1.8 Ounces of Prevention

Garmin's Varia rearview gives a rider both visible and audible alerts of cars approaching from about 150 meters or more away, and includes a daylight visible rear light. Photo courtesy of Garmin.

If you’ve never considered daytime running lights when riding your bike, read this

For years my lights always came out a few weeks before daylight savings time in the fall. The lights I used on the rear were fairly basic ‘be seen at night’ budget blinky lights. Nothing fancy, and we’ve all seen them and know they get their basic job done, when it’s dark.

My front lights were better. Acquired after I started doing some ultra distance rides that involved riding through the night, they are powerful enough to provide good visibility of road conditions at speed.

Lights were mostly a ‘Late Fall-Winter-Early Spring’ thing for me, when days are short and post work rides might finish at or just after dusk.

All that changed a few years ago when a local rider was hit and badly banged up when riding fast through a commercial shopping district in suburban Washington, DC, where I live. It was broad daylight, but a truck turned in front of the rider at an intersection.

It wasn’t a bike lane issue or egregious distracted driving. The truck driver just didn’t see the bike in time. The sad particulars of blame are not important here. The take-away reminder was simple: Being seen as early as possible matters.

Immediately, many people in the groups I rode with started using daytime running lights. At that point, I really had not heard of the concept, except on cars. Not my car of course. The value of my bike fleet is typically greater than the value of the car I drive. I had only recently acquired a ‘modern,’ car with daytime lights. But now I wanted them on my bikes, and I wanted others to use them as well.

My early daytime light set-up was initially borrowed from my nightime kit. Then, after some research, I acquired and started using a helmet-mounted NiteRider Sabre in ‘daytime flash mode.’ I learned all about that mode by actually reading light directions for the first time. Then I added a Planet Bike Superflash on the seatpost. On rides where I might be out there for ten hours or more, I added a NiteRider Solas rear light to handle the extra hours. On the front I used my old 600 lumen unit, and added a second light for the long rides. It was affordable, as powerful lights seem to be getting cheaper and better every year.

NiteRider’s Sabre80 is just one of the company’s rear lights suitable for daytime use. Photo courtesy of NiteRider.

Although I worked in a bike shop and rode a lot, I wasn’t somebody who scanned cycling magazines and websites for the latest trends and equipment. When I did some research, I learned that NiteRider had been promoting the concept of using bike lights for all riding, including daylight, with its “Lights 4 Lives” campaign that was already a few years old. Today, a look at the NiteRider website sees the acronym DVF for daylight visible flash noted on many products.

The company says that just as most automobiles and motorcycles have been incorporating daytime running lights for increased daylight visibility, so should bikes. And they and others make a lot of lights that are bright enough to get the daylight job done.

The strange thing was that the safety message did not really trickle down to the sales floor at the large chain shop where I worked then, perhaps because few if any of the sales people or managers there actually rode seriously. Earlier this year, I switched to a local bike shop and the Trek-provided training here really emphasized daytime lights. We sell a lot of them, and it’s a good thing. In an era where cell phone-based distracted driving is an issue for the cycling world, customers understand the message.

Modern bike safety

In 2018, safe cycling kit means more than just helmets and night riding paraphernalia: Consider daytime running lights. Cynics on online commentary boards may argue that this is just an attempt by lighting vendors to sell more or pricier lights. I have to say that as a driver and cyclist I see bright lights during the day. I also see neon yellow and green jerseys from a great distance. I believe my eyes.

What should you look for? True daytime lights are not just the basic $10-$20 LED steady flash blinky lights that let drivers see a rider in darker conditions. True daylight visible lights are bright enough to be seen in bright sun at a good distance. Various vendors claim daylight visible distances up to more than a mile. When a car is approaching a cyclist on a narrow road where speed limits are high, that extra few seconds of visibility can make all the difference.

On its website, Trek’s Bontrager brand goes in to a lot of detail on what it says makes a true daytime light. The website talks about the importance of beam focus to make a light truly visible at distance, a flash pattern that goes beyond a steady blink to a pattern more likely to be noticed, and of course simple brightness as a range extender.

Trek Segafredo
The Trek-Segafredo pro team uses Bontrager daytime running lights on all training bikes, and riders wear fluorescent training kit designed to enhance visibility on the road. Photo courtesy of Trek.

Bontrager has done a lot of research and created lights that are part of a prominent safety campaign that also brings in high visibility jerseys and helmets, along with concepts such as ‘BioMotion,’ the idea that drivers eyes are attracted to fluorescent neon colours and reflective material associated with a rider’s moving feet or knees. We all know moving pedal or wheel reflectors are an attention grabber – the concept is not new.

Bontrager’s line is quite complete. I’ve added a very small and light Bontrager Ion 100 R front light, and a Flare R City tail light to my growing set of lights. Bontrager says these lights are optimized for city use with wide visibility angles and such for that environment. I got them because they were tiny and light. The company has just added more powerful versions of these lights that remain small and lightweight.

Many manufacturers make front and rear lights that clearly state their daylight bona fides.

The UK’s Exposure Lights, for example, has been beating the daylight drum for quite a while too. They have a ‘Day Bright’ series of lights that encompasses a wide range of the brand’s front and rear lights. The Day Bright function utilises an irregular flashing pattern and high output in an effort to garner the maximum amount of attention from other road users, even in bright sunlight.

Earlier this year Garmin of GPS fame introduced its Varia UT800 headlight, which features a very bright day flash mode, and the latest version of its Varia rearview radar, the sleek RTL510, which also includes a powerful tail light. Garmin’s Varia rearview radar was introduced a few years ago and takes safety in a new direction.

Using the Varia radar and a handlebar display, the rider receives both visible and audible alerts warning of cars approaching from about 150 meters or more away. I occasionally do an early morning group ride where one rider has the original Varia. On one long, narrow and dark winding road we ride for a good 10K, he stays at the back and lets us know when a car is approaching. I do think it’s helpful, and not just an excuse for him to not take a pull.

As someone who completely lost all hearing in my left ear a decade ago, I have to say I have been thinking about trying a Varia. Again, cynics will say: Get a mirror! But many Varia users seem to love the units, and if I was fully deaf in both ears I would never ride without it.

Doing some good

When I think about my ‘part time’ 30 hour per week bike shop job, I think I like it mostly because it lets me get people on bikes so they can hopefully experience part or all of what being an athlete and cyclist has done for me. When I think about specific things I can do, part of that is making new riders safer. Some want data on this, but I don’t need that because I drive country roads all the time and I do notice good daytime lights and neon jerseys before a rider wearing traditional colours with no lights.

Pennsylvania’s own Ben Franklin, who punches way above his weight in quotable quotes, came up with this good one: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

My tiny new Ion 100 R and Flare R front and rear lights together weigh just 1.8 ounces. That’s only slightly more than an ounce of prevention, but if the ‘cure,’ is possibly avoiding a near miss or worse, it’s weight and money well spent.

Mark HallingerMark Hallinger, Editor is a 35+ year cyclist who has raced road, track, crits, cross, a bit of mountain bike, and even his Brompton. He’s also a commuter, randonneur, mechanic, cycling advocate, and vintage collector. He blogs at redbrickbikes.com