On My Radar: The Garmin Varia

“If you’re one of millions of cyclists, you know every time you saddle up, anything can happen.” That, according to Garmin’s promotional video, is why you need the Varia Rearview Radar, scheduled for release this fall. Before watching the promotional video that likely had the working title “Fear Sells,” I present you with a brief, unbiased product description.

Image Source: Garmin

The Garmin Varia Rearview Radar is a taillight that includes a rear sensor to detect traffic that is approaching the cyclist from behind. The Varia displays this information to the rider either through a standalone head unit that can be bundled with the taillight (the bundle will be priced at $299.99) or on a compatible Garmin Edge cycling computer (specifically, the Edge 1000 or Edge 520). According to Garmin, the radar can detect vehicles up to 153 yards behind the bicycle. Additionally, the taillight unit sends a warning to the approaching vehicle by brightening and blinking.

And now, the promotion video:

Did you pause the video to pre-order your Varia right around the 35-second mark when you learned that 40% of cycling fatalities occur when riders are struck from behind? Or, are you a nerd like me who started to do some napkin math to determine how much time this device gives you to prepare for that approaching truck?

Like any real American, I relate distances to football fields to put things into perspective. The Varia starts warning the rider when a vehicle is 153 yards away – that’s one and a half football fields worth of warning! That sounds like a lot, but if a vehicle is moving at 30mph, that’s roughly 15 yards per second, which translates to roughly 10 seconds* of warning for the cyclist. Not bad.

However, if a cyclist is on an open country road like the one depicted in the video, that truck is probably moving closer to 60mph. At 60mph, or approximately 30 yards per second, that cuts the warning time down to about 5 seconds. That still sounds like a fair amount of warning, but taking into account the time to receive, process and react to that information, while maintaining control of your bike and watching the road ahead, I wonder if the cost of the distraction is validated by the benefit of the additional information.

(*These calculations do not take into account the speed of the cyclist, which would increase the warning time by a relative amount.)

Image Source: DC Rainmaker
Image Source: DC Rainmaker

There are other factors that could call the effectiveness of the Varia into question. How does the radar react in an urban environment, when there is a constant stream of traffic approaching from behind? What about riding in a group or amongst other commuters? What about riding around a sharp curve in the road?

For the record, I am not a Luddite. I love technology and the incredible advancements that we’ve made to live life in a safer, healthier, and more efficient way. For example, this product could be extremely beneficial for a cyclist who rides with a hearing impairment, and that’s a fantastic use of technology. However, sometimes I still long for common sense to supersede our reliance on potentially distracting devices, and for cyclists to take out the ear buds, stop checking your text messages or Instagram feed, and pay attention to your surroundings. The Varia has the potential to be a very useful product, but let’s not use radar as a substitute for listening and paying attention to our surroundings while we ride.

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8 thoughts on “On My Radar: The Garmin Varia”

  1. Woodie Comer says:

    I agree 100% that both cyclists and drivers should, and must, pay attention to their vehicle operation. Daily I see auto drivers dealing with cell phones and other devices and thus are diverting their attention from the far more important job of safely operating their vehicle. Unfortunately, I have also observed cyclists using cell phones and listening to devices with ear buds in place. The unfortunate result of these distractions is that there are unnecessary deaths and injuries that are very avoidable. Everyone should pay attention to their surroundings at all times and be prepared to leave the roadway if necessary. Ride safe everyone!!!

  2. John M. Hammer says:

    “I am not a Luddite. I love technology and the incredible advancements that we’ve made to live life in a safer, healthier, and more efficient way.” Ditto.

    That dittoed, I don’t see how this gizmo is better for me than the $12 helmet mirror I use when riding my Schwinn and Dahon or the pair of $13 mirrors I have mounted on the bar ends of my EZ-1 recumbent.

    Maybe if you’re an ultra-cyclist on a mostly-deserted country road riding with your head down and ear buds blasting Eye of the Tiger on a loop, getting some sort of alert that a motor vehicle is approaching from the rear might be helpful. But I doubt it. Better to maintain full visual awareness of the surroundings and take at least one earbud out.

  3. Ted Johnson says:

    Great article, Stacey!

    I don’t really want to be too dismissive of this product. I have to assume that there is a market for it. I don’t think that Garmin had bike commuters in mind.

    But they could if they wanted to. As long as they still want to play to fear, inflated risk, and misinformation, maybe they could market this to bicycle users who hold the belief that they belong on the sidewalk. “If you are on the road (you reckless fool) this device gives you a 10 second warning so you can get back on the sidewalk (where you belong).”

    Also there is the Orange Vest Brigade, standard-bearers of the zero risk bias. Those guys would snatch these Garmin units up in a heartbeat, if only Garmin had that market demographic on their radar.

  4. Bob says:

    This isn’t a gizmo I’d buy, but I’m curious how it reads parked cars. Most of my riding is in the city. Would a rider be constantly warned of cars that are being passed or does it simply notify the rider of cars that are actually catching up?

  5. Kent Chesnut says:

    What you really want to know is whether the vehicle coming up behind you sees you or not. I’m not sure this device does that. On the other hand, one feature the other commenters haven’t mentioned is that the device seems to react to traffic approaching from behind by changing the rear light flash sequence. Do you think that might help drivers notice the cyclist? I think it would be at night… not so sure about it during the day.
    I think I’ll stick with a flashing back light and a bright orange shirt for now.

  6. Jeff Berlin says:

    When a car is approaching directly behind me and impact is imminent, this device has the potential to be lifesaving. I commute in heavy Boston traffic, cars go by in a constant stream. When I look at the mirror on my bar end, I’m taking my eyes off the road ahead. Occasionally a large truck goes by that I didn’t see coming. Or a car passes way too close. If the Garmin Varia can differentiate between regular traffic and hazards that warrant a “heads up”, I’m in.

  7. Greg Doughty says:

    I am a tech guy who commutes daily. I don’t use earbuds, and I pride myself on situational awareness. With that said, this looks like a fun gadget. Something else I can connect to my Edge 810.

  8. John says:

    Having just found this, in my opinion this is just Garmin’s tech idiots conjuring up ways to get your money. I didn’t even waste my time looking to see how much they wanted for their contraption but I did notice that they didn’t put one single mirror on the bike or rider. Had they put a one to one mirror on either, all the accurate calculations could have been done in the brain with superior results without their gadget. I fail to see the assess city have all these gadgets and we have one of the finest computers sitting on her shoulders. Went to bicycle become so advanced it has some technologies have the automobile, I will park it next to the automobile in the garage and get out a child’s tricycle and start over.

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