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.”
By contrast, many European countries set output or power limits and forbid pointing. Germany, which probably has the most thorough standards (surprise), strictly specifies the angle and cast of bike headlights. And it bans all blinkers, rear and back.
It’s the flashing headlights that blind and dazzle most — and provoke the most heated debates on the bike blogs. No one hates them more than other cyclists, especially when we’re transfixed by them at close quarters on trails like the Burke Gilman (where there aren’t even any motorists to ward off). Even on roadways, flashing lights have serious shortcomings compared to their continuous, static brethren. They’re not much use at illuminating the roadway, and they’re positionally deceptive: Motorists, pedestrians, and other cyclists will know you’re there, somewhere, but they'll have a hard time gauging how far away you are — a recipe for potential disaster.
For a small minority, blinkers are a special risk. An estimated 3 to 5 percent of epileptics are photosensitive; that is, susceptible to seizures induced by strong patterns and flashing lights. Britain’s Epilepsy Action reported that several members felt "ill and disoriented” after encountering flashing bike lights. (Then stay off the roads, responded one cyclist, exhibiting the sort of disdain that gives two-wheeling a bad name.) The Intractable Childhood Epilepsy Alliance reports that some epileptics who’ve viewed blinking red taillights up close have actually suffered seizures.
Still, the bottom line justification for many cyclists is that the blinking lights get “more attention.” But as the Marion Zioncheks and Miley Cyruses of this world show, there’s such a thing as too much attention. Traffic experts and accident analysts speak of something called the “moth effect,” a.k.a “target fixation” or “fatal attraction.” Drivers, pilots and motorcyclists have a tendency to steer into lights, especially flashing lights, that they mean consciously to avoid. Some question the moth effect, and indeed it’s hard to sort it out from all the other roadway stimuli and distractions. Kay Teschke, an expert on bicycle safety at the University of British Columbia, says “it’s very hard to do the sort of studies” that would conclusively determine whether over-bright and/or blinking bike lights cause crashes.
Perhaps, when encountering blinding, blinking bike lights at close range, an opposite effect, an impulse to steer away, may occur. If so, it’s doubly ironic, since the cyclist causing the hazard is free from danger. I know that once, when zapped on Lake Washington Boulevard by an oncoming blinker so bright it effaced everything else, I tugged right and crashed into the curb. If there had been a car behind, I could have fueled a study of Fatal Avoidance Syndrome.
No one is more vulnerable to that pulsing glare, or more resentful of it, than other cyclists; when blinded, we have a much smaller margin of error than motorists. “Death to strobing headlights!” writes one. “Who the h*** needs a strobe on bike trails? Some day I am going to throw my water bottle at one of those f-ing (flashing) nimrods. ... The complete lack of regulation on these seizure inducing headlights … can only end in the blindness of our species or reasonable regulation. I pray for the latter.”
Actually, there already is a clear and decisive light regulation in the state traffic code, though almost no one concerned seems to know about it, much less enforce it. RCW 46.37.280 declares that “flashing lights are prohibited except as required in [emergency situations], warning lamps authorized by the state patrol, and light-emitting diode flashing taillights on bicycles.” (Emphasis added.) The exemption for taillights confirms that bicycle headlights are included in the prohibition.
“Wow,” said Cascade Bicycle Club’s Bobbie Phillips when I mentioned the prohibition, “I wasn’t aware….” Indeed.
Cascade, one of the largest and most influential bike groups in the country, recommends “being polite by not running the flash mode of your front white light on the trails” (implying that it’s fine to run it on the street) “and trying to shield your light slightly or turn it slightly to the side when passing oncoming riders at night.” Some riders do indeed try to show such courtesy, at least to other cyclists. But courtesy takes a back seat when slick, winding routes and other perils require both hands on the handlebars.
German-style requirements for shielded, flash-free headlights would remove the guesswork, the need for courtesy and the hazard. Absent such standards, Seattle Police could do a lot to stop the blinking with a little targeted enforcement. Just station a couple bike cops at some Burke Gilman crossing and issue warnings to every offending rider. Even on the street flashers would be easier to nail than most other traffic offenders, since they’ll likely still be flashing whenever police catch up with them.
That is, if the police know to go after them. “Most of our bicycle enforcement is for complaints,” says Captain Mike Nolan, SPD’s traffic division commander. “Those are usually for running stop signs or red lights” (the kind of behavior that makes motorists envious).
To get the disco dazzle off Seattle’s streets, all we have to do is complain. But not just on a blog.