Bicycling Street Smarts



If you use your bicycle for transportation, sooner or later you'll find that you have to ride at night or in the rain. Though statistical studies show that it is more dangerous to ride under these conditions, they also show that the overall crash rate for bicyclists who ride regardless of weather is lower than that for bicyclists who ride only on fine days (see Jerrold Kaplan,  (see Jerrold Kaplan, "Characteristics of the Regular Adult Bicycle User," Federal Highway Administration, 1975). Skill and correct equipment make it easy to ride with confidence.


To ride at night, you need lights. Even when streetlights show you the way, you need lights so other people can see you against the glare of car headlights.

A white headlight identifies the front of all vehicles. A bicycle is always required by law to have a headlight at night. A front reflector, such as those sold on new bicycles, is not sufficient.

A red taillight may be required, though sometimes a rear reflector is permitted as a substitute. It's a good idea to use both a taillight and rear reflector.


Three major types of lights are available for bicycles: small battery lights, generator systems and high-powered battery systems. Choose your lights depending on where you ride.

Small battery lights are most useful for riding under streetlights. Aim the headlight level, so it looks as bright as possible to people ahead of you. Rechargeable batteries will cut the cost of operating small battery lights. Hardware stores and electronics stores sell these batteries and chargers.

Unlike small battery lights, a good generator system is bright enough to light your way on dark roads. It's the best choice for long-distance touring, since you may not be able to buy or recharge batteries. Most generator systems go dark when you stop riding; a disadvantage in stop-and-go city riding. Some generator systems have a battery backup that keeps them lighted when you stop.

High-powered battery lights are brightest of all. They're best for night riding under demanding conditions: on dark roads or off-road. They're more expensive and heavier than other bicycle lights, and they need recharging frequently.

When riding at night, carry spare bulbs and batteries for your lights. It's also a good idea to carry a small battery light as a spare to get you home in case your main lighting system fails.

Mount a bright headlamp low (3 kB gif)

Mount a generator or high-powered battery light low, so its beam pattern extends longest and reveals surface irregularities.

Mount taillights and small headlights high and aim them level (6 kB gif)

Aim taillights and small battery headlights level. Test aim by rolling the bike toward and away from a wall. The center of the beam should stay at the same height.


The no-excuse headlight (7 kB gif)

The no-excuse headlight: A flashlight strapped to the handlebar stem with a bungee cord is legal, and sufficient for city use.

  Don't ride at night without a rear reflector, and pedal reflectors or reflective ankle bands. Make sure that your reflectors aren't obscured by baggage or dirt. Reflectors work well for drivers approaching from behind you. Reflectors also continue to work if your taillight bulb has burned out, or if you're stopped and your generator lights go out.

It's a good idea to use additional reflectors beyond those sold with a new bicycle. Most bicycle shops carry reflective leg bands and vests. Adhesive-backed strips of reflective material are also sold for the bicycle frame and fenders. The rear reflector sold on new bicycles isn't as bright as it could be; it has three panels to reflect to the left, right and center. A large automotive reflector is brighter directly behind you where it's really needed. Be sure to aim your rear reflector directly back. If it's tilted up or down, it may not work at all.

Don't consider front and side reflectors to be a substitute for a headlight. Pedestrians stepping off the sidewalk in front of you have no headlights and won't see your reflectors. Motorists pulling out of side streets ahead of you also won't see your reflectors, because these cars' headlights throw their beam straight ahead - across the road in front of you.

Test your nighttime equipment: Have someone ride your bike past you at night and check to see how well your systems work.


When riding at night, you can't see drivers inside their cars to make eye contact, but you can flash your headlight at them by twitching the handlebars. Flash your headlight when you need to get the attention of a driver pulling out of a side street.

In some cities, the risk of theft and physical attack at night in dark, empty places like parks, pedestrian overpasses and industrial areas is generally greater than the risk of crashes on streets in residential and business districts with a reasonable amount of traffic. Choose routes accordingly.

Rural riding at night is the most demanding of your equipment and technique. Most generator lights are not bright enough to allow you to ride downhill at full speed on an unlighted road. Stay within the limitations of your lights.

Narrow, shoulderless rural roads with moderate to heavy traffic have a bad record for nighttime bicycle crashes. On the other hand, quiet rural roads can be very pleasant to ride at night. Just be sure that your headlight is powerful enough to show you the way, and your taillight and reflectors are sufficient to alert overtaking motorists.

At night there are generally fewer drivers on the roads; but of these drivers, a much larger percentage are drunk drivers. A useful trick on an unlighted road is to look at your shadow as a car approaches from behind. If the shadow moves to the right, the car is passing to your left.


Riding in wet weather can be miserable, but if you equip yourself well, you can stay comfortable.

Many bicyclists carry no wet-weather gear, and they get soaked. Some bicyclists try to use raingear borrowed from the coat rack at home. Long raincoats and ponchos tangle with the spokes or frame. A hood is dangerous, because it can block your view when you turn your head. Rubberized rain suits get as wet inside as out, because they don't let perspiration evaporate.

A bicyclist's rain cape is a fine solution, along with fenders on your bike. The rain cape is like a poncho but tailored to fit you in your riding position on the bicycle. It's small and light to carry, and relatively inexpensive to buy. It has loops at the front, which you can hook over your thumbs or over road-bike brake levers, extending forward like a little tent. A waist strap holds down the back of the cape. The cape should be bright yellow, to make you more visible to drivers.

The rain cape allows ventilation underneath, and so it's the best solution on a warm, rainy day. But with the rain cape, you need a pair of full-length fenders on your bicycle. They keep dirty water and mud from flying up under your cape. A mudflap on the front fender, or toeclip covers, will keep your feet dry, and a helmet cover will keep your head dry.

High-tech rain suits of Gore-Tex or other materials that "breathe" can also do the job, especially when equipped with air holes to allow for cooling. Many have reflective stripes to enhance your visibility. You still should use fenders to keep road dirt off you and your bicycle.
Your riding technique needs some modification in wet weather. Rim brakes work poorly if the bicycle has steel rims - stopping distances may be increased by 10 times. It helps to wipe the rims dry by applying the brakes in advance, well before you need to stop.

Aluminum rims or a hub brake improve wet-weather braking. One of these is advisable if you ride much in wet weather. Check with your bike shop about the best choice.

In the rain, pay special attention to metal surfaces such as manhole covers or steel-grid bridge decks, painted traffic markings, wet leaves and oil slicks. They're all especially slippery. Avoid riding through puddles if you can't see the bottom - a puddle can hide a pothole.

When you get home, it's a good idea to relubricate your bicycle's chain to help prevent rust.


Riding at night is reasonably safe if you equip yourself correctly. You must use at least a headlight and rear reflector. A taillight and additional reflectors can make you more visible, and are required by law in some places. Brightly colored clothing can also help, as can reflective strips on your baggage, clothing, or helmet. Reflective patches on the backs of your gloves allow you to make a flashing turn signal by rotating your wrist.

If you are properly equipped, riding at night is not much different from riding in daylight hours, though some situations are better avoided because of increased risk of physical attack or of a crash.

To ride comfortably in wet weather, you need to equip your bicycle with fenders, and carry rain clothing. Also be aware of the reduced traction and poorer brake performance in wet weather. Equip yourself, use reasonable caution and don't let messy conditions keep you off your bike.