SHEDDING LIGHT

Afternoon, y’all.

Or, rather, kinda sorta evening already.

Another Autumnal Equinox has come and gone, and thus beginneth the creeping onset of nastily early-PM Northwest darkness. Hope you’ve been sleeping well, because your beloved eight-hour winks are about to wither and die an agonizing death as you commence that maddening slip into insomnia and overall winter-faced crankypantsness further compounded by imminent holiday stresses of full calendars, cross-country travel, and family get-togethers.

It's amazing how quickly this:

can turn into this:

 

Scared yet?

And so we enter that special time of year when the sun perpetually hangs low in the sky, like the whole day is one long orange-lit afternoon, and somehow even a morning ride manages to feel like a late-day one. Your inner Circadian sanctuary, suffering from a formidable lack of Vitamin D, now turns sideways as time warps into one big jet-lag, every time of day a shifty, spectral non-hour where no human being feels entirely comfortable in their own skin.

Or something like that. 

Hey, if you still expect me to sugarcoat it by now, you’re at the wrong blog, my friend.

Sheesh, am I afflicted already?

With the shortest day of the year having less than 8.5 hours of sunlight and a sunset around 4:15 P, things are bound to mess with your head (and physiology) a bit, at least until you adjust. But seriously—who ever really adjusts?

So chew your multis, take your Vit. D pills, keep up the exercise, and maybe look into one of those faux-natural light things for your living room. They supposedly work.

In the meantime, check this out:

 

 

Hopefully, you'll appreciate its insight into the impending screwyness of things and why you may find within yourself a sudden desire to murder people.

Blame the axis, yo.

...

But, you know, don't like actually kill people.

 

 

Doom and gloom aside, cyclists are going to be facing the serious challenges that come with our annual change in limbic tides and solar fluxes. Us bike commuters that had previously enjoyed comfortably (and safely) daylit conditions at 7, 8, even 9 PM will soon be cranking under an inky shroud of Wes Craveny ambience, though ideally without all the shrieking, hacking, and death-by-knife-handed men. (Big ups to the maestro, btw, without whom I would have undoubtedly slept more peacefully in my youth. Damn you, Freddy Krueger.)

 

Wait—wrong Freddy.
But holy crap that was cool.

 

 

YOU.
I HATE YOU SO MUCH.

 

(But seriously, Wes, we miss you.)

 

All this in mind, everybody will need to be adequately prepared, and that means getting your hands on a set of these:

 

 

Now, if you’ll indulge for a moment, how about a show of hands:

How many of you actually own bike lights/reflectors?

*counts raised arms*

Okay. Not bad, not bad. Not great—but not bad.

But you there sheepish looking folks with your hands at your sides? Go get some. It’s the law, and bike lights save lives, so don’t be a yachter about it.

Now that we’re past the easy part, the actual obtaining of the lights, let’s move on to the surprisingly difficult bit.

How does one properly use them?

Believe it or not, this part is actually up for debate.

A cheeky so-and-so might say to just put the white one up front, point it at oncoming traffic, and slap the red one under your butt facing the tailgaters and call it a day (see what I did there?). Though, really, that’s only about half the story. Cyclists, motorists, pedestrians, law enforcement, politicians—everybody has their own opinion on the best way to use head/tail lights on a bike to maximize safety for all parties, and that last part is really the key: "for all parties."

Basically, every stance ends up pertaining to three variable features of the bike light:  1) light brightness (measured in watts, candelas, or lumens), 2) light angle (pointed down at the road versus directly ahead), and, of course, 3) the dreaded “strobe” effect.

Ready to dig into this week’s soapbox-fest? Alrighty then.

 

 

Lights and reflectors haven’t always been a required piece of equipment for bicycles. For Washington, that law didn't come until in 1975, but people have been using bike lights to help illuminate both themselves and the road for centuries. Oil lamps have been in production since 1876, with carbide- and electric-powered lamps arriving in 1888 and 1899 respectively.
 
We've definitely come a long way from these bar-mounted beauties:

 

 Pretty badass though, right?

 

Here's a scenario: Ask any urban cyclist what the purpose of bike lights is. Speaking from anecdotal experience, they'll probably tell you that the primary reason to have lights is to be seen by others rather than to help the cyclist see the road.

False—especially so in a place like Germany, that has strictly-enforced bike laws dictate both brightness and lamp angle, prohibit shining lights directly at other vehicles, and outlaw operating any flashing lights—front, rear, or otherwise.

"Come on, Germany," I hear you lament. "Why you gotta pile it on to us poor beleaguered roadies?"

Sure, cyclist have to scrape and claw for both respect and road space as it is, and this plight is only exacerbated by nighttime conditions. I know plenty of you have been t-boned at night because an oncoming car didn't see you, headlamps and all, so you're going to make yourselves as neon fluorescent as possible to keep yourselves safe. My own history of getting hit by a driver while I used a solid (non-flashing) headlight has definitely shaped how I use my lights, and I admit that I rock strobes when staring down cars in the street. I can also get a little snippy defensive when someone, especially a motorist, suggests that my lights shouldn't be so annoying, that the flashing disco-effect is distracting and potentially dangerous. "If anything," my gut says, "my lights should be annoying. That way, you're less likely to hit me, you f***."

But as Eric Scigliano brilliantly put it over at Crosscut, this attitude represents a "sociopathic sense of personal security and a belief that safety is a zero-sum game that can only be won at the expense of someone else’s."

We all—myself included—need to learn to curb that instinctual response because, guess what?

Strobing bike lights are technically illegal in Washington.

Let's talk state legislation.

Our light laws are surprisingly similar to Germany's. We actually have a statute that prohibits flashing headlights on bicycles, but most Washington cyclists I've met have no idea it exists. Some of them might cite the other law that states both front and rear lights must be visible from 500 feet, but I'd wager they'll also forget—or have no knowdge of—the corrolary to the aforementioned law which establishes that "no part of the high intensity portion of the beam will strike the level of the roadway on which the vehicle stands at a distance of more than seventy-five feet from the vehicle." Add to this that most cyclists have never heard of a single traffic stop in Washington for a bike having a strobe, plus a rampant lighting industry that seems to pride itself on the biggest, baddest lights on the market (there is zero federal regulation to prevent this), and one can understand why strobe-fiends and well-intentioned safety zealots deck themselves out with extravagant, distracting gear.

Overkill maybe?

I couldn't find much discussion on the theory behind the law, but the language seems to imply that part of the role of the headlight is to specifically strike the ground. While it could be interpreted that this is an attempt to diminish the the distraction hazard to oncoming vehicles, perhaps it's also being deployed to encourage bikes to illuminate the road in front of them for the safety of their own operators.

So I ask again: what is the primary purpose of the bike light?

This is one blogger's opinion, so I encourage some salt-graining, but I'd argue that it's a healthy combo of lighting up both cyclist and road.

As far as headlights pointed at other cyclists goes, there are plenty of forums that have tried to pick apart bike light ettiquette. The consensus seems to be that while strobes might be acceptable in car-heavy traffic (which, I after today, I've learned isn't so kosher after all), they are generally unacceptable when on bike- or pedestrian-only paths.

So next time you're bombing through the Burke-Gilman with half a rave strapped to your bike, take heed of your fellow riders and try to avert or cover your gear. Cyclists are generally pretty good at being aware of other cyclists.

Same team, man.

 

 

Before moving to Seattle, I lived in San Francisco and routinely rode four miles every day to and from work. My route took me through dense residential, commercial, and even park/recreation districts. In fact, about half my ride cut straight through Golden Gate Park and the adjacent Panhandle, a notoriously unlit section of bike and pedestrian pathways. Naturally, given the amount of riding I did, I eventually got hit.

But it wasn't in the unlit section.

I was on a fully-illuminated chunk of street and some dude ran a red light, totaling my beloved aluminum 3Rensho frame and beginning what would become a 6-month he-said/she-said insurance debacle. I eventually got my payout (though not without the driver changing his story several times and me subjecting an unfortunate claims agent to a great deal of kicking and screaming via phone and email).

Instead of blaming my headlight for being on solid mode instead of strobe, I think what I should have taken away from this incident was that accidents can happen anywhere at any time. A whopping 80% of all bike accidents take place during the day (though most cycling occurs during daylight hours), but one cannot draw any kind of causality from these circumstances. The kinds of studies that would therefore prove or disprove the efficacy of strobing headlights are difficult to administer, and so far, the cycling community hasn't seen anything definitive.

I will do my best to limit my strobing to emergency situations, but then again, I can think of a thousand situations where I would honestly prefer some flash to feel safe on my bike.

So how about this:

Err on the side of caution and don't shine your crap in other cyclists' faces. If you're gonna strobe around cars (which I don't support), keep it lower, and try to use it sparingly.

I can't condone breaking the law, but one has to question why something specifically prohibited essentially gets a free-pass from law enforcement. Distracting as they may be, strobes may have already saved countless lives.

Ride safe. Don't be a jerk.

—TheBikeMensch


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