteries had run down. Some lights were so dim—barely discernible—that I presumed their batteries were almost discharged. Another argument for generator lights.

Another disconcerting observation: Most of the unlit cyclists I’ve seen in this city have been women. This is obviously a random survey, but one that I have reproduced over several nights of close monitoring. If anyone can corroborate this, and more importantly explain, it might bear understanding and rectifying.

Whether or not one can afford generator lights (a reliable system can be put together for $150-200) it seems to me that it’s impossible to put a price on one’s safety and health. Unfortunately, in North America, unlike, say, Germany, there is no clear, legislated and enforced guidance as to what are acceptable (i.e. safe) bicycle lights, notwithstanding the official code quoted above. Choose the best you can afford. If you can’t afford decent lights, you can’t afford to ride after dark.

I can attest to the damage a distracted driver can do in broad daylight. After sunset, the value of proper illumination can’t be calculated in dollars, unless one cares to tally medical bills and lost opportunities.

Tomorrow marks the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Here’s wishing you a happy and healthy return towards the light.

Eric December 20, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Couldn’t agree more. I suggest getting the brightest lights you can. I recently upgraded from an old MEC blinky to a PDW radbot 1000 and the difference in respect I get from drivers is incredible. The radbot is so retina -sizzling bright it makes passing me too close physically painful, and almost without exception, cars will give me as much room as the road allows. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend this particular light in a group ride unless you plan on sitting at the back!

Raymond Parker December 20, 2012 at 7:48 pm

Ah, you have seen the light! :-) The quality of one’s lights make a BIG difference in how much respect one receives from motorists … or any other road user for that matter. Better lights = more respect; simple as that. And not too hard to understand. I believe most other road users want to be safe and courteous. They certainly don’t want to be involved in a disaster and appreciate others’ attempts to be sensible.

Stephen December 21, 2012 at 10:17 pm

But too much light can be a hazard. Just as car lights require alignment, so do the brighter bike lights. You can destroy oncoming motorist (or cyclist) night vision which could lead to accidents. Use good lights, but point them at the road in front of you, not into the eyes of other road users.

Stephen December 21, 2012 at 10:28 pm

German standards require lights to be aligned, and reflector and lens design shapes the beam. This is why 12v lighting systems were slow to appear in the German market.

Raymond Parker December 22, 2012 at 2:20 am

Absolutely right, Stephen. I covered that issue in my reply to Dave, below ( December 21, 2012 at 4:31 pm).

Check the photo in the gallery, titled “blinded by the light.” These are particularly obnoxious on, say, the Galloping Goose Trail.

Optics are what really count–more so than absolute power–when it comes to the quality of road lights.

Tori Klassen December 20, 2012 at 8:21 pm

Absolutely Ray! I can’t understand some people – my 500 lumens light is much brighter than most others on the road, not only that but the tail lights we got are really bright too – so bright I don’t like riding behind my partner! I’ve said on my blog that police should start enforcing traffic laws for all cyclists so people get the message.

Raymond Parker December 20, 2012 at 8:43 pm

It does indeed leave one flummoxed.

Randonneurs demand of one-another steady-state rear lights. Seizure-inducing blinkies are not tolerated. Having said that, the latest LEDs, even in steady-mode, can leave one blinking.

And speaking of siezures, can’t understand blinkies as headlights, they degrade a rider’s visual acuity.

Stephen December 21, 2012 at 10:09 pm

I’d like to shed light on the front blinky. During early dusk or daytime haze, a front light doesn’t help us see as the ambient light is too bright. Under these condtions the annoying blinky makes the rider more visible. However, once the flash is lighting the path (just before full dark), I switch to solid as the strobe effect reduces my ability to see.

Ryan December 20, 2012 at 9:03 pm

I can understand because I’ve had a number of near incidents with pedestrians.
Tonight while I was out (enjoying the pouring rain :-\ ) I had people pass me way too close… Sad thing is most would pass it off as not being able to see me because of the rain, although I have a flashing light and two reflectors.

As for getting police to crack down? Maybe it’s because I have a poor relationship with police (not in a criminal way), but they’d be the last I’d want to do anything, here at least.

Raymond Parker December 20, 2012 at 10:19 pm

As long as the police concentrate on important issues like this, I’m all for them enforcing the law, and have implored them to do so. I’m not so impressed when they do things like ticketing cyclists who don’t come to an absolute stop at intersections … not talking about blowing through, but not putting their foot down.

Making sure all vehicles on the road have adequate night lighting is a public service and can save lives. @vicpdcanada have engaged me on other cycling-related issues, but seem to have me on ignore on this.

Ryan December 21, 2012 at 4:16 pm

I was thinking some more about this. If it is law to have either a light or reflector, bike manufacturers should be made to come up with something so every bike is properly equipped.
After all, car lights are not an extra… or at least yet.
I know Walmart specials have small cheap reflectors, but I’m talking about proper lighting.

Do vpd really ticket people for not putting their foot down at a stop sign?
Between that and no helmet, I’d make the vpd mega rich :-P

Raymond Parker December 21, 2012 at 5:18 pm

There are more off-the-peg bikes available today with just such accoutrements–decent commuting bikes. They have long been the norm in Europe, where such things are taken more seriously.

I know for a fact that “rolling stop” campaigns have happened in nearby Saanich (a popular cycling destination), who have their own police force.

Dave December 21, 2012 at 8:34 pm

Well they sure did when I was 15 and pedaling to Vic High! At (I think) the corner of North Park and Chambers there was, and perhaps still is, a stop sign on a little uphill right turn, and just around the corner was a motorcycle cop, pulling over all the kids on bikes who didn’t put a foot down.

Since I was too young to have a driver’s licence, I got off with a $2.50 fine (big money in 1960) but as I recall any kid who had a licence had to pay the adult rate, which I think was about $15.00.

Jim December 20, 2012 at 9:36 pm

I have a front light rated at 900 when at full power and a helmet mounted light. This morning my mains battery died so all I had was a head lamp. Glad I did. Had a close call with a driver pulling out. The strange thing was I had looked him in the eye just as he got ready to pull out. He actually pulled over and apologised nice but a little unnerving. It is not just lights though. How about clothing? I do not understand the mostly dark outfits people wear.

I am also not sure why the little blinky LEDs are sold as bike lights. Though they can make nice Christmas decorations.

Ray thanks for starting the conversation. One day I will move to a dyno hub but I just bought a new commuter bike . I keep thinking it would be a good project to build one. Have not done that in a while.

Raymond Parker December 20, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Redundancy, whether spare batteries or extra lights is a smart thing.

Even with my dynohub-powered systems, I also have LED battery lights, in case of highly-unlikely generator or main light failure.

I also agree about clothing/reflective gear. You will find other cycling bloggers who, whether under the persuasion of cognitive dissonance or dictates of hipster fashion, argue against wearing reflective gear.Their “logic,” as such, escapes me.

I do hope this helps keep the conversation going. As the many people who have contacted me in response to this have said, it’s a surprisingly common and unfathomable situation.

Stephen December 21, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Arrrh, you don’t understand the ostrich syndrome? “If I ride in stealth mode, the bas****s can’t see me, so they won’t be able to hit me.” (True explanation from an urban cyclist with whom I had a close encounter!)

Raymond Parker December 22, 2012 at 2:27 am

Logic, I guess, takes many unusual forms.

Bill S December 21, 2012 at 2:16 am

I couldn’t agree more. Not only do many not have lights, they ride against traffic, often mixing things up by also riding on the sidewalk. You see a flicker of movement and then you lose track of them because they’ve moved from the road to the sidewalk or vice versa. Where I live, the cops
don’t seem to enforce traffic laws against bicyclists.

Raymond Parker December 21, 2012 at 3:20 pm

And it is this last fact, which seems to be confirmed by the observations of more than a few correspondents today, that is most confounding.

David December 21, 2012 at 3:34 pm

I think the police would much rather ignore cyclists entirely than have to deal with being hassled by cyclists they pull over for legitimate reasons who think they have done nothing wrong and being hassled by drivers contacted by police for legitimate infractions of the law who think -they- have done nothing wrong. I believe it is that, plus the perception that anything except speeding and smash-em-up accidents are wastes of police time, that leads to police turning a blind eye to anything to do with anything short of a collision causing injury. Police ignorance of the MVA as it pertains to cyclists doesn’t help, either.

Raymond Parker December 21, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Good points all, David. There is much talk about prevention–there’s organizations dedicated to it–but there seems to be, as you say, no real action until the worst happens.

In this case, even though we see the results of careless cyclists and pedestrians (and I’m not ignoring the responsibility of drivers to be on high alert) every winter, there seems to be no coordinated response to try to reduce the toll on life and limb.

Janis La Couvée December 21, 2012 at 7:10 am

Thanks Ray. I don’t ride at night (yet) so will now be investigating the gear of my loved ones who do and insisting they upgrade.

I’m sure in some cases people are truly ignorant of their relatively unlit status, but there are others who seem to have a death wish – riding unlit, with dark clothing, against traffic, on sidewalks and helmet-less.

As a driver, I have come close to hitting said riders, and the prospect of a further encounter frightens me.

I too wish police would crack down. Thanks for your advocacy and awareness-raising.

Raymond Parker December 21, 2012 at 11:13 am

Janis: definitely it’s the unrepentant Ninjas that upset me the most, though fate draws no distinction between the gormless and the obstinate. I make a point, whether driving, cycling, or walking to alert unlit cyclists that “I can barely see you.”

Often, the response comes as an expletive. What, besides police intervention, can be done to protect such people from themselves … not to mention others who may inadvertently become part of their “disaster plan?”

Dave December 21, 2012 at 4:31 pm

Bang on, Ray – I don’t think I’ve ridden anywhere without any lights for several decades, but I’ve definitely taken it a lot more seriously in recent years and wish other cyclists would too.

I don’t think the question of what’s the right light has a single answer. You point out that one can get a generator setup for $200 or less, but for a lot of cyclists, and very likely the ones who cycle of necessity, that’s a ton of money.

I do agree that the $5 winkies aren’t up to much, but there are battery lights that do a very good job available from the direct mail vendors. For about $40 including delivery you can get (claimed) 900 lumen front plus ultra-flash rear lights, which are adequate for most users.

I also agree that if you’re a randonneur the advantages of a generator setup can’t be denied, but as the cost of useful lighting continues to drop, there’s no excuse for not being seen. It’s nice to keep your wheels out of potholes, too!

Raymond Parker December 21, 2012 at 5:33 pm

Dave: There are reasonably affordable battery-operated alternatives, I agree. The down-side being that they are battery-operated, with all the associated inconvenience. Until one has experienced the simplicity of just rolling out on a generator-equipped bike, it’s hard to communicate how liberating it is.

The other thing, which I was discussing with a fellow cyclist today on the phone, is that few of the myriad so-called “bicycle lights” are built by actual lighting engineers. As a result, few of them have taken care of the all-important job of beam direction and shaping. You can pump as many lumens as you want out of a light, but if the reflector is not well-designed, you just have, either a diffuse and obnoxious light bomb, or wasted power.

Many lights seen on the road are really designed for off-road riders, who want to light up the forest. By contrast (so to speak) many of the European lights, often designed for use with generators, have the same characteristics as any car or motorcycle headlight.

I’m not arguing against cheaper lights, providing they are bright enough to be more than decorations. I’m not a fan though of buying lights, er, sight-unseen.

Raymond Parker December 21, 2012 at 6:29 pm

Just another thought: While many randonneurs (except for the weight-weenies among them) have adopted dynohub-driven lights, they really make the most sense for everyday commuters, which was really the original market.

Graeme December 28, 2012 at 6:18 am

According to the BC Motor Vehicle Act section 183 (6) Ride cycle after dark without lights produces a ticket of $109. The officer that stopped me on Henderson the other week informed me that the fine for no lights on a bike was $218 (perhaps for front and back lights?). Either way my MEC windup was a good investment. Steady/flash/3LED less than $10. It was a little dim (probably why I was stopped – hadn’t wound it in a few weeks), but on hearing the fine, I assured the officer that I could fix that – a few seconds winding and it was plenty bright again. The officer was impressed with its brightness and environmental qualities, and sent me on my way (I have a 5LED rear light that’s plenty bright). I think the dynamo lights are really good judging by people’s reviews, but this windup is great when you get caught in dim to dark situations and need to be visible. Thanks for including this important consideration for cycling on your site, Ray.

Raymond Parker December 31, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Thanks for these links, Graeme … especially to the Motor Vehicle Act.

The wind-up light looks like an option for a back-up, though I’m not sure I’d want to rely on it for a primary. However, I note in the description that the (non-replaceable) built-in battery will go kaput if not regularly charged. Mmmmm. Maybe I’ll just stick with my little LED Cateye and rechargeable AAs for back-up.

Happy New Year!

Randobarf December 21, 2012 at 6:38 pm

When I lived in Victoria I had an employer that was hostile to cyclists and there was no secure bike parking allowed. I have $1000 worth of lights on my bike. I did not feel like getting my bike stolen so I gave up on cycling and I took the bus (in “Canada’s Cycling Capital”). Maybe some of the Ninja cyclists you are encountering have no place to park a bike with valuable lights. I don’t know what to say about the Ninja clothing. I don’t know what to say about blinkies either. I guess some people are just not bright enough (ha, ha!) to figure out that cheap blinkies are difficult to distinguish from ambient lighting in urban areas and all blinkies are unidirectional and must be carefully mounted to point at motorists.

It’s a shame that cyclists must go to such expense to protect themselves from motorists.

Jim December 21, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Fortunately my employer is very supportive. But most lights for city riding can be removed fairly easily. What makes my ride challenging is it includes everything from busy city streets to the more remote sections of the Goose. And in the dark both ways. So my need for lights is to be seen as well as see.
I have seen some good battery powered set ups for a reasonable price that would allow you to be seen in the city. I would prefer to pay the money rather than gamble with being hit.
I agree that a dyno set up would be much more versatile and probably trouble free. At a minimum would not run out of charge half way home.

Bob December 22, 2012 at 11:53 am

Hi Ray,
Excellent discussion topic. Thanks for starting this.
For commuting my favorite light now is the rubber coated one that Mountain Equipment Coop is selling. It costs $18, is rechargeable via USB, throws an amazing amount of light onto the road, has a reasonable lens for shaping the beam, and the mounting system is pure genius. I think this light solves all of the problems mentioned above for commuter lights.
There is a $9 companion rear light that is also USB rechargeable and is quite bright and has a similar mounting system.
One other note: I haven’t noticed that most ninja cyclists that I see are women. Just the opposite, although I think most cycle commuters that I see are male. That wasn’t the case when I lived in the city, but is certainly the case now that I live farther out. And most of the time the ninja cyclists will be wearing dark clothing and won’t have a helmet.

Raymond Parker December 22, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Thanks for this info, Bob. Sounds like something to check out. I like the idea of USB recharging; then with the addition of one of these, you can recharge them with a generator hub! :-)

My “survey” has been limited to downtown, so it’s quite possible the gender disparity is skewed by that fact. It could quite simply be that there are more female commuters downtown (which is a very good thing) and my limited observations over this short period, er, reflects that fact.

Gary Baker December 22, 2012 at 9:55 pm

I share your angst about lightless riders. They really do upset me. I’m conscious of their possible presence but had the wits scared out of me a few nights ago when I nearly hit some idiot … no lights, no reflective material on the bike or on his dark clothing, riding on the wrong side of the road; and yes it was pouring. I didn’t see him to the last possible moment, and the police car behind me didn’t seem the least bit interested in doing anything.He probably didn’t want to get wet in the rain dealing with the fool.

Something I have noticed. Lights are great, but in combination with lots of reflective gear the rider is much more visible than with lights alone.

Raymond Parker December 23, 2012 at 10:06 pm

Thanks for your input, Gary. I’m guessing your randonneuring experience, not to mention unpleasant memories, like mine, resulting from careless motorists, affords special insight into cycling safety.

I agree that reflective materials are a great adjunct to on-bike lighting. Front and/or rear helmet mounted lights (in addition to, not instead of, bike mounted lights) are also a great idea. They sit higher. In particular, a helmet light can be used to pick out obstacles more clearly and for gaining attention.

Steve December 23, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Well said – couldn’t agree more. Although I’m lit up well from the front, rear and side as well as a high-vis vest, lighting is only part of the safety equation for me when riding in the dark (or at any time for that matter). A mirror to be able to see where the cars behind you are (albeit in the dark it tends to be just a set of headlights) – couple the mirror with an Air Zound Cycling Horn, which has saved me on more than one occasion from contact with a driver turning across traffic or simply getting too close.

I find safety on my bike is a combination of a approaches and that’s one of the reasons I shake my head when I see ninja’s out (ninja’s a great description that I hadn’t heard applied to these riders before).

Raymond Parker December 23, 2012 at 9:56 pm

Good tips, Steve. As you say, safety is best served by a variety of technical and behavioural tactics, coordinated by common sense.

Douglas Yardley January 16, 2013 at 12:47 am

I’ve spent several sessions observing cyclists on Toronto streets. My cumulative total so far is 150 with adequate lights, 95 inadequate.

Raymond Parker January 16, 2013 at 11:10 am

Douglas: Thanks for that data. I’d say it parallels my less-than-scientific observations here. Quite often, what I’m seeing in the “inadequate” category is cyclists with crappy little rear blinkers and no headlight.

Jim January 17, 2013 at 10:51 am

On the bright side. Yesterday morning on my commute in saw someone with head lamp, handlebar light, and 4 red rear lights. Not one of the regulars I see but they were bright and visible from both directions.

Raymond Parker January 20, 2013 at 8:23 pm

There are indeed a few people around who do a very good job of following the “Christmas tree” principle.

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