This article was published in 1999, in Newsletter 22.
Over the last few months I’ve noticed the Campaign supporting the annual police campaign to light up; we’ve endorsed the blitz on cyclists without lights, and the accompanying £20 fine; and I, like many others no doubt, have often felt like shouting at other cyclists without lights as we’ve almost collided on Midsummer Common.
But hang on – I have been one of those cyclists without lights on several occasions, and having begun to reflect on why I don’t always use lights, my outlook has changed a little. For a legal requirement, it strikes me as preposterous, firstly that lighting is considered an accessory rather than an integral part of a bicycle, and secondly that lights are generally of such poor quality.
I won’t dwell on why new bikes don’t automatically come with lights – for that, manufacturers blame retailers, retailers blame consumers, and cycling campaigners blame manufacturers and retailers. Instead I want to highlight the poor quality of bike lights, as someone who has gone through many sets in the last 15 years or so. This experience shows how difficult it is to find lights that work, that work well, and which continue to work well.
About five years ago I bought the bike I now use for most journeys. It came with a flashing rear light permanently attached to the seatpost, and a detachable halogen front light. The rear light was snapped off by a thief one day. The front light worked well until I had to change the bulb – when something unfathomable went wrong with the contact so it sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. That experience, and cycling to and from a regular job for the first time, led me back to a dynamo – no longer would I have to take the lights off my bike whenever I parked it, find that the batteries had gone flat because the light had become switched on in my pannier, or have to remember to recharge them for the next journey.
I chose lights by Busch and Müller along with a Nordlicht generator (all sold by the CTC). For the most part, this is an excellent system. The rear lamp uses five LEDs pointing in different directions, so the light they generate is impressive; but more important is that the lamp stays on for a couple of minutes when you stop. Apparently their front lamps now work this way too, but even without that, mine throws out a good strong beam from its halogen bulb.
So what do I have to complain about? Well, over three years there have been many minor problems. I have had to re-solder the cable connections to each lamp two or three times. The bottle generator often makes an awful noise, especially at certain speeds and certain angles to the wheel – and unless it stays at a particular angle when it’s raining, I have no light at all. Finally, I recently found the front lamp cutting out quite randomly, and ended up breaking the bulb as I took it apart to work out why. It turned out that the spring behind the bulb had somehow been bent and wasn’t always making contact.
I recently got round to buying a dynamo for my other bike, which I only use when I have to leave it overnight at the station. I had been feeling self-conscious as I had ridden home several times in the dark with no lights at all. I wanted to spend as little as possible, as I’d only be using it once or twice a month. I paid £20 and expected clear and accurate instructions, brackets to fit any bike, and lights that worked when I needed them. I was disappointed in the first two; for the last I await my next overnight stay, but my hopes are not high.
All in all, I have experienced around six different sets of lights over the last decade, and none have worked well enough – and stayed like that – to allow me to take it for granted I would be within the law whenever I cycled in the dark. Motorists would not, of course, put up with such uncertainty, or such shoddy value for money. If car lights were as unreliable as even the best bike lights, we would see far more cars with lights that had worked but had now packed up. Then, however, we would see the AA and the RAC condemning the manufacturers and defending motorists, their members. They would claim motorists were prevented by short-sighted commercial interests from obeying the law. Government would pass new standards, and lights would rapidly improve.
With bikes, things are very different. Of course, many cyclists ride around without lights for no justifiable reason. But many, like me, do so on more occasions than we would like to, simply because bicycle lights are – to put it bluntly – crap. What happens then is that everybody from the car lobby to the local press condemns cyclists and ignores the duty of manufacturers to improve their products. Cycling bodies such as the CTC have too little clout to make an impact. And the police now threaten to fine us the cost of a new set of lights – guaranteeing that poor cyclists won’t be able to afford even bad lights. No wonder, then, that so many of us don’t always bother.