The night rider faces a different world. The streets are less crowded, the air is cooler, and the silence is almost deafening. In this environment, the motorcycle becomes more than mere vehicle - it is a lifeline, a fellow traveler, an escape pod capable of taking the rider away from the suffocating grind of the responsibilities revealed in the light of day.
Riding a motorcycle at night does have its advantages, but there are limitations. The central issue stems from the human eyes and their inability to see well in low-light situations. People see better when the sun is shining. Thus, at night, the rider has to worry about both seeing and being seen.
As motorcycle riders are not equipped with aluminum and steel crash cages or crumple zones, he or she is far more vulnerable than the driver of an automobile. The rider sits atop a bike, right out in the open, exposed to environment - the only barrier is the rider's apparel and gear. Should a car driver not see a motorcyclist, things can go wrong very quickly.
The bike rider needs to be visible to all road users at all times. Depending on the model of motorcycle, there is often little more than a headlight, tail light, and some small reflectors to alert others of the bike's presence. At night, with other vehicles around and lights spread all over urban and suburban streets, this is not enough.
For some guidance, assembled here are ten highly effective motorcycle additions which are designed to increase visibility, improve the rider's sight, and make the entire experience of riding at night a safer and more enjoyable undertaking:
- Light Bars and Fog/Spot Lights
- Accent Lighting
- Reflective Accessories
- Tail Light
Achieving the important goal of conspicuity is actually rather simple in this modern age. Motorcycle manufacturers have extensive catalogs of OEM upgrades and the aftermarket is bursting with parts and accessories of all kinds which can assist in this task. It is all within reach for any bike rider who has need or want to stay out after dark.
Also, see our Reflective Gear Recommendations for Night Riding.
Every street legal motorcycle has a headlight; some are great, others need serious help. Many modern bikes make use of HID lighting, which works quite well and is significantly better than the standard halogen lights most motorcycles use. Almost without exception, the old-school lights can be upgraded to provide better lighting. Doing so will not only allow others on the road to see the bike better, but high-quality lighting also helps the rider improve his or her vision.
Headlight modulators are useful for the daytime rider, but they are not legal for riding at night. Thus, the night rider is left with only a few options. The first is upgrading the bulb used for the headlight to one which is brighter, an inexpensive, simple and quick exchange. Another path is to upgrade the entire headlight unit either using LEDs or a full HID lighting conversion, both of which are significant changes that will dramatically improve the bike's visibility and the rider's ability to see. Choose an upgrade that suits the bike make and model, and be sure the electrical system can power the new addition.
A motorcycle tail light is often no more than a dual-filament bulb that may also be used for turn signals if a bike uses them as running lights. They are not very bright, and are prone to failure. Riding at night with only 12.8 volts of illumination to prevent another driver from running over bike and rider can be dodgy. Improving rear end visibility is simple and will result in a significant increase in a rider's safety margin at all times of the day.
Many modern bikes use LED tail lights, a far better solution as they are brighter, while drawing less power, and stand up better to the abuse lights endure on a motorcycle, thus lasting longer. LED upgrades are available for virtually every bike and are usually a no-drama install. There are also tail light "flashers" which modulate the brake lights in a set pattern when the brakes are used; these are not legal everywhere, so check local statutes before buying. Finally, for some models of bike, additional lights may be installed which supplement the brake light and leave no doubt to anyone behind the rider that the bike is stopping.
Turn signals, or indicators as they are sometimes called, are another area where improvements may be made. At night, communicating an intention to change lanes or make a turn takes on more importance. Both the rider and other drivers are helped when there are no surprises and intentions are clear when both have limited visibility.
Many of the same ideas which have been applied to headlights and tail lights work here too. LED upgrades are popular for the same reasons, and the simple brighter replacement bulb remains an available change. Supplemental signals are available for bikes which have the additional real estate on which they may be installed.
Light Bars and Fog/Spot Lights
Lighting the road ahead using a bright headlight works well, and it will suffice for many riders. However, there are ways to make it even better - helping the rider to both see and be seen. A thought usually only considered by cruiser, sport tourer and adventure riders, accessory front lighting can aid night riding safety.
Light bars are common on cruisers, but can be used on many other styles of motorcycle. They usually reside very near the bike's headlight and act as additions to its purpose. Fog and spot lights are popular with riders of sport touring rigs and adventure bikes because they lay down light low on the road as well as make the motorcycle more visible. These can be found mounted to the lower front part of the frame, to engine guards or on the forks. The major concern with such accessories is whether the bike's charging system and battery can handle the extra load; check your own bike to be sure adding additional current draw will not cause any issues.
Accent lighting started within the cruiser and touring community and quickly spread throughout the industry. It is simply additional lighting which can be located on just about any surface a motorcycle has free; running along the edges of saddlebags or outlining a faring, for instance. The aftermarket continues to innovate in this segment and the available options are so numerous that it can cause confusion.
When choosing accent lights, what a rider selects is up to personal taste for the most part. It is necessary to ensure that the motorcycle's electrical system can handle the extra load, however, so read up to ensure it will work with the bike on which it is to be installed.
The reflectors with which most stock motorcycles are equipped are usually determined by law and can only be called generous by people who have never seen them at night. Reflectors are an important part of nighttime visibility, especially if another road user is only presented with the side of the bike.
The market has many available options for improving the reflectivity of a motorcycle, but the most common are the tried, true and simple plastic reflectors. Should there not be any more room on the bike for those, turn to the wheels and add some reflective tape. The tape will not only make the motorcycle more visible, it will also add a neat aesthetic element for night riding.
Motorcycle luggage is another area of the bike where visibility may be increased. Adding new pieces or accessorizing those which are already installed aid in the quest to be seen. As most such products also increase available space for more lighting or more reflective accessories, using luggage to increase conspicuity may alter a bike's appearance at night significantly.For bikes equipped with saddlebags or a top case, there are many additional lighting and reflector options. Most of these are from the original manufacturer of the equipment, but the aftermarket also has its share. Adding luggage to a bike without it is more drastic, and is more expensive, but the change will be more dramatic. Ensure your bike can handle the addition of saddlebags or a top case, and be certain to select items which have plenty of visibility enhancements.
The old thinking on exhaust was that, "loud pipes save lives," but this has proven completely inaccurate time and time again. The American Motorcyclist Association has it better - "Loud pipes erode rights." With sound laws being enacted all over, most of them directed squarely at the motorcycle community even though they are a tiny minority of road users, this has never been truer. What a night rider needs is a happy medium; enough sound to alert his or her presence when next to an enclosed vehicle, but not so much as it results in a citation, or disturbs the neighbors.
Finding an appropriate aftermarket exhaust is a process in which the rider must take into account cost, any performance gains, how much the new exhaust weighs, and whether it is road legal where he or she lives (California residents have very specific laws about this). In most cases, a slip-on is all that a rider will need to bring about a more distinctive sound, but some will want to opt for a full system to fully unlock extra power.
Whichever exhaust is chosen must be legally compliant and be designed specifically for the motorcycle to which it will be installed.
Mirrors are all about seeing. There is little that a mirror can do to help you be seen. Riding at night is a two-way street and the rider needs to be able to see other road users so he or she can avoid running into or being hit by them - whether the other driver sees the bike or not, this is absolutely necessary.
Most motorcycles come equipped from the factory with good mirrors, but not all and a rider can always do better. Legal concerns aside (laws vary greatly from region to region), having at least one good, rear-facing mirror is a minimum for night riding. Select one which not only matches the style or purpose of the bike, but one which also allows a complete, unobstructed view of traffic behind.
Windscreens, like mirrors, are more for the rider being able to see at night. Smoked or tinted versions limit the amount of light which can get past them and to the rider's eyes. Thus, having a clear windscreen is the best way to go if plans call for riding in the dark.
Some models of motorcycle will come from the factory with a windshield, and most are clear. However, if yours was equipped with a tinted shield, switching it out to a clear windshield for night riding is highly recommended. An extra windshield to change out depending on the conditions will work just as well as a permanent replacement, provided the process is quick and easy and the rider has somewhere safe to store the additional shield when not in use. For bikes which did not come with a windscreen, there are a multitude of aftermarket windshields available. Ensure that a windshield which will be used for night riding is clear, scratch-free and is installed correctly.
Many motorcycle riders know all too well that riding in the darkness of night is more risky than riding in the sunlight of day. Not only does the night rider have to deal with the absence of the light, but he or she must also deal with sleepy, distracted and sometimes intoxicated drivers. All of this only serves to increase the need for a wider margin of safety, and the best way to achieve that is to be as visible as possible.
Of course, the standard maxims which are employed in any sub-standard conditions apply here - slow down, maintain larger following distances, use aggressive visual scanning techniques, and make sure to wear weather-appropriate, bright and reflective riding apparel. Taking that advice and adding some of the suggestions made here will go a very long way towards keeping any rider on the roads at night a fair bit safer.
The night rider must both see and be seen by those using the roads, and what is presented here is but one part to that. As long as the rider does everything possible to make it impossible to NOT be seen, riding at night will be much less dangerous and it will continue to be the escapist pursuit that many find it to be.