Historically there’s a big difference between the headlight – that came in without controversy in 1903 – and the red tail-lamp, a temporary wartime measure in the Great Patriotic War against fascism, which I heard was over, and that the good guys had won?
You need a headlamp to see where you’re going. The faster you want to go the brighter your light needs to be. One of the nicest things about old-school, unregulated, bottle dynamos is the way their headlamps shine brighter as you speed up on a downhill.
Drive at a speed that will allow you to stop well within the distance you can see to be clear”
HIGHWAY CODE RULE 126.
It’s foolish to speed into darkness blindly assuming all obstacles will be lit. Wandering livestock, fallen trees, a person in a black coat who’s suffered a stroke and fallen while crossing the road; none of these are likely to show red lights. That’s what your headlamp, your eyes, your brain and your brakes are for.
Carrying a rear light is an encouragement to others to break rule 126.
Not to say shining a red light backwards is a bad thing under current conditions. Anyone who remembers the box shaped ‘nEver-Ready’ rear lights – clamped on your seat-stay, powered by two ‘D’ cells, whose mighty weight soon squashed the springs, so the bulb started to flicker and then went out – knows we are living in Light Emitting Diode paradise.
Contemporary battery lights are so compact, convenient, bright and economical, there’s no reason not to carry them. Just remember to turn the red one off if you’re going onto a railway platform. If your red light has standlicht carry a thick black sock.
When I see someone riding without lights – and of course the most important word in this sentence is ‘see’ – I regret a theoretical nuisance and a real tragedy. The nuisance is that they’re relying on others to look after them, which we all try to do. The tragedy is that – without lights in the dark – it’s much harder to relax and own the road. They’d enjoy riding more if they had lights.
Reader Peter Myers sent me this excellent piece of wildlife photography from Sadler’s Wells…
…an extreme example of the current fashion for winky lights. Note how – at 26 seconds – the flasher gives a hand signal – without looking behind to see if there’s anyone worth signaling to – and reveals a teeny on-off-on-off red light on his wrist.
Does his – I’m guessing it’s a man – risk-assessment include the threat of electrocution in a sudden shower?
I can see why someone might be too disorganised to keep lights on their bike, but why the craze for half a light?
If you’re in a shipwreck half a light might attract the attention of the crew of a rescue helicopter and the blinking beacon battery will last an extra two weeks. The first signal a flashing light gives to others is ‘Help me, I’m in distress.’
On a bike a tail light isn’t so other people can see you. That’s what rule 126 is for. It’s to make it as easy as possible for others to judge exactly where you are. The second message from a flashing rear light is ‘I care more about saving pennies than I do about giving a consistent signal of my position. I’m too cheap to let you know exactly where I am.’
There might be an argument for a flashing rear – if you’re riding desert roads with 50 kilometre straights – so that someone approaching from behind knows, early that you’re on a pedal-cycle with a relatively low speed, but that doesn’t make much sense in EC1.
There might be some argument for a flashing rear but why would you want a half a headlamp? Why would you want the road ahead to be illuminated half the time?
I’ve a set of DiNotte lights purchased at considerable expense for going downhill in the dark on a streamlined bike. On their brightest setting you can bounce the beam off low clouds. If everyone used them traffic-riding would be tiresome but anyone can benefit from the experience of all other traffic deferring to your blazing presence. It’s not necessary to mount a laser on your front forks to own the road but the experience can build confidence. Confidence is essential.
There’s value in a super-bright headlamp but half a super bright headlamp is dumbest of all. A light bright enough to rob you, and anyone else, of all night vision followed by a little sample of darkness.
The narrator of Ralph Waldo Ellison’s 1952 novel ‘The Invisible Man’, an unnamed African American man who feels himself completely overlooked, squats a forgotten basement apartment, robs electricity and illuminates his cell with 1,369 bulbs. A symbolic reaction to social exclusion.
It’s traditional for cycling magazines to publish features on lighting in the Autumn but the time for voluntary night riding is just coming in. Enjoy your travels. Show a steady light and don’t act like a victim.