Saturday, August 14, 2010

How brightly lit are you? Tail lights and other stories

My friends and I in Zendogs try to ride safely and probably since I spend the most time in heavy traffic, I am the most concerned. My getup reflects this:

Bright, flashing lights - front and rear

Amongst other factors and some good luck, lights are a significant part of keeping safe in both day and night. I have always been willing to fork out cash for lights which help keep me safe. And I have been surprised when some cyclists are hesitant about doing likewise. I am puzzled when cyclists on expensive racers speed by on an early morning ride, just as poorly lit as the foreign worker on some ramshackle bicycle, who is always held up as the epitome of the unsafe cyclist.

The lack of demand for good lights by local cyclists has meant a limited range in neighbourhood bicycle shops. We used to travel to specific shops from word of mouth recommendations just to get a particular type of light. Eventually, more of us travelled overseas for work and internet purchasing became easier and good lights were no longer inaccessible.

I suspect with the greater effort at highlighting road safety advocacy in recent years (see this SSC booklet), there has been an improvement and more cyclists have geared up with lights. And with the greater demand, some local shops are stocking pretty good lights. An example can be seen in this recent discussion on rear lights in local cycling forum Togoparts.

My staple light for about a decade now has been a Planet Bike Blinky 3H Helmet Mounted Rear Light - we bought extra for most of my cycling kakis, the Zendogs, as a helmet-mounted light significantly improves a cyclists' visibility. Variously I have had a 4-LED Sigma Cuberider and a 5-LED Cateye TL-LD610, happily replaced by a friend when the previous one went kaput. Add to the mix fully charged batteries each time I emerge for a ride and I'm visible!

SIGMA SPORT® online - Bike Computer, Heart Rate Monitor, Lighting
Planet Bike Blinky 3H Helmet Mounted Rear Light - Mountain Equipment Co-op. Free Shipping Available
Cateye - Tl-ld610


I read with great interest that Sigma Cuberider now has a version II with five LEDs and 2 x AAA batteries instead of single size N battery. I have to get that!

Weak batteries can eliminate the effectiveness of your best lights, so my kakis and I will report on each others' roadworthiness, e.g. my comments here:

"Ladybug had her three rear lights on the way down to ECP last Sunday and she could be easily seen from far She had on a Planet Bike helmet rear light and that really great Sigma Cuberider with the odd-size N battery that was popular about four years ago plus *drum roll* a "no-brand" red flashing light on her back from a retired Citicab driver, courtesy of his daughter - Citicab apparently gave it to drivers in case of breakdowns and it's very bright!

In contrast, I could not see another rider who had just one weak light on her seat post. Guess she needed to change the batteries!"

A Zendogs conversation

On 20-21 Mach 2009, I chatted with my fellow cycling kakis about tail lights which I reproduce here for a quick impression on rear tail light options (US$ values link to the relevant Amazon Store pages). If you have recommendations, know of local shops selling such lights and local prices, do pitch in with comments - thanks!

Sivasothi wrote:
"I've been looking at bicycle tail lights and was thrown off by the lingo which prevents direct comparisons, candlelight, lumens and wattage.E.g. this Cateye chart uses candlepower.

Without any consideration for weight, battery life, battery type or cost, these top contenders emerged very quickly:

NiteRider Cherry Bomb
Great reviews, a new light on the market. US$25.
NiteRider Cherry Bomb

Planet Bike Blinky Super Flash
Also very popular and has a white version for the front - US$19.
Blinky Super Flash

Other contenders

Blackburn Mars 4.0
LED's: 1w Ultra Bright Red, 2 amber side. US$25.
Blackburn / 2009 / Mars 4.0

Marpac Foxfire
LED's: 26 "Super Bright", 360┬║ Illumination. US$25.
LEDSafetyLites.com - products

Chi wrote:

"Hi Siva,

The units measure different things (lm, W, and cd) and conversion between lm and cd is possible if you know the solid angle of radiation. Between lm and W, you can also convert but this may not be an entirely realistic conversion as it is based on one wavelength only and may be affected by other items such as efficiency and optical characteristics of the housing/lens.

Anyway, with lights, if they can give the units to you in cd (or mcd – thousandth of a candela), that would be sufficient. The one below is a good one. Guaranteed that you would be seen from far away as the leds are spaced out over several angles.

For lights with LEDs and units in Watts, anything more than ½ W to 1 W is bright enough. However, this unit just refers to the power required by the LED to generate the brightest possible output. Does not take into account the optics of the plastic housing or lens. So if your lens or housing is badly designed (or say scratched), that maximum brightness seen by an observer will be reduced accordingly.

In our riding conditions, after settling for the brightness of the light, I would also take a look at dispersion angle for visibility, environmental protection (IP rating or waterproofness), and battery life."

Sivasothi wrote:
"The angles on the Cateye TL-LD610 (3 x AAA) are why it is my sole tail light now (apart from the Planet Bike helmet-mounted rear light) - a wider view might be offered by the Nite Rider Cherry Bomb.

I have the Cateye strapped on to the left seat stay since the gear cable runs along the right. This light is thus viewable at a distance but only from left-approaching vehicles.

For rIght-approaching vehicles I am relying on reflection by my bright-coloured cycling jersey and ankle straps. Proximal alerts will otherwise come from the helmet light. So adding a below-saddle tail light angled to the right will help.

The other thing I am looking for is a small, white light for the helmet now. But that's another story."
Loh Tse-Lynn wrote:
"I have the Planet Bike 1/2 watt Super Flash and I love it. The flash pattern is very distinctive and draws attention. For a little one, it packs a powerful flash. The roads here (Wilmington, NC, USA) tend to be unlit and it gives me confidence to commute at night. Currently my front light is the Planet Bike Blaze 1 watt. Good stuff."
Sivasothi wrote:
"Planet Bike supports bicycle advocacy and their lights were good, so our lights were all Planet Bike when Ladybug got them in Canada. Busted most of them since! But they were not as strong as our current lights.

From what I read, the Super Flash is one of the lightest at that power rating, so the weight freaks will love it for this as well."
Note: There is some suggestion that the Taiwanese SMART light I have see on sale in several stores these days may be the OEM version of Planet Bike's Blinky Superflash. They certainly look alike! For sure this too strong for a group ride except for the "last man" to use.

What about headlamps?

There are two types of front lights - flashing front lights to alert others to your presence and constantly-lit headlamps which help light your way. I am rarely in significant darkness so have never really explored headlamps. Flashing front lights are a critical part of any cyclists gear and the light and movement help to announce your presence to other road users. I have been reasonably satisfied with a 5 LED, 170 cd (at centre of light) Cateye HL-EL210/220 which I bought for about $55 one night before heading into the Coastal PCN. It was real handy!

There are the much brighter HL-EL-320 (1004 cd centre) or the lighter and waterproof HL-EL450 (400 cd centre; 3 x A3 batteries so half the battery life) - the latter costs US$34 and has a swivel mount which you can direct sideways, a useful option when cycling past junctions with vehicles turning in sideways to cut across your lane.
Amazon.com: Cateye HL-EL450 Compact OptiCube


Besides Cateye, there is Sigma with Cubelight II and many others as well as Planet Bike's US$19 Blinky Superflash Tail Light (comes in white) or the US$65 Topeak WhiteLite HP 3-Watt Bicycle Light.

Amazon.com: Topeak WhiteLite HP 3-Watt Bicycle Light


WhIle I want to be able to grab attention adequately from amongst traffic, I don't want to blind fellow road users temporarily. I would like to evaluate my light coming from a distance amidst traffic to determine its effectiveness at alerting an oncoming driver.

On the other hand, already at this light's intensity, I am careful to prevent blinding pedestrians when I join a PCN by switching the light to constant mode (i.e. not blinking) and pointing it downwards.

For the rare occasions I do need a headlight to light up my path, this US$60 Cateye HL-EL530 LED Bicycle Headlight looks like an attractive option. It is 100g heavier than my current light but is waterproof and the centre of beam is about 10x brighter at 1658 cl. – gosh, why don't I already own this?

Amazon.com: Cateye HL-EL530 LED Bicycle Headlight

Ride safe everyone!

Links to reviews (do suggest)
  • "Bicycle lighting product reviews," by Jason Ng. Jay's Cheesy Website V1.1, c/ Aug 2009 - link.

3 comments:

Terence said...

Great article! Thanks!

Sivasothi said...

"Mount more lights on bicycle"
The Straits Times, Forum Online, 21 Aug 2010

DRIVING along Bukit Timah Road on weekends at around 6.30am when it is still dark, I always come across cyclists.

Most of the time they keep close to the kerb on the left lane. Since I intend to turn left at the end of the road I normally drive on the left lane.

Often I become aware of the cyclist only when I get close and notice the blinking light. I quickly steer to the right to avoid the cyclist. If I don't do so, I will pass very close to the cyclist and a little misjudgment on my part or a little wobble by the cyclist could have serious consequences.

Because it is early in the morning and there are few cars on the road, I have been fortunate so far to avoid an accident. Most of the time I do not spot the cyclist earlier because the blinking light is not bright enough.

I wonder if instead of a single light, all cyclists should have twin lights mounted slightly apart.

I also wonder if cyclists should keep close to the kerb of left lanes, since it is quite easy not to notice them, and easy to side-swipe them. If cyclists are allowed to use roads, why not cycle in the centre of the left lane, in the same way that motorcyclists are supposed to?

Tan Lee Kheng (Ms)

Anonymous said...

I use 2 x 3600 lumen headlight and a 500 lumen taillight