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BikePortland Podcast: The Great Blinking Light Debate (and more)

Posted by on July 23rd, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Bike Light Parade

Just lights to some people, but an
annoyance — and even a health hazard — for others.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Why would someone spray paint an angry, profanity-laced message about “epileptic lights” on a bikeway? Well, as the story we posted earlier this month illustrates, there’s a lot more to the topic of bike lights than you might think.

With that in mind Michael Andersen, Lillian Karabaic (our wonderful producer) and I tackled the topic of lights in the most recent episode of the BikePortland Podcast.

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We were joined in studio by Halley Weaver, author of the Bikeleptic blog. Halley is not only an everyday bike rider, she also has photo-sensitive epilepsy, a condition that impacts her riding experience. For instance, she’s been a volunteer for the Portland World Naked Bike Ride for the past six years, but she can’t actually participate in the ride because of all the blinking bike lights used by the thousands of participants.

In this episode, Halley shares the straight dope on how your light choices can have serious health impacts on her and other road users with epilepsy — and how to make bike lighting choices that can minimize those impacts.

We also discuss the science behind nighttime visibility, the lack of lights as standard equipment on bikes sold in the U.S., and much more.

Have a listen for yourself…

And if you’re wondering about the fun song played during the intro, check out the video here.

You can subscribe to our monthly podcast with Stitcher or iTunes, subscribe by RSS, sign up to get an email notification each time we upload a new episode, or just listen to it above using Libsyn. Listen to past episodes here.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Mike Ingrassia
Guest

It’s my instinct to not use blinky lights. The front one disorientated me, and is much more useful as a solid, path illuminating, beam.

When I was first in town, I caught a ride with a part time bike commuter in her car, I remember her saying “I get it, I see you, do you also have to give me a seizure?”

Focusing more on the fact that it annoyed drivers, I decided to not use the blink function on the rear either. Drivers are generally in an altered state, operating a weapon at high speeds. The experience drains money from them by the minute. I don’t want to piss them off any more than I need to.

But seizures are a really good reason too.

Visibility wise, there is no mistaking a bright stable taillight for something your car should hit.

Alan 1.0
Guest
Alan 1.0

Jonathan, can you document that Germany has banned blinking lights (as you say in the podcast)? What I’ve been able to find says that Germany allows an optional blinking rear light in addition to the mandatory solid red rear light.

spare_wheel
Guest
spare_wheel

I’ve cycled without lighting countless times and have never once felt unsafe. While I use lighting during my winter commutes, I do so to see the road. I’m not at all convinced that bicycle lights are necessary in an urban environment where roads are lit by street lights.

As far as I can tell there is little evidence that bicycle lighting significantly reduces risk in urban areas. And there is some evidence that lights could under some circumstances increase risk (moth effect).

Pedestrians are at greater risk than cyclists in most cities but they are not required to wear lighting. Why is there a double standard for cyclists?

I would like to emphasize that while the Netherlands requires cyclists to use lighting, many people cycle without lighting. Despite this blatant flouting of lighting requirements cycling at night in the Netherlands is incredibly safe.

It has never been sufficiently studied whether carrying bicycle lights by cyclists actually benefits road safety; therefore, no clearcut conclusions can be drawn about this issue.

http://www.swov.nl/rapport/Factsheets/UK/FS_Cycling_in_the_dark.pdf

Ciaran
Guest
Ciaran

I think Ms. Weaver vastly overstates the prevalence of epilepsy when she claims that 10% of the US population suffers from it.

Prevalence and Incidence
Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder in the United States after migraine, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. About one percent of Americans have some form of epilepsy, and nearly four percent (1 in 26) will develop epilepsy at some point in their lives. The number of Americans who have epilepsy is greater than the number who have multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and cerebral palsy combined. 10% of Americans will have at least one seizure at some point in their lives.

Source: http://www.epilepsymichigan.org/page.php?id=358

John Stephens
Guest
John Stephens

I use a blinking 600 lumen light during my commute, mostly in the mornings, and during daylight hours. I do this because it seems to be the only thing that makes car drivers stop before pulling out in front of me. I know it may be considered an obnoxiously bright light by other cyclists, and I truly regret that–but I don’t want to get hit by a car, and usually I’ll have at least one car a day pull in front of me when I don’t have the strobe light on.

paikiala
Guest
paikiala

Ive heard that changing from a pattern to random flash can alleviate this issue.
http://www.ask.com/wiki/Photosensitive_epilepsy

Fire vehicles use a digital pattern strobe to trigger signals to turn green (Opticom) – how about them?

jlaudolff
Guest
jlaudolff

I had many close calls with drivers pulling out into traffic when I did not use a strobing headlight. Those close calls are non-existent now that I use a strobing headlight.

I never ever use the strobing or blinking headlight on a multi-use path or where oncoming bikes are in close proximity to me.

We definitely need a standard for this to support the use of strobing lights on streets. Standards for brightness and aim of lights would increase effectiveness and reduce annoyances.

We also need cyclist education to remove all strobing lights from multi-use paths.

Alan 1.0
Guest
Alan 1.0

trying to reply…get a message that just says “error” below this comment form…

Alan 1.0
Guest
Alan 1.0

Yes, I heard that part, too, but (a) I don’t see an authoritative source for that quote (I suspect it comes from http://chicargobike.blogspot.com/2013/04/stvzo-german-bicycle-requirements-make.html) and …

Moleskin
Guest
Moleskin

I definitely agree re. strobing lights on multi-use paths (applies also to overly bright non-strobing lights that aren’t pointed down at the ground, unless they have a dipped beam to start with like some dynamo lights). It’s impossible to see what you are headed into when passing someone going the other way with one of these lights at night on a dark path – for example a pedestrian on your side of the path, and the strobing in the dark is particularly hard to look at.

600 flashing lumens sounds a bit excessive anywhere to me! For not being pulled out into, a helmet-mounted light seems to work ok to me; it doesn’t get hidden behind parked vehicles near intersections so easily, and you can aim it a bit (I turn it off on the Springwater!)

Jake
Guest
Jake

When I’m a driver I find it easier to identify cyclist when they have blinking lights, esp. In poor weather.
The high power front lights are painful to look at, but more power to you for getting noticed.
Speaking of bike safety. I keep seeing people wearing helmets incorrectly. Loose straps and helmets tipped up and back so that it’s past their hairline.

gutterbunnybikes
Guest
gutterbunnybikes

I do know that when fire alarms are installed in new buildings they clear the building (or floor on bigger buildings) while they adjust the frequency of the lighting sequence.

I was told that their many conditions that can have reactions to light flashes which is why they clear everyone out but the installers. I didn’t really ask for specifics, perhaps next time I will.

reader
Guest
reader

I use lights at night (and sometimes during the day). When I have occasionally ridden off during daylight hours and then found myself out after dark without lights, my first concern has always been getting a ticket on the way home, not visibility.

Daniel
Guest
Daniel

I use a red light that alternates between 5 LEDs but doesn’t change between fully on and fully off for my rear light, and my front light has a pattern that blinks twice quickly, holds on the second blink for a while, and then slowly fades it down to black before starting again.

I’m guessing neither of them has the potential to trigger a seizure in anybody, although I haven’t tested that yet, and they’re certainly much less annoying to look at. However, they are much more noticeable than a steady light and the front actually draws a pretty good compromise between getting attention and throwing enough light on the road surface that I can see potholes in dark areas.

ChristopherR
Guest
ChristopherR

Since I have to put up with 200 decibel motorcycles 24/7, for their “safety” …..I will keep my blinking lights, thank you very much. 8 years of cycling commuting experience has taught me the more annoying the light, the more chance I will make it to where Im going….

Pat
Guest
Pat

The lights are manufactured with the capacity to strobe. If there is strong evidence that this is medically a problem, then action should be taken to change this. This may take some doing by those sensitive to blinking (e.g., American Epilepsy Society), and will certainly required some strong medical evidence. OTH – I agree that cars more readily stop when they see the blinking light and less likely to pull out in front of me – at least in the USA. I have ridden in Denmark – where biking reigns supreme. Bikes are an expected part of the environment and drivers are far more vigilant. We were never harassed and never had cars pulling out in front of us. I never felt a need to have any day-time lights and never saw them on others. Night-time lights did not blink. Finally – it is good practice, regardless of your bike setting, to keep it tilted to the road and not in the eyes of oncoming traffic.

davemess
Guest
davemess

So can I create evidence by going out on my street at night? You’ll stand two block away wearing dark clothes and I’ll compare how easily I can see you with a light shining at me, or no light.
I”m going to go out on a limb and hypothesize that I’m going to see you better with the light (and my house is pretty much directly under a streetlight).

Alan 1.0
Guest
Alan 1.0

Oh, Lily also mentioned motorcycles. Some motorcycles do use pulsing lights (slower modulation than flashing or blinking) to increase visibility, and studies have been done that indicated improved safety (but the studies I saw on that were decades ago).

Tom
Guest
Tom

The higher frequencies are biggest issue for seizures. From 6 to 40Hz is the dangerous range. Keeping the frequency around low side, say 1Hz, would be best and still as or more affective. Emergency vehicles use flashing lights, they just use lower frequency ones, usually much less than 6Hz.

SeeSense in one light that uses a slow pulse, at a reasonable brightness, for steady state riding. When you make a turn or slow down, it briefly increases the intensity and brightness. I think the fact that its obvious the light correlates with bike movements potentially makes it useful. Drivers may pay more attention to lights that give them real information about movement, as do car break lights, versus just crazy fast high intensity annoying ones that remain the same all the time.

Maybe more bike lights should follow emergency vehicle frequency standards, adjust intensity for ambient light conditions, and focus on relaying information about changes in movement using accelerometers, light sensors, microwave motions detectors, etc. These sensors are mostly just a few bucks these days. Would be nice to have more light option like this. Smarter and less annoying.

CaptainKarma
Guest
CaptainKarma

Nobody will want to hear this: in my work, I escort down syndrome citizens around the outer east burbs on bicycles. Empirically derived, no amount or style or combination of lights make a significant difference in near misses by motor vehicles. What gets instant visibility, respect and civilty are safety vests.

ac
Guest
ac

there is also a difference in lumen output for many lights, especially in recent years

i don’t mind the old LED’s since the output was not so high — and they were never going to light your way when in the constant mode, even on a dark corridor like springwater

the high output blinkies are noticeably annoying, but the old ones, not so much

Mike
Guest
Mike

Does the moth effect apply to emergency vehicles or cyclists or both. Also, as people have mentioned here before please be respectful of our homeless population and please turn down your lights. You may sacrifice your safety but at least you won’t annoy others.

Ed sander
Guest
Ed sander

I live in a rural forested area with no bike lanes on the pacific bike trail. I find that Blinking lights provide little visibility enhancement The rider wearing bright light clothing is the best visual enhancement. The blinking lights may actually be a negative because they do catch the eye of the driver. However in driving, the vehicle follows the eye. causing an inadvertent danger. The very bright blinking lights have been jokingly called epileptic sezure lights It seems that this was not such a joke. The use of very brite lights at night are a mixed blessing. maybe ok for the user, but terrible for the oncoming traffic. They also produce a contrast gradient that leaves areas not illuminated invisible. You must be able to ride within your cone of illumination Bright lights must be accurately aimed or they become a menace. Like lighten up and slow down

o.w.k.a
Guest
o.w.k.a

i use blinking front and back during the day/dusk–solid beam front and blinking rear when it is full-dark–also wear a yellow hi-viz jacket with huge reflective strips all over it AND have lights on my backpack. sometimes i even wear a helmet light–scandalous!
i cannot tell you how many times i have almost creamed other cyclists who choose to ride ninja when it is dark–i frankly admit that i did not see them until the very last second, because, hey-it is dark out and they were all in black/dark colors. that infamous “no-viz” look.
and they had the balls to curse me out. the majority of these unfortunates were not only riding ninja–but were also salmoning towards me!! i literally have no insight whatsoever into what made them think either practice was an intelligent choice to make. the downtown Waterfront MUP is the worst for safety-deficient riders–attracts them like ants to honey. after riding in PDX for only 4 years i admit i am pretty burnt out on being responsible for how everyone else conducts themselves on the road–not just myself. SERIOUSLY considering leaving PDX since bike transit is most likely going to decline and suck major as more people move here in the next decade.

Carey Booth
Guest
Carey Booth

I have installed magnetic induction lights on all of my family’s bikes. The Danish version (Reelight) is kind of pricey, but there are knock offs that seem to work fine too. The magnets are mounted on the spokes and the lights are mounted on the axles. They seem hard to steal. Different models can also be mounted higher with wiring. Ours flash at variable speeds as they are linked to the wheel movement. They also have a capacitor that keeps the flashing on the rear light for a couple of minutes leading to helpful people reminding you to turn your light off. I use it as an opportunity to spread the word about these great lights.

I also use a USB rechargeable on the handlebars and small lights front and back on my helmet and rear rack and lights for side visibility in both wheels. The front one changes color in a rainbow pattern. For reflectors I find the reflective whitewall tires to be great for side visibility, and I added reflective tape to my favorite metal pant leg clips.

I know it’s a bit excessive, but it’s also bike light art and small children have exclaimed as I ride by, which is fun.

Alan 1.0
Guest
Alan 1.0

I just ran across this reference from Crosscut, Nov 2013, Bike bullies: Turn off those blinking lights!:

RCW 46.37.280 declares that “flashing lights are prohibited except as required in [emergency situations], warning lamps authorized by the state patrol, and light-emitting diode flashing taillights on bicycles.” (Emphasis added.) The exemption for taillights confirms that bicycle headlights are included in the prohibition.

So, blinking front lights are illegal in Washington. I’ve never heard of anyone cited or hassled for them, but that seems to be the law.

Tromp
Guest
Tromp

I tried different types of blinking/flashing lights on my Cortina, but in this days is a normal steady beam better than before. Some years ago, the led’s were not as strong as now. The Sigma roadster is a perfect solution, for all kind of bicycles. Here in the Netherlands is a blinking or flashing light no problem at all. The most Cortina U4 models have LED with battery as front light, https://www.fietsweb.nl/nl/cortina-u4-transport
This front leds can only give a steady lightbeam.