Thoughts on Bike Lights

Don't be a Ninja on a bike!
Don’t be a Ninja cyclist! Be SEEN and LIVE! Click image to learn more from the Tempe AZ Bicycle Action Group.

After reading the excellent “Bike Lights” article in Momentum’s Sept/Oct 2010 issue by Jonathon Reynolds which shares some research on when/where most bike accidents occur, I’d like to comment on the topic.

There’s a common misconception that you only need lights when it’s dark or getting dark.  Due to almost getting hit in the middle of the day by a driver, whom I believe simply didn’t see me in the dark shadows of a tree (some people’s eyes don’t adjust very quickly to extreme lighting changes), I have since strongly encouraged people to use flashing lights, front and rear, whenever they ride and not just when it’s getting dark.

Did you know?  MSU Bikes has sponsored engineering student teams’ research (ECE480) into new smart light/ sensing systems to help protect bicyclists from distracted drivers over the past couple years.   Read more here.

There’s a good reason why many newer motor vehicles have lights that come on automatically whenever the engine is running; they’re called “Daytime Running Lights”.  While US car manufacturers have effectively lobbied against requiring them Canada and many European countries have enacted legislation requiring them on motor vehicles while at least one, Germany, requires front and rear lights be working at all times on bicycles.

Be careful about trusting technology, however.  I’ve noticed more and more modern motor vehicles driving around without their headlights on making me think that the auto-light technology isn’t totally reliable yet.  So, like other areas of life, best not to entrust your safety to others and technology!
So many modern motor vehicles are driving around without their headlights on!  Reflectors (required by law in most places) alone aren’t going to help much when there’s no light source. Active lighting is the sure-fire way to assure you’re seen.

Check out this excellent article with lots of great illustrations by the good folks at Cycling Savvy – “Bicycle Lights: To See and Be Seen By”  (Oct. 9, 2020)

If you need data to be convinced, take a look at this data on when the bulk of crashes occurred – DAYLIGHT HOURS!  Yes, the bulk of the fatal crashes have occurred later in the evening hours but it’s obvious your visibility isn’t just important when it’s dark out (courtesy of the Michigan Traffic Crash Facts tool).  Compare the 2004-2019 numbers with the 2004-2015 numbers and you’ll see that more fatal crashes are happening earlier in the day, aka “daylight hours”, so your visibility during the day is becoming evermore important!

Additionally, people should definitely stick with lights that have easily rechargeable batteries or USB rechargeable so that they’re more likely to use the lights all the time rather than trying to conserve batteries.  We stock many affordable lights at MSU Bikes and can special order just about any other light on the market.

Check out a 2017 WSJ article on the topic:
How Cyclists Can Stay Safe on the Road – Bright colors, bright lights and positioning on the road can help cyclists be more visible to drivers”

Finally, I see way too many cyclists riding around with lights that are hardly visible, or hanging off a backpack often pointing to the ground, apparently thinking “I’ve got a light, I’m safe”, but apparently have no idea how invisible they are.  I’m not sure if it’s the nature of rechargeable batteries or the modern LED lights, but it’s also best to have backup lights on the rear and front as I’ve had them look bright at the start of my commute home only to discover they died sometime during my ride.

So, be sure to check your lights often and recharge or replace those batteries to stay alive!  And make sure they’re aimed properly down the road so they’re actually visible to motorists.

almost-all-lights
We’re now blessed with a huge variety of affordable, strong tail lights. We stock many affordable lights at MSU Bikes as does any good bike shop.

Author: Tim Potter

Sustainable Transportation Manager, MSU Bikes Service Center; member of the All University Traffic & Transportation Committee (http://auttc.msu.edu); founding member of MSU Bike Advisory Committee (https://msubikes.wordpress.com/volunteer-donate/msu-bac/); advocate for local & regional non-motorized transportation issues thru the Tri-Co. Bike Assn. Advocacy Committee (http://groups.google.com/group/tcatc); board member of the Ride of Silence (http://www.rideofsilence.org); year-round bicyclist of all sorts; photographer; soccer player; father of 3; married 30 yrs. to Hiromi, Japanese national (daughter of former Natl. Keirin Champion, Seiichi Nishiji); Christ follower.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Bike Lights”

  1. While it’s on the pricy side, I highly recommend the Garmin Varia as a tail light. Not only is it bright enough to be seen at a significant distance during the day, it has a radar so that when an car is approaching from the rear, it starts to flash in random patterns to grab their attention (flashing lights have been proven to grab attention even for distracted drivers). Added bonus is that if you have a smartphone, it will give the rider an indication of the speed and distance of cars coming up the rear, so you can make better informed decisions while riding. I’ve been using it on my rides this summer and it has been great — and they do last 12-24 hours of runtime between charges. From the LBS, they run about $200, but Amazon has been having them on sale a few times for between $70-$100.

    Front lights are nearly as important as well. Flashing lights again help make other road users notice you. More of the close calls I’ve been in have been because an oncoming car turned into me — and most of the time it’s because they didn’t notice me (or were trying to shoot between other vehicles at the light). I’ve been running on Serfas ELUME front lights and really like them. They charge quick and also last between 12-24 hours of ride time.

    1. Thanks for the addtl. info. on the Garmin system. Great to see such a large, successful company working in this area of improving safety for bicyclists who ride in the road.

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