Visibility at Night Tests 9

This is what you look like with high-powered lights.

This is what you look like with high-powered lights.

Have you ever wondered what you look like at night while riding a bike?  A few of us have, and we decided to record ourselves from the perspective of sitting in the driver’s seat of a car.

There has been debate about bike lighting, more specifically how effective it is to have high-powered lights and using lights in “strobe” or “blinky” mode.  Seattle Bike Blog has some interesting comments about bike lighting in an article published back in October, and Crosscut called out “bike bullies” back in November.  Lots of talk, but no one has ever shown what these lights look like to others.

On Friday, January 17th, we went to Jack Block Park where four of us were on bikes with an arsenal of lights and we had a car to use for setting up a video camera.  We used Jack Block Park because there are some dark areas and we knew there wouldn’t be anyone else around.

Our video setup consisted of a GoPro Hero 2 camera with headstrap mounted to the headrest of the driver’s seat inside a car.  We moved the seat forward so we could position the camera as close as possible to where your head would be if you were sitting in the seat.  The GoPro camera recorded video with 960 resolution, 30 fps, and wide angle of 170 degrees.  Humans have an almost 180-degree forward-facing horizontal field of view, so we figured this camera setup would be comparable to what you’d see.

Lights & Gear Info

Below is a list of the lights and other gear we had for these tests that you’ll see in the videos.  We’ll have some notes about each test to help show where in the videos they’re being used.

Front Lights:

Rear Lights:

Reflective Gear, Clothing, Misc:


Test 1 – Car Lights Off, Bike Lights Off

This test clearly shows that you should have some kind of light at night.  There’s some ambient light coming from the left side of the video, which is Port property.  You can barely see the light-colored jackets in the video, and it’s only when we ride by the car at very close distances.


Test 2 – Car Lights Off, Bike Lights On (“Normal Mode”)

Here we’ve got our lights on modes that we’d normally ride with at night.  We haven’t seen ourselves or gotten feedback until this point.  We only put the lights on at levels we feel comfortable with (so we can see and be seen).

We’ve all got similar rear red lights, but the bright blinking red helmet light on the third bike is the Serfas Thunderbolt UTL-6.  It’s highly visible and not too annoying.  The other rear blinky lights are detectable, but could probably be even brighter for those cases of drivers who forget to turn on headlights when it’s dark outside.

For front lights, the first bike has Cygolite Million 200 (~200 lumens) and Nite Ize SpokLits.  Second bike is a Brompton (16″ wheels) with Serfas Thunderbolt USL-6.  Third bike has an old Cateye Opticube on the helmet (blinky mode) and SpokeGrenade SG-1000.  Fourth bike has Niterider Lumina 650 (on low, ~200 lumens) and Serfas CP-USB (blinky mode).

The SpokeGrenade SG-1000 is pretty bright, but Al says he generally covers it or directs it down for approaching traffic since he knows it’s bright and uses it to see dangerous obstacles on dark trails (like tree branches and glass on the Duwamish Trail).  None of the other front lights appear to be overpowering.


Test 3 – Car Lights On, Bike Lights Off

It should be pretty clear that reflective gear is very visible with car lights on.  The distance from the car to the fence in the background is about 100 feet.  The most noticeable reflective gear is generally on things that move (wheels, legs, shoes).  One thing with the Schwalbe Marathon tires is that the reflective sidewall needs to be clean to be visible.


Test 4 – Car Lights On, Bike Lights On (High Modes)

This is where it gets good.  The first bike has two Magicshine 900-lumen lights and one Niterider Lumina 650, all on high.  And they’re pointed straight ahead (not down at the ground).  The Magicshine lights are cheap Chinese lights that are more like 600 lumens, but all of these on high is like having something around 2000 lumens.  Clearly this is annoying and overpowering.  We’d never run lights like this on the streets.


Test 5 – Car Lights On, Bike Lights On, Riding 4 Abreast

Riding abreast with lights on sometimes looks like a car.  We wanted to ride side-by-side just to see.  Our lights were on “normal” modes.


Test 6 – Car Lights On, Bike Lights On (Blinky Modes)

This is where it gets better.  Some front lights on blinky mode can give you a seizure.  We wanted to show this.

The first bike has Niterider Lumina 650 (on strobe mode) and Serfas CP-USB (blinky mode).  The strobe mode on the Niterider light is actually called “walk” mode and only outputs ~40 lumens.  But clearly it’s annoying and distracting (and is never used in this mode).

The second bike has Cygolite Million 200.  Third bike has an old Cateye Opticube on the helmet and SpokeGrenade SG-1000.  Fourth bike has Serfas Thunderbolt USL-6.

Yes, blinky lights are noticeable.  They even draw your eyes to them.  But they can be distracting to others and really don’t help for a rider to see anything in front of them.  And it’s technically illegal to have a front flashing light (although you could have an amber colored front light that flashes).

RCW 46.37.280
Special restrictions on lamps.

(3) Flashing lights are prohibited except as required in RCW 46.37.190, 46.37.200, 46.37.210, 46.37.215, and 46.37.300, warning lamps authorized by the state patrol, and light-emitting diode flashing taillights on bicycles.


Test 7 – Helmet view of pedestrians with no lights

Many people simply aren’t aware of what they look like at night when they’re walking.  Bike lights on “normal” modes don’t have the same power or beam spread as a car headlight, and the most dangerous situation arises when bikes and pedestrians share the same off-street trail with no ambient lighting, and pedestrians have no lights while wearing non-reflective dark clothing.

This video shows two people, one wearing a light colored reflective jacket and the other wearing all black.  With ambient lighting behind them you can only pick out silhouettes.  The bike light is a Niterider Lumina 650 on low (~200 lumens) and pointed down (“normal” mode for commuting).



LED lights can pack a punch.  There’s no legal limit for how bright a bike light can be.  And there’s plenty of high-powered bike lights out there that are very cheap (you can get 1800+ lumen lights for about $20 on eBay).  Even “commuter” bike lights are getting close to 1000 lumens.

Lights around 200 lumens are definitely acceptable for commuting.  Anything over 500 lumens should be used sparingly and definitely not pointed straight ahead but rather down at the ground in front of you.

Blinky lights should be used courteously.  And high-powered lights should not be used in blinky (or strobe) mode.  You should know what your own lights look like before using them.

Spoke lights are great for being visible from the side and at angles.  Monkey Lights are a good choice.

Reflective gear (clothing, stickers, tires, etc) works well when there’s a light source hitting it.  Light-colored clothing is definitely better than dark clothing.

Local bike shops can be a great source of lights and information.  They likely won’t recommend a high-powered light for commuting.


Questions and comments are appreciated.  Special thanks to Don Brubeck, Kathy Dunn, Al Jackson, and Jeff Hallman for riding, and Bob Winship for the car to video from.