IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE: UPDATED
Michael Stenning's guide to safety lighting for cyclists.
Small, frugal but powerful-LED safety lights blew filament bulbs into the history books almost overnight. Whether complimenting the big guns on fast paced night rides, or hustling through town, there’s something to suit every taste and wallet.
I always carry a set regardless of season - they’re small enough to toss in a jersey pocket or wedge pack but can prove a lifesaver should clear blue skies turn cobalt with torrential rain.
LEDs are extremely long-lived, typically burning for 3-5,000 hours - several years’ regular service. Back in 1992, the first generation were slab sided reflector patterns. Now there’s pretty much every shape and size you could wish for. Strictly speaking, even those pumping out 180/250 lumens are still classed as second/tertiary lighting and do not comply with the relevant British Standard. This may be academic for the most part, although a technicality likely to be exploited by a sharp-witted lawyer looking to get a careless driver off the hook.
White front, red rear is the official guideline, although I sometimes run these in conjunction with something completely different to remain ultra-conspicuous. Blue is technically reserved for emergency vehicles but it would have to be a really cruel (or bored) copper to pull you for it. Since we’re focusing on the law, trailers and tagalongs are also required to have their own, independent lighting. Running two, such as the Cat-Eye TL-LD600 or a single fibre flare, positioned either side works well on account of their large surface areas, though the Oxford UT Cube also pumps out a good deal of light,
LEDs continue to advance and one of the more recent advances in beam quality is COB (chips on board), where the diodes are placed directly on the circuit board. The main advantages are a smaller light producing a much purer beam pattern, free of glare, yet without losing anything in terms of longevity. Originally found on models commanding the upper end of £30, this tech is becoming increasingly common at £25.
Some top drawer designs automatically adjust their output according to light rather like a modern welder’s helmet, although this technology is still pretty niche.
Resin was the most common; then along came Knog with medical grade silicone and thanks to their Gecko (rumoured to be the most frequently copied design ever) it started a craze.
Cutesy looks aside, these monocoque bodies incorporate the mount, meaning they can be flipped on and off in seconds, little wonder they have such a strong following. Resin composites of varying qualities remain widely used and at the other extreme aluminium shells displace heat better, extending diode life on fiercer models such as this aptly named One23 Blast delivering 300 lumens in top-setting, or the Sigma Buster 200 which punches above its weight.
Switches, should be easily operated with gloved hand and while riding along. However, not so sensitive as to engage in a jersey pocket or bike mounted luggage and depleting battery reserves. Often these incorporate “traffic-light” style charge indicators, which mean you can deploy reserves intelligently and avoid being plunged into darkness.
Though not universally quoted, even on some household names, IPX standards are a good indicator, the higher the number; the better able they are to resist the elements.
Better quality blinkies will meet IPX 4 splash-proof, in the heavy rain sense, pretty much the minimum most riders would reckon adequate. The trend for USB charging leaves some potential for water/ingress to sneak past port covers, hence the lower rating.
For now at least; IPX 5, 6, 7 and 8 remain the preserve of high power road/trail lights and can resist water at higher pressures (don’t aim your Karcher at them, mind!) through to full blown immersion.
That said; some superstore in-house ranges are very good value and come complete with generous, no quibble two year warrantees, which should reassure all but the most sceptical.
Increasingly, we’re moving to smart concepts integrating other functions to good effect. Cycliq Fly 6 LED and camera (this model is now obsolete, but is new models are available) being a very good example. Not outlandishly expensive allowing for the specification, moreover both functions are equally impressive.
Given the ubiquity of smart phones, some including See Sense Icon 2 Rear Light , are incorporating motion sensor technology that will send an early warning alert should it register the sort movement suggesting someone might be tampering with, or trying to steal your bike.
At the other extreme, designs such as this ORP Smart Horn, which combines a 150 lumen LED and 76/96 decibel horn is unique and surprisingly effective pairing. It consumes surprisingly little handlebar space and works well in town, on the open road and shared use paths/trails too.
Increasingly, manufacturers are incorporating smart technology into their lights, with varying success. Some, including the See Sense Icon 2 Rear Light and, at the other end of the price spectrum, Sigma Blaze have “braking” functions. This sees the light default to a higher output when decelerating, which has some obvious benefits, especially in town.
Helmet Mounted Lights
It is worth remembering that some local laws - such as in the UK - specify that bicycle lights must be mounted on the frame; other lights are auxilliary. However, helmet mounted lights are very clear to other road-users. We've been really impressed by the Brightside Topside, especially with its recent refinements. Incidentally, Brightside also produce an amber light designed to give presence to the sides of the bike: the Brightside Bright, Amber, and Side to Side.
Factory fit 'n’ forget, lithium/ion/Polymer cells charged by USB “flip out 'n’ plug in” have become standard - much like other consumer electronics, although were originally geared at commuters wanting to fuel up from the convenience of their desks. Charge times can be quite pedestrian when coupled to computer/similar third party items (5 hours zero to hero in some cases) which might not be ideal for everyone and depends, to some extent, on work-place culture. Mains charging is quicker.
Most will withstand 300 charge cycles plus - we’re talking at least two years’ service minimum before they’re scrap and won’t owe you anything. As solar powered charging accessories become smaller and cheaper, these lights are also becoming realistic options for touring, although we’d prefer replaceable Cr2032 or AA/AAA cells for back of beyond stuff given their relatively long run times and ubiquity.
Replacements can be found pretty much anywhere en route and run times can be 30 hours plus. Though plug-in models are seriously dependable, I always carry one AAA fuelled standby during winter - in case the worst should happen.
Other than keeping them charged (many li-polymer models have a sleep/hibernation mode which will protect the cells from degeneration in storage). Remove batteries from AA/A CR2032 powered versions and inspect the battery trays regularly for traces of leakage/corrosion. A quick shot of maintenance spray (lower PTFE content) or Vaseline on the contacts improves connectivity and keeps moisture out. Apply carefully though since petroleum jelly rots rubber…
Arguably all you need is two, although I like a selection to cater for most riding contexts.
Daylight modes, which are bright enough to be spotted on clear, bright days, have also become very affordable. For the most part, they’re very effective too, for example Oxford's Ultratorch range , but some with even higher power (70-150 lumens) units, including The Orp Smart Horn, which don’t officially have a “daylight” function, come very close.
Collimator technology (once employed to direct lasers) has been widely adopted since they produce a really intense, focused beam of light. More sophisticated examples are supposedly visible to 1,000metres - quite feasible in ideal conditions but 750 seem more realistic in our experience. Look for designs with at least 180 degree peripheral bleed which keep you on larger vehicles radars when tackling roundabouts or emerging from dark side streets.
Suggestion that we and indeed, other road users could be dazzled by the humble blinkie used to induce hysterics but even those belting out a modest 40 lumens should employ a “German style” pattern - i.e. long, narrow with 95% of available power pointing down and outwards.
Tool free fits are becoming increasingly universal but arguably one that is a sturdy, universal fit is more important. Look for a design that will hold the light steady and doesn’t rotate, or vibrate loose over poorly surfaced roads. I’m really fond of the elastic band and “watch strap” types that will tether quickly, easily and aesthetically pleasingly to posts, bars and other tubing.
Spares can also come in handy for porting between bikes but make sure they’re easily operated in gloved hands and that you take everything with you when parking up outside the café’, or in the street for longer periods.
Sometimes rubberised shims used in more traditional resin types can be a less than precise fit - so long as the bracket’s otherwise well designed, replacing this with a slither of cast-off butyl inner tube can prove the perfect solution.
Drilling and bolting to mudguards or similar accessories is another means of ensuring you’ll never be without some form of lighting and will deter casual/opportunist theft.
Generally speaking, we wouldn’t risk this in high crime areas - or bikes being left unattended for long periods. Clothing clips can be really handy, too - should you fancy slipping it aboard a jacket, rucksack or pannier instead.
Daytime Running Lights
The past few years has seen a trend for riders, (myself included) running their blinkies during the day. Divisive perhaps but theory goes, this is more captivating to other road users, thus improving rider safety.
More powerful units around the 70lumen mark were the most obvious. Then brands, including Moon, Lezyne and Bontrager began introducing/updating models, with daytime specific settings.
This Bontrager Flare R City rear light (photograph); is designed with concrete jungle in mind. Optimised optics ensure the 35lumens pack a very potent punch. Those that adjust the diode’s intensity to suit lighting are another definite plus, preventing unnecessary retina tingling.
As with main lighting, carefully configured settings, high quality optics and beam patterns, are more effective than big fire-power alone.
The Bontrager’s 5 hour run times are also very reasonable, given the battery capacity and diminutive dimensions. Larger, more powerful lights, such as these Moon Gemini front and rear (now obsolete, but with similar models around) can return 30hrs from a full charge, so these things aren’t an exact science.
UPDATED AND REPUBLISHED OCT)BER 2021