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Paul Wellman

The Illuminated Cyclist

Get Visible


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Lights help riders see the road, but, more importantly, they let motorists see us. We’ve all shared that moment of shock and fear when we’re driving and we don’t see cyclists until the last moment. Not good. Visible cyclists announce their presence with lights.

The Bicycle Coalition’s Spanish Language Outreach Committee every November hands out free lights to invisible low-income cyclists in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Carpinteria. This year, volunteers gave away 800 front and rear lights during its Iluminando la Noche - Light Up the Night campaign.

Howard Booth

Ralph Fertig, president emeritus of the Bicycle Coalition, recently circulated an article, What an RAF Pilot Can Teach Us about Being Safe On the Road, that clearly illustrates the difficulties motorists have in seeing cyclists. When a driver says, “I didn’t see you,” that may be the truth, and this article shows why that is. Front, rear, and side lights are a requirement at night, but honestly, I like to keep my rear blinky light on anytime I’m riding.

There are many ways to light up the night when you ride. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you can assemble your own set. I’ve seen every kind of improvisation that you can imagine. Last week I saw a bike with an orange plastic flashlight duct-taped to the handlebars. I’ve seen flashlights wired to the top of helmets or car headlights powered by 12-volt batteries. I’ve even seen a cyclist riding up Bath Street holding an iPhone with the flashlight app blazing!

If you’re going to use bike lights manufactured for the purpose, however, there are two basic types: ones intended for commuting and more powerful setups for off-road riding. For riding around town or on campus, all you probably need are basic commuter lights, battery-powered or USB-rechargeable. They provide enough light to see the road and make you visible to cars, pedestrians, and other riders from the front and rear. A high-powered light for city cycling may light up the road like daylight but will also likely blind oncoming motorists, pedestrians, and other cyclists. Save the high beam for the trails.

You can buy inexpensive front safety lights from your local bike shop, and they’ll provide enough light to allow you to see where you are going in moderate, low-light conditions like dusk or rainy weather. Inside there are usually two AA alkaline or USB-rechargeable batteries and LED bulbs. They attach to your handlebars and are simple to install yourself. Rear safety lights emit a constant or flashing red light so that you can be seen from behind. They usually attach to your bike’s seat post.

Medium-power headlights are perfect for the serious commuter. These mid-priced lights may have a halogen or LED bulbs and are powerful enough to light your way instead of just making you visible to oncoming traffic. Medium-power headlights are great for both roads and trails.

Let’s say your riding plans include a lot of mountain biking after dark or you’ll be commuting from UCSB along the bike path at night. I’ve frequently ridden the Obem Trail at night, and there is nothing more Halloween-spooky than having rabbits, pedestrians, or other cyclists suddenly in your path. A low-powered bicycle-commuter light will not cut it. A good option is to put one medium-powered light on the handlebars and a second light on your helmet. Look for a light that’s not heavy and has a sturdy weatherproof casing.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on high-power headlights. These lights blast the night with as much as 3,600 lumens of brightness. That’s way more than a car headlight. They are bright, heavy, expensive, and ideal for off-road riding at night but not for city commuting.

Now that you have that front light mounted, don’t forget a rear blinky light (or reflector) plus pedal reflectors or reflective ankle bands. Make sure that your reflectors aren’t obscured by baggage or dirt. Throw on a reflective jacket or vest, and you’re set.

I’m not going to recommend any particular brand or model of lights. Search bike lights on YouTube to have some fun checking out the cool products that are out there. I like the LED USB-rechargeable lights that you can simply plug into your computer. They have a long run time and good illumination and are increasingly inexpensive. Then, too, there are lights powered by batteries charged by generators that are in turn powered by your pedals. If you’re not sure of the best light for your style of riding, take a little trip to your local bike shop and ask the friendly mechanic for advice.

And if you already have lights, take a minute right now to charge them up or check the batteries – remember that nonrechargeables have to be replaced every 20-30 hours of use depending on the type of bulb – because there will be dark days and nights ahead.

It’ll soon be time for New Year’s resolutions. Let’s all be visible cyclists this year and roll with lights.

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