Be Seen, Stay Safe: How to Bike or Run at Night

Six tips to run or bike safely at night.
Six tips to run or bike safely at night. Stanislaw Pytel / GETTY

Whether you're running after work in the dead of winter, or out for a late-night bike ride to beat the summer heat, you're at a greater risk of being hit by a car when the sun is down. Seventy percent of all fatal accidents involving a pedestrian happen at night, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the problem seems to be getting worse. In 2003, pedestrians made up only 11 percent of traffic fatalities. Nine years later, in 2012, pedestrians accounted for 14 percent of traffic deaths. 

One possible reason? Cell phones. "Drivers are distracted by their phones, which means they're looking away from the roads," says Simon Curran, the co-founder and CEO of NoxGear, a company that produces visibility vests for pedestrians. He's right, a review of studies on distracted driving found that a simple text, like I'm on my way home, took 37 seconds to complete, and for 26 seconds of that time, the driver's eyes were away from the road. Another study found that even just having a conversation on a hands-free mobile phone could cause "reduced attention to visual inputs," especially things in the driver's periphery. Things like billboards, road signs, and, yes, runners and cyclists. 

Here's how to ride and run safely and make sure that you're seen.

Assume No One Can See You
A host of studies have shown that pedestrians and cyclists routinely overestimate how visible they are on the road. In one study published in Accident Analysis and Prevention, researchers had cyclists ride on a stationary bike. As a car approached, the cyclists were asked to identify when they thought the car could see them. This scenario was tested in dark clothing, reflective clothing, with flashing lights, and with florescent clothing. For every modality, the cyclists routinely thought the driver could see them much before the driver actually could. 

So why can't drivers see us? Marc Green, PhD, an expert who testifies about visibility factors for court cases, writes on his blog that being in a driver's periphery vision is to blame. "The pedestrian is hard to detect because people are much poorer at seeing objects off the direct line-of-sight. The eye has lower peripheral acuity, and visual attention is usually concentrated where the viewer fixates — directly ahead," he writes. Furthermore, car headlights are specifically designed to see just the road in front of you, not your periphery.

Pick a Smarter, Not Shorter, Route
Accept that the quickest route may not be the safest. If possible, opt for a road with overhead lighting. A study in the journal Lighting Research & Technology found that streetlights could double the amount of distance from which a driver was able to identify a pedestrian in the roadway. 

However, it's also important to find a low-traffic route. A study done by the Centre for Eye Research at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, found when drivers were faced with oncoming headlights, their ability to identify pedestrians on a dark road dropped substantially. In fact, if the pedestrian was clad in black clothing, drivers reported seeing them only 5 percent of the time. 

Pick A Smart Outfit
You probably know black and gray are bad, but just throwing on a neon shirt still isn't good enough. In one study, cyclists in fluorescent clothing all thought drivers could see them much before they could actually be seen. In reality, it took motorists seven times the distance the cyclists had assumed to see them. Skip the fluorescents and opt for white, which reflects the most amount of light. In the study done at Queensland University, wearing white was shown to be as effective as wearing a reflective vest. 

Let There Be (Lots of) Lights
"So long as you're not creating a distraction, says Justin McNaull, "there's no such thing as being too well lit." McNaull is a former police officer, longtime runner, and now works for the country's largest online driver's education site, edriving.com.

There's debate in the traffic safety business about whether solid or strobe lights are better. Some experts, like McNaull, say that flashing lights allow you to be seen from further away and are better for grabbing a driver's attention. Others, however, argue that it can be hard to judge the distance and rate of speed of an object wearing a flashing light. If you want the safest possible option, wear both. Also, make sure your lights provide 360-degree visibility. "People get a light for the front and a light for the back, but that's not enough," says McNaull. "Side traffic can be a real threat."

Illuminate Yourself to Look Human
Wear your lights in a way that tells drivers you're a person, not a road sign. "The biological element is huge," says Curran, adding that his product, the Tracer360, clearly illuminates the whole torso, making it clear that you're not a sign or a cone. You can also wear a helmet-mounted rear light, which will move with your body, unlike a light mounted to your frame. Even better, get lights or reflective tape that moves with your arms and legs, which allows drivers to identify pedestrians much more quickly. In one study, drivers identified pedestrians wearing reflective material on their limbs 100 percent of the time. Furthermore, it could increase the distance from which the driver identified the pedestrian by more then 50 times.   

Follow Your Local Laws
Most states require a cyclist to be lit at night, usually with a white light up front and a red light in the rear — some states only require a red reflector on the back of your bike. Pedestrians generally don't have the same rules, but you should check with your state before heading out after dark. 

Following your state's laws also provides legal protection. Sally Morin, a San Francisco lawyer who handles bike accident cases, says that if you're hit while riding without lights, it may be harder to go after the other party for damages. "You would have a harder time making a case, but you wouldn't be totally barred," she says, adding, "Drivers still have a duty to drive reasonably. With no lights, you could be partially at fault." The exception to this, however, is if you live in a state that recognizes "contributory negligence." This would basically bar you from any type of settlement. Not sure which type of state you're in? Get yourself a set of lights and hopefully you'll never need to find out.