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You’re not as visible on a bike at night as you think, new study shows

Posted by on May 20th, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Bike Light Parade

Not as flashy as most
people think.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

People who ride bikes at night consistently overestimate their visibility to other road users, a new study has found.

They also overlook a few tricks, like reflective strips around the ankles and knees, that can help the most.

The report, led by Joanne Wood of the Queensland University of Technology in Australia and published in next month’s issue of Accident Analysis & Prevention, asked both regular and occasional bike riders wearing black clothing, fluorescent or reflective vests, and vests with reflective strips to estimate the point at which an approaching driver would be able to spot them. Different lighting setups were used, too.

People wearing black clothing on their bike at night, or just a reflective vest, were far too optimistic. They thought drivers would see them from nearly twice the distance drivers actually tend to.

Meanwhile, riders correctly estimated that they were more visible to other road users when wearing retroreflective strips on their knees and ankles. But the strips are actually more effective than people thought.

To see how people’s ideas measure up with reality, check out the chart below. The black bars indicate the distance at which people riding bikes thought they would be spotted in each type of clothing, and the grey bars indicate actual visibility:

These figures included tests with three different types of lighting on the bikes: a flashing light, a steady light and no light.

“The bicyclist’s overestimates are greatest for conditions in which actual conspicuity is minimal and they underestimate the effectiveness of vest plus ankles and knees,” Wood’s report summarized. “This study provides the first quantitative data to support the suggestion that bicyclists overestimate their own conspicuity to drivers at night.”

Here’s another important finding: if you bike more often, you tend to get a better sense of just how invisible you can be at night:

“Less frequent bicyclists rated themselves as visible at longer distances (M = 85.19 m) than did frequent bicyclists (M = 58.89 m),” the study found.

A couple other interesting notes:

  • At night, reflective vests are much more effective than fluorescent ones. Bright orange or yellow vests are great for catching people’s attention during the day. But many of us don’t realize they’re not much use at night. “Fluorescent materials have little conspicuity benefit at night since they are activated only by ultraviolet radiation (which is generally not present in headlights and streetlights). The bicyclists … appear to believe, incorrectly, that the conspicuity advantage of fluorescent materials is as useful at night as it is in daylight. Thus bicyclists, who habitually wear fluorescent as opposed to retroreflective materials, may dangerously overestimate their conspicuity at night.”
  • Riders think flashing lights increase visibility. Though the data is less conclusive about whether steady or flashing lights are better, this study found that people think flashing bike lights are the most visible.
  • Reflective strips have to be moving to do much good. “It is only when those retroreflective strips are mounted on the moveable joints that they substantially increase bicyclist conspicuity,” the study wrote. Why don’t people tend to realize this? The authors have an idea: “from a bicyclist’s perspective, retroreflective material does not necessarily appear to be particularlyvisible. It is only when the retroreflective material is viewed under specific viewing conditions (e.g., moving in a characteristic pattern, illuminated by the vehicle’s headlights, and viewed from a position proximal to the headlights) that its effectiveness becomes clear.”

Obviously, keeping everyone safe on our streets at night is a joint effort that requires vigilance and caution by everyone who’s getting around. Fortunately, Portland has enough bikes on the street that it makes those of us who use cars more careful when we’re driving at night. But this study is a great reminder that our intuition about these issues isn’t always right – it helps to know the facts, too.

— Portland Afoot editor Michael Andersen will be contributing regularly to BikePortland for the next few weeks as we start working out more details of the collaboration announced earlier this month.

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  • locals only May 20, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    Do bicyclists in Australia not use lights?

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    • Spiffy May 20, 2013 at 1:55 pm

      The bicycle had a light mounted on the handlebars which was either static, flashing or off.

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  • DK May 20, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    What about lights?

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) May 20, 2013 at 2:04 pm

      Good question, DK! (You too, locals only.) Spiffy is correct: these findings are aggregated over different light setups. I’ve added a couple notes on this above to make this clear.

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  • anonymous May 20, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Is there any information about the visibility of lights on a bicycle? The abstract at the link mentions flashing lights are more visible .than static ones, but doesn’t seem to have much detail. When I’m driving I actually find bright, flashing headlights on bicycles to decrease my ability to tell what is going on in the road in general, although the tail lights don’t seem to have that effect.

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    • Nathan Hinkle May 26, 2013 at 10:51 pm

      I haven’t seen any studies specifically evaluating this with respect to bikes, but we’ve had some discussion on a bicycles Q&A site I frequent, referencing a study by the “lighting research center” at RPI, which looked at the effectiveness of flashing vs. steady burn lights on snowplows.

      The conclusion was that flashing lights grab your attention, but steady burn lights are easier to judge visibility. Therefore, for bicycle safety, it would seem to be beneficial to have at least one of each, and separate them by enough space to be separately visible.

      An ideal setup would have a single flashing light on one level, and then two solid lights on the same level as each other (but above or below the flasher), and separated by about a foot. The separation of the two solid lights significantly improves the ability to judge distance, because the perceived distance between the two light sources will change as you move closer.

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  • Spiffy May 20, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    this seems to say that bicycle ninjas don’t consider themselves ninjas and they think that everybody can see them well in advance…

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  • Spiffy May 20, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    your auto insurance carrier doesn’t care how visible things are in the road, they only care that you see them and avoid them… if there’s a black brick laying in the road at midnight you’re required to avoid it… you’re not just required to avoid things that could normally be seen, you’re required to avoid ALL things in the roadway…

    it’s your job to be able to see where you’re going, no matter what mode you’re in or how bad the visibility of those things in your way…

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    • canuck May 21, 2013 at 6:25 am

      Yes I have to be aware of what is out there and not overdrive my headlights, the Oregon basic rule covers this, but as a cyclist I am also required by law to make myself visible.


      At the times described in the following, a bicycle or its rider must be equipped with lighting equipment that meets the described requirements:

      (A) The lighting equipment must be used during limited visibility conditions.

      (B) The lighting equipment must show a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the front of the bicycle.

      (C) The lighting equipment must have a red reflector or lighting device or material of such size or characteristic and so mounted as to be visible from all distances up to 600 feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful lower beams of headlights on a motor vehicle.

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  • q`Tzal May 20, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    Whether you agree or disagree with Forester’s Vehicular Cycling philosophy/manifesto he made a salient and scientifically accurate point about ALL REFLECTIVE gear:
    reflectors reflect the most amount of light back towards the light source in a 180 degree “return to sender” manner. This intensity of reflected light drops of logarithmicaly as the the observer’s angle differs from the angle of the light source.

    What this means is that the further the car driver is from their headlights the less reflected light they see. Short cars, good; tall trucks, bad.

    What’s the most damning of a reflector only safety policy is that reflectors can only reflect light towards light sources that are pointed at them. If you are waiting patiently at the side of the road to cross you’ve already lost visibility. Further in the distance the angle for reflection is better but the total light reflected and the apparent visual size is much smaller. Closer and the angle has gotten much worse and the driver had less reaction time.

    Which leads to my bastardization of Forester’s opinion on reflectors: “Reflectors only work when the vehicle is already pointed at you”. If you consider that an automobile is an effect lethal weapon like a gun you might rightly consider that you want you be seen BEFORE you are looking down the barrel of that gun.

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  • Alex Reed May 20, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    Does anybody know about research on visibility improvements from wheel reflectors, reflective tape on bike frames, extra bike lights, super-special pedal reflectors, or anything that goes on the bike? Honestly, having to wear some special reflective thingy every time I ride is a non-starter for me and I expect a lot of other people.

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    • dan May 20, 2013 at 3:33 pm

      I use what I call the “Miss New Jersey sash,” a reflective sash that you wear bandolier-style. It goes over anything and doesn’t take up much space off the bike if you want to fold it up in a bag etc. I clip a flasher to it for extra impact.

      Reflective stuff may not be fashionable, but for me the safety vs. fashionability tradeoff is worth it.

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    • Spiffy May 20, 2013 at 3:38 pm

      can we include the number of times that K’Tesh has been hit?

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      • K'Tesh May 21, 2013 at 10:05 am

        Daytime? Or Night?

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  • Dan May 20, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    Somebody here suggested that it’s safer to ride in complete darkness with few cars around than at dawn when there are more cars about. I’ve been testing out this theory since April, starting my rides at 5am, and I completely agree. Sucks to get up that early though….

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    • Hugh Johnson May 21, 2013 at 5:52 am

      I agree with that totally. Especially on a street like NE Going where cars (and bikes) routinely roll through the stop signs. At least when it’s dark and quiet I feel I have a better sense of what’s coming at me. Bike ninjas aside.

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  • ScottG May 20, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    I find research like this fascinating. It will definitely change my behavior to wear ankle strips at night more consistently.

    A lot of people also overestimate the risk of being hit from behind, when left-turning cars in front of you at an intersection are the single biggest risk of a serious accident from what I’ve read. Hence a headlight is much more important than a taillight, but most people who ride with only one or the other have a taillight on, not a headlight.

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  • Dweendaddy May 20, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    Since I have entered the world of dynamo hubs, I just ride with lights on, day and night. I think that does more for safety than all the other things combined, but I would love to see some research on that question: how beneficial is it to run lights all the time? At all?

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    • larchitect May 21, 2013 at 1:38 pm

      Motorcycles have to run with lights on all the time. That’s the reason I keep my lights on when I ride during the day. As I see it, I’ll take any advantage I can get

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  • Dave May 20, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    I can’t get my brain around this aversion to using real (dynohub or rechargeable battery) lights that some cyclists have. A light not only needs to show other road users that you’re there–it has to show you the 2 x 4 that could throw you off the bike and break your arm if you DON”T see it. I see a lot of expensive bikes in use with little bullshit flashlights attached to the handlebars–what state of either ignorance or denial are all these cyclists in, anyway?

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    • spare_wheel May 20, 2013 at 4:18 pm

      those little flashlights are now 500 lumens…and i aim them right at the whites of their eyes.

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    • q`Tzal May 20, 2013 at 7:36 pm

      What would be really slick would be mostly transparent kevlar spokes that could be illuminated from a generator hub like side emitting fiber optics.
      Optical purity would not be needed, in fact optical flaws would help to insure that the light “falls out” of the spokes along the length rather than transmitting unimpeded to the spoke nipples.

      With the ever increasing intensity and efficiency of LEDs it is conceivable that the entire spoked face of a bike wheel could light up brightly without being as hokey as Hokey Spokes. Also it would add no more weight that the generator hub and a few LEDs would have added anyways. Powered by the hub the LEDs could easily dissipate waste heat on the generator hub body itself eliminating the need for even more weight.
      Add to all that the practical psychological effect of drivers seeing two moving bike wheels that are blatantly bicycle wheels.

      Yup, this could be really good; all I need is those clear-ish spokes.

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    • Spiffy May 23, 2013 at 12:55 pm

      in the city personal lights aren’t needed due to all the surrounding light pollution…

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  • Frank May 20, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    I always use lights but have been told that these pop bands that I wear around my ankles really stand out because the movement catches the eye (article seems to concur). I go for the white/silver, largest available if you want them to go over winter/rain pants.

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  • John Liu
    John Liu May 20, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Have you ever driven or ridden around at night and seen pedestrians in dark clothing stride right out into the street, assuming themselves clearly visible to all, when in actual fact you barely saw them in time to slam on your brakes or swerve or miss them by sheer luck? Unfortunately, many cyclists do exactly the same thing.

    Reflectors and reflective clothing are useful, especially when the reflective bits move up and down and round and round. The motion helps drivers realize those bright patches in the darkness are a cyclist.

    However, reflectors don’t do anything if the driver’s headlights are not actually shining on you. When you are riding down the street and the driver is on a side street ahead and about to pull out in front of you, or when you are riding in a bike lane and the driver ahead is about to turn right and right hook you, your reflectors and reflective clothing don’t help at all. The only thing that helps in those situations is lights. Bright lights and preferably blinking/flashing lights.

    We can each do our own tests, Simply go riding in darkness with and without lights and reflective gear, and pay attention to how drivers behave. Do they act as if they see you, or as if they don’t?

    My morning commute is in the darkness for most of the year.

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    • Spiffy May 20, 2013 at 3:43 pm

      Have you ever driven or ridden around at night and seen pedestrians in dark clothing stride right out into the street, assuming themselves clearly visible to all, when in actual fact you barely saw them in time to slam on your brakes or swerve or miss them by sheer luck?

      no, at least not since I’ve become a regular bicycle rider… because now I know that I need to slow down for conditions… I often find myself creeping along at 15mph on busy streets simply because of all the shadows that might be something that will move and I’ll need to avoid…

      12 years ago, yes, all the time, because I thought I was king in my car and smaller things should stay out of my way, especially in the dark when they could see me better than I could see them…

      now I know I just wasn’t paying enough attention…

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    • John Lascurettes May 20, 2013 at 6:07 pm

      Have you ever driven or ridden around at night and seen pedestrians in dark clothing stride right out into the street, assuming themselves clearly visible to all, when in actual fact you barely saw them in time to slam on your brakes or swerve or miss them by sheer luck?

      Fractured my wrist this last November because of it. Riding north on NE 7th and approaching my right turn at Siskiyou (on leaf pickup day no less), I made my right turn signal big and proud (with a car barreling up my hind-side) as I started making the turn, a woman walking two dark dogs on long leashes strode right into the unmarked crosswalk from the opposite direction. Technically she should have right of way – but the issue was I could not see her until I was past a point of no return starting my turn. I attempted to turn sharper to avoid her (and I did), but that put me into a front wheel skid on the wet leaves that put me down right quick and fractured my wrist at the ulna. For what it’s worth, neither my bright dyno light and the headlights of the car passing me were enough to light her up on that dark corner.

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      • Spiffy May 23, 2013 at 12:57 pm

        this is why I’m considering a helmet-mounted light in addition to the bike-mounted one…

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        • Mike Ardans May 27, 2013 at 11:48 am

          After being nailed by a car making an inattentive left turn, as soon as I could ride again, I did this. I get yelled at by pedestrians, but can look directly at the drivers, not just cars. Also I can finally read street signs.

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        • David Burns March 26, 2015 at 9:03 pm

          I love my helmet-mounted light, even though I also have a CYO dynamo-powered. They work well together; the CYO lights up in front of me while the helmet mounted light shines into the corners. It helps a bit on most streets, but doing Fanno Creek Trail at night, it’s almost a requirement. Additionally, I’ve once had a problem with my dynamo, and sometimes failed to charge the one on my helmet, but I’ve never had both fail at the same time.

          I’d go so far as to wonder why this isn’t a more standard feature to have built in, legitimate lights on helmets. (Torch is teasingly close, but still intended “to be seen”)

          The main downside is you have to get in the habit of turning your head away from oncoming pedestrians and cyclists (so you don’t blind them.)

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  • Opus the Poet May 20, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    All this article tells me is that drivers depend too much on the victim increasing their visibility instead of driving slow enough that they can come to a stop in the distance they can see in their headlights. The speed limit at night on other than limited-access highways should be set at the speed that 85% of car and driver combinations can come to a safe stop in 20 meters (66 feet). I use that because I have never seen a reflective deer or dog crossing the road. Since it seems impossible to actually get the basic speed law enforced we need to make the posted limit match the statutory limit.

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    • dan May 20, 2013 at 7:02 pm

      I don’t expect pedestrians (including dogs) to carry lights, but it sure is nice when they do. When I’m on foot at night with no lights, I’m very conscious that no one can see me — it’s surprising that people don’t get that, particularly if they ever drive a car.

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      • 9watts May 23, 2013 at 7:33 pm

        “I don’t expect pedestrians (including dogs) to carry lights, but it sure is nice when they do.”

        But notice also that pedestrians never decry the lack of illumination or reflectivity of other pedestrians (or at least I’ve never heard this). My sense is that this is about speed (entitlement). We who ride bikes want to go (much) faster than a walking pace. I know I do. But consequently we are eager for those slower than us to be reflective, SO WE DON”T HAVE TO SLOW DOWN.

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  • Matheas Michaels May 20, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    That’s why I use a 2,000 lumen headlamp 😉

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  • Oliver May 20, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    I can easily see a (good) flasher at 4-5 blocks. Of course I can’t see what it’s attached to, but that hardly matters, because I know that, in 45 seconds or so, I will be sharing my road space with a person who has a blinky attached to them.

    I think there’s a big problem with people who choose not to look beyond the 15 feet or so directly in front of the hood of their vehicle. And this is a problem whether it’s day or night.

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  • dwainedibbly May 20, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    There are so many unanswered questions here that I’d really like to see someone do some additional scientific research. Anybody at PSU interested?

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  • John Liu
    John Liu May 20, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    Any light is pretty visible against a dark background.

    I find the problem is in cluttered environments where there are many lights competing for attention – headlights, taillights, side marker lights, building lights, lights in windows, reflections of lights, traffic lights – there a less-bright bike light can get “lost” too easily. Add rain streaming down the windshield and reflections off rain drops and puddles, a driver who – let’s face it, not every driver out there is a “great” driver even though they all think they are – and I feel the typical 1 AA battery blinky, while better than nothing, is not enough.

    Here’s is a link that might be useful. For $25 you can get a 600 lumen rechargeable light that is easy to mount, has a “flash” setting, will run for a couple hours on “low”, and will definitely stand out. On “high” it is very bright indeed. I’ve no connection with this vendor, there are plenty of other vendors selling this same thing too. Just aim it down or you’ll dazzle oncoming drivers and cyclists.

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    • Spiffy May 23, 2013 at 1:02 pm

      I’ll never buy a rechargeable light because it’s always dead when I need it and I can’t instantly put charged batteries in it…

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  • meh May 21, 2013 at 6:18 am

    As someone who works from home I don’t get on the road much, but I did have to make a trip the other week early in the morning and found a couple of things about bike lighting.

    1. Brightness didn’t have as much to do with visibility as did the size of the light. So many people using a single LED rear light, whether solid of flashing, which really wasn’t as easy to see as those with larger lights. Consider how large vehicle lights are.

    2. The majority of lights mounted to rear racks were obscured by the load carried on the rack greatly reducing the visibility of the rider.

    3. Hand signals were difficult if not impossible to see. Wrist reflectors or clothing with reflective material would help greatly.

    4. A complete lack of side lighting on bikes, I’ve seen k’tesh, the man is a spokes person for reflector use.

    5. Low battery or dirty lenses, amazed at the number of lights that were so weak or so dirty that they were pretty much useless.

    6. Not many but there were people out there without any lights or reflectors.

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    • wsbob May 21, 2013 at 10:46 am

      I’ve seen, from an angle, like across the street, some of the typically small bike lights that were really bright and visible from a long ways away…150′-200′. Never close enough so I could ask the person what they’re running. Maybe Dinotte or another brand that’s far out of the range of what, at this point, the average person is inclined to spend on bike lights.

      Otherwise,to me, everything on your list seems consistent with what I see on the street. I’d definitely like to see some manufacturers try develop a good bike light that has, say a 3″ or 4″ diameter lens. Typically, bike lights seem to have a lens of about three-quarters to an inch in diameter.

      Poorly visible hand signals are a long standing problem, whether it’s due to the arm/hand not being well enough visible, or people not displaying it long enough. That so few glove manufacturers produce low priced gloves with decent reflectivity is frustrating.

      The inclination of people as buyers of products are the basic reason visibility gear hasn’t been better than it is. If some manufacturer believes people will buy something they can produce, they’re going to try make it. If big numbers of people that bike decided they wanted to buy and put retro-reflective whirl-a-gigs for visibility on their bikes, manufacturers would probably turn something like that out.

      People do seem to be wearing more hi-viz. It’s a fairly small step to more common use of retro-reflective.

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      • dan May 21, 2013 at 2:16 pm

        I’ve posted these here before: Kinco insulated / waterproof high-visibility gloves with reflective patches on the top of the glove.

        They sell them at Sanderson Safety Supply down in inner SE and they are flipping awesome all winter long, albeit a bit too warm for year-round use. The leather is fairly thick, so you need to break them in before you get decent dexterity, but the low price more than makes up for that.

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      • Opus the Poet May 22, 2013 at 11:08 am reflective half-finger gloves with ANSI Safety Green reflective indicators for signalling turns. They work great as bike gloves after taking the stop sign off the palm. I like to sew a leather skid guard on the palm to keep the skin on my hands if I fall.

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    • Spiffy May 23, 2013 at 1:04 pm

      3. Hand signals were difficult if not impossible to see.

      they’re also optional, so don’t count on hand-signals to know that a bike is about to turn… just assume that it might and be ready to take action if they do…

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      • wsbob May 24, 2013 at 9:58 am

        ” The story on use of hand signals by cyclists being optional, is, people aren’t in violation of the law where, “… circumstances require that both hands be used to safely control or operate the bicycle. …”

        Full section of the law from which the above is excerpted: “…(2) A person is not in violation of the offense under this section if the person is operating a bicycle and does not give the appropriate signal continuously for a stop or turn because circumstances require that both hands be used to safely control or operate the bicycle. …”.

        If the circumstances, whatever they may be, don’t require that a person riding a bike use both hands to safely control or operate the bicycle, hand signals must be displayed.

        Things like rough road, or making the actual turn, tend to require both hands to control the bike, but just riding along, straight ahead on generally smooth pavement, most people’s balance can be sufficiently good to take a hand off the bars for up to 100′ as the law specifies, if necessary.

        That can be a long distance to be signaling though, depending upon speed traveled. People commenting to bikeportland stories have tossed this question around before. I think there was some solid agreement that apart from distance over which it’s displayed, a hand signal displayed 2-4 seconds before a stop or turn, may be generally sufficient to allow the signal to be seen by other road users.

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  • PatrickMc May 21, 2013 at 7:39 am

    I hope that some of the folks at clothing manufacturers will read this. It’s embarrassing how little of athletic clothing or just regular outerwear contains any reflective material, when doing do wouldn’t be hard. Seems like Nike and others think we want to be ninjas.

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    • John Lascurettes May 21, 2013 at 4:18 pm

      All of icebreaker’s bike-specific and jogging-specific shirts have reflective piping. Just saying.

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  • lumpy May 21, 2013 at 9:57 am

    The most recent lights we added to my wife’s commuter are pointed at her instead of the road. Some stretches of her commute are in places where there are no street lights so she wanted something that would make her a larger visible object than just tiny points of light. At the back I mounted a powerful led flaslight at the rear of the rack aimed at
    her back. That light is in addition to rear-facing superflashes mounted on the seat stay, seatpost, and helmet.

    One dark rainy night a motorist actually rolled down his window and yelled “Thanks” at her.

    I don’t think the lights pointed at her would do much good where they would be washed out by streetlights.

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  • Chainwhipped May 21, 2013 at 10:35 am

    Johnathan, I can’t believe you even bothered to report on this. The data has nothing to do with bicyclists. It’s all about clothing and clothing add-ons. You could change the word “bike” to “walk” and it would say the same thing. This study doesn’t bother to differentiate riding with adequate lights vs zero lights – they blended them together and showed us averages.

    It just seems to be an elaborate tool that will be used to blame victims hit by drivers after dark. “Wear special clothes to keep me from hitting you.” Funny how we never seem to read about jet black sedans getting hit more often than bright yellow sprinter vans. What an arbitrary concept.

    Lights. Street-legal vehicles come from the factory with them. In fact, no dealership could legally sell a car or motorcycle for use on public roads without adequate lights.

    Why are bicycle manufacturers allowed to sell bicycles without some sort of integrated lighting system? If I can walk into any bike shop and buy a 300-lumen rechargeable light for $50, then the industry likely has the technology to integrate a real lighting system into every bike it sells. I’m pretty sure that if manufacturers can integrate a battery for electronic gear shifting into a seat post, light makers and bike manufacturers can find a way to put permanent (read:theft-proof) rechargeable 500-lumen lighting on bicycles with very little increase in overall price.

    Lights should never be thought of as some kind of extravagant add-on. You’re going to be riding your bike after dark someday, some time, for some reason, whether you want to or not. When that happens, you will need lights.

    Put a headlight in the stem and a tail light in the seat post. It’s already been done. It would be really freaking easy to make this change across the board, but I only see Breezer making the effort, and it’s spotty even within their line. This kind of basic logic is being held back by the industry’s marketing saps and product managers who keep trying to push cycling as a sport like we’re supposed to be emulating world class athletes.

    Bikes are vehicles, but the industry is pushing them as toys. This is stupid. If the bike industry doesn’t treat bikes like vehicles, how can we, as bicycle users, expect to be treated as vehicle operators?

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    • wsbob May 21, 2013 at 12:08 pm

      See the story heading: reporting on this story is Michael Anderson, bikeportland’s newly enlisted news editor.

      I don’t think your claim about incidence of less visible vehicles being involved in collisions, never being reported on is true, at least elsewhere besides this weblog. At any rate, occupants of motor vehicles aren’t vulnerable road users in the sense that people on bikes are vulnerable to motor vehicles in traffic environments where motor vehicles are present.

      The U.S. doesn’t have laws mandating manufacturers to equip bikes they sell with lighting gear. That’s one reason bikes sold new in the U.S. don’t have that gear. Another reason, is that the U.S. public doesn’t seem to have risen to the point to where it believes this gear should be standard, bike manufacturer equipped.

      Tell us what model and brand rechargeable bike light it is that’s 300 lumens for $50, that any bike shop you walk into is selling. That sounds like a very good deal I haven’t noticed.

      People as consumers play a big role in what’s available for them to buy. Bike manufacturers could put all kinds of vehicular equipment on their bikes, but if the public ain’t buying it, for the manufacturer, it could be Edsel deja vu.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) May 21, 2013 at 12:33 pm

      Chainwhipped, thanks for the comments and thoughts. You make a lot of valid arguments and I’m glad you’re adding them to the post.

      Just wanted to add that Jonathan and I decided to cover this study because it offers road-tested data on a subject that’s of interest to a lot of people who ride bikes — and a subject that, by the study’s own finding, a lot of us could be better-informed about. That’s why you couldn’t just swap in “pedestrian” for “bike rider” here and have things be the same: this is an honest-to-god scientific finding that gives us hard information about a very specfic set of situations.

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    • El Biciclero May 21, 2013 at 12:59 pm

      I agree with the first part of your comment; clothing choice should not affect level of “blame” when someone is run over by a motor vehicle. I agree with the notion of the second part regarding lighting, but it is not as simple as you make it out to be.

      The configuration options for bikes are so varied that a standard location for any light is nearly impossible. Tail light in the seat post? Where would it be located so as not to be obscured a) by the seat tube (if the seat were adjusted low), b) by a tool bag under the seat, or c) by a load carried on a rear rack? Headlight in the stem? Put a handlebar bag on a touring bike and that light is useless. Need to change out your stem for any reason? Are you going to throw that light away? Permanently mounted and rechargeable? Hope you are able to park your bike near an outlet at work.

      The only Breezer examples I can see on their website are fork crown-mounted headlights and rear rack-mounted tail lights, both powered by a dynamo hub. Not everybody wants to have those things permanently mounted or pay the price (in extra effort) of driving a dynamo hub.

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    • GlowBoy May 21, 2013 at 1:40 pm

      I agree that we need to see lighting better integrated into bikes. One other benefit of this is reduced theft risk. I often find myself using less than my full complement of lighting for certain trips because of the risk of theft and/or the hassle of removing and reinstalling my lights every time I stop somewhere.

      Hub generators solve half the problem by eliminating theft-prone battery packs, and the associated lights tend to be more permanently installed. I’m still in the battery camp, but I am thinking of embedding a DIY battery pack in my seatpost (I have verified that it would fit) for my next lighting system build.

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    • Spiffy May 23, 2013 at 1:12 pm

      when people stop riding racing bikes on the road and start riding city bikes then there will be more integrated light use…

      there should be no requirement to supply a light on a carbon fiber racing bike that should only be used on the track… dutch bikes usually have built in lighting…

      Formula 1 cars have horrible lighting… Toyota Corollas have decent lighting…

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    • Reza May 23, 2013 at 1:31 pm

      Agree 100% about integrated lights on bikes. How about integrating TURN SIGNALS too so that we don’t have to use clumsy hand signals that require taking a hand off the handlebars and risk losing control during turns? I’d buy that bike in a second.

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      • Todd Edelman May 23, 2013 at 2:44 pm

        Makes lighting even more complicated (people in Germany already have a hard enough time keeping the currently required setup functioning) and expensive…. and thus an even greater variation of intensity (lux) between the unlit and the lit.

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      • Todd Edelman May 23, 2013 at 2:47 pm

        Also, if you lose control with one hand you are going too fast 🙂

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      • wsbob May 23, 2013 at 7:20 pm

        Suggestion: hand signal some distance in advance of where you must start to turn…then bring your hand back to the handlebar before you actually start to turn the bike. That practice won’t cover all traffic situations, but it seems to help me wen I ride.

        Effective illuminated turn signal equipment for bikes is a design challenge that’s yet to be met. People have been thinking about such a thing, but nothing yet.

        I think bright colored gloves, as per Dan’s suggestion here: …is a good idea. I don’t use that particular glove, but do like to use bright colored gloves for their aid in helping hand turn signals to be visible. At different places, there’s quite a number of cycling, as well as non-cycling-specific hi-vis glove options out there, that will do fairly well, if style, a little less than totally cool is something you’re comfortable with.

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  • Charles Ross May 21, 2013 at 11:20 am

    One issue not often addressed is cycling daytime in bright sunshine. Drivers often wear sunglasses and as you, the bicyclist, move in and out of shadows you are invisible to the driver.

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  • GlowBoy May 21, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    There are 3 main ways to be visible, and ALL are useful:
    – Bright colors are good in the daytime, when sunlight can wash out your lights and reflectors are of little use.
    – Reflectors are good, because in more optimal situations (viewing angle is close to incidence angle because car is further away and/or driver’s head isn’t that far above the headlights), they can BLOW AWAY any kind of lighting in terms of perceived brightness. Add movement to the reflectors (pedals, ankles, wheels) and this is easily your biggest conspicuity bang-for-the-buck (and -gram).
    – Lighting is good at night, especially in situations where reflectors don’t come into play much, such as a driver whose car is not pointed directly at you, or the driver of a truck that is close to you.

    I hear a lot of arguments favoring one mode of conspicuity over another. I completely fail to comprehend this mentality. Seems to me to be optimally visible in a variety of conditions you need all three. No one mode is better than the other, because they don’t work equally in all conditions.

    Personally, being GlowBoy after all … in the winter I wear a jacket and helmet that are both brightly colored (because it’s daylight when I ride to work in the morning) and have reflective trim (because it’s dark when I ride home), along with a reflective sash trimmed from a highway-worker vest wrapped around my backpack. I have DOT reflective tape all over my bike and rack. Reflectors on my pedals and DOT reflective tape on my crank arms and taped to the spokes of my wheels, to convey a sense of movement while riding. AND I ride with a good, bright steady headlight along with a front blinky and a rear taillight. I’m still on the fence as to whether blinking or steady is better for the rear light, but I’m starting to come over to the “steady” camp on that.

    So far I’ve been using DOT tape from Fred Meyer for retroreflectivity (the alternating red/white stuff you see on truck trailers), because I believe it works much better than the garbage sold at the bike shops. I’ve heard some arguments in favor of SOLAS (Coast Guard) tape, because it can appear several times brighter and can be visible at much greater distances. Good for riding lonely rural roads at night, but I believe SOLAS’ good properties are mostly due to a much narrower angle of reflection, which I think might limit its usefulness at closer distances and potentially render it invisible in the situations described by q`tzal. A mix of both DOT and SOLAS may be ideal, but I still lean toward DOT tape at this point.

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    • spare_wheel May 21, 2013 at 2:23 pm

      “they can BLOW AWAY any kind of lighting in terms of perceived brightness.”


      the typical car head light is ~900 lumens. i typically ride with at least 900 lumens in front. i don’t do this because i think its necessarily safer than a wee blinky. i do it because i enjoy making motorists back the @#&* off. share the lane or suffer corneal damage is my night time cycling motto!

      if riding without lighting was even a tenth as dangerous as the safety nannies posit, inner pdx would be littered with ninja ghost bikes. imo, a cyclist with good situational awareness can negotiate our streetlight lit streets safely even whilst wearing the proverbial black hoody.

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      • GlowBoy May 22, 2013 at 12:25 pm

        You don’t think being visible is very important … but you ride with 900+ lumens to make sure motorists back off? Ohhhh….keeeyyyyy thennnn.

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      • spare_wheel May 22, 2013 at 3:11 pm

        “You don’t think being visible is very important.”

        I stated that the risks of riding without lighting are exaggerated, not that there is no risk. i think i’ve forgotten my lighting dozens of times. riding home in the dark was no tragedy. in fact, it was kind of refreshing in a weird sort of way.

        “but you ride with 900+ lumens”

        i also use those lumens to see sandy, branch strewn curves on my daily descent (everyone should have one of those). please note that this use has nothing to do with “being more visible”.

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      • 9watts May 23, 2013 at 7:47 pm

        “a cyclist with good situational awareness can negotiate our streetlight lit streets safely even whilst wearing the proverbial black hoody.”

        I love my lights but I have to agree with you, spare_wheel.
        I think this is akin to the oft-heard resentment of ‘scofflaw cyclists.’ What the resentful speaker perceives them to be doing *looks* dangerous to him/her, is not something they would do, or perhaps could accomplish safely. But that has very little bearing on the observed cyclist’s ability to arrive at his/her destination safely while engaging in those highjinks, whatever they are.

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        • Todd Edelman May 23, 2013 at 10:51 pm

          “safely”? Safely for whom?

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          • 9watts May 24, 2013 at 7:53 am

            for everyone involved. Else we’d surely know about it–as spare_wheel suggested above.

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  • kittens May 21, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    Very interesting topic. I wish there was a way to politely remind each other to AIM those super bright bike lights correctly. It is annoying and disrespectful to be completely blinded by a cyclist when those things are aimed willy-nilly. These are extremely focused beams of light and must be aimed to 50′ (?) on the ground unless you are downtown or something and really parinoid of cars not seeing you. There is no need to blind everyone on the Springwater at 9PM with your light!

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    • KYouell May 22, 2013 at 2:45 pm

      I don’t ride the Springwater at night, but have been surprised when it gets dark enough on a trip home that’s can see my son has moved my headlight for me. Since I have a dynamo hub and the light is on all the time, my apologies to all those who were annoyed that day.

      Now someone tell me if the little LEDs in valve caps that light up your whole wheel are worth it. Monkey Lights are out of my budget.

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  • A May 21, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    I use and like this thing
    Great for side visibility. Once I did have a woman in a van in the lane next to me pace me for a few blocks, keeping me from my needed lane change, because she was so happy about the little men lighting up my wheel, so beware of the potential for distraction. Noticeable either way.

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  • BIKELEPTIC May 21, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    I really love this article! So often when I am in the shop, I will overhear people coming in asking for specific clothing with super-extra piping for uber-visibility because they want to be seen in ULTRA BRIGHT oranges or yellow or other obnoxious colors. I’ve always wondered just how much reality there is looking like a banana on a bike just for a 0.002% perceived safety increase.

    It reminds me of my ranty bike light article that I wrote earlier this year on my blog:

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    • dan May 22, 2013 at 10:42 am

      Construction workers, a fairly practical-minded / not fashion-driven group of people, seem to believe that bright clothing helps people in vehicles see you. It is, of course, possible that all the road crews in America are wrong, but I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt.

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      • John Lascurettes May 22, 2013 at 1:06 pm

        Those same DOT-style vests also have plenty of retro-refelctive stripes on them. The same goes for firefighters (bright yellow jackets with plenty of retro-reflective surfaces on them).

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    • Spoke May 29, 2013 at 5:20 am

      Totally agree. Btw in Toronto this goes hand-in-hand with wearing your bike lights. a.k.a “The Christmas Tree Effect”

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  • tonyt
    tonyt May 21, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    A couple of things I see with some frequency are rear lights on the backs of helmets that are blocked by backpacks, backpack lights that point to the sky when the rider is in their normal riding position, and seatpost lights blocked by some element of a rear rack. And of course really low batteries render lights pretty useless.

    Go ride with a friend and ask them to assess your lights.

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    • John Lascurettes May 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm

      I have less of a problem with bikes with less than stellar tail-lights (not even required at night in OR). It’s the ones that ride without the required front lights that get me. The speed differential between approaching vehicles is much higher than that of overtaking vehicles. And yet, I see more people with tail-lights than front-lights on their bikes.

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  • are May 21, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    Why are bicycle manufacturers allowed to sell bicycles without some sort of integrated lighting system?

    i thought bikes were sold with a little sticker on them that says don’t ride at night

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  • jimbobpdx May 21, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    BPO – thanx for this v. informative post. And the follow-on conversation is super interesting and civil. For me, it’s lights, lights, and more lights – front, rear, spokes, helmet, bag. A f-ing Christmas tree.

    You don’t hear my cohort (mid-60’s) talking about how great their visual acuity is getting, especially in low light situations. So do us altekakers a favor and lighten up. Really, it’s not a political or moral issue, it’s just practical. And considerate.

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  • kevin May 22, 2013 at 11:27 am

    I use a 300 lumen headlight mounted to my bars and aimed at the ground in front of me so that I can see where I’m going. I also have a little blinky mounted on the front of my helmet that I can aim at other drivers, cyclists or pedestrians who’s attention I want to get. It’s not bright enough to be blinding, but is obvious from 50 yards or so.

    Wearing high powered lights on your helmet is rude and dangerous, both to you and to the people you are blinding.

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  • John Liu
    John Liu May 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    “Why are bicycle manufacturers allowed to sell bicycles without some sort of integrated lighting system?”

    Freedom of choice. I don’t want any lights on the bikes I use for only sporty daytime riding. On the bikes I use for day and night utility riding I want better lights than anything a bike OEM would integrate.

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    • El Biciclero May 23, 2013 at 9:56 am

      “I want better lights than anything a bike OEM would integrate.”

      This is a good point, too–what quality of light would manufacturers integrate? Would there still be a choice between battery/rechargeable vs. hub generator vs. old-school tire-driven dynamo?

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    • Paul Deming May 23, 2013 at 10:32 am

      I’m very much inclined to avoid Federal Gov’t regulation. Free market and consumers can sort this out. 1) It is because of such regulations that cars are all so big and damaging. Although there are safety features that are good, overall, requiring cars to all be safe in high speed impacts, etc. etc. is one part of why we didn’t evolve a system with very light, efficient vehicles for around town use – such vehicles were at one time being built at least in Europe. The point being the regulation takes away innovation and flexibility. 2) The current car standard for headlights actually holds back headlight design in the USA – again taking away innovation and flexibility. Euro-Spec headlights are better than DOT Spec, but illegal to sell for on-road use in the USA although depending on the state not illegal to actually install. They are less blinding for cyclists as well. 3) Once we start down the road of setting standards for lighting it will certainly expand to other aspects of the bicycle.

      I think the bike industry and cyclists will be much better served by letting innovation and the market solve these issues.

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      • Todd Edelman May 23, 2013 at 12:42 pm

        The US Fed. govt. does not regulate bicycle illumination. I am all for innovation, but would love if it focused only on keeping lighting intact and reasonably bright.

        My feeling is that hyper-illumination is dangerous for the un-hyper-illuminated, but would like to see proof in multiple studies before I advocated for any laws to change to limit lighting — these would of course recognize diff. needs of mountain bikers, etc.

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  • Todd Edelman May 23, 2013 at 9:27 am

    This article is nonsense as lights are not mentioned. I agree about something moving but don’t pedal reflectors do the same as bits you have to remember to put on your ankles, and frequently lose?

    The goal should be to have a standard minimum of lighting AND a promoted maximum as well. The minimum standard in most states in the U.S. is too minimal. Everything which is not bright enough imperils the user and everything which is what I call “hyper-illumination” or “lux-narcissism” endangers others, including pedestrians, because it makes them darker by comparison, and some or most may actually be legally-illuminated. See more about this here in my blog’s most popular post:

    What I like is the German standard:
    * Front white light and white reflector (most built-in lights have both)
    * Rear red light and reflector (most built-in lights have both, though a second reflector is also required, but I am not sure why.)
    * Amber pedal reflectors
    * White wheel reflectors (or maybe amber) OR reflectorized tires (most city bike tires have these)
    * Also a bell

    The only part I disagree with bout the German regs. are that both front and rear lights need to be powered by a generator of some sort, except on bikes under 11 kilos (i.e. road bike and fixies). This is ideal, but not realistic for people getting a cheap bike informally – new bikes and used bikes sold at shops 11 kilos or heavier have to come with gen. lights. In the Netherlands the rules are the same but a rear light can be battery powered.

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    • spare_wheel May 23, 2013 at 10:42 am

      there is no way in double ache E toothpicks i am putting white, red, and amber reflectors on my plastic “commuters”. seriously uncool suggestion, dude.

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    • Spiffy May 23, 2013 at 1:26 pm

      This article is nonsense as lights are not mentioned.

      huh? lights are mentioned in the article and in the report this article is linked to and based off…

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      • Todd Edelman May 23, 2013 at 2:40 pm

        Thanks. What I meant to say is that they were not the focus of the article. It seems that their use was assumed, but also not enough emphasis was put on them/too much was put on clothing and tchotchkes.

        By the way blinking lights are illegal in… the Netherlands.

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  • Gary May 23, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Wear a class III highway vest and you’ll be plenty visible. That’s what workers on 55+mph roads are required to wear.

    I also have 1200 lumuns in two lights forward and 800 lumins in two lights facing aft. I’ve tested it and it’s visible in flash mode (so I can pick it out from ambient street lights) over 1.5 miles away. The headlamp allows me to aim it around corners and directly at drivers who aren’t paying attention. How can I tell? I can illuminate the entire inside of their cars.

    Also I have DOT tape on the fenders. The whole rig is quite visible.

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    • Todd Edelman May 23, 2013 at 2:41 pm

      Dude, I will buy you a sidecar and hook it up to your rig if you let me ride shotgun… er, flamethrower.

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    • 9watts May 23, 2013 at 8:13 pm

      plenty visible? That presumes that the drivers are looking.

      The fact that day-glo wearing flaggers and bikers still get run over and killed, sometimes in the middle of the day, suggests the problem is larger and different than what clothing we may be wearing.

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      • Gary May 24, 2013 at 12:46 pm

        The lights are retna burning. You really don’t have to be looking at my rig to notice it… of course if you are severely under the influence I’m still cooked but when all the flashers are going it looks like the wreck already happened and the aid car is already here.

        It wasn’t cheap but I always ask myself, what would I pay not to be in the ER… and then it sounds cheap. Dinotte lights rule

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    • Gary May 24, 2013 at 12:53 pm

      Here’s a video of a person with one set of these lights, I have two…..

      Trust me, it’s visible from 1.5 miles away. I have a friend with the same rig and cross the I-90 bridge you can see him from the other end.

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  • literally lit May 23, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    A team from the University of Sichuan won the Red Dot Design award for a concept design called “Lumigrid” — a bike-light that projects a grid on the ground ahead of the rider, making terrain irregularities easy to spot:

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  • Lynne May 23, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    the spouse and I were commuting home one evening; we had just turned into our neighborhood. A car turned in after us, then passed (safely). We didn’t think anything of it. But we got home and discovered neither of us had a house key. No problem; rode over to my brother’s house. My SIL answered the door and exclaimed: “Oh! That was YOU! Thank you for being so well lit up and visible!”

    Specifics (on me):
    flashing rear light on helmet; reflective bits on helmet, flashing front light (Petzl e) on helmet
    Reflective vest
    A rear blinkie (fresh batteries) w/reflector
    Reflective patches on the Ortliebs
    Reflective bits integral to the cycling shoes (back, front, sides)
    Reflective ankle band
    generator hub/headlight
    may have been wearing the glo-glovs.

    I don’t care about being a dork, or uncool.

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  • gumby May 24, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    This study is a little bit of a tease, because what we really want to know is what is the best way to be visible day and night and in all conditions. We’re just making guesses. There was a fascinating article in the Monday roundup a couple months back (I can’t seem to find it) about the research that was done for fighter pilots about how our vision works and why people don’t see bicycles and motorcycles even when looking directly at them. The article said that size, motion and contrast were the key ellements that cause people to be more likely to you. After reading that article, I built a 5-foot rooster tail LED light for my bike. I run it day and night. I notice now that I don’t get the stutter start of cars starting to pull out and then seeing me and stopping, so I think I’m a lot more visible.

    I would like to see a standard for bike lights that uses green LEDs in a signature blinking pattern that would be consistent no matter who is making it. This would make bikes instantly recognizable at night and easily distinguishable from vehicle lights.

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  • Todd Edelman May 24, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    I take it back… what I said earlier. We really need to make all this Libertarian male hyper-illumination/lux-narcissism stuff illegal.

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    • q`Tzal May 28, 2013 at 12:43 am

      Don’t worry, it’ll happen the same time we take away your freedom of speech.

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  • Spoke May 29, 2013 at 5:15 am

    From my experience, static lights get lost in the cityscape, while I can get cars to to pull over with flashing ones. Mind you this relates to Toronto streets where we have a third world bike infastructure.

    What was this article about again?…

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