In 2005, the first year I almost exclusively bicycled for transportation, I found myself riding home in the dark more than once. That didn’t bother me, except for one street that was narrow, bordered on both sides by steep drop-offs of 100 feet or more with intermittent guard rails, and completely unlit.
In those early days, I biked on the sidewalk because I thought that’s where you were supposed to ride a bike. It snowed the week of Thanksgiving and I navigated the slushy roads and sidewalks until I got to that very dark stretch. I was scared that I might slip on the slush and fall off the precipice into the creek far below, so I took to the street.
That weekend a drunk driver lost control, drove over the sidewalk, crashed through the flimsy rail, flew over the precipice, and collided with a tree. Between the broken rail and the memorial flowers stapled to the tree I was even more scared to bike that segment in the dark. So I got my first set of bike lights.
I thought the lights were entirely inadequate because they failed to light up the street sufficiently for me to see. That’s when I learned that the most important purpose of bike lights is not for me to see the street, but to make me visible to other vehicles.
It’s hard to believe now that I was once so stupid as to ride in the dark without lights, and that I thought lights were only necessary if I couldn’t see my path. It’s good to tell this story, and remind everyone that when it comes to bicycles, nearly everyone is inexperienced. We make mistakes. Bicyclists ride on sidewalks and without lights because they don’t know better. Motorists make mistakes like right hooks and left hooks and insufficient passing distance because they don’t know better. We become experienced, and we learn how to bike with traffic and how to drive around bicycles.
With experience, I learned about bike lights and sidewalks and assertive lane position, and then I took Traffic Skills 101 which confirmed what I’d learned and taught me much more. As more people bicycle, motorists and bicyclists will gain experience. I was lucky, and learned my lessons without injury. I hope my articles will help many bicyclists and motorists learn these same lessons without injury.