Motorcycle Headlight – Hi Beam all the Time?

Should I run with high beams on during the day? When you first think it over it seems the correct answer is – yes. Since your hi-beam puts out more light you will be more visible, and being more visible means you are safer, right?  Well, the catch is that modern motorcycle LED technology makes hi-beams extremely bright even on a sunny day.  High beams can be so bright they blind oncoming drivers which actually makes you less safe.

The majority of rider’s responses and opinions collected across multiple motorcycle forums also agree that hi-beams in the day are a bad idea. Riders find that modern hi-beams blind, distract and annoy other drivers. And as you can imagine this blinding glare often happens at the worst possible moments, like during an approach from opposite directions, or when a motorcycle moves to pass a car ahead. Blinding or distracting the car driver in these circumstances can have deadly results.

There are a few exceptions, however. If you are riding a much older motorcycle, or model that still uses an incandescent filament bulb in the headlamp, then the output will be far less than blinding. So go ahead and use with hi-beams when equipped with incandescent bulbs. Check inside your headlamp, you will be able to see an old style filament bulb with the telltale curly formed filament wire inside a glass bulb. If you are still in doubt, just stand in front of the bike with hi-beams on, LEDs will produce an extremely bright glare on high beam. If you are blinded, so will other drivers.

There is good news, however, for riders with motorcycles still using older lighting technology, you are not stuck with it.  There are many upgrade options available, such as plug-in replacement LED bulbs and complete headlamps for most applications. As a bonus, LED technology puts a lot less strain on the bike’s electrical system, so adding multiple small spotlights is also a realistic option. LED’s win on superior performance, low cost, low heat, and small size too. The antiquated incandescent bulb becomes a relic in comparison to LEDs.

It’s All About Visibility

The intent of using hi-beams is to be more visible and ultimately safer on the road. So what else can you do to make you and your motorcycle more visible?

The quickest and most economical way to increase overall visibility is to wear a reflective vest. Vests come in fluorescent yellow and red-orange and have built-in reflective sections for greater visibility. They are also very effective in low light conditions – early morning, evening, stormy and foggy conditions.

Vests designed for motorcycling are best. Because of the constant wind pressures and gusts encountered you need a well-designed vest that can be snugged down tightly and not wildly flap around. Just using a standard construction style vest will not cut it, look for designs with clasps or velcro closures to pull in the vest. There are also some great design features on the more expensive vests, like mesh ventilation, belts, and handy pockets. If you have a money-is-no-object budget there are even safety vests that will inflate like an air-bag on sudden impact too!

An alternative is a reflective strap vest, this reminds me of a set of suspenders with a belt but has reflective strips built in. The disadvantage is that these have reflective strips only, there is a minimal surface area for bright eye-catching materials like full vests provide. But it will stow away in minimal space, a good option if you rarely need to add this type of visibility feature.

For permanent visibility, there are endless choices of reflective & fluorescent add-ons. There are tapes, badges, wheel kits that are an economical way to add to your safety. Helmets and clothing come in bright colors, and some have reflective features designed in. If you are shopping for a new “skid lid” or riding gear always keep your visibility in mind.

Upgraded Lighting

Incandescent bulbs provided reliable motorcycle lighting for decades and still do on many economical entry-level, older and vintage machines. The development of High-Intensity Discharge (HID) lighting provided a leap forward – now these have been effectively replaced by Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology.

Without a doubt, LEDs are a huge step up in real-world lighting performance. Good quality LED’s provide superior lighting and offer a lot more design and mounting options. As a bonus, LEDs last longer, are physically tougher and draw less current reducing the load on your motorcycle’s electrical system. And since LEDs are small, they can be used in many uniques ways, like mounting on handlebar guards and visual accents.

The best way to upgrade is a direct replacement LED bulb or entire headlamp unit that was designed for your model and year of motorcycle. Universal designs need to be checked for proper fit. Look for issues with wiring that may require a sharp bend when mounted, also oversized (cheap) connectors, check the depth of the unit for space available and supplied (or lack of) bracketry.

Be aware that you can still get a low quality, poorly designed LED unit. Lighting output can actually be only marginally, or not even any better at all than your current lighting. As with all things it pays to do your research. Other verified buyers that have left positive reviews or unsponsored, real life 3rd party reviews of the LED products are important. Just in case something goes wrong – solid vendor support, and a reasonable return policy are also positives. Going for the ultra cheap no-name LEDs will likely be disappointing.

In my opinion and based on the many poor choices made in the past, I find that mid to upper price ranges, from vendors & suppliers from recognizable brands usually end up being the best value.

There is still some “old stock” out there. Avoid any LED designs that require a separate control box. They have unnecessary wiring and connectors that are added failure points, due to corrosion and moisture entry. The newest designs integrate all required electronics in one package.

To install replacement LEDs is a very simple DIY activity. A few simple hand tools and only basic mechanical skills are required.  Considering the cost versus benefits it is probably the single most valuable upgrade a motorcycle rider can do.

LED Lighting Notes

  • Beam patterns are permanently set, they are designed in and can’t be changed
  • Poorly engineered LEDs units can both blind oncoming traffic, and still, provide poor illumination
  • After installation check & adjust the beam’s direction and angle according to your service manual
  • If you have a headlight modulator (a safety feature that flickers the headlamp), it will not work with LED circuitry (the light will go on off instead of flickering). The modulator will need to be disconnected & removed
  • Consider LED brake light retrofits upgrades, for brighter and safer rear lighting
  • Brake lights that include a quick strobe effect add extra visibility
  • Turn signals are also candidates for upgrading to LEDs
  • Be aware that due to reduced electrical draw your motorcycle may behave oddly, thinking that the previous bulbs are burnt out or malfunctioning – to remedy add in a load balancer, or replace flasher units with LED compatible one

Spot & Auxiliary Lighting

Spotlights can be added to almost anyplace that a small LED light can be mounted. For a traditional look, a light bar is mounted on the forks above the front fender, with usually two round front-facing lights are fitted. For a similar look and benefits, spotlights can be mounted on small stalks on the upper forks.

Crash bars or frame downtubes are also other convenient location to locate LEDs spotlights. But it doesn’t stop there, tiny spotlight can be mounted to the handlebars. LEDs lights can be embedded in hand handguards (as usually found on off-road bikes) also.

Running Lights

These lights can be mounted to any surface of your machine. LED strips are commonly used for rear & side illumination, on bike surfaces such as saddle bags. For a new look – downward facing glow LEDs can be used to project colored lights onto the roadway resulting in unique and very noticeable light show. There are many kits designed for popular touring bikes, ones that illuminate the inner front rim, or fairing profiles are partially interesting.

Night Riding

I have never been a fan of night riding, simply because of reduced visibility for me and other vehicles. If you do drive at night, at minimum take the time to upgrade your headlamp to LED technology. Adding additional forward facing illumination would be a wise move too.

Night driving is statistically safer within the city, versus the country. This is due to better street lighting in towns. Rural roads are typically not as well light, if at all. And you will need to be on the alert for potential wildlife crossing in front of you. But the facts are you may never have a chance of seeing the debris, pothole or critter you hit.  Highway driving is overall the safest way to travel (based on distance traveled) if you need to travel at night and this is the safest route option.

Night Riding Safety Tips

  • Never “out-ride” your headlights, leave enough distance for adequate reaction times
  • Speeding decreases your safety zone, drive according to conditions
  • Always use your hi-beams and all auxiliary lighting when possible
  • Stay to the right-hand side of the road, where a car’s passenger side tire travels – this will avoid most debris on the road
  • If you are facing constant oncoming lights, alternate closing one eyelid, this will keep one eye rested and you will not be overloaded and visually dazzled
  • Do not flick your lights at oncoming vehicles that have hi-beams on, you risk startling them
  • Never fixate on headlights, look down to the right-hand side of the road’s shoulder. Use the painted shoulder line or your position from the center line for reference
  • If you encounter any erratic driver assume they are impaired, get out of their way immediately, even if it requires pulling off the road

Accident Stats Insights

Accident statistics provide some interesting insights into how to stay and ride safer. Statistics for fatal two-vehicle accidents overwhelmingly point to bad judgment and poor operation of the vehicles involved (such as – alcohol/drug consumption, speeding, operating under suspension careless driving, etc.)

  • About 75% of the cases involved the motorcycle hitting the other vehicle
  • One-third of these cases the car did not yield the right of way to a turning or merging motorcycle
  • Nearly 70% of the accidents involved the motorcycle hitting the other vehicle from the rear

This underlines how unsafe the typical motorcyclist involved in accidents is riding.  

Also, there is a roughly 50/50 split between single & two vehicle accidents. For accidents involving a motorcycle only, this would point to the rider’s skills and experience as contributing factors.

The conclusion is that a very large percent of accidents can be attributed to the motorcyclist’s poor driving skills and dangerous habits.

Wrapping It Up

Running hi-beams all the time is not safer and may even be counterproductive, you will likely be blinding and at minimum annoying other drivers. The net result is to be safer – so to be seen wear bright yellow / organ-red highly reflective vest or jacket, helmet, and clothing. Upgrade your front lighting to LED and rear/side, brake and turn signal lighting. Consider adding LED accent strips & kits, or reflective elements, and consider downward glow illumination.

Every improvement in visibility adds a bit more to your safety. And not surprisingly – riding defensively, and to match road conditions is the best way to stay safe as possible on the road.

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