Some thoughts on night riding - part one

Blog post posted on 15/04/20 |

Dreaming of better days - and nights - to come, this is the first of a two-part blog from Derek McMullan, IAM RoadSmart Chairman and passionate life-long motorcyclist who has advice for those planning and preparing for a night ride.

I’m guessing most of our riding is in daylight hours.  But for motorcycle commuters, freewheeler riders and maybe a few others throughout the year, some night-time riding is inevitable. So how is it different?

Despite the fact that most motorcyclists tend to stay off their bike when it’s dark, collision statistics show that the incident rate increases and resulting injuries become more severe. 

While we must all continue to follow the Government’s advice and make only those trips that are essential until the social distancing rules are lifted, what are the risks and if we either choose to, or have to, ride at night what should we be doing to control those risks?

The first and most obvious thing is we cannot see as well.  To start with most motorcycle lights tend more towards the glow-worm than the arc-lamp. On top of that as soon as we lean a bike in a corner we are shown less of where we want to go and treated to views of the hedge we could end up in! 

There are some benefits of night riding, for example there are fewer vehicles on the road so it is likely you will suffer less queuing at junctions and not have so much urban filtering to face. Where there is little street lighting you will have early warning of approaching traffic thanks to its lights.  However it is not all to your advantage, here are some of the challenges and pointers:

  • Our vision is the primary sense for riding or driving but all humans are poorly adapted to night vision – that’s why we use lights on vehicles.  Your bike will always be well-maintained and fully functional so no need for me to labour the importance of lights, mirrors and reflectors at night.
  • In the animal kingdom our night vision is rubbish (ever seen a badger with a torch?).  If you have perfect sight you’re blessed, not many of us do.  Night riding (or driving) will find any un-corrected weakness in your sight.  Do you find night riding or driving tiring? Do you find yourself squinting or screwing up your eyes to see rather better?  Perhaps get a headache?  If any of this sounds like you, make plans to see a good optician. You need the best vision you can get for night riding.
  • If your spectacles, lenses, visor or goggles are scratched you will suffer secondary glare from oncoming vehicle lights and any road lighting.  This is at its worst in an urban situation when there are lots of light sources and it is raining.  In extreme cases it can temporarily blind the rider.  All optical surfaces should be in good condition. Keep them clean and scratch-free as far as possible.  Visor polish is excellent in shedding rainwater but as soon as you start wiping your visor its effect is diminished.  Old-fashioned bees wax fills the polishing micro-scratches very effectively and sheds water just as efficiently as modern silicone-based visor polishes.
  • Do I need to say anything about sunglasses or dark visors?  No, I thought not: Darwin does sum it up quite neatly.
  • At night contrast is generally low. As your sight deteriorates with age you will struggle more to resolve the detail on the road in front of you in low light. And when your sight is best adapted to the moment is just when the powerful Xenon-discharge lights from an oncoming vehicle appears to etch a headlamp pattern into your retina.
  • Time to remember one of our golden rules: look where you want to go – not at the headlights like the proverbial rabbit!  If you do look where you want to go those oncoming lights assist by providing a little back-light contrast around any road debris between you both.
  • Speaking of rabbits, they and the rest of the local wildlife become much more active at night and most of them have colours which melt into the background in daylight. At night you won’t see them until they’re very close.  Every morning we see the night-time’s toll of road-kill, clearly not everyone can avoid them so expect such obstacles at night. Wildlife and road-surface defects are much more difficult to see early enough to plan a smooth avoidance manoeuvre if your speed is appropriate to day-time lighting – so adjust your speed to keep your margins.
By Derek McMullan, Chairman, IAM RoadSmart
Derek's advice will continue next week in the second part of his blog.