Blinkiology: The Study of Rear Blinkies

One of the most common pieces of advice that newbie commuters hear is that you can never be too visible. From a mostly selfish point of view, I have to agree with this sage advice. If I’m riding at night through the streets of DC, I prefer to be as visible as possible so that cabbies, texting teenagers and responsible drivers alike can all see me and identify me as a moving human as they approach. However, is bigger and brighter and blinkier always the safest approach?

Light & Motion VIS 180 Bike Tail Light
Light & Motion VIS 180

Until 2005, flashing LED rear lights were not even legal in the UK, and now these lights are permitted as long as they meet these exact specifications: “flashing between 1 and 4 times per second, with a brightness of at least 4 candelas.” In Germany, cyclists riding at night must be equipped with a non-flashing front light as well as a rear light that stays lit when the rider is not moving. In the US, regulations vary by state and municipality, but most areas require a minimum of a white front light and red rear reflector or a red rear light.

However, when you peruse the World Wide Web or walk into your local bike shop looking for the latest and greatest in bicycle lights, all of the major brands tout their many modes, which invariably include a steady mode and at least two crazy flashing modes. For example, the Danger Zone rear light from Portland Design Works features zZz, a-HA! and rock steady modes. If you’re a fan of 1980s Norwegian pop music, then this is the light for you, as the a-HA! mode actually flashes to the song “Take on Me.” There are also lights like the Light & Motion VIS 180 that put out about as much light as an automobile taillight.

A-Ha Take Me OnBut what is best for you as a commute by biker? There is a lot of disagreement as to what is best for the individual as well as what is best for the rest. Each rider needs to take into consideration his or her own riding conditions: urban or suburban commuting, public roads or multi-use paths, decent weather or foggy, rainy weather. As for considering the rest of us, does your Vegas-style setup distract drivers and other cyclists as much as it alerts them? Are you making it difficult for pedestrians to share a multi-use path?   Are you at risk for being confused with an ambulance or a fire truck?

There is a fine line between protecting yourself and becoming a public nuisance on the road or on the bike path. For me, riding in DC at night with anything less than a blinky attached to my bike and another attached to my back is risky. Just about every light that you will find at a bike shop, from the smaller, less expensive battery-powered lights to the high-tech rechargeable options, will have steady and flashing modes so that you can act appropriately given your riding situation. Illuminate yourself as much as necessary to be visible to cars, pedestrians and other cyclists, but avoid exuding so much flashing red that you have your sketchy neighbors running for the backdoor every night when you approach home.

Or, ride a bike like Vin Diesel.
Or, ride a bike like Vin Diesel.

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20 thoughts on “Blinkiology: The Study of Rear Blinkies”

  1. Gene @ BU says:

    I highly recommend the Portland Design Danger Zone and it is very bright.

    But your point is well taken. I rode last night with six others and there was no consistency in our lighting setups. Some were bright and flashing, some not so bright and steady red, some looked like a disco globe.

    I can see why drivers get confused and annoyed. We must look like a circus coming to town or a poor excuse for a light show.

    Now if I can just figure out how to program my tail light into my iPod … and Chariots of Fire on a mid-night ride …

  2. Dr. M says:

    The Danger Zones are pretty amazing but CatEye is coming out with a 5 LED tail light that does about the same thing. Another idea for visibility is to have a bright head light on flashing mode during the day. Check out for a very affordable 3 Watt LED Rechargeable Headlight. It has high & low beam as well as flashing mode which can be seen for over a mile even in full sunlight.

  3. Chrehn says:

    Excellent article. I have a thing about bicycle lights. Myself, I come from the Shock and Awe school. Best to leave them wondering, than, to have not been aware of you.

  4. commuterjohn says:

    It is best practice to have a blinking led and a steady light on the front and back.
    Blinking lights cause more attraction to the eye but are harder to establish exact distance on.
    So the ideal combination is flashing to draw attention and steady to then focus on, with the added bonus of redundancy, if one light fails you always have a back up untill you get home.

  5. Ted Johnson says:

    @Gene: I have a Danger Zone light sitting on a shelf by my desk. I’ll be comparing it to a few other tail lights in an upcoming post.

  6. steve says:

    there are no better lights out there for road riding and commuting than those made by in NH. pricey, but worth every penny. the brightest thing out there; cars routinely wait to pass until the oncoming lane is clear, then pass by changing lanes. oncoming traffic pulls over to the right and slows down. i’ve had motorcycle drivers slow down next to me and say, “awesome lights!”. at intersections, drivers roll down their windows to compliment the brightness of these lights. when traffic is slow and i’m passing on the right, cars move over to the left to allow me by. I command instant attention at intersections and road zones controlled by law enforcement.

    reflectors and reflective clothing are not enough to account for drivers who wait too long to turn on their lights in the evening, or for vehicles in which no one is actually driving (smartphone drivers), or drivers who are toking up (much more common then you might think. with proper lights, you can engage the driver’s attention from further away (even from around corners with dinottes), and have them start their calculation about whether you can be safely passed that much sooner.

    i’ve been a passenger in cars that are overtaking bicycles with the types of lights that are commonly available on the market; the impression they leave is underwhelming to say the least. if there are other cars in front of you, the cyclist is not even visible in many situations until you are right on top of them. with dinotte taillights in particular, you are creating a huge loom of red light that extends 50-60 feet behind you and vertically as well. your presence on the road is obvious even if you are not in the direct line-of-sight of approaching drivers.

    these lights tell drivers that you are serious about using the public roads, that you take safety seriously and demand consideration and respect.

    sorry if this is too much of an advertisement, but if you value your safety out there, there is no better investment to make, IMHO.

  7. floorpumps says:

    My bike has a blinking led and a steady light on the front and back. They work well.

  8. Austin says:

    I have been riding the DiNotte lights for a little over a year and a half. I love the respect I get from cars as measured by passing distance. I also keep a tail light on my helmet so that cars can see me sooner when I’m in hilly terrain. The DiNottes were expensive but if they save me from getting in even one accident, then they will pay for themselves.

    On top of safety, my DiNotte headlight allows me to ride way faster and with confidence than I could with cheap “AAA LEDs.” I’ve even taken the DiNottes off roading at night.

  9. Gene @ BU says:

    Steve – I went to the site and watched the video. These lights appear to be top notch in every respect but at $300+ for a light set that’s a big investment. Then there’s the rip off factor. I have to park my bike in public places and expensive clip on items can easily walk away.

    Right now I have 2 Planet Bike Blaze 1-Watt Headlights and a Planet Bike Suplerflash Taillight plus a Portland Design Works Danger Zone Tail Light. I also use Continental Road Bike Tires with the reflective sidewalls.

    Since I ride in jeans I use reflective cuff bands which provides my friends with a constent source of amusement.

    I would like to move to a rechargeable headlight that can stand up to the wear of taking it off and back on three or four times a day without the holder breaking.

    Also the light clip should be strong enough to keep the light in position through a hard ride.

    I think Ted has a lot of testing ahead of him.

    BTW – Didn’t Germany set a standard for tail light flashing modes?

  10. Roach says:

    I’ve got a simple rear light with several blinking modes. I prefer the one that goes back and forth across the LEDs not unlike KITT. It has enough movement to attract the eye without being a huge distraction.

    I’ve also covered the entire rear portion of my fender with retroreflective red tape, so if a car’s headlights hit me from behind there’s a huge panel lighting up for them to see.

    I definitely prefer steady lights on the front. I’ve got a Niterider 150 (not sure they make it anymore) which is plenty bright enough, but its blinking mode has the speed of a disco strobe. I’m pretty sure it could cause seizures in some people.

  11. cdub says:

    Has anyone tried LucidBrake? I have been interested for a long time but no one sells them in my area, you can’t order them from the website, and I haven’t seen any reviews. I’m starting to wonder if they really exist or are just some kind of elaborate joke.

  12. BluesCat says:

    Take On Me? Chariots of Fire??


    Now, if I could get the Tri-Taillight Setup of my recumbent to blink in time to a real Man Tune — like Black Sabbath’s War Pigs — well, then YOU’RE ON!

  13. vabike says:

    A blinking red is well recognized as the light signature of a bicycle, but I often wonder if a steady light would be better. Maybe drivers would give more room.

  14. About a year ago I threw away batteries for good and went the dynamo hub route. I love it- bright, non-flashing, dependable headlight and wired tail light. I always have light and I don’t have to worry about re-charging batteries and all the associated hassles. My Shimano 3N-72 only cost me about $90 so they are not that expensive. There is some expense in a wheel build but not super expensive especially if you can do it yourself. Drag is almost imperceptible. I am surprised dynamo hubs are not more available in the US.

  15. Gear says:

    I use a Dinotte tail light, it’s very bright and is visible from a distance that let’s drivers know that they need to avoid me in time for them to be able do that.

    My feeling is that a tail light’s brightness must be judged from a distance of two telephone lengths. If your standing any closer it’s pointless because by the time a car gets that close, the driver doesn’t have time to react.

    As far as cost goes, since a tail light’s purpose is to save my life, I would never spend more on a tail light than I would for my life.

  16. Paul S. says:

    For all you DiNotte users, I have a couple of questions. I’ve seen one of these things in person during a day ride. The sucker is blindingly bright even during the day on steady. I would love that on my bike, but there’s a problem.

    A significant amount of my night riding is on multi-use trails in the D.C. area. I don’t want to be sporting the same brightness on the trails that I do on the road (I always dim my headlights on the trail). The DiNotte is just way too bright at full strength for this environment. The questions are 1) is there a dimmed down mode and 2)is the switch reasonably accessible to switch modes while riding?

    For reference, I currently have a Superflash Turbo and I would grade it a “C” on question 1 (steady mode) and a “D” on question 2 (very little feedback in the switch to tell which mode you’re in).

  17. Mikros says:

    PB blaze 2 watt headlight: flash mode is seizure-inducing and daylight visible. I can see it lighting up street signs several blocks ahead of me, in the city with a lot of other light from streetlights, cars, stores, etc. Love. If I’m right behind someone they will sometimes dim their rear view mirror. Have noticed that cars sometimes slow or hesitate, thinking the reflections from the signs are caused by an emergency vehicle. Maybe that’s too much but I’m tired of cars cutting me off or left turning right in front of me. This light eliminates that problem. I’ve got kids counting on me to come home…

  18. gear says:

    Paul S,

    The Dinotte mount is a rubber band, you can mount it so it’s pointed down and still have great visibility in the situation you describe. On the road you point it back.

  19. melty says:

    Rear: two little blinkies on my helmet, two at axle level, and one excellent larger Planet Bike rear light on the under-seat pannier. Is that too much? I don’t think so. Front: Since I have started using an exPilion 400 lumens set on flash during daytime, I have not had a single SMISDY event. I like that light so much I bought another one, so at night I have 800 lumens and can actually see the road ahead.

  20. Glenn says:

    I’m not a fan of the high output front strobe lights; they’re distracting to the point of blurring your judgement. A low power helmet blinky in combination with a bright solid beam in front is the compromise I’ve settled on for now. I’ve been using a PB Superflash on the back (1/2W), and at least to me, the intermittent flash seems less annoying than a regular 1/2 on – 1/2 off type flash mode, but still gets noticed from 4 blocks away. A bright solid rear light is suitable in certain night time situations, but can disappear among tail lights of heavy traffic. In that instance it’s good to distinguish yourself.

    Interestingly, the other night I approached a bike travelling downhill with a solid beam. Because of the solid beam I was able to better judge his speed. Also, I made the assumption it was a motorized vehicle so subconsciously I treated it with more caution that it might make manoeuvres more expected of motorized traffic.

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