Visibility is crucial when biking. Ride with a lit highway flare in each hand. - Bicycle Safety Tips from theonion.
Highway flares? Funny. But here's something that's not so humorous - most cyclists don’t have lights of any kind. Among those cyclists who do have lights, most are using low-powered handlebar flashlights and blinkies.
According to the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, over half of all cyclists killed are hit while riding at night without lights, even though only 3 percent of bike riding is done at night. The issue is so important that WABA teamed up with local jurisdictions to give out over 800 free light sets last year.
If you don't have lights on your bike, now is the time!!! Daylight is rapidly decreasing every day in North America, and will continue to do so until after winter solstice. You don’t want to get caught riding in the dark, unable to be seen by motorists. The tragic outcome of riding without lights is only too real.
|Courtesy Fairfax County Police.|
The bike pictured above, although not one likely to be featured on Bikes For The Rest Of Us, is the kind Eco Velo has described as the "ubiquitous transportation bike." The bike belonged to a young man who was riding at night on a road in the D.C. suburbs. He was struck and killed by an 18-year-old motorist who was driving recklessly. As you can see in the picture, the bike has a tiny reflector on the seatpost, but no lights. I don't know whether lights would have saved his life. What I do know is that you can't control when a reckless, drunk, and/or distracted driver will come up behind you. You can, however, control how visible you are.
Lights can save your life. But what kind of lights should you get?
Allow me to introduce you to the fierce yet obscure debate over bike lighting. On the one side, you have those who advocate dynamo hubs. On the other, you have the rechargeable battery faction. The truth is that both types of lights have their advantages and disadvantages.
|Schmidt-powered light, illustrated by Robert Higdon. Courtesy Peter White Cycles.|
Dynamo hubs allow you to harness your own energy to make light. You can't get any greener than that. If you have dynamo-powered lights, you can flick on your headlights and taillights with a single switch at anytime, just as you would if driving your car at night. Some believe that such availability is essential to making the bicycle a viable means of transportation. And, unlike the old days, the new dynamo lights have "stand time" that keeps the lights on even when you're stopped.
When I started this blog, I was searching for bikes with dynamo-powered lights that came standard (see the first 3 posts). Unfortunately, most bikes don't come with dynamo-powered lights. You can, of course, add your own dynamo hub. Your choice will most likely be between a Schmidt or Shimano hub (Update: Tom says you should also check out the Novatech hub available at Velo Orange). Schmidt has almost no drag when the lights are off, while the Shimano does. Shimano appears to be consistently cheaper.
In addition to buying the dynamo hub, you will of course need to rebuild your front wheel (or have it built at your local bike shop), and you'll need to buy compatible lights. So let me be blunt: This is not going to be cheap. However, advocates of dynamos argue that the investment is well worth it. Your bike will have a dependable, renewable, off-the-grid source of light that may well last a lifetime, and you won't have any environmental waste.
Another option (and to avoid rebuilding your front wheel) is the bottle dynamo that attaches to your front fork and generates power as your front wheel turns. You can use a bottle dynamo with standtime lights so that you still have light even when your wheel has stopped.
I highly recommend visiting Myra Simon's website. She is a leading advocate of dynamo-powered lights.
|Alias HID Light from Planet Bike. The 14.4 volt lithium battery powers a 10-watt HID bulb.|
On the other hand, lithium ion batteries have been getting more powerful and less expensive. They are not only brighter than dynamo-powered lights, they are also more versatile. For someone with multiple bikes or concerned about theft, there's an advantage to a portable light system that you can attach and remove easily. I have the older version of Planet Bike's Alias, which has a wire connecting the light and battery. But check out the new "wireless" Alias, pictured above. Something else you might want to check out: Light and Motion offers a headllight/taillight combo that attaches to your helmet (Urban Velo has a write-up).
If you want to read more about the advantages of lithium ion batteries, or learn how to build your own ultra-bright battery-powered lights, I highly recommend visiting Steven Scharf's website.
How bright is bright enough? That's another issue that's the subject of debate. Several commenters(lumpynose, Fritz, John Marr) assert that lights powered by AA or AAA batteries are adequate. But adequate for what? Bike lights aid the cyclist in two important ways - seeing and being seen (see Planet Bike's article on how to choose a light). With respect to that latter, just about any type of light is "adequate." Some even argue that reflectors alone are adequate for that purpose. However, there is a reason why I titled this post "Bright Lights For The Rest Of Us." If you want to use your bike in the same way that a motorist uses a car, you will want not just to be visible but to have the proper illumination for all types of lighting situations (urban, rural, etc.). In addition, you will want to be able to ride at night for long periods of time without worrying about battery failure. I like a 10-watt headlight and a headlamp that can go up to 100 lumens. The headlight is mainly for being seen; while the headlamp is useful for seeing around bends in the road and in case you need to stop and change a flat or make repairs.
Unfortunately, I haven't found comparably bright battery-powered taillights. The brightest are about 1/2 watt bulbs, but check with PDW and Planet Bike - they keep offering better and brighter lights every year. In any event, most commuters I know use 2 or even 3 taillights in addition to reflectors.
|Tom's taillights and triangle reflector. Courtesy Tom Wyland.|
Anything that makes you more visible is a worthwhile accessory, whether it's reflective clothes, a flagpole (check out this lighted one), or "night bright tyres."
Be safe out there -- stay visible!