After a cyclist was struck by a car from behind recently and killed, I was asked if I thought it was safe to ride a bike at night or not. After some thought, here is what I came up with.
Personal safety, consideration for others, a sensible approach to cycling behaviors and a general desire to be an accepted part of traffic lead me to pretty much obey the traffic safety laws as ordained by our somewhat civilized society. That said, I have been known to run a stop sign or light occasionally, and have actually MISSED seeing a stop sign and one time went through a red light from a dead stop because I looked up at the green light for cross traffic and mistook it for mine. Total boneheaded mistake that almost cost me my life. I am far from perfect, and have no expectations that others should be. That is true whether they are on a bicycle or driving a car (or walking for that matter). We are all subject to making foolish errors in judgment and as humans, we make mistakes. I personally don't believe the incidence of cars striking bicycles is in any greater proportion than cars striking other cars or possibly striking pedestrians. Not sure of what the statistics are of cars hitting bikes in the dark versus light. I guess we could do a lot of research on this, but it just seems to me to be pretty even. One thing I know is that riding my bike to work and back almost every day (167 days this year in 9 months) and riding for recreation on weekends (a total of almost 8,000 miles so far), I am confronted daily with situations that require my attention to be focused well on the task at hand (i.e., paying attention to my cycling) and not letting my attentions wander off onto something else. This is also true when I'm operating a motor vehicle or walking down the street. I see fender benders between two cars quite frequently while riding to work. I have witnessed only one car/bike accident.
Now about riding at night. I have really really - i mean REALLY - good headlight and tail light systems. I wear reflective clothing, have reflective striping on my bike in strategic areas and try to choose my routes for night-time riding based on safety issues, though this is not always possible. I liked what Pansy said about the use of trails at night. There is one particular street that I decided I wouldn't ride up at night anymore because I had a fear that I might get mugged. But I feel more invisible a lot of times during the daylight hours than I do at night. On a bright sunny day, riding a road that has a lot of tree-lined areas where I am constantly from bright sunlight to shadows, I am frequently concerned that drivers may not see me when I am in the shaded areas and their eyes are adjusting. This is sorta like what happens when we drive into a tunnel and have to turn our lights on. For this reason, I frequently have a flashing tail light on during the daytime.
Similarly, when the sun is at bad angles, drivers have a difficult time seeing ANYTHING, even with sunglasses on, and it is easy to miss the fact that a bike is there. Not only that, I see cars earlier in the dark than I do in the daylight. Cars approaching a blind curve in the daylight are not blind to me at night. I can't count the number of times I've almost been hit head on by cars coming across the yellow line in a curve in broad daylight. At night, I know they're coming and can be even further to the right than I would normally be, and better prepared for their approach.
Where riding at night is more dicey for me than riding in the daytime is the debris, holes, cracks and other road hazards that are more difficult to see because my lights, while excellent, don't allow me to see things as far in advance as I'd like to, and as far out as I can in the daylight, so I've ended up running over things (like the piece of a tailpipe that was pretty much the same color as the pavement until I got real close) that I would have seen had it been light.
And for my money, riding at night up until about 10:00 pm is really pleasant most of the time. After that, as more and more people are leaving the bars and the percentage of alcohol affected drivers continues to increase until an hour or so after bar closing, I don't feel real safe. As I ride through the night, I consider every driver that either approaches from the rear or comes straight at me to be a drunk. I become hyper vigilant and am pretty much under constant alert and am prepared to run myself into a ditch if need be to avoid being hit by a drunk driver. Of course, we can all be hit by a drunk driver at noon, too, but the percentages go up.
Unlike some cyclists who have a great fear of night riding, I love riding after dark. Some of my favorite times on a bike have been riding under a big old full moon with a mist settled into the farm fields and the quiet peacefulness of the night singing softly to me as I pedal along in awe of my planet and surroundings. It's all a matter of preparedness, planning and proper execution.
I participate in a dangerous sport. I do it willingly, and most of all, I try to do it in a way that is as safe as possible. I trust that drivers will do the same, but also believe in the old adage of "trust but verify" and do what is necessary to protect my own life.