Too bright or not bright enough – how do you choose the best bike lights for riding in the dark? Simon Vincett takes you through the issues, the testing and the best buys discovered.
Riders who have racked up a year or two of traversing the bike routes will have witnessed a couple of trends in bike lights. One is a proliferation of riders with no lights, one light or poor lights. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s an arms race going on, with lights becoming more and more blinding. The result is that a winter ride home involves peering to make out a shadowy shape one minute and squinting into an onslaught of hundreds of on-coming lumens the next.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are affordable lights that do a great job of making sure you’re seen and lights to see by that are focussed.Take a look at our results.
You can now read the results of the 2014 Lights test, including a table evaluating the top 100 current bike lights we have tested.
Ask more of your lights
Bike lights just keep getting smaller and smaller, without losing any of their visibility. In fact, they’re brighter every year.
Their convenience has increased in a number of ways. Just about all lights are USB rechargeable, doing away with the need to charge or replace removable batteries. Most lights are mounted quickly and without tools using an O-ring or loop in their silicone housing. This is great for swapping lights onto a different bike quickly or taking them with you when you park somewhere.
Battery life is generally shorter, presumably because it’s easy to pop them off and charge them regularly. A benefit of this is that the lights can be smaller due to a smaller battery. The better lights will have an indicator of when the charge is low.
Most lights are more water resistant now because they don’t have to have an opening to remove batteries.
However, bike lights aren’t getting less expensive as part of their evolution, in fact the expansion of brands seems to indicate that they are consumable items with a useful margin for the producer.
Ride On recommends
See the table at the end of this article for more detail of the performance of these lights and details of the other lights, which are all also good options.
Humans, not lumens
The Ride On Lights test, now in its eighth year, is a ‘blind’ test relying on a panel of judges to rate the effective visibility of a variety of bike lights in a real-life scenario. Last year we also measured the output of each light using a light meter to compare with the ratings given by the judges in the on-street visibility test. The results were strangely divergent, for instance, the brightest front compact light in lux (17 lux) was rated eighth out of 11 lights. The most visible front compact light according to the judges was 5.8 lux. (We measured in lux because it’s a measure of light on a surface, effectively what light reaches a viewer. Lumens are a measure of the total output of a light across the total angle of illumination – it’s useful for knowing how strongly a light illuminates your way.)
The difference may be explained by a few factors: that the judges are positioned at 200 metres from the lights for the front-on test (the legal minimum distance of visibility of bike lights in Australia) and at 50 metres from the lights for the angled visibility test, and that the lights are judged in flashing mode, which imparts another aspect of effective visibility. The result is, however, that we are convinced that it’s humans, not lumens, that determine how good a light is for making you visible. We haven’t continued the light meter aspect of the test.
The most visible flashing mode for each light is determined by Ride On staff. Where a light does not have a flash mode, it is displayed in constant beam mode and the judges are instructed to give the light a phase rating of five out of ten. ‘High-powered’ lights are also tested in flash mode rather than constant beam mode. (There’s more about ‘High-powered’ lights later.) A general finding is that a fast flash seems to be more visible and gets a higher score.
Which lights make the list?
The test is primarily concerned with determining the most visible, best quality and best value lights for a variety of bike riders. The visibility test is conducted on-street by a judging panel. The lights are then assessed for durability, weather resistance and usability by a team at RMIT Industrial Design. From these results and investigation of the quality of the lights, Ride On recommends the best lights for bike riders.
The results are cumulative. Each year we test the new models on the market using the same methodology as previous years (see www.rideons.wordpress.com for methodology details). Lights from previous years that are no longer available are dropped from the list but lights still current are included in the longlist with lights tested this year. The top 60 lights are published here. All these lights are good options and your favourite bike shop is sure to carry one or two of the top-ranking brands.
We tested 44 new models this year, making a longlist of 85 lights. This has been cut down to 60 by dropping the lowest scoring lights and in a few instances removing a lesser scoring light by the same brand.
This year we have revised our rating system, so the test results of newly tested lights and those included from previous testing were put through the new system. This explains why lights from last year’s article have a different score this year.
We recognise dynamo lights are also good for bike commuting, providing instantaneous light every time you get the wheels in motion. They will be tested separately on a new jig we’re developing.
How much light is about right?
High-powered lights used by commuting riders are for section of their journey that is on unlit paths. Otherwise they are can be a menace: dazzling and disorienting on-coming riders and drivers. They need to be pointed down at the ground a few metres in front of the front wheel in order not to be dazzling to riders coming the other way. Better still is to have a compact front flashing light for the street-lit part of the ride. It stands to reason that helmet-mounted lights shouldn’t be used when sharing the paths or roads – they are for mountain biking in the dark.
As you can see from the pictures on this page, there’s a great deal of difference between the two focussed beams of the Ilumenox Vega 3w and the Owleye Solar Highbred 40 and the spread of light from the high-powered lights. The focussed beams are from lights designed for the European market, where regulations such as the thorough German standard for bicycle lighting require the output to be capped, like a car’s headlights, to prevent dazzling other road users. Both these lights provide a constant beam and a flashing mode and would be a welcome alternative to high-powered lights on the bike paths. It should be noted that dynamo lights are also usually capped and focussed in the same way.
Which lights are ‘high-powered’ anyway?
‘High-powered’ is a category named years ago when there was a clear distinction between basic bike lights and lights that had a separate rechargeable battery (connected by a cable) and provided a strong beam. Today this distinction is not so easy to make as most lights have an incorporated rechargeable battery and the cheapest lights might still have impressively strong LEDs.
The distinction we have made is that lights with a stated output of 300 lumens we call high-powered. (Lumen is the unit used to express the power of a bike light to illuminate the way ahead.) Anything less than 300 lumens we included in the ‘compact front’ category.
We test high-powered lights for how effectively visible they are, so we the most visible mode, their flash mode, rather than their constant beam modes. Sometimes the flash mode is a lesser output than their brightest constant mode, but most often the flash is in their brightest output.
Things to look out for
USB rechargeable batteries have some issues to be aware of. While the better lights have a low battery indicator, if you run out of charge mid ride you have no light. Ideally, you will carry a back-up set of lights with your puncture kit – lights are certainly small enough now not to be a burden. Drop hints that they are a good gift option for you.
You can expect five years of optimal operation from a lithium-ion battery. After approximately 400 charge–discharge cycles the battery capacity will reduce to 80 per cent. Near freezing temperature causes 5–10% decrease in capacity and in heat over 40 degrees Celcius batteries permanently lose capacity at a rate of 5% per day.
All the lights are operated by one button yet some have a complex menu of modes. Also, some of the buttons take a very hard push to engage, which could be challenging with a gloved hand. If possible, test the button and menu of modes before buying.
From this test we found that the stated weight of the light was frequently less than its actual weight. Perhaps the weight given did not include the bracket, which generally adds 12–20 grams.
Ride On thanks the following people for judging at the visibility testing this year:
Jacqui Lovett, Victoria Police, Melbourne West Bicycle Patrol
Alex Hender, Ride2School
Iain Treloar, Road Riders, Bicycle Network Victoria
Joel Mayes, Bikes on Brunswick
Michael Hansford, Darebin BUG
Greg Weston, Bicycle Network Victoria member
Sean Wilkinson and Tania Sanchez, Catalyst Design.
Thanks also to Dr Scott Mayson and the RMIT Industrial Design team for conducting the design testing again this year.
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