This is the Golden Age of Bike Lights; never has so much wattage been available to so many for so little. But there’s a dark side: being dazzled, flashed, annoyed and too often blinded on bike paths, trails and back roads by #$%^-*ing cyclists with badly aimed, overpowering and inappropriate lighting.
Let’s assume that you have a great set of lights and that you are not a mean person who sets out to be hated. You want to be seen, to see well and not to roast every retina in range. The good news is it’s easy and simple to adjust your lights. The better news: it takes maybe 90 seconds per ride.
1. Check your headlight bracket
Is your headlight bracket firmly fastened, so it won’t move, even with a hard push? Hey, congratulations, lovely! Now loosen it a little bit, so you can aim it on the fly, or in a quick roadside stop and so if it gets whacked, the bracket/headlight will move instead of breaking.
Lights pointed straight ahead can blind oncoming cyclists.
2. What is your DAP (Default Aiming Point) ?
If you don’t know where you want your headlight to hit, it will probably end up somewhere else. First, do no harm; measure from the ground to the center of your headlight. Then make sure the center of your beam hits a wall in front of your bike about a foot lower, from five paces away.
Good, now your headlight is not hitting other cyclists and joggers square in their eyes. If you’re not checking and adjusting your DAP several times a ride, you’re not getting the most out of your lighting. This is even more important when you have a helmet light. With helmet lights, be aware that when you move your head to look at something or someone, you may be blasting your headlight across their eyes. My head swivels a lot, and so I just don’t use a helmet-mounted light. FYI, badly-aimed, flashing helmet-mounted lights are the single most annoying situation for other cyclists to encounter. After rocking a night mountain biking session, please adjust your helmet light in the downward/steady/lower setting, fellows! Or consider keeping it off for the ride home.
Going from street to trail/path, adjust your DAP lower to spare oncoming joggers and riders from the full beam, or dim your lights. This is just good manners and it is something that can help to keep our bike paths a civil and sane place, rather than a glarish-and afterimage-filled ordeal. You expect me to change the settings of my lights when I go from street to path? snarled a self-important commuter on a local bike club newsgroup I don’t have time for that. Yes you do have time please do it. Thank you very much.
Pointing the lights down slightly illuminates the road or trail ahead, keeps the light out of others’ eyes, and is still highly visible.
3. Flashing or Steady?
3a. On a path/trail/riding in a group/riding in the rain? Keep it steady. It’s way less irritating to others, and steady lights read better in the rain. This is especially so with rear lights; nothing ruins the vibe of a group night ride more than following a powerful, strobing light for an hour plus. There’s a lot to see at night, and a strobe tends to pull attention off the rest of the world. Consider aiming your tail light down for the path stretch. Yes, if you have good dexterity, you can slide up to the offender’s bike and click his/her taillight to steady mode. If they notice, say, Oh, thought it was loose!
3b. Riding in busy city traffic, where most vehicles have brighter lights than you? Flash it! On busy streets, flashing lights will help you get noticed sooner by distracted drivers texting while opening a yogurt container and getting Wet-Naps out of the glove compartment.
3c. Slanting sun hitting driver’s eyes in the early a.m./late p.m.? Running a flashing light will get you onto their radar.
3d. Transporting kids? It just feels better to have a blinky light going, even in the daytime, with child seats or trailers.
3e. Bringing up the rear of a largish group? Set your headlight to highest steady setting and your tail to flash to protect the convoy.
Riding in busy city traffic, where most vehicles have brighter lights than you? Flash it!
4. How fast are you planning to go?
Riding fast on lonely roads with little cross traffic, set your front to steady, so drivers can track you; keep that tail to its blinky setting, aimed up a bit to project further. On busy roads with lots of intersections, set your headlight to flash to keep drivers from sticking their nose into the bike lane.
Note: Adjust your DAP higher if you’re going faster (or about to make a fast descent) so the headlight stretches out faster. A good starting point for fast riding: the hottest spot of your beam should hit the road two seconds ahead of you. That will give you some time to deal with whatever your headlight picks out. If your headlight won’t stretch that far, slow down or get a bigger light!
4a.Borrowed lighting. Inevitably, car headlights will be blinding at times. Use their sweep of the upcoming road as they approach to get the picture; look down and away as they pass. Use the information their headlights pick out.
4b. Check your eyeglasses/protective eyewear. Are they scratched up like a SEPTA bus window? Not a problem in daylight, but etched optics get fuzzy at night. Changing to nice, clean lenses can take 20 years off your eyeballs!
5. Bless the Darkness
Yes, sometimes it’s appropriate to just kill the lights and use the moon or ambient light to enjoy night biking. We humans survived for eons by dint of our superior night vision; use high-tech lighting, but when possible, run it dimmer or even forgo it entirely. You’ll be surprised how sensitive and discerning unaided night vision can be. Use it or lose it.