• Warning: your bicycle blinky light can kill you

    by  • January 14, 2013 • Safety • 7 Comments

    “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

    In the spirit of Mark Twain, and as a service to Bike Delaware’s readers, we offer the following caution on bicycle blinky lights, from Grant Petersen’s “Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike“.


    By Grant Petersen

    Blinking lights lull drivers into target fixation – the tendency to stare at something that stands out and connect with it. Roberto Clemente used target fixation to hit baseballs, airplane pilots use it to steer their planes at night. To nobody’s surprise, it works. But in cycling, it’s a double-edged sword, because you go where you look and so do car drivers. This has two major ramifications.

    One: When you’re riding around a corner at high speed, aware of the ditch with your name on it, your look at the ditch the way you look at anything dangerous, and looking at makes you steer toward it.

    Two: When you’re riding at night with your red taillight blinking, thinking you’re safe because you’re visible, a tired or drunk commuter in an SUV locks on to your flashing light, maybe thinking it’s a distant car he should follow, and turns his wheel ever so slightly to follow his tracking eyes. Highway patrol officers deal with this all the time. Their flashing roof lights are beacons in the night to drunks.  You can see the results on YouTube.

    Solution 1: Practice looking where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go.  Successful cornering will reinforce this.

    Solution 2: Don’t let your blinky light blink.  By keeping it on steady mode, you’ll use up the battery faster, but you’ll be around to buy more.  Don’t be cheap and dead.

    Excerpted from JUST RIDE: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike, by Grant Petersen.  Used by permission of Workman Publishing Company, Inc.  All rights reserved.

    7 Responses to Warning: your bicycle blinky light can kill you

    1. Frank Warnock
      January 14, 2013 at 4:53 pm

      On one hand it sounds like a good argument, but on the other hand, I have never experienced anything but driver avoidance in 20+ years of using a blinky – both front and rear. I think if this was a problem as the author has us believe, they would stop using blinking traffic signals and construction strobes to warn drivers to slow down and/o take avoiding acton. They would also have the police turn off their flashing lights as well when pulling someone over on the roadside, as well as towtrucks, mail vehicles, and others who employ flashing lights. Overall, I would bet dollars to donuts that more lives have been saved – by a long shot – with the use of these lights than lost.

    2. Ian Turner
      January 14, 2013 at 11:50 pm

      Yeah, this sounds more like mental masturbation than evidence-based decisionmaking.

    3. mvz2
      January 15, 2013 at 10:07 am

      I’m afraid I have to disagree with Mr. Petersen here. There is no evidence that blinking or flashing lights will cause any more harm than a steady light. The anecdotal evidence of police cars being hit by drunk drivers is weak. The real issue is that motorists are not at all accustomed to or prepared for non-moving objects on highways, and yes, police cars do get hit while making traffic stops or tending to accidents or stalled vehicles, but there’s not a shred of evidence that attributes that to flashing lights. More likely due to lack of attention and in the case of drunks, impaired or delayed reaction time.

    4. January 16, 2013 at 5:41 pm

      Wow! I REALLY have to disagree with him on this one. When I ride at night with a blinky light, my anecdotal observations have been that drivers give me much more room. Granted this could be due to the lower traffic volumes at night but I really doubt that people are fixating on my blinky light. Red blinky lights tell me “THAT’S A CYCLST!!!”

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    7. Eric
      September 10, 2014 at 7:47 pm

      Thanks for this post. The blinking light trend, like car alarms and back-up beepers, is just another example of a half-baked idea that has become widespread before it could reviewed by thorough, objective study. The human eye is much better at tracking a steady light than a blinking one. Don’t set your light to Yuppie Panic Mode, just turn it on steady.

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