Can a Light Be Too Bright?
By Samantha Shimogawa
You have probably experienced this before: it’s dark outside as you make your daily ride home when you see a small, bright dot appear in the distance. As it nears, the light becomes brighter and brighter until you’re completely blinded. You now choose one of two options: keep riding forward and hope to not run into anything, or move to the side and wait until the oncoming cyclist has passed before resuming your ride.
With the current technology, many bike light companies are fighting to develop the brightest beam around and are pushing the envelope when it comes to maximizing lumens — a lumen is the measuring unit that determines the total amount of visible light emitted by a source and the main terminology used to describe how bright a light is. Examples include the Magicshine MJ-880 which features 2,000 lumens, while 1,700-lumen headlights are provided by Nitelight’s Pacifier and the Gemini Olympia LED. To give a comparison, the average bicycle headlight is between 500 to 1,000 lumens. Many people, cyclists and motorists included, are starting to wonder if the “Lumen’s Race” could be getting out of hand.
Lately, numerous riders have been complaining that these mega-bright options are causing more problems than they’re solving. In fact, some urban cyclists use headlights that are designed for trail riding (where no light is too bright) on the city streets. Added to that, they are aimed straight at eye-level, effectively blinding any oncoming traffic, and if it’s raining, the water on drivers’ windshields combined with this blinding light make it even more dangerous. Furthermore, most bike lights come with the option of strobing, which can disorient drivers, fellow cyclists, and pedestrians, thereby compromising the safety of other road and trail users.
Strobes are basically lights with a spinning, fan-like object in front of it. As the fan spins, it rapidly blocks and unblocks the light, giving the appearance of a blinking light, though without any change in intensity. Blinking lights, on the other hand, are different in that the light bulb filament must constantly cool then reheat, emitting light at different intensities — making it a little less harsh on the eyes. Both types are considered by some to be a hazard, in fact, it has been reported by PoliceOne.com, an online resource for law enforcement officers, that strobe lights can be used as an efficient way to distract, confuse, and blind suspected perpetrators of crimes. With that in mind, should people be using strobes on the roads? Flashers are actually illegal on all automobile headlights in most states, including Washington and the province of British Columbia, with the exceptions of hazard lights.
Moreover, intermittent lights may actually inhibit a rider’s ability to see and respond to road hazards, as discussed by Oregon attorneys Ray Thomas and Charley Gee on the Swanson, Thomas, Coon & Newton website. With a steady beam, cyclists are able to see a stable map of the road before them and can therefore more easily avoid potholes, gaps and other hazards. With a strobe or blinking light, however, those brief moments of darkness can be just enough time for someone to not notice a potential hazard or have the ability to react quickly enough to avoid accidents.
One may then ask, if bright strobes are potentially dangerous to both users and others, why don’t people stop utilizing them? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Riders need to be seen and drivers need to see them. John Duggan, a Seattle attorney, explains that in most car-bicycle accidents, the problem is that motorists are unaware of the cyclist’s presence until it is too late. Head and tail lights are not used simply to see the road, but to be seen. Therefore, though they may bother oncoming traffic and even cars approaching from behind, it is ultimately less significant than the safety of the rider.
“The temporary irritation of the driver is far outweighed by the possibility that the light will stop him from turning and hitting me,” Duggan says. “If I can do something on my end of the bicycle, I need to do it.”
Margaux Mennesson, communication director for Oregon’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance, agrees and emphasizes the importance of staying visible on the street.
“The lack of bike lights is far more likely to contribute to a crash, injury, or loss of life than being too brightly lit,” she comments.
And yet, there has to be a better way to stay safe and be considerate to other road users, particularly other riders and pedestrians. One suggestion is to aim lights lower than eye-level to keep from blinding oncoming traffic while still being able to see ahead. However, aim too low and this would defeat its purpose of grabbing people’s attention.
“The whole point isn’t so I can see the ground; it’s for others to see me,” Duggan remarks. Though angling the beam lower would definitely be more courteous to other road users, it may not help prevent an accident if not visible to drivers.
Another suggestion is to use two lights, a brighter beam to help with street navigation and a less intense one stacked on the other to ensure visibility. According to Josh Miller, Bicycle Alliance of Washington’s (BAW) Go By Bike project manager, stacking multiple lights on top of each other rather than side-to-side can also help drivers distinguish between a bicycle and a motor vehicle in the distance.
A better solution could be to simply practice good manners. Until an oncoming road user has passed, it is common courtesy to cup the light or dip it downward to avoid blinding the person. Duggan mentions this method as one he uses and considers to be proper road etiquette. By doing so, it ensures everyone’s safety while still being considerate.
In lieu of cupping or dipping, some cyclists use European bicycle lights which project a beam with a sharp cut off point — sometimes created by a visor — to effectively illuminate the road without blinding others. “Low beams,” such as Busch & Müller’s Lumotec IQ Fly RT, are actually required by almost every European country. Furthermore, Miller mentions that Germany regulates beam intensity and angling to ensure that lights aren’t distracting drivers and other road users. While this mentality is quite different than that in the U.S., it could be helpful to learn from others and implement similar measures.
As for strobe lights, many believe they are better used only when it is still light outside.
“Front flashers should only be used during daylight hours, so as not to blind drivers,” Miller says. “They can be more of a hazard than a help [at night].” He also adds that while riders may feel the need for bright strobes, lights are not the only asset that helps with visibility and cyclists should also wear reflectors, ride predictably, and stay aware of drivers not paying attention.
Riding with lights does help keep people safe, but there is also an etiquette that should be practiced with them. Unfortunately, many are unaware of the solutions to stay safe while being considerate to others. Finding a way to spread that knowledge should be a priority for all road users.
“It all comes down to awareness and education. It’s awareness for the cyclist and awareness for the driver and education for both,” Duggan remarks. He explains that a lot of cyclist-driver collisions could be avoided if those two elements were widespread. A short debriefing about bike lights at the time of bicycle purchases could help raise awareness or dispensing information during drivers’ classes would help. In any case, mass recognition of this information is something that will take some time and effort.