Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lux-Narcissism (Was: "Don't Believe the Hype-rillumination")

Cycling is generally very safe.

For celebrations on a "bike theme" or not, certain special events etc. the MonkeyLectric Bike Wheel Light is lovely and wonderful, but it represents an extreme version of what I call "Hyper-illumination" creating both acute (at the moment of use) and chronic (cultural) danger for other vulnerable road users (VRU's, both pedestrians and cyclists), even those - only in the case of cyclists, of course - who are legally illuminated.

Less extreme Hyper-illumination includes reflective vests (which should only be worn by emergency or construction workers or related), reflective jackets, an excessive number of normal lights or reflectors, projections of bike paths around cyclists, or even "bright clothing at night" which many authorities and organizations recommend, also for pedestrians.

Fundamentalist hyper-illumination is exemplified by having the stoker on a tandem carry a torch or flare gun, or getting the air force or army to clear your path with napalm or phosphorous.

Acute Hyper-illumination means visually-obscuring other VRU's in immediate proximity, in other words making the eyes of drivers of motor vehicles adjust to the brightest thing, which means they can't see the darker stuff (and pedestrians can wear all the black they want).

Chronic Hyper-illumination is obscuring over time and in relation to place, i.e. it relates to learned behaviour. This means that when a driver becomes accustomed to a lot of VRU's being hyper-illuminated, they will not look for normally-illuminated VRU's elsewhere.

Something both Acute and Chronic relates more to cyclist-pedestrian interactions: A cyclist with no lights and only some passive hyper-illumination device such as a reflective vest may think that they are visible to pedestrians, but they are generally not more than normally because their vest is designed with car headlights in mind.

If you agree with me on this take on things I hope you also agree that its use for commercial advertising purposes should be illegal, or least very expensive. I would not go as far to say they should be illegal for non-commercial use at any time, but this is only because bikes should just be as close as possible to wheels attached to your feet, with things like "rider's licenses" never necessary.

There are slightly less extreme hyper-illumination devices than the MonkeyLectric, such as The Down Low Glow (and I really like other Fossil Fool inventions) which to its credit seems to intentionally exclude the "unique advertising opportunity" thing. This website mentions "...cyclists feel safer..." and subjective safety is important as long as it is not at least out of balance with objective safety. It would be good to know if The Down Low actually makes things safer compared with bikes with typical, legal lighting.

These things could be useful for community police bikes, ambulance bikes or perhaps - if modified to be tamper-proof - as part of a theft-deterrent/triggered visible alarm feature. Even if they are fun (and obviously people have to purchase and install them) they distract from efforts for the promotion and implementation measures which make travel safer for ALL vulnerable road users: Slower speeds, less cars or obviously no cars, default liability for drivers and perhaps making cars softer (unless it causes risk compensation such as anti-lock brakes).

I would also be curious if cars tend to be driven closer to Hyper-illuminated VRU's.

Interestingly, the MonkeyLectric has dealers in many places, also in Europe. But not in the Netherlands, the safest place to ride in Europe (not perfect, to be very clear. No one should ever let the Dutch slack). Coincidence? Well, at this point the typical response is "... when our city is as safe as Amsterdam we will not need this stuff...". So the question is does having this stuff really move things forward towards an Amsterdam (or Dutch) level of safety?

I think the answer is no.

* Another related attempt at a solution here, a backpack with turning and other signals. That the signals are not quite standardized might not be an issue, but having HUGE removable lighting certainly is! When it comes to normal city cycling, fixed front and rear (hub) generator lights, basic reflectors and proper turn signals with eye contact are really all that is necessary, right?)

* Continuing on in this Fall of Fear, this Autumn of Angst, see the continued rash of useless garbage cruising for a landfill in Treehugger.

* Bike Snob calls the video "Let's Get Visible" by Momentum magazine and partners the "worst PSA" he has ever seen. It features products from MonkeyLectric and Lazer helmets. See it here on "No Mandatory Helmets at Velo-city Global 2012 in Vancouver" on Facebook.
* I also recently had an exchange with FIAB (the Italian Cyclist's Federation) about this issue. They promoted hi-viz vests (tunics, really) starting early this year and I question the connection to the more recently implemented national law in Italy requiring the wearing of vests outside of urban areas and in tunnels (France and Hungary have a similar law. The European Commission has a guide to helmet and vest laws in member states, but some of the information regarding helmets is incorrect).
* In November the UK Guardian ran an article about bike lighting. The comments are full of dozens of guys shamelessly comparing the size of their lumens.

Thanks to Workcycles for showing me the light.

Related (26 April 2011): London cabbie launches 'Lightmare' campaign against menace of HID headlights

Related: Please "Like" "No Mandatory Bike Helmets at Velo-city Global 2012 in Vancouver" on Facebook!!


David Hembrow said...

I agree. Extreme amounts of brightness everywhere all the time are simply tiring, much as loud noises all the time are tiring. I also think they work counter to subjective safety.

I should explain. I don't see subjective safety as what the individual perceives so much as what society as a whole perceives.

While wearing a reflective vest, helmet and carrying bright flashing lights might make one individual feel he is a little safer when cycling on the roads, it isn't going to make parents who see him decide that it's safe to send their children to school by bike.

It's this secondary effect, of whether most people think it is safe for their children, parents, grandparents and partners to cycle that is most important.

Unknown said...

Those light gadget are pretty funny! And I saw one who was ridding while the light coil and it wasn't so illuminated!

Anonymous said...

I live in Finland, where we have a very dark and long winter - with lots of snow and ice as well, and few cyclists during the wintertime. Car drivers are also poorly accustomed to bicycles, even more so in the winter, and the general traffic culture is car-centric and selfish, and car drivers often do not follow the yield signs etc. that are before bike lanes.

I wear a reflective vest from fall to spring, as well as a NON-blinking rear light and a very bright head light (Hope Vision 4) - so I can see myself in the dark, and so cars can see me. Blinking lights - they are not legal, and imho even as another cyclist, they are highly annoying and distracting. But the biggest danger (ie. most close calls) comes from both dark cyclists and dark pedestrians, ones with neither lights nor reflectors. They are well nigh impossible to see outside street lit areas, sometimes you notice them bare seconds earlier.

Whereas the bright light up front - the difference in the actions of car drivers is immediately noticeable, compared to less bright lights. With small lamps, cars often just don't notice you at all in intersections, but cut in front of you etc.

With the decent lamp (and let me remind - car lamps are even brighter than that, still!), many drivers see me from further away, and often even courteously wave their hand to let me know they have seen me and yield, as they are supposed to do. Often you notice that vehicle drivers think you are also some kind of vehicle, because of the brighter light, and react like they would to another vehicle, instead of the usual "ah, its just a slow bike so Ill just step on the gas and swerve across the intersection before him". Many cars also seem to give you more space when you are highly visible, and I think they also become alerted to the fact that there really are bikes in traffic too.

Also, I am able to see reflectors of other bikes and pedestrians from at least 100 meters away and prepare accordingly.

Here the law mandates that pedestrians also MUST use reflectors during dark, ie. after sunset, which in the winter means most of the day. They can even be found culpable in an accident if they do not have some kind of reflector, and statistics show that most killed pedestrians were ones that did not have them. Same goes for cyclists.

It is a lot easier to implement lighting and reflectors that make you visible enough, without being distracting, than it is to educate all the millions of car drivers accustomed to driving around half awake and in a hurry.

Slow Factory said...

Anonymous in Finland: I cannot disagree with your account of how people react etc. It is also interesting to hear about the regulation for pedestrians.

However, saying that most cyclists or peds who were hit were not wearing reflectors etc. is not the same as saying that it was a contributing cause to the collision.

BUT my main point is that you did not understand one of my main points, which is that you seem to be pumping up your lumens without regard to others who may be less bright yet still legal. This can turn into an arms race of sorts, and it is impossible to catch up with the brightist which are of course benefiting from a 24v battery and an alternator. Lighting up yourself beyond regs. is selfish -- why not spend the money on helping someone else get lights?

There are certainly special challenges in a country so far away from the Equator in winter. Certainly moving the country towards the Equator is unrealistic, but also unrealistic - as you imply - is educating all the drivers... or is it? It is also rather dark for at least 5 hours at night in the Netherlands all year but it is one of the safest places to ride a bike both in the city and the countryside. This is due to several reasons among them driver awareness.

Dutch-style conditions will not come quickly in Finland but when cyclists exceed regs. and drivers do not, it sends a literally dangerous message from the former to the latter.

bikefish said...

since you link to, I assume you know that in Denmark, the newspapers publish daily the hour when cyclists are required to turn on their lights - it varies with the season, of course. And these of course are steady headlights and taillights.

Sean said...

I was just in Copenhagen for six months, and nearly every bike (including mine) had magnet-powered flashing front and rear lights. I do not think flashing lights are problematic, as long as they are installed in standard size and location (and nearly all were -- small, at the wheel hubs).

I mostly agree with this article, but I do have to say, now that I'm back in rural and suburban Minnesota, I get much more obnoxious with the reflectors. In a bike/ped-established city, excessively reflective riders might be a problem. But I think in this context, drivers are not used to seeing cyclists at all on certain roads (esp. during the winter), so the more visible the better.

Slow Factory said...

@Sean: My personal experience with those ReeLights was not good. They seemed to come out of alignment on the front too easily so that the two pieces would bang into each other, etc. These are okay for older bikes that do not have built in hub generators, which is definitely the way to go with a city bike. But also for the expense they provide very little "seeing" light (as opposed to "to be seen" light). So they are less useful in places still common in cities such as small forests and of course parks.

Marisa Olson said...

You should check out Michael Mandiberg's Bright Bike projects, which began party as a conceptual art project at Eyebeam, but became part of a much larger community project/ conversation about public safety.

He's based in NYC and I have one of his pinstripe sets on my bike precisely because of the challenges on commuting by bike here. (Let's see, way less bike lanes than in Europe, aggressive drivers, cracked and potholed streets, common dooring, common cyclist deaths--even in bike lanes!--police hostility against bicyclists, dark winters, etc.

You can only see the illumination if it's in your direct line of site, with a bright light (ie headline) shining straight at it. Otherwise, the pinstripes on my bike are practically invisible. (For this reason, I also covered logo text because even though I don't have a fancy bike, bike thefts in NYC are *highly* common.)

One thing I like about the project is its ecofriendliness, including a lack of 'light pollution,' on top of not requiring batteries that will later be disposed of, and in making commuting by bike safer, thus reducing vehicular traffic & emissions.

It's also very openly licensed. He didn't make it as a get-rich scheme, it was a contribution to the biking community. He had a blog post about how his neighborhood bike shop (whom he gave free samples of the retroreflective material) decided to put small strips of it on all of the bikes they sell, and he was thrilled about it.

The arguments here are a worthwhile discussion, but I think that the ultimate issues are safety (true safety, not eyesoreness or branding), and encouraging/supporting bicycling.

Slow Factory said...

Marisa, that stuff is incredibly "visually loud" and - as I said - may make other cyclists less visible in comparison. It does nothing for pedestrians. I don't think it is particularly helpful when the bikes are parked and light up all the same.

With all due respect, people are too emotional about this, and thus too selfish.

Slow Factory said...

Check this out:

kfg said...

"began party as a conceptual art project"

No it didn't.

"You can only see the illumination if it's in your direct line of site"

Rendering it nearly useless. The driving environment is very different from the posing for a photo environment.

"It's also very openly licensed."

I note also that the use of head and tail lights is also "very openly licensed." This would be because you cannot "license" your grandmother to suck eggs you bought at the market.

Has it really come to this, that kids (even kids who consider themselves "creative types") have to buy an over packaged in disposable petroleum "kit" in order to use . . . tape!?

Perhaps I ought to start marketing Christmas Package Fasting Kits.

Very openly licensed; of course.

Garvis said...

I'm satisfied the way you write the article. I think, I'll be waiting for your next one. Cheers!

Harry Lieben said...

I think we have to distinguish between rural riding and city riding. In rural situations reflective wear for cyclists and pedestrians is a very good idea. In the city, non-blinking led lights and reflective tires will do just fine.

Jason Repko said...

I'm shaking my head at the visibility laws some of your indicate pedestrians must follow in your respective countries. Didn't we all walk before we could bike, run or drive? Here we have regulated the most common form of transportation in the history of the world in order to accommodate our habits of driving an automobile. This is very sad.

Fonant said...

CTC in the UK campaigned against new laws to require rear lights on bicycles for this reason. They argued that car drivers should be able to see that where they are going is clear, whatever the potential obstacle.

Sadly the cyclists lost, and rear lights became a legal requirement after the second world war. Now we have to provide lighting for our major roads at great expense, and make road sings ever more noticeable, because motorists just don't bother making an effort to look any more.

This is indeed an arms race. What will the emergency services people wear when everyone on our roads wears high-visibility clothing?

Slow Factory said...

Fonant, I sort of agree with bikes having no rear light but they still need a front one, at least for pedestrians, right? In any case at this point they need to be at least a bit illuminated in comparison to motor vehicles.

In a way I wish the only illumination was dim rear tail lights on bikes and motor vehicles, and no headlights on either.

Anonymous said...

I'm just annoyed my LED lights don't default to the "dim" night setting and I have to select that through several pushes of the button to get past the ridiculously bright day and flashing modes. Also there's no "dim" night flashing mode either.