The Dark Side

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Joe Harrison

A gas tank miscalculation means I'm riding through the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest after dark. Dense evergreens crowd the road, filtering out any moonlight that might have squeezed through the clouds, and the dark tarmac seems to drain the brightness from my headlight. As I round a right-hander, the dappled rear end of a deer, as high as my windshield, appears in my headlight beam no more than six feet ahead. In an instant it's gone.

How I failed to make contact, I'll never know. In daylight or even dusk, I would have seen the deer easily. This time, at night, under an obscuring canopy of trees...I guess I just got lucky.

But relying on luck to keep us safe on the road after dark is not a viable long-term option. We need to consider two important aspects of riding at night - seeing and being seen - and take the necessary action to mitigate potential disaster.

Seeing
Arguably, I might have seen my Gifford-Pinchot deer much sooner if my bike had been fitted with accessory lights. Stock motorcycle lighting was pretty ineffective until the latest crop of projector headlights arrived. First, motorcycle headlights (assuming you have more than one) have to be close together, simply because we're talking about a single-track vehicle, so that they don't have the same beam spread as a car's broader-spaced headlights.

Second, motorcycle headlights are often badly adjusted to start with and sometimes difficult to adjust right. Adding or removing luggage will also upset your headlight settings, though some touring bikes now incorporate a remote headlight adjuster. My Triumph Sprint ST came from the factory with the dip beams set way too low: the first time I rode it at night, I couldn't see more than 20 feet ahead. Adjusting the headlights meant removing the cockpit fairing and fiddling with a screwdriver, which I have done in the parking lot of a ski resort gas station - and it's no fun, believe me.

So what can you do to improve your lighting? Accessory lights are certainly an option, and there are plenty of well-known manufacturers of excellent accessory lights and fittings, such as PIAA, Pro-One, Lockhart-Phillips, etc. Just make sure your bike's electrical system can cope, especially if you're using other high-current accessories, like heated clothing. You also need to consider the type of lights you're adding: Though high-intensity projector lights will cut through a clear, dark night, they're pretty much useless in fog because the water droplets scatter light, reflecting much of it back at you. Amber fog lights with a broad beam will work much better in these conditions.

Another option is to upgrade your existing headlights. I fitted Philips Vision-Plus bulbs to my Triumph. These are a direct replacement for the stock H4 bulbs, and though their power rating (55/60 watts) is the same, they provide far better illumination.

Regardless of how much light power you have, you should never "over-drive" your headlights; that is, you should never ride so fast that your stopping distance is greater than the distance you can see. Be especially careful of this when passing a slower car: cars usually have better lighting, and in accelerating to pass, you may find you're going too fast for your sight distance. Remember, the car will probably dip its lights when you pass; so instead of having a car's main beam to see ahead, suddenly all you have are your own lights.

My buddy Steve was going east after dark on I-90 in Idaho in an Iron Butt Association Bun Burner ride a couple of years back. A pickup passed him on the climb out of Coeur d'Alene, and was less than 100 yards ahead when its brake lights went on, followed by what sounded like an explosion, and the sight of a deer carcass flying through the air. Steve was able to stop. But he figures if he'd been in front of the pickup, both he and the deer would have been airborne.

If in doubt, stay back and let the car driver worry about what's ahead!

Being seen
Many riders eschew them, but hi-vis vests work. The Hurt Report concluded that involvement in collisions was "significantly reduced" for riders wearing high-visibility clothing. My vest cost $ 16.95 from an industrial safety supplier, and I doubt there's any better "conspicuity" bang for the buck.

But if riding around looking like a highway maintenance worker offends your fashion sense, what are some other options? Having reflective areas on your motorcycle wear will certainly help, and though most purpose-made bike clothing already includes patches made from materials such as 3M Scotchlite®, it doesn't hurt to add more. Reflective patches and tape are available from www.ridesafer.com.

As far as your bike is concerned, you can increase its visibility either passively or actively. The passive route calls for reflectors. The Department of Transportation has required reflectors to be fitted on motorcycles since the 1960s, but it doesn't hurt to add more. Or you can take the active approach and fit accessory lights to your bike that increase its visibility at night. Although having a modulating headlight may increase your conspicuousness during the day, it won't help you see at night!

A number of companies can offer ways of increasing your bike's night visibility. Kisan Technologies Vectra-Light is a neat LED turn-signal array that fits to your wing mirrors and lights each LED sequentially, so that there's no doubt left in a dumb driver's mind which way you're turning. And if you've ever realized the reason a car turned in front of you was because your turn signal was left on, Kisan also offers a Signal Minder kit, which automatically cancels turn signals. The Signal Minder can also be set to operate your turn signals as running lights or four-way flashers. Both of these items are available from www.sporttouringusa.com, which also sells its own 16 red LED Hyper-Lite array that illuminates to warn drivers that you're slowing down or stopping.

Is your journey necessary?
There's no question, all other things being equal, that riding a motorcycle at night is more dangerous than riding during the day. So it's sometimes worth asking the question: Why do it? Night riding is a different experience for sure, and it can be quite exhilarating. One of my favorite night rides is British Columbia's Sea-to-Sky Highway 99. It's a fast, winding road with good tarmac. But drowsy shift workers, drunks and stoners heading back to Vancouver from Whistler resort also drive it. Rockfalls are common, too, as are Bambi incursions, not to mention a menagerie of smaller critters. No matter what, there always seems to be more to consider on the risk side of that risk/reward ledger once the sun has gone down.

So, is an exciting ride at night worth taking the extra risk? That's a decision only you can make.