Gimmick or godsend? My review of the NiteRider Sentinel with “Laser Lanes”

Posted by on November 17th, 2015 at 1:59 pm

The light has two lasers that project a bike lane on the road alongside your bike.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

A bike light that creates virtual bike lanes wherever you go? That’s the promise behind the NiteRider Sentinel 40, a rear light that comes with a special “laser lanes” mode that projects two bright lines on the ground around your bike.

With the days being so short this time of year, I was intrigued by the pitch from an old friend who works for NiteRider, the light company based in San Diego, California. They sent me a Sentinel recently and I’ve been using it for a few days now.

The light is larger in size than others I’ve used. It feels strong and well made. There are two buttons on the top of the light, one of them controls the light and the other controls the laser. The light and laser both have several modes so you can choose between a strobe, long flash, or steady (my preferred setting). Light many lights these days, the Sentinel is USB rechargable. The USB port at the bottom of the light and there’s a solid rubber closure attached to it that keeps the water out.

The light itself has a 40 lumen output, which is plenty bright for me.

Then there are the lasers. Lasers. I just like saying it. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old, but there’s still a part of me that gets excited when I think about lasers. Having two of them in my bike’s tail-light is like the coolest thing ever.

But beyond the coolness factor, are the Sentinel’s “laser lanes” really effective as a safety device? Or are they just a fun gimmick?

Testing the flashing mode on my office carpet.
via GIPHY

In their marketing materials, NiteRider says the lasers are “designed to project ultra bright laser lines on the ground, giving the rider their own virtual lane… so that cars can see when they’re getting a little too close.”

There’s no denying that the lasers are ultra bright. When I first turned them and then hit my legs, I almost felt like I should jump out of the way in case they burned right through my skin and shoes. When I snapped the light onto the mount on my seatpost (and I will point out that I like the rubber strap mount it comes with, which makes it easy to swap the light between different bikes) the laser lanes appeared just as advertised.

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They’re definitely impressive at first glance. And from my perspective looking down at them while I ride around town, they add a feeling of stature and strength. Yes it’s just a strip of light (and a darn skinny one at that), but it’s something. It’s as if I’ve drawn a line on both sides of my bike that says: “Don’t cross these things or there will be trouble.”

But the true test is whether or not other road users can see them, and more importantly, will they adjust their behavior when they do?

Here are a few shots of them in the field:

My legs cut off several feet of the lasers toward the front of my bike. Also, as you can see, the lanes are only about 4-feet wide.

This image was taken about 30 feet behind my bike. Do you think someone in a car could see the lasers from this distance?

While riding up North Williams the other night, a friend who had ridden up behind me said, “Cool lights.” Then when I asked if he could see them from any distance behind me he said not, “Not really. I didn’t notice them until I was right behind you.” Then there was the TriMet bus operator. He noticed them while I waited next to his bus at a red light. He was very intrigued. “What do you think of these lights? Can you see them?” I asked as he rolled down his window to get a closer look. “Oh yeah,” he said, “I can see them.”

The one test I haven’t done yet is to get behind the wheel of a car to see if the lasers are still visible as I approach someone on a bike. My hunch is that even if they were visible, the person on the bike would already be visible too, so I’d already be driving more carefully.

In some ways I’ve felt like the lights are more useful to improve interactions with other bicycle riders. I ride slowly around town and too often get passed rudely by others. With these lasers, it’s like I’ve got a personal space buffer that will keep others as a safe distance.

Like the bike lanes they aspire to be, these laser lanes won’t save your life. But if you’re looking for extra visibility, cool factor, and a fun conversation starter, they’re worth buying.

The Sentinel 40 retails for $49.99. Get more info at NiteRider.com.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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43 Comments
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    LC November 17, 2015 at 2:05 pm

    Maybe if the “lanes” were three feet minimum in either direction. This looks like it would just encourage close passes by automobile operators, if anyone was able to see it from a car in the first place.

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    soren November 17, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    This looks like a re-branding of the Xfire light that has been available for ~4 years.

    http://www.gizmag.com/xfire-bike-lane-safety-light/24282/

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      Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) November 17, 2015 at 2:10 pm

      Thanks for sharing that link soren.

      There’s also the Blaze light which projects a bike lane symbol in front of the rider. http://www.blaze.cc

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      Captain Karma November 17, 2015 at 2:36 pm

      I had one of those. Yes sounds cool, but yes washout. Didn’t notice much difference with car driver behavior, not as much as with a larger (not brighter) tail light, and the dreaded hi-viz jacket. Calls ’em as I see ’em, your mileage may vary.

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  • kiel johnson
    kiel johnson November 17, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    starting conversations is one of my favorite things about riding a bike. One should never dismiss the appeal of talking with other people about how cool your bike is, thanks for adding that!

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    FauxPorteur November 17, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    These laser+led lights definitely tug at my tech nerd heart strings, but low power red lasers are just going to get washed out by a cars headlights. I’d be interested in a dynamo powered version with higher intensity green lasers….

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    Travis November 17, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    They’d look pretty cool in dense fog.

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    Jeff Snavely November 17, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    pointless, just as they were years ago when the first ones came out.

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    Eric Leifsdad November 17, 2015 at 2:40 pm

    I have a $15 version with disposable batteries (sold as multiple random brand names on amazon) and the laser lines look about the same. I think they are more visible on dry pavement and on the white bike lane stripes than wet asphalt. The bus and truck drivers might see them better from the higher vantage point.

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      Todd Boulanger November 17, 2015 at 3:03 pm

      I was thinking the same thing: regarding the factors reducing / enhancing the product’s visibility to motorists.

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    Champs November 17, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    I’m surprised that it flashes. Surely it was just last week when NiteRider said that they were replacing those annoying modes with pulse.

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      Champs November 17, 2015 at 2:49 pm

      Oops, it was Light & Motion:

      “Pulse is the future of bike lights… [i]t is legal, whereas a flashing tail light is illegal in many places. It is also less obnoxious than a flash, yet equally noticeable to drivers.”

      Rock on, I still like my Supernova dynamo rig.

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    q`Tzal November 17, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    Thank you for this real world review.

    From the lack of contrast of the laser lines versus the tail light I think that the lasers would need to be powerful enough to be illegal.

    Or maybe 2 suitably powerful lasers could be purchased for $299 each: http://www.wickedlasers.com/inferno

    Either way you’ll definitely get law enforcement attention.

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      Todd Boulanger November 17, 2015 at 3:04 pm

      Or just 1 laser for your left side and get 2x the run time.

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    Todd Hudson November 17, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    Gimmick. I have enough things that require constant battery charge/replacement. I don’t need another.

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    Todd Boulanger November 17, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    It reminds me of the 1980s Danish accessory of the red reflector on a spring loaded wand that I used to have bolted to my rear rack.

    I remember when I saw my first NR Sentinel a few weeks ago (in the office). Impressed at the concept but waiting for a good road test (for all the points mentioned above).

    And sadly it still boils down to the fact that the drivers who need it the most still will not see it (distraction) and the cyclists most likely to have it already have good lighting/ propescuity (sp) to aware drivers.

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    eli bishop November 17, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    This is the saddest paragraph ever: “In some ways I’ve felt like the lights are more useful to improve interactions with other bicycle riders. I ride slowly around town and too often get passed rudely by others. With these lasers, it’s like I’ve got a personal space buffer that will keep others as a safe distance.” 🙁

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    Dan A November 17, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    My bike is fitted with lightsabers sticking out on either side. Very effective.

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    K'Tesh November 17, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    For some real changes in driver behavior, try Wheel BrightZ wheel lights (~$10@Walmart). I have a set of blue on the front and back wheel, and I’ve watched in my rearview mirror how cars coming up on me (I’m in the bike lane) will move from the near lane to the outside lane (or oncoming traffic lane) to give me space, then move back into the adjacent lane after passing me.

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      K'Tesh November 17, 2015 at 3:36 pm

      I should add, they look good in dry weather, but in wet they really stand out when you have good batteries in them (I replaced the batteries after 5 months).

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        poopoo November 18, 2015 at 4:30 pm

        Blue lights are reserved for emergency vehicles…

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    Josh Chernoff November 17, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    I’m just gonna leave this here.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bh7bYNAHXxw

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    Josh Chernoff November 17, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Also heres a sorta like concept idea I’v really wanted to see happen for a long time.
    http://www.thisiswhyimbroke.com/bicycle-grid-projector

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    m November 17, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    “The bus and truck drivers might see them better from the higher vantage point.”

    +1. Perfect solution? No. But a very cool tool.

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    BIKELEPTIC November 17, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    Kind of an amusing thing to note – I know someone that has one – and depending on how tall you are (or how “tall” your bike is rather: seat post or where you mount it etc) it can be compromised – she was having a ton of issues getting the laser lines to show before realizing that it was her fatter tires compromising the lights due to her lower post position. Just no clearance at all for the laser clearance on that bike… Something you might want to test before you buy if you’re a shorter rider…

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    Sam November 17, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    Tangent – Does anyone else let people with super-bright heads lights with an annoying blink pattern pass them? I find such lights distracting and have an adverse effect on my sightlines where there are coming up behind me. I imagine blinded drivers careening into bike lines if all cyclists used such lights.

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      Sam November 17, 2015 at 3:59 pm

      …when they are… (not where there) [I wish I could blame auto-correct]

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      Birke November 17, 2015 at 4:08 pm

      My problem has been getting stuck behind a cyclist with a bright, blinking tail light. I don’t know if people who use these lights use them both fore and aft, but if I sensed a lot of blinkage coming up behind me I’d be tempted not to let them pull in front just in case it was worse being behind them.

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      Abraham November 17, 2015 at 4:45 pm

      What do you mean, “let them pass?” As if you have control over that?

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        Patrick Barber November 17, 2015 at 5:29 pm

        Yes, you slow down, and the following rider passes you. I do it all the time in this situation, because the insanely bright blinkies reflect on the inside of my glasses and (ironically!) make it hard for me to see.

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          Abraham November 18, 2015 at 12:33 pm

          The comment I was replying to was making it sound as if they keep people from passing if they have blinking lights. Maybe I read the comment incorrectly?

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    Birke November 17, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    If these became widespread — and from the comments it sounds like they’re not gonna — my concern would be a different kind of safety. You’re not supposed to let lasers shine in your eyes, or your pets’ eyes, or whatever, and it doesn’t seem to me that mounting lasers on your bike would give you much control. As long as your bike is upright and the light is fixed in place, it’d be fine, but if not…

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    Kevin Wagoner November 17, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    I am confused. Is that a 3 foot passing area? If not, does it imply you can be inches of the laser lines? How early was the bus able to see you? In general I agree, more lights the better. I have 4 tail lights and 2 head lights. Yesterday on Barbur I had someone buzz me within inches and based on the photo if they stayed right outside the laser light I’m not sure I would feel that much safer.

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      Eric Leifsdad November 17, 2015 at 8:21 pm

      http://bicyclesafe.com/images/noodle.jpg <- I have setup my xtracycle with 2 taillights mounted on a length of grey pvc pipe which sticks out 16in on the left — in line with my elbow. Some drivers still pass closer than I would like, but it seems to help and maybe makes speed easier to judge by giving you a more visible width dimension. To the extent that these laser lines are visible from a distance, they may help in the same way just by marking a constant width reference.

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    Patrick Barber November 17, 2015 at 5:30 pm

    Jonathan, I can see both the gimmick and the real value of this product, but either way I enjoyed your detailed and well written review.

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    B. Carfree November 17, 2015 at 8:21 pm

    I had some not very positive interactions with the owner of NiteRider and three of his staff a decade ago. I would never, ever use another of their products. They sold a defective product and then refused to correct the situation. I was pleased when I was able to convince all but one of the local bike shops where I lived to drop them completely. It didn’t take much encouragement since I wasn’t alone in having received bad products from NiteRider and then having them behave badly.

    As a rule, I’ll forgive any defect, but the provider has to apologize and make a fair effort to make me whole. NiteRider failed on all counts.

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    Dead Salmon November 18, 2015 at 11:54 am

    Looks like a good idea IF car drivers can see it. Worth a try, but first defense is a flashing light that you KNOW they can see.

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    AIC November 18, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    Will the lasers slice apart anything that comes close to them??? Huh!? Huh?Thats what I want to know!

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    Ayleen November 19, 2015 at 9:07 am

    Phones that alert a pedaler when a driver is nearby the bike
    Cars that alert the driver when a bike is nearby
    Lasers on bikes
    Helmets that suggest safety tips

    Everyone’s trying to make bike riding safer in some way by introducing new technology. I love that technology can help solve problems and make lives easier and healthier, but in this case I think it’s misguided effort. Attentive road users who take their task seriously is our best solution.

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    Ayleen November 19, 2015 at 9:08 am

    (And thanks for the thoughtful review, Jonathan. I’ve been curious about that product for a while now.)

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    rubbervose November 21, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    i have a skull rear light that has two lasers like the above mentioned product. bought it because skulls are cool. lasers are cool too. when i made my purchase two years ago, and whenever i ride with them on no F’s are given about creating any lane, or if any driver can see the lasers. i see them and i like them and that is all that matters when i’m on my bike. the light is what matters, the lasers are just icing on my sweet cake of a bike.

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    Tomas LaPallela November 23, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    I got tailgated tonight by a fellow with a “bike symbol” headlamp. Very annoying. It was constantly bouncing around near my front wheel, like someone shining a laser pointer. Not looking forward to stuff like this catching on. I can only hope that dude’s batteries run out by mid-season and he neglects to replace ’em.

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    brictop April 3, 2016 at 12:45 pm

    I bought one of these for the fall/ winter of 2015-16. Great tail light, but one of the bike lane lasers stopped working (right side) after a few uses. I didn’t use it regularly during night rides, but given the defect, did not use it at all during the winter. buy the Solar–same light, watts, lumens, no lasers.

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