Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Techie Tuesday: Optimal Lighting for Cycling Safety

A couple of years ago I put some ideas together about what a good lighting system should do for cyclists. That work I called G.I.T. Lit. It doesn't describe a lighting system, but rather, the criteria any good lighting system has to meet. It's a meta-level lighting RX.

Over the last 3-4 months I've had occasion to work out the details of a real-world system I think satisfies these requirements, because of the way motorists respond to it, and that's the only criteria that counts. This 5-point lighting system will allow you to ride a road bike in urban or rural environments, at up to 25mph solo, without issue - faster if riding in a pace-line.

To understand better why 5 lights are needed, check out this YouTube video that demonstrates the eye's blindspot, the way the brain attempts to work around it, and keep this in mind when maneuvering in traffic at night. You have to give motorists the tools they need to be a good partner in safety.

1st, and most obvious, is the handlebar headlight, which is the foundation for any good lighting system. This light has to light the road far enough ahead so you don't overrun your headlights, even during club sprints.

Its beam must also be wide enough to light both sides of a bike trail, pick up garbage cans left in bicycle lanes, and light both white lines on common 2-lane roads. It's also crucial to pick up the glowing eyes of deer and other large game in time to avoid hitting them. They're completely unpredictable, so hitting the brakes is the best defense.

The primary headlight should have several power settings, so light can be maximized where needed, and minimized when battery life  becomes important, or riding in pace-lines at night. It should also have a flash or strobe mode, critical when cycling just before sunset, or just after sunrise, when motorists are looking into the sun. Motorists behind you will also notice the flash of reflective signs, strobing in your headlight, up to a mile ahead at night.

The MagicShine 900 lumen lights meet these requirements, especially with a special wide lens I've been using. It's also proving very reliable, which is critically important for primary lighting like this. It's reasonably priced, and the separate lighthead is light enough to carry a spare needed. It allows many battery pack options, with many different mountings, and allows you to swap out a fresh pack quickly and easily.

If it's not 1,000+ lumens, or very close, you're just wasting your money, as those are "be seen", not "see" lights. They're dangerous, and motorists hate them because they're dangerous - because it's too much sustained workload, coming at them too fast. It's their opinion that counts, because your safety depends on them being able to notice, identify and track you quickly, and easily. (G.I.T lit) When they're happy, waving, honking and giving you the thumbs up, you have a great system. Until then, keep improving your lighting.

Any lighting is better than no lighting, but you're being foolish taking these kinds of risks when you can get a 900 lumen MagicShine for $90 from Amazon. I now have 2 full systems and a spare lighthead, and all of that cost me less than $250 delivered to my door. Have you priced a trip to the ER lately?

2nd, you need a helmet headlight with most of the same features. You need a helmet headlight to see through turns, up and down hills, and to "flash" motorists poking out of driveways, intersections, or looking into the sun. It goes where you're looking, not where your bike is pointing. The more twisty and hilly the road, the more critical this 2nd white light becomes. It's also a great "good citizen" light on night club rides, where it's used to light obstacles, signs, and riders under threat, whose clothing comes alive when bathed by bright light.

Helmet lighting is particularly important in getting noticed by drivers of high-profile vehicles, like SUVs, trucks, and heavy equipment. Because the drivers are sitting up so high, they can, will, and do look right over the top of bike mounted lighting. Sitting up and looking right at them until they respond is the only way to stay safe.

Watch for brake lights. That's the response that tells you the motorist is paying attention, and nothing short of that. My headlight has enough back-scatter to light the back of my gloves, and PI is now selling neon green Cyclone gloves. Sometimes waving your hand will get someone's attention when all else fails.

3rd, you need a powerful, flashing rear light that motorists can pick up from a long way off. This is the Grab light for motorists approaching from behind. To make this light as bright as possible, the light is focused into a very narrow beam, and it gets noticed because flashing lights work with the very primitive part of the brain, going all the way back to dinosaurs, that sense changes first and foremost. The Planet Bike Super Blinky Turbo is excellent here.

4th, you need a similar light, facing backwards, that does NOT flash, but is in Constant mode. This light's purpose is to make Tracking easy. Flashing, and even strobing lights, are almost impossible to track in the complexity of urban light-scapes. Even in my 20s, I found it almost impossible to track aircraft over LA at night, even with powerful strobe lights. So do commercial pilots, which is why most large aircraft now light the tail of the plane in bright, white lights, AND open all the windows in the passenger compartment with the cabin lights on.

As the saddle bag mount is often 8-12" higher, it's at motorists eye level, doesn't require them to look down and back up to drive, mount #4 here - but zip-tie the clip shut so it can't fall off as it will get bounced around quite a bit back there. The PB Turbo's opaque body lights up all over when in Constant Mode, and because it's unobscured from the side by legs, motorist can see it when overtaking you too.

I have settled on the Planet Bike Superflash Turbo for both #3, and  #4 - which are mounted on the seatpost and saddlebag respectively. It has one primary, high-power LED emitter, with a high quality narrow-beam lens, two additional LEDs with a wider spread below, and an opaque body. The PB's flash pattern is simply spectacular. I really wish they'd patent it and then put it in the public domain. It would quickly become a standard that motorists would identify with cyclists.

It's counter-intuitive, but you need more powerful lighting in urban areas where there's much more lighting for motorists to contend with. Take note the next time you're out driving near dusk. It's almost overwhelming. More is more here.

I really thought I had my lighting down with this 4-light system - until I had a very close call with a SUV. He looked right over the top of me as I was making a L-hand turn from a busy 4-lane street with a protected turn lane, onto a 2 lane street with a protected L-hand turn and protected right hand turn lane leading into a bus stop lane. He almost ran right over me!

I had also read just a week before that motorists tend to lose sight of those narrow beams when overtaking cyclists, and have been running them over at the last moment. This led to some head-scratching, and eventually, the realization that a 5th light, one with 180 degrees of light, with a flash, should be mounted on the back (or top) of the helmet, facing backwards, but shining brightly to the sides, at motorists eye level, even if riding in high-profile vehicles.

As luck would have it, the Blackburn MARS 3.0 (and sadly, NOT the newer 4.0) satisfied all of these requirements with a staggering 7 LED lights, red to the back, and amber to the sides, and with a mount that puts it a full 3" behind the helmet, so it can easily be seen for almost 270 degrees. Paired with the front helmet light, this provides a full-height 360 degrees of coverage with white forward, amber to the sides, and red lights to the rear.

The only caveat is the Blackburn slip-in mounts are not compatible with Planet Bike's. Unforgivable they can't work that out. Those 3 rear lights should work as backups for each other in a pinch. We, as consumers, should write nasty-grams to both companies until this is resolved.

I would add only one thing to these 5 lights - neon green outer clothing with well-designed reflective piping. While REFLECTORS WILL ABSOLUTELY NOT KEEP YOU SAFE, piping really helps motorists Identify you as a cyclists. Neon green because when headlights, or fellow rider's lights hit you, you'll light up like a Christmas tree, and neon green because it's become the unofficial safety color of cycling. I think 100 of 100 motorists will tell you exactly that.

I'm careful to say "well planned", because I have seen some extensively piped clothing that makes you look like a monster from a bad SciFi movie, and while very distracting, still didn't silhouette the rider well. If I hadn't seen it myself I'd have said that's impossible, but it made it clear that slathering a bunch of reflective tape on your clothes isn't automatically going to make you easy to recognize.

I keep stressing fast identification as a cyclist because the driver, almost instantly, then knows what to expect from you and your bike. They know you aren't going to be blowing past them and changing lanes like a motorcycle (which have headlights, but not elevated, and never flashing red lights), and aren't going to take 20 seconds to cross the road like a ped, and aren't another car with a bad headlight.

Identifying you cuts their stress level in half immediately, and that makes them better decision makers, more level-headed, and grateful to you that you're meeting them half-way in trying to keep everyone safe and whole.

Case in point. After mounting light #5 I was flying down a shallow -3% grade, and got passed by a Quad-Cab dualie F-350 towing a BobCat on a 30ft  Low-Boy. He gave me the full 8ft of lane when passing, watched me in his huge West Coast rear-view mirrors for clearance as he pulled back in, and gave me a big "thumbs up" as he got back into the power and went flying down the road. Now THAT'S a great feeling!!!

PS: The helmet headlight causes a lot of neck strain for me, due mostly to craning my neck to point the light where I want it, so I have been riding without it, using my handlebar MagicShine in flashing mode near dusk on city streets to Grab motorists attention. It's passable, but not as good as having a few hundred lumens up on the helmet. Don't skimp on the other lights. It's just too dangerous.

Partially as compensation, I have ordered a small, single AAA-cell Fenix E05-R2 light I plan on wearing on the backside of my L glove to help with hand signaling, Garmin reading, and flat fixes after dark. Stay tuned for results.

PPS: I ended up Velcro-ing my Fenix E05 to the top-front of my helmet so that it lights my cockpit, and the road just ahead of my front wheel. At 27 lumens it's excellent for that, and to be seen by motorists near and after dark. The Fenix LD01's 1 hour (85 lumens),  3.5 hours (28 lumens), 11 hours (9 lumens) is the same size and weight, and it's output will get me  seen near dark, light the road as well as the 2W Planet Bike Blazer, and at 1/5th the weight, and 1/10th the size.

This 3-stage approach makes it very versatile, and with a spare AAA cell in the seat bag, and 2 potential spares in the PB SuperFlash Turbo, it will get me home even 4 hrs after dark on full brightness. I have decided to use it as my primary headlight in the summer, when I only occasionally get caught out after dark.

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