Simon says: How to win a game of ‘look-at-me’

Big ups to Simon Kennett, the Active Transport and Road Safety Coordinator at Greater Wellington Regional Council, for providing us with the following post about his recent research into bike lights.  Thanks for sharing your results with us, Simon, and thanks for the reflector tape!  My helmet looks rad in stripes.

Light it up.

Conspicuity 101

My father-in-law had just one motoring accident in his life. Driving on the open road he saw what appeared to be two cars approaching from a distance. The two pairs of white lights stayed side by side, so he assumed one vehicle must be overtaking another. Judging by the distance between the lights there was a sizeable gap between the two. Perhaps one was parked on his side of the road and the other was moving towards him in the normal lane position. Something about it wasn’t quite right, but it wasn’t until Bill ran into the front of the rubbish truck that he realised what it was. There was a pair of white head lights on each side of the front of the truck.

Having lots of big lights ain’t necessarily a recipe for road safety.  We need to be both seen and understood.

Claire Pascoe and I have just finished Greater Wellington’s 2011 bike lights review. It’s not terribly scientific, but neither are drivers, really. We simply look at lights from a distance of 100 metres (the distance at which bike lights must be visible according to the law) and give them a rating from one to five. Each light is tested at 0, 45 and 90 degrees. The reason is that almost half of all cycling accidents involve turning manoeuvres (i.e. a car turning across the path of a cyclist or side-swiping a rider at an intersection or driveway).

What did we find out this year?

The standard and value of lights has improved significantly. All lights tested were visible from 100 metres, although not necessarily from a side angle.

Front lights under $100 all had a flashing mode. This is great, because an inexpensive light can be effective at attracting attention if it is flashing. Not only does a flash attract attention, it sends a fairly clear message that there is a cyclist ahead – not a motorbike that might be doing 50-100 kph, but a relatively slow bicycle. If you want a light that will actually illuminate the road, you’re best to go for a more powerful rechargeable light (costing $150-$300). It will have a more focused beam than is ideal, so should be supplemented with a wide-beam flashing light. The law states that when a rider has more than one front light, no more than one may be on flashing mode.

On the rear, two flashing lights are permitted, but it is often argued that it is easier to judge a rider’s distance if they have a steady light. So, we recommend one flashing and one steady – one on the bike and one on the helmet. If you put them side-by-side, there is the risk that they may be perceived as two lights of a faster, far-off motor vehicle. Also, the helmet light can be seen over the top of a car as you mingle with heavy traffic in the evening.

If you mount a light on a helmet or bag, get a friend to check that it’s pointing in the right direction. If it’s pointing up towards the roof-tops, it’s unlikely that car drivers will be getting the full ‘razzle dazzle’ effect you were hoping for.

Battery age is another massive factor when looking at the efficacy of lights. If your battery is two thirds of the way through it’s life, your light may be half as bright as when they were new. One or two lights maintain their luminosity better towards the end of the battery life, but then fail very quickly. So which is better? Replace your batteries early to be on the safe side – the old ones will go just fine in a calculator or remote control.

We also tested a range of hi-viz garments and were impressed at how effective they were. Anything reflective that is stuck on ankles or legs is bound to attract attention. Check out this nifty bit of research.

Hi! I'm riding a bike here.

To a certain extent, it supports the notion that ‘All cats are black at night’. Fluoro clothing works in the daytime by converting UV light to visible light. At night there is no natural UV around, so fluoro gear is no more effective than a white t-shirt, for example. And, while better than black, light or bright clothing pales in comparison to reflective material. High quality, white, reflective material will reflect 100% of the light that hits it – the bigger the light source, the brighter the reflection.

Of course we’re big fans of adhesive reflective tape for helmets and bike frames. If you don’t have any yet, (and are a Wellington region resident) get some by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to Simon Kennett, Active Transport Coordinator, Greater Wellington Regional Council, PO Box 11646, Wellington 6142.

Riding right through winter can be fun, so long as you are confident that you are being seen and your position on the road is clearly understood. Some drivers might think you’re a bit wacky riding a bicycle in the dark, but they generally give plenty of room to riders whose gear shouts out “I’m a Cyclist! Give me Space, please!” .

Check out the complete results of our test.




8 thoughts on “Simon says: How to win a game of ‘look-at-me’

  1. Lisa

    Thanks for this! I wish I’d known about your tests last year when I was buying lights. The front light I ended up with is so pathetic I’m surprised it’s legal.


    1. atom

      hmm… i wonder how many front lights sold at bike shops are not “sufficiently brilliant to be visible in normal atmospheric conditions for a distance of at least 100 m when it is switched on.” (as required by NZ law for front cycle lights)

      that would be an interesting test. it’s interesting because bike shops can’t sell a cycling helmet without proper certifications, but i suspect there are a bunch of lights that would fail this test.

      most people just hold the light at arm’s length, point it into their eyes, see spots for a few seconds, and think their $10-20 light is safe and legal… until a few weeks after the battery’s gone flat.

      BTW: ni-mh rechargeable batteries are awesome!


      1. Lisa

        I didn’t even test them. I just asked for front and rear lights and gave my upper price limit. I do expect bike shops to sell me decent, safe lights without having to test them myself.


  2. Lesley

    I just ordered some Monkeylectrics. I’m moving job to Lower Hutt and think I’d like to cycle at least some of the time. My main worry (apart from the rain and the wind) is how to stay visible in the evening and early morning.


  3. Simon Kennett

    We’ve redone the lights test for 2012, this time using an illuminometer. That allowed us to see just what a massive difference there is between good lights and all the run-of-the-mill stuff ut there.
    Check out the results here:

    If your lights are a bit crap (or you want some reflective material for free) stop by reception at Greater Wellington, 142 Wakefield St and ask for a 20% discount voucher (which applies to the best-in-test lights).


Your comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s