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Shine a light on ninja riders

The Columbia Tribune: Shine a light on ninja riders

By ROBERT JOHNSON
Monday, December 7, 2009

There is a creature roaming the streets of Columbia that strikes fear into the hearts of motorists and responsible bicyclists alike — the “ninja rider.” Ninja riders are bicyclists who ride at night without lights and, like real ninjas, travel through our community barely visible. They are feared by motorists because drivers would hate to run over one and are feared by bicyclists because they promote the idea that cyclists are irresponsible.

One reason ninjas ride at night without lights might be ignorance of the law. Hardly anyone knows it is against the law to ride at night without lights. In fact, it is both state law and a city ordinance that bicycles ridden at night must be equipped with a white headlight in the front and a red rear reflector.

In the United States all bikes sold are required to have reflectors on the wheels and pedals and a reflector on the front and rear of the bicycle. It’s hard to know how many crashes this has prevented, but it might have convinced many bicyclists that their bike is already equipped to be ridden at night.

Actually, the standard reflectors on bicycles are not very effective and provide only a minimum of safety. These types of reflectors are designed to be viewed at various angles, which is what gives them their three-dimensional appearances. This design, although it had good intentions, also made them much less effective than a standard flat reflector because it greatly lowers their overall surface area. So while these tiny reflectors kind of work on a brand-new bicycle, they are quickly covered in dust or mud, which makes them useless.

Another reason ninjas do not use lights might be that they believe they don’t need them; they assume the lights are for bicyclists’ benefit so they can see the road better. Actually, the lights are so that cars can see the bicyclists.

Take a look at the graphic. A rear reflector might be effective here because the motorist is approaching directly behind the bicyclist, but car at the intersection, with a bicyclist approaching from the side, would not have its headlights shining on any of the reflectors. In these situations the only solution is for the bicyclist to have a powered, white headlight, which is why the law is written the way it is.

Although legally bicyclists are required only to have a headlight on their bicycles in addition to reflectors, it is a good idea to have a powered taillight anyway. Modern bicycle lights can be fairly inexpensive, long-lasting, weatherproof and lightweight. They greatly increase the visibility of a bike rider, creating a safer situation.

So what is the solution? Enforcement, education and equipment. Let’s shrink the numbers of ninjas roaming Columbia’s streets and replace them with knowledgeable, safe, predictable and equipped bicyclists. We can do this by continuing to encourage the police department to pull over and warn or ticket bicyclists who are riding at night without lights. Our education courses and articles like this will hopefully encourage change. Finally, programs like “Bike Bright/Use a Light” and Columbia Bicycle Club’s free light program all work to make lights possible for everyone, no matter their income level. Although it is not likely for Columbia to be completely ninja-free, it is certainly possible to bring some of them into the light.