The lights, they burn!

The lights, they burn!

Those of us in the southern hemisphere are still clawing our way out of the dark recesses of winter. Dark mornings and evenings mean lights, and bike lights are something that have increased in output and dropped in price year after year, which is to say that most everyone has their hands on at least one pretty potent bike light. Unlike car lights, there aren’t any regulations surrounding bike lights (outside of the likes of Germany), and too often the lights designed for off-road cycling (ie. massively bright) are used on the road.

There are a couple of issues here: the wrong intensity, and the wrong mode.

Lights: The Intensity

Let’s start with the intensity. Actually, let’s back up a second and start with why this old curmudgeon feels the need to tell you what to do. Simple: too many of you (not most, but too many) are doing it wrong. My regularly abused corneas tell me so.

Ok, so, in a car, there are two modes: low beams and high beams. Everyone knows that you’re not supposed to use your high beams when other people are around. Why is that? Because bright lights are great – fantastic even – when you are behind them, but they are annoying and even dangerous when you are in front of them.

This is really basic, and I know you know this even if you’ve never actually thought about it. Our eyes can’t deal with drastically different levels of light at the same time. It’s really difficult to see unlit objects on a really bright day with the sun in front of you, and it’s at least as difficult to see anything behind or around a bright light in the dark.

The lights, they burn!

Image: The Sticky Bidon

Bike lights are routinely putting out over 1000 lumens and upwards of 2-3000 lumens. The more the merrier when you are out on mountain bike trails where you need to spot all of the dangers lying in wait for you. Aside from that, and more to the point of our discussion, when riding with people on trails, everyone is facing the same direction. No problem.

Back to urbanity, and I hear the protests already. Rocks and roots are one thing, but they’re nothing compared to the danger posed by those lurking behind the wheel of a car. “Sure, you might find my light to be a bit annoying, but you can’t say that you didn’t see me!” Right?

We’ve all passed those curmudgeons on the bike paths who scowl and slide a few words of contempt our way in response to our choice of illumination. The problem, however, is that they are (almost) always justified.

On paths you don’t need as much light due to the lack of cars and, normally, the lower levels of ambient light. The darker your surrounds, the less light you need to be effective. The more ambient light, say, a semi-lit street or path, the more light you need to put out in order for it to appear to be effective. In this context your 100 lumen setting won’t be very effective at all, so you bang it up to the 300-500 lumen setting. The trouble is, the more that light will be blinding others. In the image below we have a vehicle with its high-beams on, and a mere 200 lumen light to the left of it.

The lights, they burn!

Image source

When it comes to shared paths, walkers and and particularly runners are at risk of being tripped up as a result of being dazzled, not to mention that it’s just highly frustrating to have someone pointing a bright light into your eyes. There is no reason to be blasting high-powered lights (especially flashing – see below) on shared paths in particular.

When you are sharing the road with other vehicles, self preservation kicks in and the desire to make yourself as visible as possible takes over. There is an internal logic at work here that is fairly convincing. You need a certain amount of power in order for others to be able to pick you out among the numerous car headlights and taillights. You want to be quite confident that those who take a quick look at their side mirrors before opening their car doors (we live in hope) will notice you, or that those pulling out of side streets in a hurry and who are conditioned to only be looking for other cars will notice you. So, you get the brightest lights you can.

I get it. I live this every day, and I have a really bright light at the ready.

But there is a limit, and it’s lower than many of us realise. It’s not all that often, if ever, that we take a look at our own lights on the settings that we tend to use them, but I suspect that it would be sobering if we did.

The brighter your light, the more difficult it is for others to not only see where they are going, but the more difficult it is to actually locate where you are on the road or having any idea what is around or behind you. Sure, they can see your light, but that’s all they can see. It might be the case that the other person has no idea if that small supernova is 2 feet or 10 feet away, and you can be sure that if there is a pedestrian or anything else needing attention around, they’ll be the last thing that will be seen.

Every light has multiple settings. Choose one that is bright enough to see where you are going, but not so  bright that others can’t. Turn it down on shared paths or at least when there are others present, and if your light is still pretty bright, have the decency to pop a hand over it when passing oncoming walkers, runners, and other cyclists. It’s not hard to do.

Lights: The Setting

Then there is the issue of the setting. There are steady and flashing settings. This is where annoying (and dangerous) exist on a whole new level.

You know how your eyes can’t see both bright and dark very well at the same time? Now make them adjust back and forth a few times a second and see how they manage it.

Let’s start with this: many lights on the market today have multiple flashing patterns. The regular setting will attract more attention than a non-flashing light, and an irregular setting will attract more attention than the regular setting. This is a good thing.

Now think about that for a second. More attention.

Let’s take a second and translate vision into sound. A siren on an emergency vehicle goes up and down in tone rather than merely blaring out one super loud constant note for the same reason. It attracts more attention. Our senses are really good at adjusting to things and can tune them out (or ignore them) faster than we might be aware. Irregular is good, but it compensates for volume.

When your light is on a flashing mode, it doesn’t need to be anywhere near as bright as when it is on a steady mode, nor should it be.

Review - Light & Motion Urban 650

Image: The Sticky Bidon. 150/300/650 lumen settings – well below what some people ride with…

To make matters worse, the sharper the flash, the more jarring it is on our eyesight and the longer it takes to recover. Again, many lights have what is referred to as a “daytime” mode, which is a higher power, short burst of light. This is a great feature, but the clue is in the name. It’s all about contrast. When the sun is up and you want to draw attention to yourself, this is the mode to use as you need more light to contrast with the already high levels of ambient light.

It makes me insane when people use these settings in low-light situations. First of all, how on earth can you see where you are going when you are behind that light with the world disappearing and reappearing in front of you a few times a second? Worse though, is the poor sod on the receiving end of your visual assault who has no chance of seeing anything as or after you pass by.

Daytime modes are for the daytime. That’s it.

Oh, and for incapacitating people in military, police, and riot control scenarios. Yeah.

For night riding, the best option is a reasonable steady (non-flashing) setting on one light and a second, lower power flashing light if you want to draw more attention to yourself. Some lights integrate a small pulse into the steady setting, which is a great feature, as it leaves you with a good field of vision and also attracts the attention of others in a low-contrast package, making it easier to deal with but still very effective.

Of course, the same thing applies to rear lights, though it’s not generally as much of a problem. There are some monsters out there these days, and they need to be used appropriately. These red lights can be the same as having a laser pointer in your eye if you are behind them. Again, with a decent flashing mode, you don’t need to overdo it with power.

I get it

Look, I totally understand the urge to protect yourself. It’s no different than hugging the kerb and thinking that the further away you are from traffic the safer you are. That is a completely natural behaviour.

However, just as hugging the kerb invites jerks to pass you by without exercising caution and moving over, so to does a really bright light and a stupidly inappropriate flashing mode make matters worse for everyone around you.

So next time you head out to the bike, flick the light on and have a good look directly into it and see if you would be comfortable with that situation. Use what you need, but when you need more, try to accommodate those around you by turning it down or shielding it with your hand (I wouldn’t recommend turning it off). It’s really easy and goes a long way towards making the world a better place.

And please, for the love of humanity, reserve the daytime mode (or any crazy flashing patterns) for the daytime and your brightest settings for the trails, and we can all be a little happier and a little less crazy.

If anyone has any tips or opinions, don’t be shy.


Header image by Joseph C. Topping