On My Radar: The Garmin Varia

“If you’re one of millions of cyclists, you know every time you saddle up, anything can happen.” That, according to Garmin’s promotional video, is why you need the Varia Rearview Radar, scheduled for release this fall. Before watching the promotional video that likely had the working title “Fear Sells,” I present you with a brief, unbiased product description.

Image Source: Garmin

The Garmin Varia Rearview Radar is a taillight that includes a rear sensor to detect traffic that is approaching the cyclist from behind. The Varia displays this information to the rider either through a standalone head unit that can be bundled with the taillight (the bundle will be priced at $299.99) or on a compatible Garmin Edge cycling computer (specifically, the Edge 1000 or Edge 520). According to Garmin, the radar can detect vehicles up to 153 yards behind the bicycle. Additionally, the taillight unit sends a warning to the approaching vehicle by brightening and blinking.

And now, the promotion video:

Did you pause the video to pre-order your Varia right around the 35-second mark when you learned that 40% of cycling fatalities occur when riders are struck from behind? Or, are you a nerd like me who started to do some napkin math to determine how much time this device gives you to prepare for that approaching truck?

Like any real American, I relate distances to football fields to put things into perspective. The Varia starts warning the rider when a vehicle is 153 yards away – that’s one and a half football fields worth of warning! That sounds like a lot, but if a vehicle is moving at 30mph, that’s roughly 15 yards per second, which translates to roughly 10 seconds* of warning for the cyclist. Not bad.

However, if a cyclist is on an open country road like the one depicted in the video, that truck is probably moving closer to 60mph. At 60mph, or approximately 30 yards per second, that cuts the warning time down to about 5 seconds. That still sounds like a fair amount of warning, but taking into account the time to receive, process and react to that information, while maintaining control of your bike and watching the road ahead, I wonder if the cost of the distraction is validated by the benefit of the additional information.

(*These calculations do not take into account the speed of the cyclist, which would increase the warning time by a relative amount.)

Image Source: DC Rainmaker
Image Source: DC Rainmaker

There are other factors that could call the effectiveness of the Varia into question. How does the radar react in an urban environment, when there is a constant stream of traffic approaching from behind? What about riding in a group or amongst other commuters? What about riding around a sharp curve in the road?

For the record, I am not a Luddite. I love technology and the incredible advancements that we’ve made to live life in a safer, healthier, and more efficient way. For example, this product could be extremely beneficial for a cyclist who rides with a hearing impairment, and that’s a fantastic use of technology. However, sometimes I still long for common sense to supersede our reliance on potentially distracting devices, and for cyclists to take out the ear buds, stop checking your text messages or Instagram feed, and pay attention to your surroundings. The Varia has the potential to be a very useful product, but let’s not use radar as a substitute for listening and paying attention to our surroundings while we ride.

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