On Lights

A basic selection of bike lights.

Assortment of Bike Lights

It’s that time of year. This Sunday (Nov. 4) marks the end of daylight savings time. Days are getting shorter and it’s getting harder to find the time to ride without artificial light. Luckily, lighting designed for cyclists has progressed at a rapid pace in the last few years, getting brighter, longer lasting, smaller, lighter, and less expensive to get the really quality stuff. Here’s a primer on how to select a light:

Bike lights can be separated into two basic categories: so you can see, and so you can be seen. Everybody wants to see until they notice the price, so realistically assess your needs before making a decision. Do you just need something to keep you visible to motorists in your well-lit neighborhood around dusk and early morning? Are you commuting across town? Are you riding in the woods at night?

Here’s the text of the law in Florida from FloridaBicycle.org as it applies to bike lighting:

A bicycle operated between sunset and sunrise must be equipped with a lamp on the front exhibiting a white light visible from 500 feet to the front and both a red reflector and a lamp on the rear exhibiting a red light visible from 600 feet to the rear.

So at a minimum, you need one front and one rear light. For this reason, packaged sets containing both are very popular (generally $25 to $40). These won’t light the way for you, but they will keep you visible to other people.

You can also buy a front light and a rear light packaged separately, which obviously gives you many more choices.

Rear lights mostly range from $10 (for the most basic ones) and $40 (for the really bright stuff that’s visible to a mile or more). Most work on AAA or AA batteries and last for years, but there’s some interesting USB rechargeable stuff that’s out now as well. Some have rubberized parts that wrap around the seat-post or seat-stay, others come with a clamp that tightens around the seat-post, and many have a belt clip that can go on a seat bag, backpack, or even your belt. Get something flashy and stick it back there.

Front lights. Here’s where the range really broadens. The most basic front lights run from $10 to $45 and aren’t really that different than the back light except they’re white instead of red. Basically, they have flash and steady modes and catch someone’s attention in the dark. They will not navigate you out of the woods at night, but if you know your route and it’s generally clean and problem free, you’ll be compliant with the law and reasonably visible. These are lights for recreational cyclists.

Commuters and fitness riders that are often out after dark can benefit from spending a little more on a good light. There’s some amazing stuff in the $50 to $90 range now. Most of the lights in this category are lithium ion USB rechargeable, 200+ lumens, and last for several hours. Some are helmet mountable. This class of light is designed to light the way for you. That pot hole? You’ll see it. Pesky unlit cyclists and pedestrians? You’ll see them too, and you’ll see them far enough in front that you have time to react (unless you’re fast like JC). If you ride in the dark more than once a week, it’s worth considering a light in this class. You’ll be amazed at how much you can see, and you’ll feel safer and more confidant.

That leaves the really good stuff; mostly designed for enthusiasts. High end bike lights are fricking amazing, and getting more amazing all the time. Lights coming out this season have tripled in brightness in the last 4 years, while costs have gone down. Several 400 to 700 lumen lights are available under $200. All are lithium ion USB rechargeable and most are mountable either to handlebar or helmet. Look for brands like NightRider, Cygolite, and Light & Motion. These will get you out of the woods at night. In fact, with these lights, you can head into the woods at night, and people regularly do. That mountain bike trail that’s starting to get boring? Ride it at night. It’s like a new trail. The best setups, in our opinion, involve a good (200 lumens or more) light on the handlebar, and a great (400 lumens or more) light on your helmet. That way you can see in the direction you’re pointed, and where you’re looking (not always the same thing). Be careful when wearing a helmet light not to look at people faces (it’s the same as pointing a flashlight in their eyes).

That’s about it. Go by your local bike shop and talk to the staff about lights. Have them show you a couple. Take one in the bathroom and turn off the overhead light. Reclaim the dark half of your day and get back on the bike!

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About Josh Bolick

Josh Bolick works at Florida State University Libraries in the Office of Scholarly Communication.
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