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On Balance  

Darkness is not your friend

Night Riding: There Be Dragons!

There we were, having a great late season, and Pow! It all went dark.

The annual fallback debacle, never welcome when I’m on two wheels. It’s mostly “trick" and not so much “treat” for us in the gathering gloom, what with not being able to see much beyond our front tires.

Depends, of course. Some of us are in the first bloom of youth, so those eyes are more readily dark-adapted.

For the rest of us, the larger demographic group, normal age-related vision changes mean we need a lot more light to see important details, such as potholes and pedestrians.

Two to three times more light.

Some of us, the lucky ones, are riding bikes that have lights a person can actually see with. Most of us, not so much. A lot of headlights are more glow-in-the-dark than light-up-my-life.

North American automotive headlight standards are not what they could be. My experience has been that European-market headlights are genuinely superior, have been for years.

This is a point that the American Automobile Association, Consumer Reports, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have been making some noise about.

Their testing reveals why so many of us are pretty uncomfortable driving in the dark, especially at highway speeds.

Turns out even the best contemporary headlight systems don’t give us enough light down the road to see a non-reflective object (say, the side of a deer) in time to stop safely at any speed over roughly 80 kilometres an hour.

On high beam.

Which most people don’t use, even when we can. Odd, but true. Most drivers don’t use their brights, research says.

Of course, most of the time, there’s oncoming traffic so you can’t use them to save your life. Which was kind of the idea.

Those headlight tests are with new vehicles, any make/model/price range. Quite disturbing reading, which you too can fill a quiet moment with: try https://www.iihs.org/topics/headlights.

Any car or truck, that is.  Not, as usual, motorcycles.

I can’t find any trace of scientifically tests motorcycle headlights in controlled road-simulation trials.

Believe me, I’ve wasted some serious keyboard time searching. Lots of the usual marketing claims, and even a bit of bench testing for brightness.

But no bike-by-bike tests like IIHS and Consumer Reports do for cars and trucks.

So we don’t know. All I can figure is, take a pair of rather useless automotive headlights, and divide by two. There’s your motorcycle headlight test. One half of not very good.

There is, happily, a whole bunch of other research on motorcycle headlights. That’s the stuff about how much more visible we are to other vehicle drivers when we ride with headlights on in the daytime. We are, and it does reduce our crash risks, so that’s a good thing.

But I’d still rather count on seeing where I’m going at night, than count on someone else seeing me coming in the light.

I know, just crazy talk.

About that problem of seeing where we’re going. One of the reasons new riders aren’t allowed to ride in the dark until they’ve passed a (daytime) riding skills test is that riding at night is really disorienting.

When we turn motorcycles, we lean them over in the direction of the curve. And it all goes dark in that direction.

This is because the headlight leaned over too, and now it’s shining down instead of forward. Clever bit of engineering there.

People probably heard my excited cries of joy for miles around when I first experienced the full effect of that piece of “intelligent design” at speed.

Ah, but I’m being way too negative. Setting aside for a minute that more than 50% of rider fatalities happen in the evening hours, 42% of them in dusk or dark, we do have reason to hope to enjoy those after-hours rides.

First, our provincial government is doing something we asked them to do. They’re letting us stop falling back next year. Maybe. Depends on California. So anyway, more daylight for shoulder season evening rides.

Next, lights are getting better. Most of the leading manufacturers are starting to offer “cornering headlights,” part of motorcycle stability packages.

These beauties add in-fill lights in the direction of the curve we’re following, to compensate for the lean problem.

Also, there are retrofits of LED and HID bulb systems for our current lights. But I don’t know anything about that, because it’s not legal to make your existing lights work better. So forget I said anything.

Instead, there are better quality bulbs for the lights we’re stuck with, and there are a host of auxiliary lights we can add. Most are LED type, so less drain on the charging system, and better light down the road. Well worth it.

Last, we do have the option of not using the whole twist of the wrist all the time. Slowing down amid the dragons in poor light conditions can bring with it the twin benefits of living longer and enjoying the ride through the misty moonlight.

And that’s a whole happier tune.

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About the Author

Bill Downey is a retired professional social worker in support programs for people with congenital or acquired physical and cognitive challenges, who was also a volunteer firefighter and a BCGEU health and safety advocate.

For many years, he has been a motorcycle riding coach/instructor with Kelowna Safety Council who spends too much time studying international traffic safety research and not enough time doing all the outdoor things a boy from the Okanagan should be doing.

He has lived a very large portion of his life on two wheels as a commuting and travelling cyclist, but, for the extra challenge, he is also as a motorcycle commuter.

By nature, he has a balanced approach to all things.

[email protected]https://kdsc.bc.ca



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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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