Night Riding Vision - Fight The Night

By the time you read this most of the country will have made the switch to Daylight Saving Time. Sure, I'm tickled to have that extra hour of light, but I'll still face the occasional post-sunset commute home. And night riding just ain't the thrill it used to be when I was a young buck. Generally speaking, your ability to see at night deteriorates with age, and a twilight spin in my mid-40s demands way more preparation to keep the excitement meter from going off the dial. You've probably heard the sobering stats: A disproportionately high rate of accidents occur between dusk and dawn.

The most basic issue-get ready now -is lack of visibility. The wonks at the National Safety Council (NSC) confirm that 90 percent of a rider's reaction depends on vision. And the nighttime riding disadvantage is compounded by the vagaries of getting older. At the back of my mind I keep hearing "The eyes are the first things to go."

Add roads with no overhead lighting, the sensitivity to light (headlights) many riders and drivers experience and the compromised distance vision of aging riders, and it's easy to see why it can be a battlefield out there at night. And if you think it's a stretch for drivers to spot motorcyclists in the full light of day, our single headlight is essentially invisible to the cagers after sundown. Apart from watching out for tired, clueless drivers, there's also Bambi to consider; wild animals tend to be more active after dusk.

That's a handful, so we asked Los Angeles optometrist Dr. Diana Risko (also a longtime rider) for some, uh, clarity. "The retinas are mostly designed for light situations," she explains. "Only around 15 percent of their receptors are made for the dark. Darkness makes the eye's pupil expand [dilate], and the headlights of an oncoming car basically set off all the receptors in your eye, giving you only a white flash in your vision." She adds, "Astigmatism [a curve to the cornea] is fairly common and often doesn't require correction. But it can make blurred vision more likely and can contribute to eyestrain."

Before you get all gloomy, know there are ways to prepare for your ride once the sun goes down.

Prep
A simple way to arm yourself against the evening is to prep your ride. That means giving everything a thorough scrub before you hit the street. Headlights, taillights, signal lights, windshields and helmet visors should be cleaned at least twice a week.

If you ride with a full-face helmet, make sure the shield is scratch- and fog-free. A scored visor can create light refraction and make two headlights seem like four; you won't know what's coming from where. Keeping fog at bay is a breeze with our favorite home remedy: Remove your helmet's visor and spit over the inside of it. Wipe your drool off with a clean rag, and bam!-antifog coating. (Shaving cream has a similar effect.) There are a variety of inexpensive solutions available that do the trick, too-we like Cat Crap ($3.99) for the cool name. Bigger spenders can spring for Fog City's Pro Shield antifog inserts ($17 at modernworld.com). Any of them are more effective than sliding your fingers behind the shield to wipe it on the road.

Blinded By The Light
Remember that glare is in the eye of the beholder. Middle-aged and older riders are more sensitive than younger guns, so if you're running high-output auxiliary lights, give the other guy a break. The brighter beams can easily blind the very people you're trying to get to notice you. A teacher at the AARP Driver Safety Program course (participants age 55-plus) tells us he often hears complaints about motorcycle headlights being too bright. With the average driver's age on the rise, it's food for thought.

HID lights are also showing up on more bikes and cars in the U.S. Mounted on your machine you'll love their broader, brighter light. If you're on the other side of those bluish beams, though, you'll curse the blinding rays. As a common courtesy keep your lights on low when you're behind the other guy. And if a driver zaps you from the opposite direction, training your eye on the right edge of the road can help as a steering guide.

Dial 'er Down
Because night riding reduces both the distance and quality of what you see, you might want to keep a lighter touch on the throttle-especially if you're in the boonies. It'll be tougher to determine surface condition as well as the road's general direction at night, key points on unlit country lanes. Be prepared to stop if you're confused-don't guess. If you can, use the lights of other nearby vehicles as well as your own to keep an eye on the road and give yourself room to react.

In turns, make sure you have plenty of lean angle in reserve. If the turn tightens or the pavement changes, you may need the extra runoff.

Pick A Spot
Don't settle in behind a large truck or any vehicle's blind spot-get your motorcycle where it can be seen. The center of the lane is probably your best bet (you'll blend into street lighting if you ride too far on the road's edge). Give yourself plenty of room when passing other vehicles so you can adjust if they decide to shimmy over.

Rest Up
It's not a good idea to ride when you're tired, anyway. Long hauls in the evening can easily leave you in autopilot mode. You may not react to hazards as quickly as you would during the day. Changing up your speed and taking regular breaks is the best way to fight fatigue on long nighttime journeys. Snack and stretch-the movement and light food will help ward off tiredness.

Over Here
It's also in your best interest to make yourself a little larger than life. We've said it repeatedly in these pages: Wearing bright clothing and reflective material makes you pop at night. The biggest thing a following driver sees is your back, so get some reflectivity back there. Streetglo.net stocks DOT-approved, motorcycle-specific stick-on tape for less than $10 a roll. Oh, and make sure you use your turn signals so the zomb . . . er, people around you know what you're about to do.

Let There Be Light
As you might expect, your bike's lighting is your biggest weapon. Even simple things like ensuring your headlight and taillights have good-quality bulbs and clean lenses will yield big gains. If light quality is subpar, consider adding dual running lights; three properly aimed headlights are much more noticeable than one. Current styling trends have also led many manufacturers to use undersized brake lighting. If your rear light is a dot, think about swapping in a larger model. Halogen lamps-up to 30 percent brighter than stockers-can be had for less than $15.

Ready, Aim
In their dogged quest for style many manufacturers aim the headlight lower than the legal angle. Consult your owner's manual, then peek into the headlight area to find the adjustment hardware and tweak away.

Eye, Aye
Last (but perhaps most importantly), get your eyes checked. One quick visit can diagnose any problems. Dr. Risko says, "People with astigmatism are more likely to be disturbed by glare or light sensitivity. But almost all astigmatism can be corrected. Contacts are better for riding as they don't compromise peripheral vision like glasses do."

All things considered, it probably isn't as bad as it seems. After all, 45 is the new 25, right? Just tell that to my wife-she's ordered me a walking cane and already agreed to take me shopping for bifocals and orthopedic boots.