Safety is a funny concept these days. Lots of people want absolutely as much of it as they can get; and what was safe enough last year, or five years ago, is now just too dangerous for them.
Does a car have only 5 airbags? Then it’s time to buy a new one, with ten airbags, because that’s obviously safer. Is the playground equipment ten years old? Then it should be replaced, because this year’s stuff is safer, and it doesn’t matter that no kid’s been hurt. One might call this safety inflation: “Always strive to be safer. You can’t be too safe!”
Of course, this idea has long affected bicycling. And one of the big “bike safety” things these days is visibility. Once, people rode bikes in whatever clothing they liked - casual everyday clothes, or even dresses or skirts for the women, or sport coats and ties for the men. (And they still do this in countries where bikes are mostly for transportation!) But then we were told that bright colors were safer. Eventually “day-glo” colors were invented. Soon lots of riders went to fabrics that almost seemed to glow in the dark, and colors actually found in nature were no longer recommended - because you can’t be too safe!
Next, in the 1990s, LED blinky lights became available. The new technology meant a red blinky taillight could last for weeks and weeks on a couple little batteries. This was great, because it finally made it easy to meet Ohio’s legal requirement for a taillight at night. But some riders decided what’s good at night must be good in the daytime. Sagging NEOC, as I’ve done for decades, I started seeing blinking LEDs in the daytime, too. After all, you can’t be too safe.
Then, in the 2000s, bright white LEDs became available. Their energy efficiency meant headlight batteries lasted longer, and the new technology allowed them to blink. Sure enough, there are now folks claiming that a cyclist is foolish to omit blinking lights front and rear, even in daytime - because you can’t be too safe!
Since then, LED technology has further improved. The number of lumens (or light output) has risen and risen. There are now bike headlights and taillights that match the brightness of those on a car. And there are more and more riders who say “I gotta have that! You can’t be too safe!”
But let me return to my NEOC sagging experience. Having passed hundreds and hundreds of riders over the years, I’ll note that in almost every case, I’ve seen a cyclist long before I’ve noticed whether he has a blinky or not. Yes, for some high level of light intensity - some glaring amount of light - that may someday not be true. But in almost all daylight conditions, I still notice the light only after I’ve noticed the cyclist.
More importantly, I’ve always noticed the cyclist in plenty of time, usually from hundreds of yards away. Even if a glaring set of lights gave notice at 300 yards instead of 200 yards, it wouldn’t make a practical difference. Without the lights, a motorist would still have perhaps ten seconds to adjust speed or steer around. That’s plenty of time! Try counting it out and visualizing!
(Worried about texting motorists? I’ll just note that bike fatalities have trended down quite a bit in the years that texting has become popular. Even texting motorists have to look at the road much more often than once every ten seconds. And there are still over ten million miles ridden between bike fatalities. “Fear from the rear” is still not justified.)
You might wonder, though - what’s the downside? Why not recommend bright colors and bright lights for any time you’re on a bike?
There are several reasons I don’t like the idea. One is the effect of “safety inflation” on those who don’t join the latest protective trend. I’d hate to see a cyclist (or pedestrian) blamed for getting hit by a car, because he didn’t have a thousand lumen flashing light, day-glow clothing, or anything else. It is the motorist’s duty to watch where he’s going, after all!
But another reason is a bit more selfish. There are some headlights and taillights that are literally blinding to other riders. Complaints are popping up in cycling magazines and in online articles and discussions, and I’ve experienced the problem myself. Part of the problem is that, unlike car headlights, most bike lights sold in America are optically primitive. They have round beams with no “cut off,” so the brightest part of the beam extends up into the eyes of others. And when most people aim their bike lights, they don’t consider whether there might be a bad effect on others - whether their lights are irritating, or even blinding.
Why not check out your own lights? In the past I’ve run some Night Lighting Workshops for the club, in which volunteers rode others’ bikes to help people observe and evaluate their own lights. Maybe I’ll do that again this summer; but you can test your own lights with any helper. Have someone ride, or at least hold, your bike. As they do that, check out your own lights from reasonable distances away. Do it in daylight, dusk and darkness. You’ll probably see - as almost everyone has - that your bike is much more visible than you thought it was. And remember, it doesn’t have to be seen from half a mile away!
And when you observe your own lights, what if you find that your headlight or taillight might be glaring to other riders? Please, tilt it downward a bit! Find a position where it’s noticeable enough, but not blinding.
Understand, I’m not saying our club colors should be dark green and camouflage brown. There’s no harm in wearing bright clothing (although I strongly believe it should not be required). And while lights are legally required only after sunset, a reasonable light might help a bit under certain circumstances, like in a shaded area at dusk.
But bicycling isn’t so dangerous that you need to scorch others’ retinas!
- Frank Krygowski, OSW Safety Chairman