Blinkiology: The Study of Rear Blinkies

One of the most common pieces of advice that newbie commuters hear is that you can never be too visible. From a mostly selfish point of view, I have to agree with this sage advice. If I'm riding at night through the streets of DC, I prefer to be as visible as possible so that cabbies, texting teenagers and responsible drivers alike can all see me and identify me as a moving human as they approach. However, is bigger and brighter and blinkier always the safest approach?

Light & Motion VIS 180 Bike Tail Light
Light & Motion VIS 180

Until 2005, flashing LED rear lights were not even legal in the UK, and now these lights are permitted as long as they meet these exact specifications: "flashing between 1 and 4 times per second, with a brightness of at least 4 candelas." In Germany, cyclists riding at night must be equipped with a non-flashing front light as well as a rear light that stays lit when the rider is not moving. In the US, regulations vary by state and municipality, but most areas require a minimum of a white front light and red rear reflector or a red rear light.

However, when you peruse the World Wide Web or walk into your local bike shop looking for the latest and greatest in bicycle lights, all of the major brands tout their many modes, which invariably include a steady mode and at least two crazy flashing modes. For example, the Danger Zone rear light from Portland Design Works features zZz, a-HA! and rock steady modes. If you're a fan of 1980s Norwegian pop music, then this is the light for you, as the a-HA! mode actually flashes to the song "Take on Me." There are also lights like the Light & Motion VIS 180 that put out about as much light as an automobile taillight.

A-Ha Take Me OnBut what is best for you as a commute by biker? There is a lot of disagreement as to what is best for the individual as well as what is best for the rest. Each rider needs to take into consideration his or her own riding conditions: urban or suburban commuting, public roads or multi-use paths, decent weather or foggy, rainy weather. As for considering the rest of us, does your Vegas-style setup distract drivers and other cyclists as much as it alerts them? Are you making it difficult for pedestrians to share a multi-use path?   Are you at risk for being confused with an ambulance or a fire truck?

There is a fine line between protecting yourself and becoming a public nuisance on the road or on the bike path. For me, riding in DC at night with anything less than a blinky attached to my bike and another attached to my back is risky. Just about every light that you will find at a bike shop, from the smaller, less expensive battery-powered lights to the high-tech rechargeable options, will have steady and flashing modes so that you can act appropriately given your riding situation. Illuminate yourself as much as necessary to be visible to cars, pedestrians and other cyclists, but avoid exuding so much flashing red that you have your sketchy neighbors running for the backdoor every night when you approach home.

Or, ride a bike like Vin Diesel.
Or, ride a bike like Vin Diesel.
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