Riding in the Dark

Tips on how to sharpen up your night riding

Well, the first measure is obvious! Fit a new visor - you'll be amazed at the difference taking out those tiny, almost invisible scratches makes. Then keep it clean and scratch free. I noticed that RiDE magazine advised against using furniture polish as it can make the plastic go brittle. However, on the advice of an Arai helmet technician (who should know what he's talking about) I've been cleaning my visors with Mr Sheen furniture polish for the last ten years or so and I've had no problems. Spray on, wipe off with a soft cloth. The film of polish helps water bead up and run off and means that grit and flies lift off the surface much more easily - the result is less damage to the antiscratch coating. However, he did say that Rain-X destroys the antiscratch coating and should be avoided.

Tinted visors are useful at dawn when you are riding into the rising sun, but the same cannot be said in the evening. About 10 minutes after dusk they are a liability. Gradient tints are making a comeback, where the top of the visor is tinted, and the bottom 2/3rds is clear, and I'm quite keen on those. Alternatively carry a clear one and swap it or you wear sunglasses which you can take off. Use common sense.

The second obvious area for improvement. Check the headlamp lens is clean, and all the bulbs front and rear actually work. Sounds obvious but not many riders do it. If the bike's been through a few winters already, you may also find the the reflector INSIDE the headlamp shell is dirty - cleaning this through the hole the bulb goes is a right fiddle but it can make a significant difference.

Most faired bikes are a bit of a fiddle but take the time to make sure the aim of the lens is correct. Illuminating the treetops will not help you see and will really annoy the driver coming the other way, which could lead to him hitting his own high beam and frying your retinas with 240w of main beam and driving lights. Don't set the dip beam too low as you will not pick up hazards till too late.

Consider fitting a brighter than standard bulb. 60w is your legal maximum, and it's worth checking that your bike actually has 60/55w bulbs - some twin headlight set-ups use low power 35/35w or 45/45w bulbs. An easy fix to uprate 60/55w bulbs is to fit Xenon extra bright bulbs - they are a legal 60/55w but are claimed to give off from 30% to 50% more light - having tried them, they are definitely brighter. Avoid the "bad weather" blue/yellow bulbs in the winter - they look trick but despite the claims, they really reduce the light output.

If you are really feeling flush, there are HID (High Intensity Discharge) conversions around for that "look at me, I've got loadsamoney" top end car look. The main problem with lights like this is dazzling oncoming drivers and extra light bouncing back from signs!

If you have 6v electrics (and there are still one or two bikes around), 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.

Outside the strict letter of the law, 100/80w bulbs are freely available and make a huge difference to what you can see on dip and main beam, without being dazzling. RiDE recommended that you don't do this, but I've not heard of anyone having problems with melting plastic lenses if they stick to 100w. You can go up to 180w but this would almost certainly cook your electrics and headlight, as well as being a serious annoyance to other road users. Check your alternator output but most bikes 250cc and up will be able to run a single 100w bulb with no problem. With twin headlight set ups be a bit more careful - with two bulbs on main beam you will be drawing an extra 80w. On most bikes you can plug straight in and run without needing a relay. If, after fitting, you detect no more light, you are probably one of those unlucky bike owners who do need to fit a relay - this seems to affect some Hondas in particular.

Don't rely on lights to be seen and they can create problems - one of the problems with twin headlight bikes, particularly the Yamaha R series, is that the twin lights look like a car a distance off - an R1 nearly fooled me into pulling out in front of it at twilight years ago when they first came out.

Riding at dawn and dusk brings particular problems. Something people forget about is the sun. Near the horizon it can be blinding, and during winter it spends longer than usual there (it does in the summer too, but you usually asleep at 4am!).

Mostly this is predictable - if you are riding in shadow and see sunlight on the road ahead, expect to be dazzled for a moment - slow down a little and look as far ahead as possible. Look for road signs to warn you of junctions and places where vehicles might emerge. Don't forget when you are riding out of the sun, whilst you can see clearly, other drivers have this problem and cannot see you! Driving over crests into or out of bright sun can be dangerous. Be particularly careful if the road surface is wet - the combination of direct and reflected light can be absolutely blinding.

After the sun has actually set comes the most difficult driving time - when the sky is still light. Drive into trees and it'll be nearly pitch black in front of you, but your eye will not have adjusted to the dark. Take extra care.

Plan ahead and look as far ahead as possible to get as good a view of any immediate hazards and a general idea of where the road goes - because a moment later you may not be able to see a thing. One of the common problems is someone coming towards you with headlights blazing. A quick flash of your own main beam will not dazzle them and will remind them to dip if they have forgotten. If they don't it may be their lights are badly adjusted. Try not to look directly at the beams - concentrate on looking to your left. Now having a good idea of what lies ahead comes in very useful!

Make sure you dip your own lights promptly. It's not too difficult to see when the car coming the other way is just about to round the corner - dip your lights before he appears and you'll usually find the other driver returns the courtesy, saving both driver's and rider's eyes. If you see a line of tiny lights appear over a crest, dip your lights - it's a truck coming towards you, and the driver sits high above his own lights. When stopped or riding in slow traffic, don't get too close to the vehicle ahead. Your lights are much higher and will tend to shine straight into his mirrors - it's a major irritation.

When there is no-one ahead to be dazzled, use main beam - an astonishing number of drivers and riders seem to use just dip! Don't forget that it also warns drivers ahead and out of direct line of sight of your presence.

Don't brake too hard approaching bends - don't forget fork dive will make your headlight beam disappear under your front wheel so aim to get the machine level before you have to steer. Also remember that as you corner on left-handers, the tilt of the light will light up the outside of the turn and dazzle on-coming drivers but the light on the inside of the corner will turn back towards you - which is unfortunate as this is where you and the road are going. Most bikes have a reasonable spread of light left/right which allows you to see round corners to some extent, but some are focussed like laser beams. My old CX500 was like this and it made an alpine pass at night a "never-to-be-forgotten" experience as the thirty-odd hairpin bends became guesswork! The only answer is to keep your speed down and not to make assumptions. Dip often has a better spread than main beam.

For a quick dose of extra light when on dip beam, hit the headlamp flasher button - but don't hold it down for more than a second or two - you are lighting both beams together and will melt the fuse! You'll find that certain circumstances dip beam works best (e.g. coming over a brow of a hill) works better than main beam.

Even in the dark, look as far ahead along your route as possible - don't just concentrate on the patch of light in front of you. Use all the road signs to help you work out where the road goes. Roads with streetlights you can treat more or less as you would daylit roads, with extra attention to areas in deep shadow. Even in the country, it is very rarely pitch black and you can often get a clue where the road goes from the outlines of hedges and trees - but just like these clues in daylight - 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.

Cats-eyes and reflective marker posts are great. When cats-eyes get closer together you are approaching a hazard (same as the hazard line - check out the Highway Code if you don't know what this means!) and they will also warn of an unbroken line ahead. Learn the difference in markings between lanes and slip roads - that will help you avoid the sort of accident I mention below. 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 seperate lanes. Similarly, white marker posts will always be found on the right, red on the left.

I tend to follow the centre line with my eye rather than the kerb, because the centre line is safer - a kerb can and does disappear into side roads, bus stops, drive ways and ditches. Years ago I crashed on the A1 late at night in heavy spray because I was following the line of the kerb - what I couldn't see was that I had ridden into the slip road leading to a Little Chef. The first clue I had that something was wrong was that I was on my backside sliding over wet grass. Another example near where I live is a roadside hazard that really should not be there - a particularly nasty traffic island at the end of a side road juts out a metre into the main road. I have noticed an increasing tendency to put width restrictors in left and right to calm traffic with pinch points - these are often poorly marked and hard to spot at night with low powered lights - in fact I nearly hit one in the car the other day in broad daylight (although it was raining cats and dogs).

However, the bottom line is that all these are only clues. You still have to ride according to what you can see - and that is limited by what your lights illuminate.

In bends, take a wide (but not too extreme) line, don't be tempted to turn in too early and be prepared to sharpen your line - keep plenty of lean angle in hand, give yourself a bit of room to the outside of the turn, and only when you can clearly see where the road is going accelerate to meet it. Don't be tempted to roll on mid-corner as the Vanishing Point technique advocates - it is much more difficult to spot a multi-apex turn at night and you may well find the turn tightens again! Turning early (as advocated in a RiDE article on riding in the dark) may get you a quick glimpse of the corner's line, but just as quickly sends you running wide and off line with the road disappearing in shadow somewhere beside you - not recommended. The slow approach, deep in, late turn, "point and squirt" line works just as well in the dark as it does on blind corners - because effectively a dark corner IS a blind corner.

Positioning at night becomes somewhat chancy. Get yourself into positions where you can see into side roads, but don't expect the positions that normally allow you to be seen in traffic to work. Keeping a decent distance from the car in front will not only allow you to stop when someone pulls out in front of you - but also the car behind you, avoiding the too familiar tailgating incident!

Don't take up extremes of position to the left or the right when there is other traffic around - keep more or less to the centre of your lane. Other drivers use your position to guess what you are doing - and can guess wrong if your position at a junction or in a bend misleads them - you may even be mistaken for a bicycle or a moped, or even a "one eyed monster" - a car with defective lights.

Whatever you ride, you should never assume the other guy has seen you. Bikers tend to think cars will see them because they have their lights on. Nice idea but evidence from a study in Australia suggests this is not true. In twilight or at night, you don't need a scientific study, only some common sense, to tell you that your lights will blend in with all the others being used by cars and trucks. It's even more important than normal to be prepared to stop or swerve in case cars do not see you. There is no point in blaming the "I didn't see you" driver - there are far too many distractions in heavy traffic and it is up to you to avoid potential accidents.

Trying to make eye contact in the dark is pretty pointless - you may be able to see if the driver is looking in your general direction but that's about it. One thing you should do is to cover the horn button in potentially dangerous situations - it's a useful weapon. It's technically illegal to use the horn in a built-up area between 11:30pm and 7:00am - but faced with someone trying to kill me I know what I would do!

Finally, if circumstances conspire against you and you really can't see where you're going, don't be afraid to hit the headlamp flasher and put max light on the road to get your bearings. You may momentarily dazzle the driver coming the other way, but at the end of the day, most cars on the road have better lights than you, it's nearly always easier to see out from behind a windscreen than it is from behind a visor, and the clincher - if it all goes belly up, running off the road is going to hurt you on a bike a lot more than it's going to hurt the driver in a steel cage.