Every cyclist who rides in the dark has a close call—or worse.
A car tries to make a left turn across your path, or noses out to make a right turn into your lane, or merges directly into you, or... the possibilities are endless, but one thing is for sure: the car always wins.
The number one reason? Cars rarely see cyclists who aren't equipped with a front headlight and rear flasher, so you might as well consider yourself invisible to vehicles if you ride without lights.
Sure, a cyclist can play the "I'll see the cars first, and get out of the way if they don't see me" game, but only for so long. A light dramatically increases the odds that a car will see you, and a light also means you are much more likely to see the nasty pothole, or whatever obstacle happens to be lying in wait ahead, ready to swallow your front wheel and send you not-too-prettily endo-ing over the bars.
That's not to say that a light makes a night rider infallible, either. But lights make a big safety difference in the bike-car equation.
Maria McCoy, an accomplished rider who recently took up using a bike light, often rode after dark sans lights. Recently she mentioned surprising her husband by returning home to swap battery packs 30 minutes after leaving for a ride, and then head right back out. A few years ago she wouldn't have considered—for that matter, didn't even own—bike lights, but now she doesn't take any chances.
"Lights are heavy and it's a hassle to take the battery charger along to work, but they are lighter and less hassle than a cast on my arm!" says an emphatic McCoy, who at various times has been a bike racer, bike messenger and bike commuter.
Lights are most important in winter, when cyclists—commuters, racers in training, grocery store milk run riders, anyone—battle dark roads every night. But lights aren't only for defense. Flip on a good lighting system and you're suddenly looking at a whole other half of the day to ride, albeit the moon-lit side, whether the mercury is hitting the freezing mark or short-sleeves temperatures.
Riding late into a warm summer night, when traffic is light and weather is comfortable, is a great change of pace, and night mountain biking, unless you're navigating by the stars, requires a good lighting system as well. And some climates are nearly unridable during summer daylight hours, necessitating a lighting system to be able to pedal in comfort after dark. Lights are a year-round riding accessory.
Bicycle lights have been around a long time, starting with decades-old generator-powered lights, and slowly progressing to AA-battery powered beams. Problem was, the lights weren't very dependable and they didn't work that well.
The AA-battery powered bike lights cast a small halo of light, not much more than a couple of bike lengths ahead in your path. More often than not, the batteries were dead in the garage before a ride. Generator-powered, or dynamo-powered lights, don't offer much more power than AA-batteries—that is, if the finicky system is in working order (who plans time to work on their bike lights before a ride?).
How times have changed over the past decade.
More cars, more congestion, more commuters riding before and after daylight hours, and the new sport of night mountain bike riding all helped to create a great demand for high-performance lights.
Companies sprang into action designing and testing bigger and better lighting systems that would enable night riders to actually see where they were riding, at any speed. Not only that, but the new lights were powerful enough that oncoming cars could see cyclists in the distance, too. The goal was to build the most efficient lights with the highest capacity battery at the lowest possible weight.
Riding Safety With Lights
No matter how bright your light, you're not guaranteed safe passage in a world of motor vehicles, so keep in mind three key points inherent to cycling with lights:
1. Light pollution. Unless you are lucky enough to live far from any fast food restaurants, your light will likely "get lost" in the melee of other lights that a city street produces. Motorcycles have the same issue—one beam, no matter how bright, just isn't visible enough for all the cars to see.
2. Getting lost in the dusk syndrome. This occurs in the hour or so before sunset when you can still see quite well and might not feel lights are necessary, but when vehicles have a particularly tough time picking a cyclist out of a busy background of competing images, and when it isn't quite dark enough for reflective clothing or stickers to shine brightly in cars' lights. At dusk it is especially important, perhaps more so than after dark, to turn on your lights, and rear flasher, to give cars every chance to see you.
3. Rear flashers are a must. What about the cars you can't see? A simple red LED flasher can be had for a few dollars and a couple of AA batteries. With a run time of up to 40 hours, it makes you exponentially more visible to cars coming from behind. If you have the option of using a flash or steady red light mode, go for the flash—it's makes it easier for cars to pick you out.
A note about using "front" LED lights, the white or green front flashers: White LEDs are much less efficient than the red ones used for rear LED lights, so they are much dimmer, and thus not a good replacement for a front headlight.