STAY WELL LIT and You Won’t be HIT!!!
In other words
“SAVE YOUR Life, Ride ULtra BRIGHT, DAY And night”
A Bicycle Light Review
Introduction: As a quick start; I was hit and almost killed last year by a car making an illegal turn…I was a lucky survivor. Many are not so fortunate. Even though I ride an average of 10K miles/yr., I’d never been a bike advocate or activist before; but seeing your own blood draining onto the street changes you. Within weeks of being released from the hospital, I started looking for a solution to the carnage. We had two more fatalities the next month further raising the stakes. What was the most expedient, reliable, and cost effective mechanism to preventing/stopping the fatalities?
You can say and preach all you want about driver and rider safety and education, but the truth is, you’re never going to get to every driver or rider. There had/has to be other options. I looked in all directions and researched numerous possibilities, and one statistic I found leapt out against all the others… To date, I have not found one, not a single fatality, hit from behind accident, (which out number all other cycling fatality accidents 2:1), when the cyclist was riding with today’s ultra bright rear lights turned on… that started me on the trek… If you can give the driver 5-10 seconds (.1-.2 tenths of a mile at highway speeds) advance warning of your presence, you will not (at least statistically) have problems. In fact, from my and many others reported experiences, most every driver that passes you will appreciate the simple and effective “heads up” warning.
Cutting directly to the chase scene: Wear multiple ultra brite lights, day and night.. As a good rule of thumb; If you can look directly at the light, it’s not even close to being brite enough. All the lights in this article are retina searing, some, more than others.
The bottom line is, that after many months of searching police and sheriff records following my accident this past June, I still can’t find one rear end cycling fatality where the rider had ultra-bright rear lights flashing at the time of the accident. That is an impressive statistic to say the least; and one that no cyclist should ignore, take lightly, nor not heed.
Determining which rear end lights were most effectively seen, day and night by drivers. There are many dozens of lights to choose from. Which lights can be seen most easily? Which are the best Price/Performance options?
The minimum lighting standard I set for inclusion in this review was the light must be clearly visible flashing, in the daytime .1 mile (one-tenth of a mile). At highway/road speeds, that represents between 10 and 20 seconds warning to the driver. An eternity in reaction time, and an early warning system to drivers.
A total of only 11 lights met this criteria, many more did not. Any of these lights will greatly enhance your chances of staying alive on the road. But there are profound differences between Good, Better, and Best, as you will see.
Prices ranged from $25-$200.
I intentionally did not make it easy to meet this standard. For the visibility tests, I chose early morning, around 8-8:30AM, bright cloudless days, when the sun was low on the horizon. The lights were placed roughly only 10 degrees east (North) of being directly into the sun. This is exactly the time when most cyclists have been killed, early morning or late afternoon, riding towards the sun.
Determining which is the best light is impossible. It would be the same at saying which bicycle is the “best”. Everyone has their own needs and budget. What works best for Fred doesn’t for Wilma, etc.
Please note, that as a matter of practical usage, ALL lights/batteries tested were rechargeable, in one manner or another. The intent was/is to take the typically heard excuse for not using lights, “I didn’t want to run my batteries down”, completely out of the equation. Some lights were tested with rechargeable AA/AAA batteries, while others were USB rechargeable… In any case, no one can use that excuse again. Lights that did not have a rechargeable option were not tested, and in fact, are being erased from the market.
One light characteristic and function that becomes important to note to the reader is “lensing”. A light can appear to be extremely bright from one angle, but quickly loses effectiveness only a few degrees off this primary angle. To further complicate matters, more LED’s in a light, may or may not be perceived as brighter, depending upon the relative photon count coming out from the individual LEDs. Therefore every light is a compromise of LED brightness, lensing focus brightness, viewable angle brightness, # of LEDs, and battery runtime.
Testing LED lights is technically challenging. Numerous methods have been used over several decades. For this study I roughly followed the Modified Allard method for effective intensity.
This calibrated protocol was combined with visual comparisons at .1 mile and .23 mile. The empirical results of these protocols, were averaged. Below: Left to right. A power meter, labs sphere 21” sphere for determining primary wavelength, and Newport Corporation Optical 1918-R Power meter for determining overall light power, and Newport Corp optical table.
Next; While the flashing color red denotes a heightened state of awareness in our minds, red lenses typically reduce overall perceived power by a significantly large factor. Again, everything is a compromise. Lastly; runtime of each light was tested and noted. The minimum was approx.. 2 hours, which is usually acceptable for a commuter who can and will recharge their lights at work, but not so good for the road cyclist who’s putting in 4-6 hours, and will be left unprotected.
Lastly, note that all lights were paid for. None were “donated”. I wanted to eliminate any potential or possibility of the results being questioned or perceived as “bought” or “mailed in”. When multiples of light from a given mfg were tested, some were purchased at a discount which was appreciated to save my personal wallet a bit, but all were bought. Many of the lights were purchased at retail, multiples from some mfg’s.
So, due to the large number of variables in testing, it seemed fairest to set several categories to list the order of finish, and “award” the winner, and hence for you to choose from:
- Best Overall Combined Brightest Light
- Best Price/Performance Light
- Brightest Single Angle tested Light
- Most Innovative light (and likely to be copied by competitors)
- Best Commuter Light
Each light has its own Strength and Weaknesses. What’s important to note is that all lights in this review passed the most basic of tests. Can the light be clearly seen flashing by a driver from a minimum of .1 mile (one-tenth of a mile).
This is a non retouched pic showing a light at .1 mile distance. You can see even from this singular, non-flashing photo that the light is clearly visible. The pic does not do the flashing, justice.
Quickly (skip this paragraph if not interested in testing protocols).
How do you test for brightness? This is not as EZ as it map first appear. There are numbers of industrial, military, auto, and FAA lighting standards, and none for cycling. I chose to loosely follow the Modified Allard method which is the most common, and augment the approach with visual confirmation. This incorporates very high end testing equipment such a Lab spheres, CCD spectrometers, Optical power meters, and finally, after the numbers were in; good ole’ eyeballs. Lights were tested by observers at .1 mile and then at .23 mile, both directly line of sight, and then approx.. 30 deg. off axis center line. All lights were tested with full charges, either from their own USB batteries, or fully charged Li+ rechargeable purchased from Costco. Lights and mounts were weighed and noted in grams.
For a complete analysis description, protocol, data taken, etc., please see website or write.
The Top 11 lights tested (in OVERALL combined viewpoint- Brightest order)
- DINOTTE 300L $200 USD
This light is very bright (though not the brightest) from all possible viewing angles. It also has the longest battery life, USB rechargeable, and nicest flashing pattern. It suffers in cost and weight.
- SERFAS TL-60 $ 60USD
WOW doesn’t seem to do justice to this little dynamo. Placing first in brightness both on the meters and visually, USB rechargeable, decent runtime, weight and EZ mounting options for frame and helmet. This guy was The surprise entry. Suffers only in viewing angle. Ride with two or three and you’re set
- NIGHTRIDER Solas USB
This is a Great Light. A Very Bright, and Very Well built light. This was the third brightest light. The light angle spread is wider than most of the others, including the TL-60 above it. The design works well on both helmet and frame. I used electricians tape to cap off the end when using it on my helmet. Can’t go wrong here.
- PLANET BIKE Turbo Super Flash $30USD
I’ve bought at least half of dozen of these over the years… They’re reliable, Bright, good flashing patter, affordable, Run forever, and EZ to mount. Close on the Price/Performance curve, but not in the same brightness category as the two above it.
- CATEYE Rapid 5 This all-time favorite is historically one of the best lights ever manufactured and set the standard for many years, and can still holds its own.
- NIGHTRIDER Cherry Bomb Another strong entry from NighRider, not in the same briteness category as the others above, but a good light nonetheless.
A very nice light, extremely well built, you can feel the quality of everything about this light.
- BONTRAGER Flare Nothing wrong with this guy, good briteness, just not in the same category as the first few… Good mount and EZ to use.
- PLANET BIKE Super Flash My defacto standard for many years and still a very reliable, long running worker… Briteness has been passed in the last year by it’s Turbo sibling and the others above.
- SERFAS Thunderbolt Yellow
- SERFAS Thunderbolt Red
These two lights have taken the world by storm. Instead of a string of singular, tightly focused LED bulbs, the Thunderbolts utilizes an entirely different technology emphasizing a new Wide Beam approach. Although not as intrinsically bright as the top entries, the Wide Beam pattern really gets your attention as you get closer… and it’s the only light tested that is meant to be
attached to the seat stays and forks… This light is a revolution. It suffers only in runtime, about 2 hours, which is more than enough for most commuters, but not in the running for road cyclist needs.
- CATEYE Rapid 3 A decent light in a pinch and fine at night,
But nowhere in the same category as the above top Escalon. It just barely made the minimum criteria.
2. Best Price/Performance Light
CATEYE Rapid 5
PLANET BIKE Turbo Super Flash
3. Brightest Single Angle tested Light
4. Most Innovative light (and likely to be copied by competitors)
THUNDEROLT Pair of RED/YELLOW
5. Best Commuter Light
THUNDERBOLT RED/YELLOW COMBINED
CATEYE Rapid 5
ALL the ABOVE
Pic below; from top left clockwise: 1. Dinotte 300, 2. Serfas TL-60, 3. Planet Bike Turbo
4. Planet Bike Flash, 5. Nightrider Cherry Bomb 6. Blue Test light (not reviewed), 7. Night Rider Sola, 8. Serfas Thunderbolt Yellow, 9. Serfas Thunberbolt Red, 10. Cateye Rapid 5, 11. Bontrager Flair
List Review Spreadsheet MfgModelBRITENESS RetailWeightBatteryRuntime RATING 1-5$ USD DINOTTE300L
USB4 hr+NIGHT RIDERSOLA
USB4+ hr.PLANET BIKESUPER FLASH TURBO
AAA4+ hr.CATEYERAPID 5
USB120 minNIGHT RIDERCHERRY BOMB 1 W
While any of these lights will greatly increase the odds of avoiding mishaps on the road and help to SAVE YOUR Life, there is a definite pecking order… Buy the best that your wallet can afford. Increasing Brightness means early warning distance, and distance means time to avoid you.
I highly recommend riding with multiple flashing lights. You will not be missed. One on your helmet, One on your seat post pointed level, slightly to the left towards traffic (to the right in UK), and at least one on your back seat stay. If you wear a backpack, at least one if not two more..
Mark D. Goodley
USA Cycling Pro Race Mechanic