Dexter Darkness brings Danger

night ride on the oma

Anne's Oma with generator hub is always ready for dark

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but my evening commute has quickly slipped into darkness. My inherent laziness means I never took the lights off my Xtracycle but unfortunately it’s looking like few of the city’s bike commuters are on the same legacy lighting program.

Tonight I almost took out two of the headlight scofflaws on the longbike. I was pulling out of my office parking garage on Dexter. A quick left, right, glance—nothing but darkness— and I made my left turn onto Dexter….right into the path of two oncoming cyclists.

Though the Xtracycle takes a while to clear a lane, I got on the pedals and we all had enough space to avoid a collision. I don’t think they even had to brake, though I probably scared them a bit. As you can imagine, a few words were exchanged in passing:

Rider 1: “Hey man, watch it.”

Me: “Get a light, dude”

Rider 2: (who may have had a light but was riding so close behind Rider 1 that it was invisible: “Look where you are going!” (actually I can’t remember what he said but close enough)

Some observations on the situation I feel merit sharing:

  1. First of all, you are an idiot if you ride on the streets after dark without a front and rear light. Yes, that sounds harsh but I’ll say it again. You are a freakin’ idiot!
  2. You may think the street lights are bright enough that you don’t need a light. Keep in mind that the drivers who pull out in front of you, open car doors, and generally have the power to maim and kill may not agree.
  3. Nifty new “Interurban” signs aside, Dexter remains bad news. A co-worker had her car totalled in the same spot. We watch near misses between bikes and cars (car doors and the garage driveway being the most frequent) from the second story conference room nearly daily. Why the city insists on running the major Fremont/Ballard-Downtown bike route down a congested, on-street-parking filled, uphill both directions, density-maximized road, I’ll never know. Especially when you consider that if not for Suzie Burke, we’d have a dedicated, wide bike lane running both directions on the relatively flat Westlake Ave.
  4. Us bicyclists don’t like to admit we’ve done anything wrong. I’m referring both to the knucklehead sans light AND the knucklehead who did the California stop leaving his parking garage on the Xtracycle. I seriously fumed for a couple miles about the audacity of those riders calling my riding actions into question. But the bottom line is that I made a mistake, and though it pains me as a rider, I should admit it. We all need to be better about this if we expect the same from drivers.

A Few Bright Ideas

Keeping safe doesn’t take much but it’s your choice on how far you want to go. Some folks get into top dollar LEDs, HIDs and other TLAs. You can go all bling, or do it on a budget.

I sometimes fantasize about fancy lights. But in my real life I sport a cheap-ass 3 AA, 1 watt LED Lowes flashlight lashed to my Wald rack with a piece of inner tube next to a small white blinky. The lights are powered by rechargeable Sanyo Eneloops that last me about two weeks/charge with daily commute use. As you can imagine, it looks a little like something Willie Nelson would rig up, but other style-challenged tightwads call the subtlety of found objects très chic.

Around back, I use a Planet Bike Superflash. When full-on darkness commuting hits, I add a helmet-mounted headlamp and another solid rear red light. The helmet is light is great ’cause you can point right in the eyes of anyone you suspect might pull out or open a door in front of you; The extra rear light just feels like a good idea, but I’ll admit I’m a belt and suspenders guy.

Because my commute is well lit, this low-cost (~$50 including batteries and charger) option does the job of helping me be seen without requiring the flame throwing power a suburban, backroads commuter may require.

Let me wrap this up by saying early fall, dark-sky commutes—especially with treats like tonight’s deep red harvest moon—can be glorious. But it’s only going to get darker. If you aren’t lit, do us all a favor and get some lights. NOW.

I love to hear from some of you folks. What’s your dark-commute setup?


18 responses to “Dexter Darkness brings Danger

  1. I the Superflash’s. Both long bikes are sporting two for the full tail-light look, in flash mode I have to be careful about getting to close to my wife or they’re blinding. I picked up extra mounts for the other bikes ’cause I could, but is there anything better than the mount/belt clip? Soooo clever.

    We went semi-pricey on the front lights: two of these and extra mounts for the other bikes. They’re very bright, rechargeable, and the battery’s on-board. Getting two also means we get two chargers, so one goes to work with me.

    Salmon and ninjas, they’ll gitcha. Be careful out there 🙂

  2. Tim,

    Since they were riding without lights, they should have apologized to you. There’s no excuse for riding a bike at night without sufficient lighting, though I “see” it all the time.

    Stay safe out there!
    Alan @ EcoVelo

  3. Oh yeah, my lighting set-up:

    Up front, a pair of Fenix L2D torches; in the back, a pair of PB Superflashes.

    One torch on the bike, one on the front of the helmet. One SF on the bike, one on the back of the helmet.

    It’s a relatively inexpensive system that packs quite a punch.

    Alan @ Ecovelo

  4. My sister got me a reflective vest about twenty years ago, and I still wear it at night. Sure I look like a dork, but at least I’m very easy to see when headlights are on me.

  5. Hey Tim…

    I picked up a yellow, reflective triangle & hung it off my pack. I stick a couple pieces of yellow reflective tape on my bike as well. Other than that, the basic battery operated blinkies & lights (no more than $20) seem to work well in the city….although more lights during my commute on LW Blvd would of helped save my bike from a handfull of potholes at 5am this morning!

  6. I am waiting on my Down Low Glows to arrive, but currently I run 2 red blinkies in back and a LED upfront. I love when unlit cyclists yell at you for not seeing them 😦

  7. Ah Ha! Finally…..justification for Down Low Glow? 🙂

    Seriously, I have the requisite red blinky on my rear, and a good LED headlight, but since winter is rapidly approaching, and I routinely carry my 4 year old on my X, I want lights that cry out “WOW” ….of course, there is a fine line between being visible, and becoming a trance-inducing target…

  8. Generator hubs forever! Just like Anne’s Oma, mine has a permanently integrated light system with LEDs all around. No thinking or recharging required, and no need to remove anything when parking. Mostly, I forget to turn them off, as I like to have lights on even if it’s just dim and grey during the day. I did spend some years as a bike ninja, but the rule then is to behave as though you were completely invisible. Never expect anyone to see you, and always expect them to ignore you. It’s thrilling, but I prefer the lit mode.

  9. With commuting around 25 miles round trip for many years now along very busy roads and often bad conditions, I’m a fanatic about bright front and rear lighting. For years I used a NR D12E, with their optional taillight. That setup was certainly bright, front and rear, but between short battery life, and eventually the circuitry frying, I switched over to Dinotte lighting, front and rear.

    I’ve built all our bikes up with dynohubs in anticipation of LED dynamo lighting overtaking battery backed lighting, and I think this is my year to buy in with Schmidt’s new E Delux.

    Since I’ve starting using uber bright lighting and ran it day and night alike, I cant remember the last time I had a close call with a car. They can come close to missing me from behind and they always see me coming 🙂

  10. Correction:
    “They can’t come close to missing me…”

  11. I’m looking for the Trek Flare 10 that was on my helmet ’til it fell off packing it for the GITAP tour. The light on the back of the helmet creates light where it’s not expected, so it’s noticed big time. I can hear ’em slowing down *way* behind me on the more open roads, and people at work have commented on coming up behind me and realizing “Oh! It’s a bicycle!” … not some weird tall truck or something.
    I also have SpokeLits – for less than 7$ a pop (tho’ not counting shipping) they’re awesome side visibility. Just a search engine away – lots of sources! Red in the front, blue in the back… gonna get me some green ones.
    LBS tells me they’ve fixed the dynamo light on the Xtra 😀 this is a real relief because my big light with the big battery that goes in the water bogttle cage… welp, I was using it on the Xtra and it was wedged in between the other clutter on the handlebar, and two nights ago it sort of wedged away from the connection… at first twisting and turning got it goin’ again, but now I can’t get it to light for nothin’. I have a headlamp for backup… and a little cateye that needs batteries, too, that I’ll ductape on the folder til I get the Xtra back.
    It’s time to get out the LED strings with batteries with the Christmas lights, too – at $1.50 a pop after the holidays they are great to just string along wherever.

  12. Hmmnn…up front, a Niterider trail rat (10W or 15W) on the handlebars and a Black Diamond adjustable LED headlamp on the helmet– I run in it in flash mode, unless my headlamp’s gone deal (I’m bad ar temembering to recharge).

    Superflash off the saddle bag, and some major conspicuity tape (reflective red) on the Ortlieb backpack.

    Still working out the ultimate set – up for the Big Dummy–most likely another superflash or two off the back.

    And may I just add that there needs to be more kindness on Dexter Ave. I’m back to doing this as my commute (was on the Burke and elsewhere) and I’m kind of shocked at the lack of calling out when passing and abundance of aloofness.

    (I’m the one saying hello as I/You pass)

  13. Thanks for all the feedback folks. This has really made me realize how much I miss regular blogging (though Anne does such a kick ass job that the blog is in great hands).

    Let’s see if I can respond in order (ish):

    @chiggins: double-love on the superflash. I had heard rumors of them coming apart so I just looped a zip tie around the light body and the clip. I can disengage whenever I want, but they keep the light intact AND act as an anti theft device. We love our salmon around here, but only on a the grill and not on the roads.

    @Alan: They should have apologized, true, but I’ll take my part of the blame. I did a rolling stop. And yes about the fenix lights. I keep hoping my setup will fall short in some way so I can upgrade to one those.

    @Sungsu: I wore a vest the first part of last winter. I felt like a dork. A safe dork. I should probably pull it out of hibernation.

    @Dave: speaking of dorks… a triangle? What are the boys at the stationhouse going to say? 😉 Seriously, every time I come up on someone with a triange I’m surprised at the high viziness.

    @Devin Quince and Mary Beth: I’ve thought about the DLG — there’s a guy near here w/ and Xtracycle I see every once in a while. They are impressive — and garner more attention than even the X. I think MB would find a DLG would give all the WOW she needs.

    @Val: Is anyone making a good disc mount generator hub?I could use an excuse for a new front wheel. Definitely the next cargo bike will have it.

    @Anthony: I’ve heard super things about the Schmidt’s. I also had the NR digital 12 for a long time. I think I got my first one pro deal in about 1993. I still think I should do something worthwhile with the parts and the 12 LED blinkie (forgetting for a moment that the single Superflash is probably brighter and more effience than those _ancient_ LEDs.

    @ xiousgeonz: Thanks for the SpokeLits tip. Colorful like down low glow, but much cheaper. Too bad about them being powered by those evil button batteries. Maybe and option for the kids bike… hmmm…

    I looked for the battery LED lights after the holidays. I struck out on finding them on close out and the places that had them were full retail. I’ll try harder this year because the non-LED Xmas lights that I put on the wald last year only lasted about 20 minutes a charge and weren’t very bright.

    @Stine: I totally agree with you.
    I’m a “hi” person too.

    I’m not sure what it is about Dexter. Maybe it’s the way people get clumped up a the lights at Denny and Mercer and feel the need to put on a game face as they jocky for position before the climb. Whatever it is, folks need to chill out. It’s a bike ride people. It’s FUN!!!


  14. Tim: absolutely, you bet – Shimano makes an excellent 6 bolt style disc dynamo that puts out plenty of current, and Schmidt just came out with a centerlock spline version (may not be available here for a while). The Shimano will be about 1/4 the price of the Schmidt, and works wonderfully well, so that would be my choice, but the Schmidt is definitely top line.

  15. We like down low glows for the rear and below, and niterider sol’s for headlights. I also just got some monkeylectric spoke lights in the mail that I am reviewing. The cool thing about the down low glow is not only are you super visible but you spread all kinds of bike cheer. Everybody wants to know what it is. Car’s aren’t sure what you are, so they give you all kinds of room 🙂

  16. Tacoma Screw in Fremont has small LED flashlights for $5. I rubber-band one to my bars to supplement a regular small LED bike light. I think it’s a pretty good light for being seen, and okay-in-an-emergency for seeing. With the rubber-band mount it bounces around a little, simulating blinking. Could be taped to a helmet.

  17. I have a generator hub that provides light for the front, and a detachable PlanetBike tail light. I still have a lighting problem! When at a full stop, I am not generating power for the front light (uh-oh). The back light is fastened to a detachable milk crate. Sometimes I forget to remove the back light from the crate when I am not using it! The end result is that if I am at a full stop at night, I am invisible.

  18. Having a light on your bike when riding at night isn’t just a good idea. It is THE LAW in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia.

    If we cyclists want to be taken seriously as users of the road, we must understand that we are bound by the same rules of the road as motorized vehicles, and behave accordingly.

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