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Modern bicycle lights enhance safety, but the best are pricey

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Modern bicycle lights enhance safety, but the best are pricey

By Rick Barrett of the Journal Sentinel
Posted: Nov. 16, 2009 7:54 p.m.

It could be an illuminating experience for a bicyclist: getting ticketed by police for not having bike lights or, much worse, getting hit by a car because a driver couldn’t see you riding in the dark.

Either way, it’s bad news that could be prevented with something as simple as a small flashlight attached to your bike’s handlebars and a red reflector or inexpensive red blinking light behind the seat.

State law requires bicyclists riding during the hours of darkness to have a white light visible from at least 500 feet to the front, mounted on the bike or worn by the rider. The law also requires a red reflector, at least 2 inches in diameter, visible from 50 to 500 feet to the rear.

Safety advocates strongly recommend going further by using a white light bright enough to illuminate potholes and obstacles in the road and a flashing red light bright enough to grab someone’s attention at dusk or in the fog.

Choosing the right headlight for a bike can be daunting, however, given the dozens of models at prices ranging from a few dollars to hundreds for a light-emitting diode, or LED, light used by cyclists in 24-hour races.

To be seen or to see by?

A key question: Do you want a light simply to be "seen" by motorists and to comply with the law, or do you want a light to also "see" better with and increase your chances of avoiding an accident?

The first option is easy and inexpensive. You can fasten a bright LED flashlight to your bike’s handlebars, or to your helmet, with a stout rubber band or a plastic cable-tie. Spend more money, and you can get a flashlight powerful enough to light up the path in front of you.

Red flashing lights are inexpensive and can be purchased at a bike shop or hardware store. Even the least expensive ones are likely better than a 2-inch red reflector. By spending a little more, you can get a red flashing light that greatly increases your visibility.

Better yet, attach one to your bike and one to the back of your helmet or reflective cycling vest.

The second option - for bike lights to illuminate the road and put some serious candlepower between you and moving vehicles - generally is more expensive.

A Dinotte 400L headlight, for example, costs about $230 and is bright enough to ride with safely in city traffic or on an unlighted mountain bike trail. The company also sells a $120 light that’s bright enough for most cycling needs. It also sells a couple of expensive but very powerful red flashing lights and an amber light for increasing a bike’s visibility during the daytime.

Made for cyclists

Unlike an LED flashlight, Dinotte lights were designed specifically for cycling. They are small and come with handlebar and helmet mounts. The rechargeable lithium-ion battery can be strapped to your bike, your helmet or it can be slipped into a cycling vest pocket.

Cateye, Niterider, Magicshine, Planet Bike and Blackburn are a few other bike-light makers with products ranging in price from about $20 to several hundred dollars.

The Blackburn Flea is a micro-size headlight with a battery that can be recharged by attaching two little wires to almost any other battery and drawing power from it. A solar charger is available, and there’s also a Flea taillight.

The Flea headlight and taillight are tiny yet surprisingly bright. Like most other bike lights, they have both steady-light and flashing modes.

The flashing feature is a good way to get a motorist’s attention, especially if you don’t need a steady light to see what’s in front of you.

There are funky-colored bike lights available to make a fashion statement, and they help to be seen. But because they’re colored, they won’t meet the minimum safety requirement unless paired with a white light.

The faster you ride, the brighter the light you need to cover the path in front of you. And keep in mind that a car traveling 50 mph needs nearly 150 feet to stop - while a car’s headlights typically are powerful enough for a driver to see you from about 200 feet.