“See” or “Be Seen” Lights

I never heard that expression until I bought a light from a real bicycle store.

It mystifies me when I see folks riding around with a single blinking white LED on the front. I just about jumped out of my skin when I was driving out east SR-50 and, well within “striking range” saw a guy riding on the shoulder with a dimly lit one red led blinker in the pre-dawn dark with light fog. If he had been taking the lane, I would have hit him for sure.

I guess I just don’t understand . . .

I went many years riding bicycles without ever being in a real bicycle store . . . fact was, I didn’t trust them. My father told me that they were rip-off joints like auto dealers. I might (and did) poke around there looking for a bargain, but I never saw bargains there. The classified ads (which was the predecessor to Craig’s List) was where I got bikes.

My experience with buying a real bicycle light in a real bicycle store did not improve my opinion.

I had gotten tired rigging up flashlights with bungee cords such as this:

or this:

After 30 years of technological advancements, surely there were better alternatives and generators didn’t float my boat, either since they were “old school.” Now I know better, but I didn’t then.

So one day when I was flush I spent $35 on a real light combo. It was from the now defunct Vistalite which was  considered to be a good name at the time. I was buying it from a well-known bicycle store. I was paying higher than what I thought I should . . .  so how could I go wrong?

Based upon the recommendations of the store, I bought this one. And as the reviews say, the tailight was wonderful, but the headlight sucked.

I went back to the store to complain about it. I told the guy how I ended up where there was no overhead street light and how I got scared because I couldn’t see anything, much less the uneven street. I really was afraid I was going to crash.

He explained to me that the light was not to “see” by, but to “be seen” by motorists and he was, in fact correct.

Here is what drives me crazy. I worked for a number of years in notoriously dangerous jobs. We mostly had each other, but we also had some safety devices of all types to help us from getting,  in the best case scenario killed and in the worst case, maimed for life. After you have seen enough, you realize that there are worse things than death.

These safety devices had been tested extensively by numerous companies, regulatory agencies and in also the field by us. We were taught that if we saw anything wrong with these devices, that we should complain longly and loudly and that we would be protected from retribution for doing so.

We worked with a lot of devices, but “safety devices” were the best and we put our trust — nay, we trusted our very lives —  with them.

So that was my beef with this light and what I told the salesman, who grew a little red when I said it. “When someone buys a bicycle headlight, it’s not like buying a shoe, or a pedal or a fender. This is, by it’s very function, a safety device and it ought to be fit for it’s purpose.”

Yet, my dumb flashlight wrapped by a bungee cord performed better than this light and at a fourth of the cost.

One might think, what with the required reflectors and what-not, that headlights, required by every state law in the land would be tested and certified just as they are for cars and trucks, but one would think wrongly.

Even though every state in the country declares a bicycle to be a vehicle, the CPSC still calls it a toy. And if they think toys shouldn’t be ridden at night, why require any reflectors at all, much less a white one on the front (which is violation of all the state laws)?

If one can purchase a light that one can see by, it will be seen.

8 replies
  1. Steve A
    Steve A says:

    My latest light is brighter than my daughter’s Volkswagen Jetta headlights. Actually, it’s a fair amount brighter. CPSC is funny that way. Their actual bicycle knowledge is very small.

    • Eric
      Eric says:

      “is brighter”

      Which introduces a different problem. If the light shines into motorists eyes this presents an unsafe condition. We have rules and regulations about motor vehicle lighting to prevent that.

  2. jere
    jere says:

    i do’nt think vista lites have been made in a long time.. i think you should be responsible for what you are buying and how you are using it. so yes do you want to be seen or see and are you willing to pay for that. remember just like in the circus for only $35.00 you can only see so much.

    • Eric
      Eric says:

      “i do’nt think vista lites have been made in a long time..”

      The last one I saw for sale was about two years ago. Inventory can hang around for a long time in a bicycle shop, I guess.

      “i think you should be responsible for what you are buying and how you are using it. so yes do you want to be seen or see and are you willing to pay for that.”

      How in the world can you be responsible when you don’t know what you are buying? Even if you can turn it on in the store, that is nothing like taking it out on a dark street. So you have to rely on the salesman, but how can you rely on him when he sells inferior products, or worse, illegal ones?

      If this was a pedal, I would agree with you, but this is being sold a safety device. Safety devices should be held to a higher standard.

      I have a generator driven light that must be 35 years old and uses a dimmer bulb than the Vistalite did. It is ten times better than the Vistalite ever was — the difference between them is optics and optics is something that the customer can neither control by usage nor evaluate standing there in a store.

  3. Rick
    Rick says:

    I have a rechargable Vista Light 5 watt headlight. It is definitely a “see” headlight. It originally came with a Ni Cad battery and had a run time of about 3 hours. I bought it about 6 years ago and started using it again 2 years ago when I started commuting by bike regularly. The battery was about shot by then. I had the battery rebuilt at “Batteries Plus” with Ni NmH and have a run time now of about 3 1/2 hours and easier recharge. The original cost was about $100.00 and I spent another $35.00 for the rebuild. Finding parts can be a problem, but there was still one website that still carried some Vistalite stuff.

  4. JohnB
    JohnB says:

    Here in Maine, the law about using lights specifies that they be visible at a distance of 200′, both front and rear. Not sure what Florida says, but I think the national Uniform Vehicle Code (a model set of laws that states can adopt language from if they want) is something like that. One night I wanted to check out my little “Flea” light, so I parked the bike and walked about 200′ (estimated by counting steps) and verified that it was still indeed quite visible. That made me feel better about it, because it’s not the best light I’ve ever had for seeing, although adequate. I use it on my good weather road bike.

    Fog definitely decreases the effectiveness of a light, but it also decreases the effectiveness of a reflector by even more. Why? In the case of a reflector, the original light source is the car’s headlights that are shining on it, so the light the motorist sees from the reflector is making a round trip from the car to the bike and back to the car, double the opportunity for degradation compared to the one-way trip of light originating from your bicycle. (Thanks to John Schubert for that interesting insight, see http://www.sheldonbrown.com/reflectors.html for that and other reasons reflectors alone are inadequate in many cases.)

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