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Q&A : Bike Lights

by Bike Shop Girl

A reader wrote in asking questions about lights, read his question and then my personal answer.. From there, I turn the table to you all, what do you think he could do to avoid cars pulling out?

Q:

I wanted to get your input on lights/ being seen. Most of my morning commute is in the dark and in a bike lane. I have, on severa. occasions, almost been hit by cars pulling out from a sid. stree. despite the fact that I have a 27. lume. headlight shining in their direction. What else can I do to get their attention? Should I just accept the fact that they aren’t going to pay attention and wait for the to pull out.

A:

#1 a solid and a blinking light : Catch their attention, but be able to be seen
#2 reflective 3m tape that will be “caught” from all sides of your bike.  I have it on the rims of my wheels, seat stays, fork legs and downtube on some bikes.
#3 more than one light.  It is hard to catch someones attention with just one fixed light, they may think you are a reflection, mail box or not moving very quickly.

Now, what would you do differently?

 
Burley nomad 229

48 Responses to “Q&A : Bike Lights”

  1. Shawn Feddes says:

    I like your suggestions and I would also add on buying an airhorn to give those last minute little warnings. It has saved me a couple of times and allowed me to express myself a few others.

    I have this model. Seems fairly durable though I am on my second one.

    http://www.fearlessgearless.com/2006/09/blowing-my-own-horn

  2. You are spot on. A front flashing light is the best defense against cars pulling out in front of you. ((My Theory)) I think the main reason for this is, your front light on your bike is so small, that it appears to be a car headlight several blocks away. Because of this, the driver in the car thinks they have plenty of time to pull out safely, and cross in front of the oncoming traffic.
    With a front flasher next to your front light, this causes the driver, to take a second look, as cars don’t have white flashing lights.
    Another product I have found to help with this is the Down Low Glow light from http://rockthebike.com. Although it’s main selling point is enhancing side visibility (another huge issue), it cast a wide circle of light on the ground around the bike, that really makes cars notice you from any direction.

  3. mk says:

    Front white flashing lights on bikes are not legal in many jurisdictions. Furthermore are extremely distracting to other cyclists on narrow bike trails, especially the 3+ watt LED ones.

    Get a bright helmet light and
    shine it directly at the driver if they appear to not see you. I use the Cygolite milion and numerous cars that otherwise would have rolled stop signs and red lights have braked hard immediately upon getting the light in the face.

  4. dugg says:

    easy, in a suburban or dense area light is not needed to see the road. you take the light and point it to the drivers eye level. could even angle it towards the right.

  5. Josh says:

    When the batteries were low on my flashing LED front light, I noticed this happening a lot more. When I replaced the batteries, it stopped. It also helps to aim the light slightly to the right (similar to mk’s suggestion about a helmet light) so that cars to the right see you.
    I question the reflective tape because by the time you’re in their head lights, its too late. This makes sense for the rear, but not so much for the front.

    Finally, I would highly suggest riding further left. Either out in the right tire track of the traffic lane, or the far left of the bike lane. I’ve tried riding at various positions in the road, and found that the right tire track is by far the best place for being seen by drivers coming out from side streets or driveways. They are looking for cars, and they don’t look for cars that far to the right.

    When I have good batteries in my blinky light, and ride far enough to the left, I don’t have any problems with pull-outs. When I skip either of these things, I do have that problem.

  6. BluesCat says:

    Back in my Rebel BluesCat days, when I rode a motorcycle, I learned an important life lesson:

    MOTORISTS WILL LOOK AT YOU, BUT THEY WON’T REALLY “SEE” YOU.

    I think it is because motorcycles and bicycles are so small they are not perceived as threats by automobile drivers; cocooned as they are in their sheet metal.

    I have a motorcycle riding friend who had a woman pull out in front of him in her pickup truck. He wound up in the bed of her pickup, with both wrists and both ankles shattered almost beyond repair. Her excuse was she “never saw” his custom Harley with the dual, lit headlights. I’VE had people look directly into my eyes when I’ve been approaching them on my bicycle and STILL pull out in front of me.

    All the lights in the world won’t help. If it is daylight, wave to the driver and make sure they respond to you before riding in front of them. If it is night time, and you can’t see the driver clearly, stop and wait for a sign from them before betting your life in their headlights.

  7. Paul in Minneapolis says:

    I have two headlights. My generated light is a bright (to see and bee seen) steady light that is mounted on a front rack just above the front wheel. I would mount it lower on the fork, but I have front paniers. My other light is a helment mounted flashing bright light.

    I have had motorist say they saw one and not the other with both lights.

    I also have a big front refector and wear a reflective vest. There have been times where motorist didn’t see me at all. Guess some people drive with thier eyes closed.

  8. Don says:

    I also run two white front lights with at least one flashing as well as a flashing red on the back of my bag and on the seat post just under the saddle. Like dugg, I also make no attempt to illuminate my path in the city and instead aim my lights such that they shine in car drivers’ faces. IMO, if you don’t see your flashing headlight reflected in street/stop/etc signs for a few blocks ahead, you’re probably not aiming them anywhere useful.

  9. Aaron says:

    I’ve found that the brighter the light, the faster/bigger the car assumes you to be. I won’t use anything less than a “high powered” LED or HID light with an external battery (I use a Light & Motion Stella 200). You could also add a white blinky to your front end just to attract the eye a little more.

  10. Joel says:

    This happens to me about three days a week. Some days are so close I barely (less than a foot) miss the car as it careens through the partial stop.

    I determined it was because drivers are looking for car head lights. My flashing headlight didn’t cut it, so I bought a high powered (uses three AA batteries in a battery pack on the back of my head) head lamp.

    Now … when I look both ways at an intersection I not only see the car but I can stare them down with my headlamp. A few times the car has, nonetheless, proceeded into the intersection. In *all* cases when I shake my head looking at the driver through the windshield or driver’s side window they see the lamp.

    I bike year round, so I’m often in the dark. I’ve tried $20 and $250 head lights, which never made of a difference for my visibility to drivers in these situations. Headlamps, on the other hand, seem to do the trick.

    Reflective materials don’t do a thing for drivers unless you are already in their headlights, because they need something to reflect. In some cases it’s too late when it’s an intersection and you’re both approaching at 90 degree angles.

  11. koko_t says:

    i ride on my daily commute with 2 lights up front, a night rider minewt and a flashing white blinkie aimed at eye level.

    That being said, i think it should be emphasized that no amount of lights and reflectors can take the place of your most important equipment: the brain. never be so confident in your setup that you assume people see you. be defensive, stop if you need to, and wait for them to move or acknowledge. you cannot become comfortable or defiant in your belief that your equipment makes you visible to motorists 100% of the time. cautious biking (to a degree) will always be your best defense.

  12. Peter says:

    I find that blinkies mounted on front forks (white) and chain stays (red) do help your visibility from the sides. Likewise with the reflective tape, it’s a good idea.

    While I don’t use a headlamp, I see the value in them just in as much as getting eye contact with a driver helps during daylight hours.

    My motto is. “Light up like a Christmas tree, but assume that I’m invisible.”

    No amount of lights, bright clothing or reflective material will guarantee that you will be seen. You’ve got to own the responsibility for not being hit.

  13. Joe says:

    I have been using a LED band on my upper arms in blink mode to stand out more from the front and the sides.

    http://www.niteize.com/collections/led/products/led-marker-band

    Plus I use two headlights and 4 rear blinkies :)

    happy trails.
    -Joe

  14. Tinker says:

    The only thing you can do to make them stop is drive a bus or cement mixer.

  15. LeeH says:

    All of the above plus wheel lights. Cat eye obits or some of the others ones. A bright helmet light in the drivers windows works for me. Gets their attention. I use the minewt mini,one on the bars and one on the helmet. A reflective vest gives you the human shape. All road side works crews have to wear them, and drivers recognize them.

  16. Justin says:

    There are a lot of good ideas here…
    Daily commuting allows me to test all sorts of setups and in the dark winter months I usually end up using 2 front lights EOS and Switchback) and 2 tailights (Swerve). All sorts of reflective material never seems to hurt either.

    As for side visibility, look for a new P-Tec light in the spring that was designed specifically to help address this issue with two independent side emitting light pipes…

  17. I have tried just about all the lights out there. These guys http://www.dinottelighting.com/ make the brightest lights I have ever tried or seen. There flashers are visible for at least half a mile in the day time. (I was waiting on a friend of mine who has a Dinotte, and i saw him come through a stop light that I know was 1/2 mile from where I was waiting.) All of there front lights also have several flashing modes. I use the Dinotte during the day for flashing, then a Cat Eye at night and the Dinotte for a steady beam light.

  18. Tony Bullard says:

    I won’t restate the light statement.

    I will say this: Get out in the lane. If it’s the same intersection, and you’re having the issue every time, get right out in the middle of the lame, slow down cars behind you, pass the intersection, then get back in the bike lane.

    Cars don’t look at bike lanes. They look at other cars. Put yourself where other cars are, and cars will see you.

  19. Sean says:

    Dinotte lights – 800 lumen LED bar light in strobe mode, 400 lumen helmet light in solid mode. I also use a Knog Bullfrog rear LED light in strobe mode. And run your lights both day and night

    All my kit has scotchlight tape on it (booties, tights, jacket). I also layer a Cactus Creek cycling vest over my coat. Ugly and functional. Buy commuter tires with reflective sidewalls (Schwalbe, etc)

    Keep your chin up and look drivers in the eye.

    While flashing lights may not be legal in some jurisdictions, I’ll take my chances with getting a citation over getting hit. Same goes for running studded tires, which are apparently not street legal either but I’ll take traction over the alternative.

  20. Sean says:

    Someone said “lit up like a Christmas Tree” earlier in this thread

    I actually saw a cyclist going the opposite direction last Friday night and their bike was wrapped in those mini LED Christmas lights. They must be available with battery power now.

    Very effective! And it brought a huge grin to my face.

  21. Greg says:

    I’ll echo the comments about a helmet-mounted light. I put a Fenix LD20 LED flashlight (approximately $65 USD) on my helmet a couple years ago. The flashlight runs on two AA batteries, which it runs through in short order, giving about two hours of runtime on the maximum setting. Rechargeable batteries are absolutely your friend.

    I’m using a very low-tech mounting system with two rubber bands. As others have mentioned, when a car comes out of a driveway, I instinctively look at it, which causes the driver to be blasted with a very bright light. It’s incredibly effective and I now wouldn’t commute without the helmet light.

    I also have a constant-on headlight and a flashing/blinky LED headlight. I angle the constant-on down to see the road surface and the blinky is pointed roughly at the eye level of a driver. For side visibility I’ve added reflective tape and also run NiteIze SpokeLit spoke lights, which provide side visibility (the Down Low Glow and others I would also imagine to work very well).

  22. Mark Waite says:

    My best experience has been wearing running two lights (harder for motorists to mistake two adjacent lights as distant headlights), high visibility clothing, and a friendly wave with a “stare them in the face”.

    I’ve used the “waving and staring” on the excuse that as humans we are “wired” to recognize faces and we’re wired to detect motion. My face directed at them with a waving arm and pumping legs is my desperate hope they’ll detect some portion of the motion.

    Admittedly, even that won’t force others to see you.

  23. Len says:

    I have two ViewPoint headlights on my Albatross bars, typically set to flashing. The double-headlights really get attention, esp with both flashing.

    I have a superflash type red tail light on my rear rack and a decent planet bike blinky on my seat bag. I also have a Bike-to-Work freebee flasher on a caribiner on the side of my panniers. My bike has reflective tires and full stock reflectors on the frame, pedals, and wheels.

    I wear a Novara Express Bike Jacket in with reflective stripes with an orange zip merino wool shirt under it and also some road crew jackhammer gloves. They are also orange with reflective fabric on the finger tips and wrist and have double-leather palms for jackhammering. Also works great for biking. To top it off, I have an orange and reflective baseball style hat. Yes, I look like a construction crew worker on a bike, but I am pretty visible as the “shiny orange guy”.

  24. RJ says:

    A DOWN LOW GLOW (by Rock the Bike).

    It’s a sort of light tube you can attach to the top or down tube of your bicycle. Not only does it create side visibility, but it also casts a halo of light allll around you.

    Also– it is a very curious sight! I’ve had cars slow down just to check it out.

    So, my answer? GET A WEIRD LIGHT. ;)

  25. Dave says:

    Yup, a helmet light works best. Spot light them right in the car, makes them seriously get confused. My helmet light is maybe 400 lumens, I have yet to have an issue during a dark commute. Now, when it’s light out…right hooks, left hooks, it’s a jungle.

  26. J. Ryan says:

    I was using just a bar mounted cygolite rover II led on the front, but that didn’t seem to be doing the job unless it was blinking. There aren’t a lot of street lights on my commute so I don’t like having my main light set to blink. Adding a blinking white Knog frog light to my head tube seems to be doing the job now.

    As for the reflective materials, I think anything that could possibly increase the chances of being seen is a good thing.

  27. Dave says:

    In their heated or cooled metal living room, where the cell phone is ringing, text messages are coming in, the sat radio is blaring, you have to grab their attention. No, it doesn’t blind them, but, when the car cabin lights up, it wakes them from their stupor, and I really think they are in a stupor, normally, they ride the same route everyday, very boring for them. I drive once a week at least, more if it’s raining (I known, I know), but, soon, better weather is coming and school will end, I’ll be riding 5 days a week, but, I know how it is in a car. That light wakes up the driver (Hey, what is that?), first, then, (Oh, it’s a bicycle coming towards me). That’s what it takes to get people to actually “see” you. A normal handlebar light is too small or not strong enough. Cars pull out in front of motorcycles every day (my cousin was killed on his motorcycle by this). A bicycle is never going to have a light as bright as a moto. The Flea by Blackburn is not as bright, but, is rechargeable, can go on bar or helmet, and does get peoples attention without the lumen power. I think it costs about $25. Even if you have a bar light, I’d at least get something as well thought out as the white flea and put it on your helmet, it’s the unexpected that gets their attention, otherwise, they will not see you.

  28. Early Man says:

    Use a helmet light that you can point directly at the driver. This is not only much more effective in getting drivers to see you when it is dark, it also causes drivers to take a second look before pulling out in front of you in broad daylight. The added benefit for riding on bike paths is that you can direct the beam away from oncoming cyclists, walkers or runners. With these obvious benefits why don’t more commuters use helmet lights?

  29. J. Ryan says:

    I used to use a very bright (850 or so leumen HID) helmet mounted light, but I found that while stopped at a red light I would have to turn it off, hold my hand over it, or keep my head down so as not to blind the traffic on the other side of the intersection. It got old.

    What would be the lowest power light y’all would recommend for a helmet mounted light that could still get the attention of a sleeping driver?

  30. Dave says:

    I have a Dinotte (sp?) light, with two LEDs in there. I bought it for MTB, but, also use it in the morning. Being able to point it away from something is pretty good too. Take a look at the Blackburn flea lights, they are pretty bright (but dont’ have the “throw” a 300 lumen light has), I use a red one on the back, blinking on my backpack, I have a solid red LED on my seatpost, and the bright one on the helmet. I put aero bars on my commuter and have no more bar space for a bar light. I’m thinking about adding the white Flea for the helmet this spring.

  31. RJ says:

    A Light & Motion Stella 300 Dual is the right amount of light for me.

    -I can see where I’m going.
    -Cars can see me.
    -And I don’t blind them.

    AND, what’s cool about the dual– it’s actually two heads of 150 lumens. One is slightly fogged, one is a tighter beam.

    I point one closer to the ground in front of me and one pointed up the road for the cars to see to create one long beam of light! Even though the one is pointed slightly down, cars actually see both lights.

  32. RICK says:

    I agree with most of the other posts stating that a flashing light is best. My only problem with using that is it bothers my vision. I have recently started comuting to work by bike. As i am 48 years old and rather out of shape, I had to cheat a little to get started, My comute is 18 miles round trip and the evening ride is after a 10 hour day at a physically demanding job. So I decided on a pedal bike with an electric option. I feel feel this was a wise choice because it gets me started. Visit my blog if you get a chance, thanks.

  33. RICK says:

    I forgot to leave my web address in the above post. To check out my electric biking experience please visit: http://www.ricksbikeblog.wordpress.com
    thanks

  34. Chrisg says:

    whilst all these suggestions are not without merit I feel that the main point has been missed. The original question regarded a car pulling out of a side street so no amount of reflective material will help in that instance. Also shining lights in their eyes might be difficult around a corner. I would suggest that the cyclist should ignore the cycle lane and ride in a more assertive position where the car driver will haveore chance of seeing them. Most cycle pathetic put riders in a position the car drivers do not check when they are pulling out from side roads and the only way to guarantee being seen is to be somewhere they expect to find other road users

  35. Dave says:

    Please explain why you would mount a light so low. For MTB, a low light exaggerates dips and rocks. On the road, I can’t really think ofa reason.

  36. Andres says:

    That is all great advice. Just this past Tuesday, someone didn’t even bother stopping when pulling out of a side street, and came within inches of hitting me before we both skid to a stop I am definitely thinking of adding a flashing front light to my head beam light.

  37. RJ says:

    To put a different opinion out there–

    I actually prefer a high-powered steady light over a flashing light. I find that relying on flash alone disturbs the driver’s sense of where I actually am. A steady light shows exactly where I am. While you could argue that uncertainty is good.. I really don’t think it is.

    That said, my ideal set-up includes a high-powered steady light coupled with a decent flasher (see: Planet Bike). This allows drivers’ attention to be caught, while still seeing where I am, and most importantly– it doesn’t make me as nauseous as riding with flash alone. :)

    But if my primary light weren’t high-powered (such as a AA-battery powered light, and not a rechargeable).. yeah, I’d put it on flash. So long as it wasn’t one of those strobe patterns that make me nauseous! (again, see: Planet Bike). Ha ha.

  38. Jim says:

    When I drive, blinking lights sure grab my attention.

  39. Frank says:

    I think the problem has more to do with the awareness of the motorist. Living in a college town (Tempe, AZ – ASU), I find that motorists that are around campus a lot are more aware of bicyclists. But, the farther away I get from campus, the less aware motorists are of a bicycle. It’s as if they’re not used to a moving vehicle so close to the curb.

    All that said, and knowing that the average Joe can’t single handedly make the community more aware of bicycle traffic, a blinkng light is about the best thing I can think of. But even so, I ride VERY defensively!

  40. MikeV says:

    All the lights in the world won’t matter a hoot to a “blind” driver. I treat every car that is in a driveway, on a cross street…as though they can’t see me and I ride with the thought and anticipation that they will pull out in front of me.

    In a bike lane, get as far left as possible and maybe even into the traffic lane if safe. This gives you more room and an “out” in case the car pulls out.

    It’s easy while you are riding to see cars at side streets, driveways… and anticipate what they will do next. Expect the unexpected. And a small blinky could help too.

  41. Paul in Minneapolis says:

    Haveing lights mounted as low as possible is good, because there are much fewer background lights behind. Lights mounted at handlebar and up to helment are better seen over cars.
    On rear I have 4 (7 total) refectors/blinkies mounted at axle level as headlights hit there first, and the blinkies aren’t competing with background lights.
    When in question, I take the middle of the car lane. I’ll also use my airhorn, too (but mine doesn’t work in freezeing temps).
    My helment light is bright and it very well may blind some motorist, but I do that for a reason.. They are cutting corners and are about to hit me…
    During the summer, when I don’t have so much clothes slowing me down, I perfer to ride with a pack of cars, in the lane.
    Still I try to leave a way out as I’ve too have motorists pull out in front of me, even when I’m doing the speed limit. So far, I have been lucky, very lucky… But I’d rather be on a bike than in a car as I have more controll of the situation.

  42. gear says:

    I don’t consider 270 lumens to be a particularly bright light for riding in the dark. I’d go for 600 at the least. Put 800 lumens on the front and no one will pull out in front of you.

    Now for a tail light, I like a Dinotte pointed at the drivers face when the car is 1000 yards back.

    BluesCat, human minds tend to be literal. So the scenario goes like this: The driver looks and asks himself “are there any cars coming?” Answer: “No” foot goes down on gas pedal, then “Oh but I saw a bicyclist.”
    Drivers need to be taught to ask the correct question of themselves when determining if its safe to proceed. “Is there ANYTHING coming?”

  43. Dan says:

    I have two greens lights that attach to the spokes (Nitelites, bought at REI for about $20 ea). I keep one on my front tire, one on my rear tire. I can set them for either flash or steady mode, but I usually keep them on steady since the flash can really drive your eyes mad, especially on the darker roads. They can be seen for quite a distance either way.

    In addition to those, I also use one bright steady white light and one flashing white light, on the front of the bike. On the rear, a flashing cat eye red light that has about 5 led bulbs so that I can be seen by rear drivers.

    Other ideas: A reflective vest is a good idea as well, but because I’m a heavy set guy, they normally don’t fit me very well. So I avoid wearing them. I also thought about buying Pedalites, Pedals with lights (where the reflectors would normally be) that work off a generator that is built into the pedals themselves. But I can’t justify spending the cash on them ($60 ea, I beleive), even though they do look cool.

  44. BluesCat says:

    Last Friday (2/12/10) I purchased a New Headlight

    It’s a NiteRider MiNewt Mini-USB rechargable, and it runs $100. As long as it meets my one reservation I talk about in the link to my blog, I think it is a pretty good value.

  45. Ronald Yniguez says:

    Well I thought all statements were informative! How ever, I do have very bright lights on all my bikes.
    If there is one thing I have learned while riding my bike in any condition.
    It is I ride like they never see me!!!
    It is as if I am invisible. I am always on the defense! I like to think I am? I have had a few close ones and even actual hit and runs, Does not feel good and always leaves me shaky! Whew…
    So I say get the brightest lights you could afford, Our lives are more exspensive then a 2 or 3 hundred dollars light set, Wouldn’t agree?
    Besides when you are lite up properly you enjoy your ride better.
    Anyways I loved reading everyones input here.

    HEy all ride to live , live to ride
    Alias Anyguess

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