By Stan Purdum
It was only after the school bus knocked Dave Cardarella and his riding partner Marilyn Perdue off their tandem bicycle and then drove over the bike as they scrambled for their lives that Dave got serious about daytime lights on bicycles.
Road riders, Dave and Marilyn, of North Canton, Ohio, pedal about 10,000 miles each year, but until the encounter with the school bus in May of 2013, they had avoided serious threat to their lives from motor vehicles.
The crash occurred when the school bus pulled unexpectedly out of a side road as Dave and Marilyn were pumping up a hill, riding near the right edge of the road. It was 3:20 in the afternoon on a sunny day, and both riders were wearing bright clothing. They had the right of way, and the bus was stopped at a stop sign, ready to enter the road from their right. Dave saw the woman behind the wheel look left, in their direction, and then right. She then made a left turn knocking them over and rolling over the tandem with the bus’s rear wheel.
She later explained that she “didn’t see” the bike, but Dave was convinced that if he had been running a flashing headlight, she would have noticed them when she looked left. (The driver was cited by the police and the school district’s insurance paid to restore the bike.)
Within the months of their incident, a cyclist in a nearby community was killed by a dump truck, and not long after that, also nearby, a car hit five riders, killing two. In both cases, the drivers claimed not to have seen the cyclists. The latter case was especially maddening because the driver was texting at the time of the crash but avoided conviction by bringing in a so-called expert from out of state who testified that the riders should have been running lights, even though the collision happened in daylight.
“Cyclists have a responsibility to themselves to make themselves as visible as possible,” Dave concluded from all of this. “Nobody hits something they see,” he said.
Calculating the Chances of Becoming a Cyclist Fatality
“I wondered about my own odds,” Dave said. Being an electrical and mechanical engineer by training and a problem-solver by inclination, he made a back of the envelope calculation. He knew that in Ohio, about 16 people are killed while cycling each year, and of these about six are vehicular cyclists. He also knew that the riders in the Stark County (Ohio) Bicycle Club, to which he and Marilyn belong, collectively ride about 300,000 miles each year. He doubled that figure to include the mileage of non-club riders in the area. He then posited that there might be 10 areas in the state where 600,000 miles are cycled annually, totaling 6 million miles statewide. He divided that by the average six vehicular cyclists killed in the state annually and then divided that number by the 10,000 annual miles he pedals andcame up with his odds of being a cyclist fatality at 1 in 100.
Importance of Daytime Lights for Bicyclists
“Having daytime lights is part of riding defensively,” Dave said. He began experimenting with several lighting combinations.
In front, he currently runs two headlights, mounted on his handlebars. Both are Cygolite Metro 400s. In strobe mode, which he recommends for daylight running, they each put out about 550 lumens and last 8-10 hours before needing recharging. (Dave notes that he purchased his lights two years ago and that units with even higher lumens are now available. Cygolite offers a Metro 850, 700 and 600.)
In the rear, Dave has two different taillights. One, mounted on the back of the tandem’s luggage rack, is a Cygolite Hotshot Pro, which puts out 80 lumens in strobe mode and lasts 8-10 hours. (There is now a Hotshot Pro 150 available from Cygolite.)
The other taillight is 1200-lumen import, which Dave has mounted on the left side of the left end of the stoker’s handlebar, on the bottom of the drop so as not to interfere with riding. Being the left-most part of the bike, it’s a highly visible location. “I’ve had people complain that the light is too bright, saying ‘I can see it a mile away,’” Dave said, “to which I reply, ‘Good. That’s what I want.’” This light lasts only three hours in strobe mode, so Dave carries an extra rechargeable battery pack on the bike.
Where to Aim Your Bicycle Lights
What’s critically important, according to Dave, is aiming the lights correctly. “They must be aimed exactly horizontal to the road,” he said. “Headlights are easy to aim because they can be mounted securely to the handlebars. But taillights, often end up pointing up, down or sideways.” Dave blames this on the fact that many taillight manufacturers supply only a bracket for mounting the light to the seatpost, which for many riders is not practical because of their under-the-seat bag. Thus, riders put their light on the seat bag, where it sags and points down or on their helmet where it swivels all over the place as the rider moves.
“Manufacturers need to also supply brackets that allow the lights to be mounted on the rear stays,” Dave said. (Some do, so check before purchasing, or be prepared to fabricate your own bracket.)
He suggests checking the aim of the lights by pointing the bike at a garage door in daylight.
That way, drivers will see you coming and going. And hopefully, you’ll live to ride another day.
I admit to a love/hate relationship with riders using flashing white handlebar lights. Not only can the cars see them (we hope), so do the bike riders in the group that are ahead of the strobing handlebar light. I find it very distracting to have that strobe flashing in my eyeglass mirror. It takes focus away from what’s ahead of me.
Road Bike Rider says
That’s a good point. I ride very early in the morning before light, and the other issue I sometimes face in a group is that someone will have an incredibly bright red blinking taillight that is really better suited for riding alone during the day and not for riding in a group because it is almost blindingly bright. I keep my red taillight tilted downwards for group rides.