The Safest Bike Lights: Features to Look For
| Reuben Howe
As someone who recently acquired a bike to start cycling to work (Alas, so far I have only managed training around the local parks) the looming presence of earlier evenings and darker, colder weather this winter is all the more daunting. I am not planning on only using my bike for the 3 good months of the year we get here in the UK, so instead I'm on the lookout for tech to make the process as safe and easy as possible.
Part of that, is bike lights, Tail lights are vital to cycling, even when not on roads. In fact, cycling at all between "sunrise and sunset" makes having a tail light and front light a legal requirement! An no wonder, as cyclists need to be on top of their safety and that of others every second they are on the road.
The first time you start looking in to solving this problem you're met with an array of bike light options, but there are some key factors to look for no matter what brand or style (Or price range) you choose. Here's what I learned:
Feature 1: Waterproofing
While the first feature on the list might be expected to be something about the light emission itself, I found IP ratings to be a hugely important factor. Some lights didn't list them, some listed a rating below 3 and some claimed to be waterproof but had no IP rating. Between juggling all that info (and lack of it) I decided to just press CTRL+F on every product page and type "IP" in my search bar!
IP stands for ingress protection and can describe both physical and liquid "ingress" i.e how hard it is for something to enter the device. You don't want to waste your bike away in a shed or garage or bike rack just because it's raining, so a tail light that can withstand water is vital.
Not only that, but it's in the rain that a tail light is most needed in the first place as visibility is reduced by the rain and reflections. For these reasons, waterproofing goes at the top of my list.
Feature 2: Battery Life
We're on to the second most-prioritised feature I look for in bike lights and still haven't touched on brightness?! Well, while that's certainly a factor, the brightest light in the world wouldn't matter if it runs out of battery before your commute is done!
Joking aside, battery life is important to me personally feeling like the cycling is efficient and "worth it". It's a hard task, dedicating so much time and physical energy to daily cycling (Bear in mind I hadn't cycled for a decade before this decision) and anything to make the process simple is welcomed.
I don't want to be micro-managing battery or having it die on me while out in the evening. Having a battery that I know can last me a week, to charge on weekends, is fantastic.
Bear in mind that charging a tail light or headlight isn't the same as a mobile phone, which will be up in the house anyway. With my bike stored outside and not near any outlets, charging my light involves detaching it entirely and keeping it indoors.
Hopefully, I then remember to re-attach it! being able to just top it up at the weekend and leave it permanently attached to my bike during the week is actually something I value quite a bit.
Feature 3: Brightness and Visibility
Here we go, now that I am sure my tail light won't give up in the rain and will actually last as long as I need, I can look at the light itself. The best cycling lights will be visible up to 100+ meters from what I've seen, and that seems plenty. The main test is how far that visibility persists in rain, during turns and motion in general. The angle and brightness of the light both contribute to visibility, as well as the pattern of the light.
Tail Light Brightness
A bright tail light LED is a must. The minimum range should be near 100 meters and you should be able to see the source of the light clearly through light rain. It's no use having the refractions looking just as authentic as the original, so keeping the tail light bright and distinct is vital.
Tail light Angle
In addition to brightness, the angle of the light changes its visibility. If a bike light has a very wide angle then drivers beside you, lanes away, will still be able to recognise there is a cyclist on the road.
If the tail light angle is too narrow, then only vehicles directly behind you will see the light and as soon as you turn, the visibility drops to 0! (And it may even be too intrusive for their driving).
An angle of 220 degrees gives everyone visibility while remaining dispersed enough that you can turn and manoeuvre in safety.
Tail Light Pattern
Finally, visibility is also affected by the pattern of the light. Some lights will jsut dump out a bright red glow, while others will flash or alternate different LED positions. While this is somewhat personal preference there are some really important effects for different patterns.
For one, different LED patterns take different amounts of energy, and so drain the battery at different rates. Being able to use a "meteor" (Single bright point moving in a circle of dim LEDs) to conserve battery while still creating an eye-catching effect is really helpful. You accept the lower total visibility range in favour of battery and higher visibility at close range.
As well as battery, patterns can also change how you are visible. As we saw with the Meteor, some patterns are less visible at longer ranges while others cause a lot of flashing to divert attention more clearly. If you're moving particularly fast, an LED pattern with motion helps drivers gauge your speed.
Feature 4: How it Attaches
If the battery if good enough and the IP rating is high enough, I don't plan on detaching the bike light all that often (Once a week, max). This means the attachment method just needs to be strong and simple, with no real extra requirements for speed or positioning.
The best bike lights will attach with locking plastic or metal "teeth" that perfectly clip to the width of the bike. Others are more flexible and this allows them to be used on bags or on the rear of your helmet itself! Having the light higher up can improve visibility, too.
How to Choose a Bike Light
By accounting for these features you can narrow down your choices when it comes to tail lights for bikes. You definitely need a light that survives rain and weather, but also that lasts long enough for daily usage. Once you know the light is endurable enough, check its lighting options and patterns as well as the overall brightness. Then, decide where you're attaching it and strap in!
I'm off to carry on training and put the waterproofing to the test!