Sunday, November 08, 2009

Do You Need Lights?

If you're commuting after 4:30 pm then the answer is yes. Studies show that the majority of bicycle crashes occur after dusk. Pennsylvania law requires a headlamp in combination with a rear reflector or blinky light.

If you're riding in the city then the main goal is to be seen. Most bike shops offer compact front/rear light sets starting at about $20. In the pinch any light is better than no light and drug stores such as Walgreens and CVS offer low cost LED lamps starting at about $6, look for lights that easily mount on your bike or helmet.

Any bicyclist who crosses over the city line at night knows one thing--darkness. That blinky light on your front handlebar becomes almost useless. But trying to find a moderately priced light to see the potholes is difficult, expect to pay at least one dollar per lumen.

I found three resources on the internet that may help you find the right light. Candlepower Forums has a bike light database that includes lights that produce at least 80 lumens. It is an excellent start point to search for serious bike light manufacturers.

Even better is the Eddy's Bike Shop in Ohio website, they set up a darkroom and photographed the resulting beam from their stock of headlights, below are samples of two different lights.

40 - 50 Lumens ------------ 200 Lumens

And finally the Planet Bike Light Finder is a similar web page that features their own lights.

I should note that we are finding that only about 40% of the urban core riders are using lights at all, anecdotally that number plunges way down for working cyclists in the outer neighborhoods and suburbs. Getting everybody to use any grade of lighting at night could significantly reduce the number of bicyclists injuries and fatalities.


caduceus said...

I'm curious if there is any data about all of the new lights designed for wheels and spokes. I feel ambivalent about them - while they look really cool I'm worried that they might be distracting. Any thoughts?

Todd said...

A terrific post on the bike hacks blog that goes along with this nicely:

I wonder if someone could figure out a good helmet mount variation on this. I ride the Lincoln Drive path on my commute, and being able to see where my head is turned instead of where my bars are turned makes navigating the dark a bit less harrowing.

Peter said...

Caduceus - The only active light you need is a headlight.

You don't need spoke and wheel lights. Being seen from the side is not that important on a bike. If you are worried about that,. wheel reflectors are more than adequate.

You only really need active lighting on the front. Cars waiting at intersections, at right angles to you, don't illuminate reflectors until you are in front of them. Spoke lights, etc. , are generally too hard to see - the line of sight between the driver waiting at the corner and you can be easily blocked by low shrubs, walls, whatever. But a headlight projects forward onto the road and to the side from a fairly high level, giving you visibility in this situation.

And of course, you need something to the rear for approaching cars. Either a good reflector or tail light.

John's comments are very pertinent. It's disturbing that so few riders use any lights at all.

Andrew J. Besold said...

Cross the Delaware and you are required to have a rear light! I personally don't feel that only using a rear reflector is in any way adequate even if some state laws allow it.

Also I like the idea of a wheel light and bought one of those Nite Ize lights since it is extremely eye catching from the sides (a red one for my rear wheel). Like a standard wheel reflector, the reciprocating motion of the light rotating in the wheels just demands attention.

All I say is that you DO NOT by a wheel light in any other color than red, white or yellow. White can be used on either wheel and red only in the back, yellow in the front. However! If you use wheel lights I think it may be preferable to use the traditional yellow-front, red-rear since you eliminate the possibility of white lights being mistaken for headlights (I think this may be an area where laws haven't yet caught up to technology). All other light colors I believe are illegal on any vehicle and may cause more distraction then help.

Also as a side note, I personally am not to fond of reflective sidewall tires. Yes they reflect "brilliantly" but when I see a bicycle with them at night all I see are two white circles moving across my path and I think to myself, "What the 'F' was that?!?!" It only dawns on me seconds later that it is a bike and I'm a cyclist! Imagine what car drivers are thinking! Since the sidewalls are a continuous band without a break, there is no reciprocating action. There is something about that reciprocating motion of old fashioned wheel reflectors that instantly communicate that what you are seeing is a bicycle. If reflective sidewalls where applied in discontinuous strips to create a reciprocation motion, I feel that they would be MUCH more effective.

That's just my 2 cents.

caduceus said...

Really? Any other color is illegal? I was hoping for some cool neon blue hokey spokes. Are you sure?

Andrew J. Besold said...

I know for a fact that blue is a big no-no since that is strictly reserved for emergency vehicles. Check you local vehicle code. It may be in there.

These legal guidelines are always so hard to find. I spent 20 minutes looking for the Consumer Product Safety Commission regs that require all bikes to sold with reflectors and what color they need to be. I still couldn't find it on the web even though I know for a fact I've seen it before online.