The dark season is upon us, which means it’s time for the annual ritual when folks hotly debate the dos and don’ts of running and riding at night.
Even avid, long-time area cyclists are surprised to learn that blinking front lights are illegal on bikes in Washington state. They are only allowed on emergency vehicles. Despite the prohibition, light manufacturers produce all manner of blinky.
Not only are front flashers illegal, I’m not convinced they are safer than a steady light. Among other problems, blinking lights make it hard to track moving objects. The next time you are driving at night, try to follow the trajectory of a cyclist who is only using blinky lights. It’s hard! Add reflections from raindrops and urban visual clutter, and it’s even harder. So, ditch the blinky lights and make yourself visible.
There are two principles to keep in mind: See and be seen.
Use a non-flashing front light to see the road surface. In talking with the folks at Uncharted Roads Gear, their testing has shown that 700 lumen lights are optimal. They say that anything brighter is overkill, and not worth the extra expense.
Most folks assume that blinking lights are the safest attention-getting option. But, there are better ways to get noticed. Products like Monkey Lights really stand out because they don’t look like just another red or white light. Most folks I know opt for wearing reflective clothing and adding reflective tape to their bikes.
A recent UW Transportation Services email about bike light etiquette provided these tips:
1. Despite their size, bike lights and other safety lights (including your phone’s flashlight) can be just as temporarily blinding as car headlights.
2. Light up your ride — it’s the law. In Seattle, you are legally required to have a front white light and a red rear reflector on your bike when it’s dark out. We recommend a red rear light in addition to a reflector for extra visibility.
3. Angle your front light. Front lights that face straight ahead (perpendicular to your handlebars) can blind oncoming people on their bikes or their feet, especially on darker shared use paths like the Burke-Gilman Trail. Angle your front light slightly to the right and down to illuminate your way while avoiding the “deer in the headlights” effect.
4. Save the strobe light for the dance floor. A standard, unyielding front light, without any special effects, is the safest light setting for both yourself and for others. Pulsating or flashing effects make it hard for others to judge your distance from them, and can be particularly dangerous for those sensitive to light triggers.
As for tip #4, Seattle native Martin Criminale wonders: “Why don’t they explicitly mention that strobes are illegal?”
Martin recommends reflective clothing and rechargeable lights:
“In my experience, neon or bright clothing makes zero difference when it comes to being seen. You either need a light or something that reflects the car’s headlights back at the driver. When I’m running I wear a reflective “harness” and when I’m riding I attach a reflective triangle to my messenger bag. And why add to a landfill? I only use rechargeable lights on my commuter bicycle and headlamp.”
Some reflective/illuminated chest straps to consider:
Chad Miller, a long-time Seattle resident who has commuted to Renton, Bothell, and Redmond says:
“I bike the extra mile/s if required to minimize road time and maximize bike lane and trail time for a safer route. On the trails my lights are solid and low, front and back. On the short road bits I turn the rear to flashing, and go up a notch on the front, though the front is still a solid beam.”
“I only rely on the standard reflective piping and accents on high-end cycling clothing. Though I did just purchase a Voler Caliber Vellum Vest and I can’t wait to try it out.”
“I use an orange Inside Line Equipment front bag with a full reflective strip all the way around.”
“I like Light in Motion products because their warranty is very good. I wear a ProViz Reflect360 jacket for improved visibility and all weather protection. If it’s particularly dreary, I have a Proviz reflective rucksack cover that is SUPER reflective. During the cold months I am riding in the dark both ways, I feel like this keeps me safe.”
Jeff Powers, a ride leader with the Cascade Bicycle Club says “put reflective tape strips on the front and back facing surfaces of your bike’s crankset arms. Nothing says ‘bicycle’ like the repetitive flash of moving cranks. And you never need a recharge!”
Seattle International Randonneur Tom Beck says he wears “a high-powered light on my helmet so I can see where I’m looking and can shine it directly at approaching vehicles. Plus, tail lights and reflective gear.”
Ultra cyclist Mick Walsh has “lots of reflective tape on my bike, two front and rear lights and reflective ankle bands, which are great, as they are always in motion and very visible.”