How to ride in the dark

By MCN Technical Staff -

Riding Skills

 29 November 2006 17:18

The twilight zone

As the evenings draw in, we have no choice but to spend more time riding in the dark. And as daylight turns to the black of night, all motorcyclists face new challenges – most not seen until the last moment.

The onset of twilight mars vision, Even on full beam, the headlight seems to give no extra penetration into the gloom. Commuters, dozing at the wheel or rushing home for tea, have yet to notice the change in light.

As colours fade, cars merge into the scenery, making it tougher to see them and as full darkness arrives they’ll have trouble picking your lights out of all the others around. So if you want to stay safe in the dark there’s no choice but to slow down and reconsider your riding style.

Measured caution

Riding at night demands a great deal of smoothness, but to be smooth it’s necessary to read the road ahead.

All sorts of information can be picked out of the darkest night, but you have to work all the harder with what information can be obtained.

While erring on the side of caution, practice spotting clues as to where the road goes and what you’re likely to encounter and you can give yourself an extra edge.

Read the signs

Road markings, lines of cat’s eyes and signs are picked out by the weakest edges of a headlight’s beam and can tell you in which direction the road’s going – and to some extent will indicate the severity of bends. They’re useful, but often won’t let you know about the kink right before the proper left – so use them as guidance only.

The spacing of white lines can clearly be picked out at night and work as possible hazard indicators. Extended centre-lines are a warning of junctions and not only the chance of something pulling out, but also poor surfaces where vehicles from minor roads and plant crossings have been dropping muck and debris.

If you can lift your vision from the headlight’s beam, you might see telegraph poles and trees outlined against the sky, telling you where the road goes next, or pick out a distant headlight that will dazzle in the next few minutes. Every scrap of road info can help you through to spring...


1. Always use a clear, pristine visor at night, as even the smallest of scratches will ‘starburst’ light from headlights to hinder vision, especially in the rain. If you are involved in an accident in the dark while wearing a tinted visor, this may be counted as ‘contributory negligence’, affecting the value, if any, of any insurance claim you might make.


2. Headlights aren’t much use if misaligned, so set them to the give the best penetration ahead, without blinding oncoming traffic and that in front of you. If riding with a pillion, set the lights to compensate for the extra weight. More front compression damping will stop forks diving so much, plunging bends into darkness as you brake.


3. Consider uprating your lighting, using an aftermarket high power bulb. The best xenon bulbs cost £30 and draw the same power as standard with the brightness of a 100w bulb. The ultimate night-light is a high intensity discharge (HID) kit – up to £300 for a full conversion. Check owners’ club websites for model-specific advice.


4. Obviously a clean headlamp lens is going to let more light through than a dirty one, so regularly wash off any build-up of cack. If you ride a lot in town, you may not need your lights to ride by, but others will need them to pick you out. Similarly, keep rear lights clean – a minor matter you may think, but with potentially serious consequences.


5. On very dark roads and in misty conditions, dipping from main beam from time to time can help a rider pick up on other vehicles in the area. The knowledge that there’s a potential dazzler on the way can be invaluable. Dipping also attracts the attention of others in the area, enhancing safety.


6. When overtaking cars in the dark, flick full beam on as soon as you pass the driver’s door. Leaving it any later ups the chances of not seeing something in the middle of the road (debris, animals) until it’s too late. The best advice for overtaking is to know what’s coming up before you move, eg how far to the next bend or junction?


7. Staying close to the kerb is normally a good place to be if you’re approaching a right hand corner as it will improve your vision through the bend, but at night hugging the kerb isn’t recommended as it’s even tougher to see holes and other hazards so ride a little more towards the middle of your lane and slow down to compensate for your poorer visiob. In other respects position as usual, with a slow in, quick out approach the best blend of speed and safety.


8. Cornering while you’re fixated on the centre of the headlight’s beam makes for extremely slow going – you’ll be looking only metres ahead and will automatically back the throttle off. Try looking to the outside edge of the light spread and beyond – it’s surprising how much you’re able to see – and turning your head will turn the bike.


9. Anticipation is everything. Use every available clue so you can match your speed to the conditions. Expect a suicidal cow over every crest, an unlit Land Rover at every junction and a pile of badger innards on every bend, until you know otherwise. Anticipation allows you to maintain good speed without resorting to heavy braking…


10. Slow for corners using the gearbox and gentle braking; banging on the front brakes will make the headlight point downwards and destroy your forward vision. Be ultra-progressive and use a smear of extra back brake to keep the bike and headlight more level. Finish braking well before the bend so it’s illuminated while you’re in it.


11. An exciting technique to use at night, especially down hedged or walled lanes, involves ‘chasing’ the point at which the roadsides ahead converge. If this appears to be coming at you, lose some speed, and if it’s moving away, accelerate if all else is well. Between bends, scan well ahead to pick up signs of oncoming traffic.


12. At night our senses are more easily addled and there is a greater risk of misreading situations. So always apply caution and don’t charge blindly into the unknown. If you’re unsure about where the road goes next, slow down until you’re certain. And always be on the lookout for wobbly drivers who’ve forgotten to put their lights on.