Editor's note: As we look ahead to the New Year, we thought you would like to see the 10 Most-Read Stories from Crosscut in 2013. This story originally appeared on Nov. 25.
The scariest thing about biking at night in Seattle isn’t the cellphone-jabbering SUV drivers or the bone-crunching potholes. It isn’t the slick mats of rain-sodden leaves waiting to turn unwary riders into convalescing ex-riders. It isn’t even the wheel-grabbing, rider-flipping streetcar tracks misplaced in the curb lanes on Westlake Avenue. It’s other cyclists — specifically, their high-powered, strobing and flashing headlights, shine straight into the eyes of motorists and other cyclists, transfixing them with disco-ball distraction.
The effect is at its worst on Lake Washington Boulevard S. and the Burke Gilman Trail, two narrow and often unilluminated routes where cyclists going in opposite directions meet nearly head-on. But you can encounter the powerful, pulsing glares just about anywhere. And we are talking powerful.
A standard halogen automobile headlight emits 700 lumens of light on low beam and 1,200 on high (though some reach 1,500 and beyond). Thanks to ever more efficient light-emitting diodes and lithium batteries, today’s bicycle headlights easily throw out that much light or more. One model promises a blistering 3,600 lumens for $700. Others may run to 7,600.
And bike lights commonly don't shine down at the road, as automobile headlamps are required to do. Mounted on handlebars or helmets, they tend to shine straight ahead, which leaves oncoming drivers and cyclists to steer by blind faith — a great band in 1969, but a lousy way to navigate.
Some light-loving cyclists don’t stop at one, or two; they pile on the lights like survivalists stocking up on guns. One Seattle Bike Blog commenter boasted about her light array: “A NiteRider Lumina 650, two Monkeylectrics (previous to those I had SIX NiteIze Spokelits), two helmet lights (front and rear), additional front and rear lights for my frame and tons of reflectors for good measure.”
For some riders, such assemblages are trumped by one super-light. Check out this battle cry on the same SBB comment thread: “I like evil alien attack lights for going down hill. I like it when cars back rather up [sic] than even think about pulling out in front of the monster that is coming at them.”
As Robbie Phillips, the Cascade Bicycle Club’s commuter-program manager and point person on bicycle lighting, says, “We’re on a new frontier.”
What makes bikers light up? “A lot of people act on emotions rather than facts,” suggests Phillips. “They install more lights because they think they’re safer, whatever the facts are.”
The same impulse leads motorists to buy outsized, top-heavy SUVs which are twice as likely as ordinary cars to flip over, and even more likely to plow right over those ordinary cars in a collision. It's a sociopathic sense of personal security and a belief that safety is a zero-sum game that can only be won at the expense of someone else’s. The abused may also be mimicking their abusers: Spotlight-brandishing cyclists have been menaced so often by blindsiding, blind-turning, door-swinging motorists, they feel compelled to fight back.
Or maybe Seattle cyclists have just been caught short — blindsided, if you will — by the light manufacturers. Regulatory and enforcement agencies have certainly been blindsided, in Seattle as elsewhere in the United States. Absent any legal standards, light companies are in an arms race to produce the biggest, baddest bike lights. No federal regulations limit the brightness of lights that can be sold for bicycles, and local laws tend to set only minimum, not maximum power standards. Codes in Seattle and Washington State require only a front headlight that is visible from at least 500 feet away and a red rear reflector; a red taillight is an acceptable addition but no substitute for the reflector.
The Washington State Bicycle Commuter Guide recommends “momentarily aiming your headlight” at approaching motorists to get their attention, which is fine if your headlight is an old-fashioned, non-blinding one, but perilous with an “evil alien attack light.”
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