Columns / Discourse / March 7, 2018

Bike Nice: Bike lights: Not great, but bikers must use them anyway

For a long time, bike lights have been positively puny. Because bikes are human powered, they literally don’t have the energy to burn that’s available to cars and motorcycles. Bike lights had to be relatively small, lightweight and low-power.

Because bikes operate at lower speeds than cars, the cyclist does not need to “see as far ahead” as the motorist. For the urban rider — the ones who are undeterred by other risks involved in riding and riding at night — ambient street lighting is often “enough” to see. But it’s not enough to be seen by. Plus lights are required by state law.

I also stand by a comment in an earlier column, that Galesburg is relatively underlit, especially compared to other urban areas. I don’t just want more light. I want better light. I wish that research, marketing, technology, design and funding could overlap at a sweet spot — illuminating streets, sidewalks and spaces effectively, efficiently, economically and without washing out the night sky.

The average bike rider’s head position is higher than the average motorist’s and there’s no windshield. The biker has a better view of the road than the average motorist, which reduces — but does not eliminate — the need for better headlights.

Bikes also are cheaper, in general, than cars. Riders, therefore, are unwilling to spend as much on the bike and accessories as they would spend on a car and accessories. Everything about a bike is cheaper — and is expected to be cheaper — including lights.

Bike lights are also more “convenient.” Easy to install, easy to remove. That equals easy to steal. Which introduces the dilemma — why spend more for better lights, if they’re just easier to steal? Theft-resistant lights are starting to appear on the market. I’ve looked at several and purchased one. I’m not impressed.

There’s another reason bike lights have, for a long time, been subpar. Here I agree with the controversial transportation engineer John Forester. Starting in the 1970s, Forester criticized the U.S. government for not requiring bike manufacturers to include lights as standard equipment. Forester was correct that reflectors are not enough to keep bikers visible and safe at night.

Instead of taking their medicine and making lights standard, bike manufacturers “convinced” the government that reflectors, far less expensive, would be “good enough.” Individual states could still require lights for night riding, which Illinois does.

The refusal to require bike lights as standard equipment kept bikes cheap. And — it’s easy to say this in retrospect — the lights that were available in the 70s were almost not worth requiring. They were inefficient, both in energy and economy.

But because lights were considered add-ons, separate from the bike, the big bike manufacturers had no incentive to integrate and improve design, construction and materials. They also had no incentive to take advantage of progress in lighting and power technology.

Car manufacturers, instead, have made significant progress, and that’s made a real difference in safety. Even before LEDs, which effectively last forever if correctly managed, cars moved to the widespread adoption of daytime running lights. This is a huge improvement in making cars visible — to each other and to me, a cyclist, squinting in my rear view mirror. Motorcycles have always had them and bikes should as well.

LED bulbs and rechargeable batteries are a lot better. Now we need a revolutionary application of existing technology. Bike lights should be easily and securely integrated into or onto the structure of the bike and made from as many standard components as possible without unnecessary complexity (who needs five “flashing patterns” in their lights?). If Start-Up Term is looking for a project, I’ve got ideas.

In the meantime, any lights are better than none.



Tags:  bike lights bike nice bike safety

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