Outside with Charlie: Light up

By From page A11 | December 16, 2010


My bicycles have front and rear lights on them. They can be set to  just be on or between two different flashing modes, front and rear. I always have them flashing when I ride whether I’m on the road or the trails, even in broad daylight. It’s just a good habit, like always putting my helmet on before I even get on the bike.

I have some riding friends who don’t use lights. One of them, a frequent rider, is considering a light for his helmet in case he loses the sun before his ride is over. I suggested ones that attach to the bike. It’s tough to forget them if they are on the bike. Despite my encouragement, he hasn’t put lights on yet. Maybe it’s not dark enough.

I’m not an elite or categorized rider. I don’t race or compete. I just ride. It’s relaxing, a great way to stay in shape and it keeps all of the various numbers the doc and I discuss under control. I don’t care about the extra few ounces the lights add. If you are an elite, the extra ounces may matter. Personally, I just don’t care. I’d rather be seen.

Do lights and reflective clothing make a difference? Absolutely. Without some sort of illumination on your bike, on you, or both, when it’s dark or just getting dark, a driver will see something out there within about 75 feet. That’s not very far considering the speed of the car. You’re not likely to be seen until it’s too late.

Wearing florescent clothing increases visibility during the day to about 400 feet. Under the right conditions it can be as much as 2,200 feet. At night, visibility increases to around 150 feet to 560 feet. Not bad. You stand a chance of a driver seeing you in time to avoid hitting you.

Reflective material on your body or bike increases initial recognition to between 260 feet and 700 feet. That’s better than 75 feet by a lot. Reflective material available today is really bright when light hits it. Drivers tend to notice things that are bright and reflective.

Moving lights are more noticeable than stationary lights. Reflectors on your pedals, in your wheels, and reflective material on your shoes, especially the heels, draw attention to you. Mounting lights on your bike and turning them on makes you stand out. Put them on flash mode and you really stand out, greatly increasing your safety.

Any combination of these is taking pro-active steps to avoid becoming a car versus rider cycling statistic. When cars and bikes collide, bikes don’t fare very well. Simple physics points out something heavy and moving fast will crush something light that’s moving relatively slowly. Actually, for me physics is anything but simple so I checked this out with a rider who has a degree in physics.

Assuming you can be seen during the day is a big mistake. The only time I was hit by a car a long time ago was about 10 a.m. on a nice sunny morning with no traffic to speak of. This was long before helmets were worn, lights and reflective material. I was on a main road and saw a car stopped at the intersection I was just about to cross. He pulled out just in time to hit me. I didn’t like it much. My bike liked it even less.

Here are some related terms: Perception distance is how far away something is when first spotted. During the day it varies between 1,200 to 2,200 feet, depending on ambient light conditions.

Recognition distance is the distance at which the driver can perceive what he’s looking at. Once again, lights and reflective materials increase your safety margin.

Especially during this time of year when daylight fades early, whether you are riding, running, walking, or riding your skateboard, it’s important to be seen. Remember: Light up, be seen, be safe. It’s better than being a statistic.

Charlie Ferris

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