Lights, no camera, action

This isn’t a discussion of lights generally. Though I will deal with what you need to be legal. This is a discussion of the lights that I have and why I chose them. Since publishing this first I’ve been asked to comment on the purposes of “seeing v being seen.” To an extent the rear lights I’ve reviewed here will get you seen. And them some. The fronts will let you see very well indeed. Because of that they also fulfil the brief of being seen. But it’s a good theme and one I hope to come back to with a part 2 of this review incorporating some real world pictures and videos.

I have each of the above lights attached to either my bike or me. My commute is lengthy and even if the return trip starts in the light it often ends in the dark. I can’t put a premium on survival so I’ve developed, over the years, a combination that I feel offers me as much protection as I can. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty much as good as I can make it. I’ll tell you how I’d improve it later on. But first we need to talk about the law.

Old law for modern solutions

Cycling law, as it relates to safety requirements, and specifically lighting,  is outdated. It exists from a time when we used to attach Ever Ready lights to brackets on our forks and seat stays. I used to use an Ever Ready front light on Halloween when playing in the lane at the rear of our house. My hollowed out swede with candle produced almost as much lighting.

The main piece of legislation, (the Road and Vehicle Lighting Regulations (RVLR)) came into force in 1989. That was well before LED’s became the go to cycling lamp of choice. Lighting technology from 1989 is like a bygone age. The law has been amended a number of times since. But it’s more a case of tinkering away at the edges. There is no real recognition of the pace of technology. The overall focus is safety. And that’s rightly the case. But it’s a hotch pitch of references to BS standards (or equivalents), candela and other technicalities. It’s a rigid approach to safety.

The RVLR requires a cyclist to be lit between sunset and sunrise. That’s not darkness. Indeed, in the summer, it may still be light when the sun goes over the horizon. Turn your lights on or you may get stopped.

Remember that motorists only need to turn their headlights on in actual darkness. They can drive with sidelights on after sunset until it gets dark. If you’re a cyclist, once its sunset you’ll need all your lights on. So, on the assumption that the sun has disappeared below the horizon, what do you need to comply?

Reflectors first. You need to have a BS standard red one at the rear at a certain height. That’s between 250mm and 900mm. That’s right, almost a metre at it’s highest. Most people stick one on the seatpost. But that’s a real estate issue. What if your rear light is already there? You may not have the space. I have mudguards on my commuter. There’s a reflector on the rear of the rear guard just above 250mm. It’s not marked to BS standard though but it should be enough. Enough for what? Well I’ll deal with that a little later.

You don’t need a white front reflector despite the fact that new bikes come with them. You don’t need wheel reflectors either but may feel that they help. Every little helps after all. I have reflective sidewalls on my tyres (Vittoria Hyper Voyager) and I find that a more effective approach than annoying fragile, noisy wheel reflectors.

You also need amber pedal reflectors if your bike was built after 1985. You need 4 of them. So a pair for each pedal, once facing forward, one facing rear.  The practical effect of that is you need them because your bike is unlikely to be that old. That’s some of the weirdness of the RVLR right there. It this is about safety why should an older bike get away with it? It may be that older bikes couldn’t easily fit them. A similar issue to cars of a certain age not needing retrospective fitting of seat belts.

Ironically it’s not old bikes that are affected by this rule. It’s modern ones. If you are one of the large amount of cyclists who use lipless pedals then it’s likely that you won’t have any reflectors. The surface of the pedal is too small.  There are attachments available so that you can you can turn your Shimano (other brands are available) SPD pedal into a RVLR compliant pedal with the addition of some clip on reflectors, but it’s a faff. You can do it for road pedals as well. But you’re generally limited to one rear facing on each pedal. That contravenes the RVLR. It’s useful but it isn’t legal. Of course, the reality is that much of the clipless market exists between the hours of sunrise and sunset. Using those pedals is perfectly legal then. After hours you need reflectors. You can substitute options in here such as reflective tape, or even flashing ankle bracelets. Those options might be even more visible but they are not a legal replacement option.

Then you need lights. They need to be marked to BS standard if capable of emitting a steady light or, if only capable of emitting a flashing light, rated to 4 candela. I have no idea what 4 candela is. But from a quick google it’s not very much. It’s also quite hard to find one. Most packaging tells you how many lumens a light is and you’re going to have to do some science to figure out whether you have the requisite candela output. My view is don’t worry about it. Most lights to commute with, to see with, have a solid and flashing mode. So we’re back to the need to comply with the the BS standard.

Sadly, BS standard doesn’t seem to be what it once was with very few firms bothering to go through any sort of certification process. Outdated law, modern technology. You can find lights marked with the standard. They are often cheap and are, crucially, legal. You might also conclude that they are relatively ineffective. You might be able to be seen with them but  you may well not be able to see with them. Finding information on whether your selected light is BS standard is often difficult. If it’s not there, then assume it isn’t.

There is a way around this. If you can find something certified as meeting German light regulations then buy that. That will meet the definition of equivalent standard. The German market is tightly controlled and you can be certain that a light available for sale there will meet the test of equivalence. I would exercise some caution in that approach. One of the drivers for the German approach is the need to protect other drivers from unsuitably high outputs and dazzle which may cause accidents. That means that the outputs of German lights are lower than many of the available lights in the UK. You may consider that they are not suitable for your commuting because they aren’t bright enough. That’s a lengthy discussion to have. For now let’s move on.

Clear as mud then. Get something that’s not easy to find and which may not work all that well. Indeed, if you fitted an eBay Ever Ready at the front and rear you will comply with the RVLR. And might find yourself dead next week. It’s a bit of a quandary.

Breaking the law

So it’s here we need to think about what breaching the RVLR means. It’s a criminal offence. Not one of those proper ones though. It’s one of those quasi civil criminal offences that brings you a fine. It’s a summary only offence in the Magistrate’s Court. Though in most cases you’ll get a warning or a fixed penalty notice. That’s the risk. The real world purpose is to ensure some sort of compliance. You’re unlikely to get fined for absent pedal reflectors or the absence of a BS standard light if you are running good, decent alternatives. Certainly if you’re wearing a helmet and high vis, neither of which are legally required, you’re likely to be overlooked 😉

But it’s the civil law that could potentially create the bigger issues. If you get knocked off, how does non compliance with the RVLR apply? Well in UK civil law, if you’re injured, the other party may claim that you contributed to your injuries through your own negligence. That’s called contributory negligence. If you’re injured you face arguments from the other party that your actions might amount of contributory negligence. Unless you can settle then you proceed to trial and if the judge accepts that your actions were in some way to “blame” then your damages will be reduced by a certain percentage to take that into account.

There’s not a huge amount of guidance in relation to cyclists actions generally. There’s some obiter on helmet use in Smith v Finch. No Court has yet definitely deal with lack of lights. In Phethean-Hubble v Coles the cyclist was heavily penalised for his actions of jumping off the pavement onto the road. But the Judge accepted he could be plainly seen and his lack of lights was not causative of his accident and/or injury. That’s helpful. My professional view is that if you are properly lit within the spirit of what the law requires you will be protected. Technical breaches of the RVLR will not be enough to establish that you are in any way at fault. Indeed, there’s an argument that complying with the RVLR with a set of Ever Ready lights might be foolish and lead to arguments that you could not been seen.

So, let’s deal with the lights I chose. None of them are BS standard. They all exceed the requirements of the German market. I don’t consider that even an over zealous policemen would stop me. I don’t consider that a judge would find me contributory negligent for using them. I believe that they are a good balance to ensure that I make it to my destination every day.

Forgive me for starting at the rear. It’s important to maximise your visibility there to ensure that you are seen as early as possible. It’s best to run with more than one light so as to provide more visibility. It also leaves you with a back up should one fail. USB recharging is arguably better in many respects but don’t underestimate the risk of forgetting to charge your lights and balance against that the ability to carry a spare battery.

See Sense 125see sense

My main light is a See Sense 125 lumens (version 1). There’s a new version coming this month called the Ikon. I hope to test that. The see sense isn’t a cheap light but it is an enormously effective one. It’s a smart light and it does things that most other lights just don’t do. It flashes at a decent rate when you’re cycling and, as you’d expect from 125 lumens, is very bright. You could happily run in the daylight with it as well. There’s an argument that it is too bright and might annoy waiting traffic and that’s a debate worth having. But, for now, let’s leave this at the fact that it gets me seen. If I’m seen I generally make it home.

What else does it do? Well, this is the techy bit. It changes behaviour depending on what’s happening in relation to itself and the world around it. If you’re tootling along on a dark road then it’s happily flashing away in a relatively calm manner. If you brake then the accelerometer senses this and starts flashing quicker. Effectively it’s a brake light. Now, any driver behind may not know this, but in my view the increased rate of flash is a useful cognitive indicator. Let’s go back to that dark road. If your light senses a car’s headlights coming from behind it starts to do its flashy thing again. So it’s light sensing. Stop at some lights and it goes back into calm mode. Pull off, it speeds up until you’ve once again reached cruising speed. And the beauty of all of this is you just leave it alone to do all of this. No interference. It feels safer than other options. I have no science to base that on. It’s anecdotal. But I would not ride without it.

The construction is odd on the face of it. There are no on and off buttons. It’s also auto off. You leave your bike alone and it turns itself off. Move your bike, back on it comes. If you want to turn it off you point the light at the floor. To turn it on you rotate it left/right 3-4 times. You can do all of those actions when it’s on the bike. There’s a small rubber flap over the charging socket. I’ve been running mine for over a year and the build has been flawless.

There are other modes. You can have it steady, flash, reduced flash, different patterns etc. Getting to those is difficult. There’s a manual with a flow chart of how you have to move the light to access them. It takes a bit of patience. But, the stock setting is so perfect I don’t bother. A full charge lasts about a week or more, which is impressive. There’s a slightly less powerful version available and a mega powerful (195 lumen) one. The latter is possibly unnecessary with my view.

The see sense is also quite visible from the side and that’s very useful on junctions and roundabouts.Fitting is easy. It’s the traditional wrap around big rubber band thingy. There are several notches on the band to make it fit snugly to its destination of choice. The rear of the light has a slightly curved surface that matches the curve of a seatpost. It may fit an aero seatpost, it may not. The makers suggest using sugru to fashion a holder if you’re desperate to get a perfect fit. It won’t fit so well on the seat stay as it’s bit bulky for that overall. But it stays nicely connected to your seatpost in all conditions.

There’s a new model coming with smart phone connectivity. Still does all the same things as the old one. But more features like pothole reporting and the like. The really great addition to the new model is that you can remotely change all of the settings with your smart phone. You can buy the original see sense lights here, the original rear ranging from £44.99 to £79.99. The new ikon is priced higher, but looks like a great piece of kit.

To buy one click here

I’ll be clear that for me this is a piece of essential kit. One of the few pieces of cycling kit that I’ve owned and been absolutely happy with. And one which I will own for a long time.

Lezyne Strip Drive Prostrip drive

To buy one click here

For specifications click here

I bought this to supplement the see sense. It’s a mega bright multi pattern light which is mountable in a number of different places. It’s USB chargeable and in its most bright flashing mode will last around 5 hours. So my commute demands it be charged every 2-3 days or so.

You could definitely use this as your main rear. Indeed, that’s what it’s designed to be. I talked earlier on about the cycling light arms race. It wasn’t so long ago that 50 lumens was the normal high setting on many lights. This puts out 100 lumens. That’s a lot but not quite as much as the see sense above though it’s still very punchy. There’s an argument that such lighting is anti social and dangerous. Indeed it’s notable that most Lezyne products don’t meet the German regulations at all. They now sell a bespoke micro drive StVZO. It puts out 5 lumens. But let’s leave that argument aside. You have to decide on whether you feel that something like the Strip Drive provides you with a decent amount of protection. One of the settings is Night Rider mode. The lights run in sequence like the front of Kitt. That’s pretty cool, right?

Mounting the strip drive is the same as the see sense. Grooved back and rubber band, tighten as appropriate. The groove is deeper and less wide. It stays still on a seat post but doesn’t really fit it. But it really excels on a seat stay where the groove on the back is of a similar thickness. That’s where I’ve been attaching mine (on the right hand side). I find that this is useful when tiled very slightly off centre. It still lets the cars behind know you’re there but it also provides a reference point (or target) when passing junctions. You could, if you were feeling flush, run one on both seat stays. But you could get into a little bit of flash overkill. I run mine less bright than the see sense and with a constant slow flash. It lasts for ages and is nicely visible. It’s clearly very waterproof and be of good quality.

In terms of whether its worth it I’d say that it’s properly constructed, lasts for ages, has a good USB method of charing and is effective. It’s worth the money. I can’t say whether it’s 5 times better than a Smart Lunar from Planet X but I’m quite happy with the investment. When the summer comes I think it will make a good day running light on my best bike.

Fibre Flare Shorty (non USB)

fibre

Click here for tech specs

Click here to buy the red one

The Fibre flare is an oddity. It’s a sort of flexible tube. But you can’t flex it too much as it will break. They do sell a more flexible version for hanging on a helmet. There’s also a USB one. Mine is the blue version and it’s the shorter one. It takes AAA batteries, one on each end. It has two slotted hooks on each end and some rubber attachments. You slide the rubber attachments onto the hooks and wrap them round, for example, the seat stay. Indeed, these don’t really work on a seatpost. They are too long. They work best on seat stays, forks and down tubes. They cannot possibly be a light to light your way. Their purpose is simply about being visible. There are only two modes, solid and flash.

I used to have a few of these. They don’t last for years. Whilst the rubber coating is effective at keeping rain and road spray out, the circuits do eventually give up. Leaving batteries in there over the winter will only exacerbate this. They are of decent quality rather than being over engineered like a Lezyne product.

This might sound negative. It isn’t meant to be, it’s simply a practical observation. The reason why I like these lights is because they are so damn visible. Even the short version here can be seen from a good distance. There is a very short version called the micro. That offers nothing and should be avoided.

I attach a fibre flare to the left hand seat stay. Again, I angle it slightly outwards. I leave it on solid and it’s like a giant glow stick. Good from the the rear. Great from the side. It’s just one more useful thing to have in the armoury. The hooks are useful. You can detach the rubber bands and hang this from clothing or a rucksack. It hangs down nicely. It’s available in red, green, blue or yellow. I’ve pictured the blue because it creates an interesting effect. Sometimes a sea of red light gets lost when you’re commuting. Adding something to break up the effect can be beneficial. Though I accept there are arguments against. The RVLR requires red at the rear. But it does not prohibit any other colour being present. I’d advise against white as that is implicitly a front colour. But adding another colour can promote safety.

What about blue? Is that even legal. Good question, and I’ll let you consider this. Regulation 27 of the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations is unclear. It prohibits the fitting of a (blue) warning beacon. The definition of that beacon appears to exclude a static non rotating light. Equally, if you were to hang a fibre flare on your rucksack it would not be “attached to any vehicle.” As such you’d be safe there. Remember, this is about the RVLR. You could, in theory, get a fine for having a blue, or green, or yellow light. But they’d have seen you, and that’s rather the point. In practice you’re never even likely to get pulled over.

Lezyne Deca Drive

deca

For tech specs click here

Click here to buy the NEW version

Ok, here’s where we get into controversial territory. How much is enough? How much is too much?

As we discussed earlier, the German laws are strict. So you get a tiny amount of rear light and not much more at the front. The deca drive is illegal in Germany. It’s not BS certified either so doesn’t meet the RVLR in the UK. So what the hell is it for? Well, the RVLR is, as noted, from a different time. What we have here is a good light for seeing where you are going. As long as you don’t blind traffic coming the other way then it will keep you safe.

The Deca Drive attaches via a traditional clamp and knurled screw affair. The light then attaches to the groove in the bracket and clicks home safely. Make sure it’s in before you ride off. To release it you press the tab at the front and take it off.

Charging is by USB. You open the rear flap and charge the battery using micro USB leads. They don’t supply a charger. Charge time is between 6 and 12 hours depending on whether you use a 1 or 2 amp charger. Well, that should be the case. Let’s say that Lezyne charging is idiosyncratic. It’s true that 1 amp charging takes 12 hours. Lezyne will sell you a 2 amp charger for around £20. When you use that the top indicator light flashes blue to indicate fast charging. You can get that effect with the original iPad charger as well. You should be able to get it with a 2 amp Samsung charger. But that flashes green to indicate slow charging. Annoying. But most lights require the buying of a charging plug if you don’t already have one so bear that in mind.

There are two different modes. In Race Mode only Overdrive (900 lumens) and economy (250 lumens) are available. In normal mode you lose overdrive but keep endure (400) blast (700) economy (250) and some flashing modes.

Once it’s charged it should, in theory, last around 1.5 hours at 900 lumens, the top setting. Other settings will last longer, of course. This is theoretical and this is an area in which Lezyne lights can exasperate. The top light indicator is green when the charge level is 100%. The manual then says yellow indicates 50% and red is 10%. Once it flashes red, get home quickly.

In my experience, on 900 lumens, the indicator changes to yellow after 10-15 minutes of a ride. Assuming that battery drain is linear that suggests that a run time of 30 minutes is in prospect. The practical truth is that the yellow light remains on for at least an hour and I’ve not yet seen red. It’s not clear whether that’s a faulty indicator or that the manual is not explaining matters well. After all it cannot maintain a 100% battery and green level for any substantial amount of time. It’s possible that the yellow means between 50 and 100%. But that means that red is less than 50. So it’s confusing in principle, somewhat clearer in practice. It’s for that reason that I’d suggest investing in the spare battery (around £20) and keeping that one charged. It’s a bespoke battery so you can’t swap any old battery in there.

Again, that sounds a little negative. It’s irritating but not a deal breaker for me. The quality of the light is otherwise excellent. I paid £69 for mine which is a good price. The new version is much more expensive (RRP) but the uprated new model Power Drive almost matches the output of the older Deca Drive. That level is more than enough for commuting in my view.

Beam spread and distance is very good with the Deca. It doesn’t appear to blind oncoming traffic. Perhaps the small hood at the top of the light disperses the light adequately. It’s excellent on dark lanes and very useful off road as well. For commuting it makes for a very good light. When you’re on a shared use path (like the last 5 miles of my commute) you can use the indicator light to change quickly to a more socially acceptable 250 lumen output.

I like the Deca Drive but it’s not perfect. The charging process and display of what charge is left is something from the dark arts. You know it will work but don’t always trust it. If you can get a good deal then it’s a good buy. I hope to trial the new model to see if they can deal with the flaws of the old.

UPDATE: 5th January 2015. Sadly, it got a bit more annoying. Sometimes it would flash and not show a full charge. Sometimes the orange light came on too quickly. It worked fine. Seemed to be fully charged and still lasted. But, well, it’s a trust issue when you’re out in the dark. So, I’ve swapped it with a Cateye Volt 1200 which seems solidly reviewed overall, and in particular in relation to its charging indicators. Full review of that one up soon.

Lezyne Superdrive XL

XL

Phew. The end of the review. This is a cute and effective little brother to the deca drive. It’s surprisingly capable. But because there is a single emitter don’t expect so much of a spread. It has the same attachment system as the smaller deca drive. It has the same overdrive mode. So you get access to 700 lumens there and 350/500 lumens (and some flashy stuff) in normal mode. Run times are on a par with the deca drive overall. It charges in the same way, remove the rear flap and plug in a micro usb. That same 1 or 2 amp charging issue appears here as well. But the indicator seems to work slightly better on run times for the superdrive, which is interesting.

I use this on a steady flash mode in addition to the solid mode of my deca drive. It’s also useful as a back up should the other run out of juice. The 500 lumen mode is more than enough to be seen and to get you home. Indeed, the 350 lumen mode is more than enough as well. It’s a good light and is engineered very well. It’s possible to get the loaded version (with an extra battery) for less than £50 now. That’s a very tidy deal indeed.

Loaded version for £49.99

My thoughts?

The title of this review was lights, no camera, action. That was alluding to the fact that I don’t have a Go Pro or any equivalent. I did have. And I don’t like what it made me. It was useful for dealing with the occasional poor pass. But it made me all to aware of every minor indiscretion. It wasn’t particularly useful at night either. So I ditched it.

This review is about my lights, what I think and why I use them. It’s not a suggestion that they are the best out there though I do think the see sense falls into that category. There are a load of decent alternatives. Planet X have a load of cheap rears at the moment, a lot of which are worthy of purchase (Smart, Lunar, Cherry Bomb etc).

The legality of the RVLR is confusing. But as long as you stick to the spirit of it you’re unlikely to be pulled over. What’s important is to be visible. Lights are part of that. Reflectives and high vis are a debate for another day.

I’d like to give an honourable shout out to one light which I think is almost perfect. The Philips Saferide 80. Takes 4 AA batteries and runs for about 2 hours. German certified. It’s like a headlight. Not too much power and lights the road well. It’s socially acceptable. The bracket is awful but otherwise I think the light is actually nigh on perfect. I sold mine earlier in the year when I was thinking about my lighting solutions. That was a mistake. I wish I could find another one to buy. They aren’t cheap though as Philips have discontinued them. If you can find one, get one. Best, light, ever.

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