Roundup: 2013 Commuter Lights

Lights Lights Shootout

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When it comes to bicycle lights, no one has done more testing and analysis than our very own Francis Cebedo. He’s been running the MTBR lights shootout for several years now and has followed the category quite closely. The lights shootout is one of the most extensive and complete comparisons of the industrys top lights on the web. If you’re a lights enthusiast, if you share a fetish for having the best technology in LED and Li-Ion on your bike, you have to check it out. But what if that’s not you, you commute on the road, and you’re not even sure you need a light because you ride in a well-lit urban environment. Well, besides being the law in many states, you should be riding with lights too. The number one explanation a motorist gives when they’ve hit a cyclist is, “I didn’t see them”. With proper lights, you reduce that chance.

Commuter lights can be broken down into two different categories, the to be seen lights and the to see lights. The first, ‘To Be seen’ light are usually smaller lights that emit enough light to catch the attention of motorists, but aren’t exactly powerful enough to be your sole source of light. The ‘To see’ lights are more powerful lights, higher in lumen count, and able to illuminate the road or path well enough to ride your bike sans street lights.

At the bare minimum, every cyclist should have a set of at least a headlight and taillight. Studies have shown that the number one fear of cyclists commuting on the road is being hit from behind. However, statistics have concluded that it’s far more likely you’ll be hit from a frontal collision. Of those accidents, 72% occur at intersections, meaning the offending motorist did not see the cyclist. So it’s good to rock a taillight, but if you want to make sure you don’t get hit, it’s a good idea to throw on a headlight as well. Studies have also shown that having the lights on your helmet make it even more obvious you’re there to a motorist. And not just during the evening commutes, day time lights is a good idea as well…

“I’m a proponent of using lights during the day. Whenever you’re on the street, your number one enemy is ‘not being seen’. There are an increasing number of cases where cyclists are hurt or killed these days, because drivers and other motorists did not see them.” says Francis Cebedo, resident Lights Guru. “There are two ways to combat this, the obvious one is to wear outlandishly bright colors, but that only goes so far. The other option is to run your lights during the day, just like daytime running lights on your car. You can have both your taillight and headlight flashing; this helps because drivers that you haven’t even seen yet can still see you. You can ride defensively, but if you don’t see the car you’re not going to be able to dodge it. If you ride in a dense urban area or city, you should definitely be running daytime lights on your bike.”

When asked what a sweet spot for someone looking for a to be seen light, Francis replied, “For the to be seen crowd, a sweet spot would be right around 100 lumens. If you have a light that’s flashing or glowing at 100 lumens, you’re going to be seen. In perfect conditions, you’ll be seen from a mile or rather several blocks away.”

You don’t have to limit yourself to just blinkers to be seen either. The “To see” lights are lights that will not only help you be seen on your bike, but will also help you see the road that much better. These lights feature LED bulbs, better light patterns, and often come with internal lithium ion rechargeable batteries to keep the high powered LEDs happy.

These lights though a little more expensive are worth the investment if you find yourself riding in the dark a lot. If you have access to USB ports at work, they’ll also be easily recharged. LED power can range from 120 lumens up to past 1200 lumens depending on model. (For reference, the auto industry standard for a single low beam head light is 1200 lumens.)

Bicycle Trail – Light Comparisons

Bicycle Trail shot with No light, a to be seen light, and a 600 lumen light…

Just for fun, a 1200 lumen light…

“If you want to be able to see, 600 lumens is about where you want to be. Just 2 or 3 years ago, 600 lumens was about as powerful as bicycle lights got. Today, you can find a reasonably priced 600 lumen light that is self contained, li-ion powered, and usb rechargeable for right around $100. The sweet spot.” Says Francis.

That’s a lot of light for just $100. We asked what he thought was the biggest changes he’s seen over the years, Francis mentioned the LED, Halogen, and HID battle is over.

“So when I started 3-4 years ago, LED was just starting to appear on bicycle lights. At the time, there was a battle between halogen, LED, and HID systems. The clear winner today is LED. If you make an HID or Halogen light today, no one is going to buy it. The reason why LED is so prevalent now, is its efficiency and its durability. LEDs now are about 10 times more efficient than HIDs. That means for the same amount of power, you get more run time, more brightness, and the size of the battery shrinks.

On the durability side, HIDs and Halogens just don’t do well with shock. When you crash or even just normal riding vibrations over time, the bulbs filament has a tendency to break or wear out. LEDs aren’t affected by shock and don’t wear out like a normal bulb. There’s no issue with an LED bulb burning for 50,000 hours plus. There’s no concern like there is with Halogen and HID lights on ‘how much does it cost to replace my bulbs’.

The other change in technology is the batteries. As you’ve seen in other consumer products like the iPhone and electric cars, batteries have shrunk from the older Ni-Cad to smaller more efficient Li-Ion. Lithium Ion is the battery of choice these days, it’s just more powerful per gram than anything else. The great thing about it is that it’s being developed and used in everything from your phone to your car – that same technology that’s developed goes into these lights and everyone benefits from this revolution.”

So for a user that bought into one of these halogen or HID systems, would you recommend they upgrade now or wait until their system dies?

“Absolutely there’s a benefit to upgrading now. The greatest analogy for this is the PC or a Mac. If you have a computer from 3-4 years ago, you can probably still use it, the battery may still hold a charge, and the thing is probably slow, but you can get by with it. Most people at this point will get rid of it though and move onto the latest computer. Technology increases at such a fast rate that when you do pick up a new machine, it’s going to have plenty of advances. Same thing has happened in lights – the technology has been advancing at a 20-40% rate year over year. So just imagine how much better they are today for the same amount of money. Don’t bother with replacement batteries for your old system; the technology is just too old. My number one advice to people is NOT to buy used lights. Lights from 3 or 4 years ago just don’t hold a candle to what’s available today. A $700 system from 2008 selling on craigslist today for $70 is useless. Any new light today using the latest LEDs and Li-Ion battery will blow it away at half the price. It’ll be way more reliable and way more efficient.“ remarked Francis.

With more options than ever for the bicyclists, we’re here to break down the category for you and help you find the best light for your situation. Here is a round up of 2013 model year lights we’ve tested so far this year…

Combo Kits



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About the author: Thien Dinh

Thien Dinh gained most his cycling knowledge the old fashioned way, by immersing himself in the sport. From 2007 to early 2013, Thien served as RoadBikeReview Site Manager, riding daily while putting various cycling products through its paces. A native of California, Thien also enjoys tinkering with photography and discovering new music.

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  • froze says:

    Sigh…maybe someday there will be beam shots of taillights like MTBR did with head lights. It does go to figure that there are quite a few beam shots of head lights and none for taillights, it’s like taillights aren’t important, which is why for the most part we cyclists still have dim taillights and have to pay $100 for a 50 lumen taillight when the same $100 will buy us 400 lumen head light.

  • olaf palme says:

    Lights shmites. Many drivers don’t see you because they’re on Twitter or Facebook.

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