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By winter I will be commuting on my bike at night. How can I make my bike as visible as possible to all car drivers?

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25 Answers

up vote 37 down vote accepted

The obvious few things are:

  • Front light
  • Red rear tail light
  • Spare batteries for said lights
  • Spoke lights/reflectors for improved side visibility
  • Bright clothing, ideally cycling clothing with reflective strips on them.
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I second the spare batteries - I'm always amazed at the number of cyclists I see who have lights but whose batteries are on their last legs. The lights may seem OK in your hand, but are next to useless on the road. –  Kevin Aug 26 '10 at 19:48
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The vinyl reflectors now are SO bright, and look dull and non descript in daylight. So you do not look ridiculous during the day. –  geoffc Aug 26 '10 at 20:30
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@Tim: It definitely draws attention better, but personally when I drive a car I get frustrated at the distracting and blinding effect of a blinking light. I'm not sure it's safer, I see both kinds of lights a lot (well, usually a simple led light has both a blinking and a continuous setting) and both are visible enough. Hard to say what the distraction effect has on road safety. –  Joren Oct 20 '10 at 3:09
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@Joren - the last guy to knock me off my motorbike was a SMIDSY (Sorry Mate I Didn't See You). I have 2 x 900lumen flashing leds on my bicycle and when faced with SUVs/BMWs I use both of them. –  mgb Feb 18 '11 at 4:31
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@Joren, and when riding a bicycle behind someone with Bright Flashing Red Rear Light you are probably also frustrated! Good thing is, there are some rear lights that change smoothly, but do not blink. Thus one gets the advantage of a moving light, without it being more irritating than a steady light (which is also irritating in a dark park...). –  Vorac Oct 14 '13 at 11:42
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Get a Bright Bike kit from brightthread.com:

Bright Bike DIY kits cover your bicycle in easy-to-apply design-savvy ultra reflective vinyl for safety. It is like covering your bike with a big stickers that turn ultra-bright in headlights. The retroreflective vinyl is the same material used on the backs of running shoes, but with colors. The kits greatly improve night visibility and thus bicycle safety.

These kits are pre-cut and easy to put on.

alt text

I got the blue pinstripe set and I love it - a bright source of light, like a car headlight, hits your bike, and you light up like a christmas tree. It's especially pronounced at night, and as cool as this picture is, it doesn't do it justice. Check out the video on their website for a nighttime demonstration.

Edit: I thought I would share my picture of my bike with the blue BrightBike pinstripes on it. This is taken in my dark garage with my flash covered (just enough light to make it glow without the picture being blurry). In daylight, the color is almost the same as my paint color, so they're hard to see.

My bike

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Wow I really like this. I think that people tend to forget about side visibility. –  Rickard Lindroth Aug 27 '10 at 9:08
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@Tim: Actually, no. Intersections are by far the most dangerous. Side reflectors are really important, precisely because of what Martin says. Without lights and reflectors you are practically invisible at night, and your front and rear lights are really hard to see from the side. Coming from their side, I usually only see people's reflector rims, and nothing much else. –  Joren Oct 20 '10 at 3:17
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Sweet, a Tron bicycle. –  Kyralessa May 12 '11 at 4:25
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I just bought one of these (the pinstripe model). As @JamesSchek mentioned, it is really 3M ScotchLite 680 reflective striping tape. The BrightThread kit will give you 0.25" x 25'; you can get a better deal on 3M's website or Amazon. –  Evan Haas May 25 '13 at 15:49
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Just a minor advice: put your reflective tape on some of the moving parts (rims, spokes or cranks), as the motion improves visibility drastically. –  Mladen Jablanović Jul 15 '13 at 11:53
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Take Karl Lagerfeld's advice:

It’s yellow; it’s ugly, it doesn’t go with anything; but it could save your life.

alt text

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+1 good one, cheap and reusable. –  user652 Feb 18 '11 at 4:44
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Don't forget side visibility. Spoke lights are great for making you visible at crosswalks or traffic lights.

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3M makes Scotchlite tape that is very reflective. My wife used craft punches to punch flower shapes out of it and covered her bike with it. Her bike gets noticed day and night.

I haven't noticed any mention of flags here. Particularly on trailers or recumbents, a flag gives you a bit more height, plus the motion attracts attention. My wife hung a bunch of streamers off her flag pole.

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There is even better stuff called SOLAS tape, it's used on lifeboats/Oil rigs/etc. It's has little reflective hexagons on it and it lights up like a spotlight in car headlights. I've had cars screech to a halt when I go across a street in front of them with a bike covered in it. –  mgb Oct 18 '10 at 22:16
    
Thanks for the tip, @Martin. My local marine supply store carries it, but it's $32 for 12 sheets of 2"x4" tape. Maybe it'll go in my wife's Christmas stocking. (Don't tell her.) –  Don Kirkby Oct 19 '10 at 18:13
    
3M SOLAS tape is among the best reflective tapes out there, but it is completely ineffective when you are off-angle from the headlights... i.e. you haven't crossed in front of the car yet. –  James Schek Oct 27 '11 at 21:03
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You could also turn your wheels into programmable displays using Ladyada's kit, which exploits persistence of vision. Some assembly required.

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A good while ago we had a discussion about whether these were waterproof or could be waterproofed over on chiphacker: chiphacker.com/questions/354/… –  Amos Aug 28 '10 at 8:47
    
An alternative are Monkeylectric's POV lights, which are certainly waterproof, and work out of the box (see my answer on this page). Their one drawback compared to Ladyada's kit is that they can't display images that stay upright relative to the bike, if that's what you want. –  SuperElectric Dec 22 '10 at 0:30
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I uses the Down Low Glow which is a tube light that mounts to your down tube. It creates an area of illuminated pavement around you which most motorists in my area treat as the "no-zone". I generally feel safer riding at night than during the day because motorists will allow for more passing distance.

enter image description here

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I've heard those take some effort to affix and waterproof, but they look super cool. –  memnoch_proxy Sep 27 '11 at 5:30
    
It's easy to affix depending on where your cables run. If your downtube is free of obstructions, it's it goes on without hassle. As far as waterproof--I've used it in light rain (<30 minutes) and haven't had problems. Never tried it in heavy rain or for long periods of time in light rain. –  James Schek Sep 27 '11 at 16:00
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I've heard a recommendation of melting paraffin or hot glue around the light to keep water soaking in to seams, but I have not actually installed one. –  memnoch_proxy Sep 27 '11 at 21:22
    
If I actually have the fortitude to commute in moderate/heavyrain this season, I'll give it a try! Thanks for the tip! –  James Schek Sep 30 '11 at 14:37
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I have been using Monkeylectric spoke lights for two years now. They're very bright persistence-of-vision spoke lights that blit out patterns in a beautiful range of colors. Love em. Unlike Ladyada's kit, these work out of the box, though you can reprogram them if you so wish.

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mental but brilliant. –  tenpn Feb 16 '11 at 12:13
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Of course, having some good bright lights is a must for being visible at night! The Bicycles Stack Exchange Blog now has the most comprehensive bike taillight review on the internet (to our knowledge):

Review of the Best Bicycle Tail Lights in 2012

In total I reviewed fifteen different tail lights. The Cygolite Hotshot performed best in the most categories, but there are several other lights which did quite well. If you're looking for a good rear light, check out this review.

Bike lights!

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A safety vest can help, they can get a bit warm but I have wrapped my backpack in one for extra visibility on the commute

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I used to wear a yellow hi-vis jacket with BIKE in blue capitals on the back. By shear coincidence this looked just like the jackets the police wear here - pure coincidence of course I wouldn't want to impersonate a police officer! Somewhere used to sell them with "POLITE" on the back in the same font! –  mgb Oct 18 '10 at 22:13
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In addition to lots of reflective material and a good headlight, I recommend the super-bright Dynotte 400R tail-light.

alt text

This light is the brightest I could find commercially available and seems to be visible from more than 1/2 mile away in bright sunshine (and much further at night). I ride with it on at all times of day while commuting year round.

In my side-by side tests the 400R was significantly brighter than my car's break-lights. In the past 8 months I've had about 10 comments from drivers and as many from other cyclists about how bright the light was.

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Wow, now that's an expensive light you have there. $230 is a bit steep for me, but it must be pretty impressive for that price. –  Wilka Aug 31 '10 at 12:14
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I use a generator front hub and front and rear lights. This setup is very expensive: the wheel itself can run almost 500 dollars. The very best of these generators and lights are imported from Germany by only a few importers, and are not widely available here in the US.

There are a couple of reasons I like generator lights:

  • No need to charge them.
  • No chance for them to fail in adverse weather conditions: rechargeable batteries can fail suddenly in extreme cold.
  • Always available. Once they are installed, there isn't any reason to remove them. Because...
  • Less likely to be stolen. The lights are mounted and wired to the bike, requiring tools to remove. The light itself is not very expensive and is not usable without the generator, so less of a target for thieves. Also, there's probably not much of a stolen goods market on high-end bike components. What makes them rare and expensive makes them hard to fence.
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Reelight is a relatively new (and slightly uglier) cheap alternative to generator hubs. –  freiheit Oct 15 '10 at 17:10
    
+1 I also use a generator front hub, and I'm very happy with it. 500$ however seems excessive. Front hub generators run from ~ 50 - 200$ (plus cost of the wheel). –  sleske Feb 16 '11 at 10:22
    
Sanyo Eneloop rechargeables work even at -10 °C (-15 °F). Lights also generate heat while in use, which might warm the batteries. Keep your light in your pocket when not in use. If you're in weather much colder than that, use lithium-ion batteries rated for your needs, or use disposable lithium-iron-disulfide AAs. Always carry spare batteries. –  unforgettableid Jul 14 '13 at 16:44
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If bikesandcode's suggestions aren't enough you could always paint your mudguard reflective like this: http://www.instructables.com/id/Paint-your-bike-bicycle-gear-reflective/

Like this:

alt text

There are some other suggestions on the same site for wrapping the frame in reflective material.

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I used iron on reflective tape on my backpack (or buy a cover) and Pannier including the sites.

alt text alt textalt text

Reflective Ankle Bands are good, as a driver can see the movement when you are pedalling, I also use a reflective helmet band.

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I initially looked for a reflective vest but then found very inexpensive LED lights. I got a red one that I put on the rear that I set to flashing mode, then another white one for a front "headlight" and another red one I clip on my backpack or other place near the rear of the bike. I also bought a few reflecting tape pieces and hang them around the rear of the bike.

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LEDs aren't as bright as you think and are very directional. A 200W car headlight bouncing of a 6" square piece of scotchlite is visible a mile away. –  mgb Oct 18 '10 at 22:18
    
@Martin I am not worried about a car a mile away. I am worried about the ones close to me. –  Tim Oct 18 '10 at 23:48
    
just a warning that coin-cell LED lights look very bright when you hold them 6inches from you face and look straight at them. Reflective tape is very very bright when reflecting car headlamps –  mgb Oct 19 '10 at 4:10
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The favorite thing I've found for lighting is the FlashBak. It's a bunch of super-bright orange LEDs. Orange, to motorists, means "slow" - while RED is the DOT standard and required for the rear at night, I've never understood why we don't see more orange lighting.

Basically, you can't be TOO VISIBLE. lots of blinkylights, lots of reflect-o-stuff. Take everything you've seen mentioned in every reply and do all of it, and you still could add more to make yourself seen.

Part of the problem is that motorists filter stuff out. They look in a general direction without seeing things they aren't looking for. Most of them are only looking for gigantic multi-ton hunks of metal and glass lumbering down the road.

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Check out Fire Fly.

FireFly Bicycle Light

The Firefly light uses a Passive Infrared sensor in order to detect traffic approaching from behind the rider. Upon detection LEDs flash onto the back of the rider with varying intensity depending on the proximity of the traffic. The protruding arm of the device allows the light to illuminate the entire back of the rider at any angle. A set of LEDs also illuminate the ground beneath the rider; providing traffic with a proximity of depth which can be used to determine exactly where the rider is. While a rear tail-light provides strong rear presence and meets bicycle light requirements.

Not sure if it's in production yet, but still a really great idea.

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Lights and reflectors... lots of it. As others have mentioned you can buy tires with reflective strips on them.

enter image description here (Picture taken indoors, with a flash)

I am also a firm believer of using multiple head and tail lights. When one fails there are others to fall back to. Also I stagger the time recharging my headlights... meaning I don't charge them at the same time. This further minimizes the chance that both will lose a charge when I am commuting at night. Some pics of my commuter:

enter image description here

enter image description here

To top this off I have a Planet Bike Headlamp on my helmet and a triangular reflector I stitched on my backpack. In addition to the reflective strip on the tires I also placed white 3M reflective strips on the rims (4 each) so motorist can see the wheels rotating at night. Finally I use bright orange ankle straps.

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A more specific suggestion: use 3M Diamond Tape (see impressive demonstration). It is really bright. Fun trivia: the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute tried to make it a standard for bike helmets, but none of 3Ms competitors could make a material so reflective.

The best reflective material is fixed in your bike, so you will never forget it. Use:

  • reflectors in your pedals
  • mudguards with reflective strip
  • replace every broken standard reflector you can think about
  • use a helmet with a vibrant color and a reflective decal, if it doesn't have, put some reflective tape. I don't understand why almost all helmets are black or gray.
  • tires with a reflective sidewall

For every component, try to by the reflective version!

Also don't forget the active blinking lights and all the other good answers of this question!

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From a practical standpoint, making the tires reflective means laminating a layer of rather inferior rubber/plastic to the side of the tire, shortening the life of the tire. Spoke reflectors are at least as effective and don't affect tire durability. –  Daniel R Hicks Dec 24 '13 at 5:03
    
Perhaps what is meant is tires with reflective sidewalls? Those are indeed amazingly reflective. –  Neil Fein Dec 24 '13 at 5:20
    
@NeilFein - I know. And reflective sidewalls shorten the life of the tire. –  Daniel R Hicks Dec 24 '13 at 13:29
    
@DanielRHicks - I didn't know that. Anything to back that up? I'd be curious how that works. I imagine I'd want to keep them on a commuter but not so much on, say, a mountain bike (which I don't ride at night). –  Neil Fein Dec 24 '13 at 23:06
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@NeilFein - The reflective material must be added to the rubber, and generally a gumwall-like material will be used for the rubber. Both cause more rapid breakdown of the sidewall. –  Daniel R Hicks Dec 25 '13 at 2:48
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I have flashers front and rear going any time that I'm near dusk. Once the sun is completely down, I make sure to have my helmet light as well, a NitRider MiNewt:

NiteRider MiNewt Mini USB

The little thing is super bright, enough to light the road for 30 meters ahead, has enough battery power for a few hours, and it charges from a mini USB cable.

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There is a concern that helmet mounted lamps can snag in an accident and cause neck injuries. –  mgb Feb 16 '11 at 16:31
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One way is to definitely make sure you have on bright clothing!

  • Neon clothes
  • Bright construction vests
  • Light colored helmet
  • Add a reflector or blinker to the top of your helmet to add visibility
  • AVOID DARK CLOTHING!

Motorists are not always watching (I know from personal experience) and they are a lot bigger than you!

Another is to make the bike itself visible. Good ways to do this are:

  • Add reflectors to front and rear tires as well as the body of the bike.
  • Have a mounted light such as a Cat's Eye on your handlebars. This will allow you to see through dark areas better than just street lights.
  • Add reflective and neon tape (as suggested above) to the frame of the bike to make you visible.
  • Make lights as bright as possible on the spokes or handle bars.
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Many urban/commuter tires have reflective sidewalls. Next time you're due for a tire change, you might check to see if any of the tires have the reflective stripe. Someone told me (not sure if it's true) that reflective sidewall tires are required in some European cities.

e.g. Vitoria Randonneuer http://www.amazon.com/Vittoria-Randonneuer-Pro-700x35c-Reflective/dp/B0028N305O

3M makes some reflective tape that is available in many colors (even black!) to match your bike finish during the day but it reflects bright white at night.

I too use a Dinotte tail light and they are astoundingly bright. I have found that motorists with eye pain give me lots more room. The Dinotte lights are stupidly expensive though. The Planet Bike Superflash is the best inexpensive blinkies I have found. I put them on my kids' bikes and I can see them two blocks away in broad daylight; < $30.

Stay safe and assume all cars are trying to kill you.

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The brand name for the 3M tape is 3M Scotchlite. –  Batman Jan 8 at 17:33
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Motorists are familiar with the 'Sam Browne' reflective belt, the 'Hump' rucksack cover or the reflective jacket, typically in yellow - or orange. To them, at night, when coupled with the regular LED flashers, no thinking is required to see that there is a bike ahead.

In my opinion there are good reasons not to decorate the bike too extensively with reflective tape. When parked up you really want your bike to be as stealthy as possible so that thieves, drunken idiots and other undesirables do not pay attention to it. Furthermore, an even layer of grime can quickly dull the reflective tape, not that it is that visible from behind (or head on) in the first place.

There is an added benefit to the hi-viz jacket on the UK commute. The filth from the (diesel) car in front will make your normal coat quite dirty. Protect it with a hi-viz jacket. Also in early mornings there can be a chill in the air - a hi-viz jacket takes the chill off yet is not so tight that it will make you sweaty.

My top tip for buying a hi-viz jacket is to buy a couple of them, long sleeve and sleeveless. Also, don't buy the £££ ones from the bike shop. Unlike the cheap ones that binmen and the like wear the bike shop ones do not have the E.U. style patterns that 3M + co worked to perfect.

As noted already, trouser clips are a very good idea. The affordable 'Adie' brand ones available from any UK bike shop give motorists an idea of your relative speed and distance. If you are not wearing them, get cycle shoes with reflective heel tabs, if not wearing those then keep the British Standard approved pedal reflectors on the pedals. If you have lost those then get a set for free from your friendly bike shop - in the workshop they will have a drawer full of them knocking around.

Reflective sidewalls are a great idea in principle, however, nobody keeps their bike clean enough for them to actually work.

Approaches to roundabouts are particularly hazardous, you need the traffic already on the roundabout to see you as well as the traffic behind you. The hi-viz jacket works well in these and other scenarios where visibility matters.

I have tried the 'terror tactic' of having really bright lights on the bike, however, these can lead to unpredictable results. Basically there will be drivers that will respond with 'WTF?' and hit the brakes because they do not know what is coming towards them. You actually want to send them a 'I am a cyclist' message with symbols they already recognise - the flashers, pedal reflectors and, most important of all, the hi-viz jacket.

Two sets of lights, front and rear are a very good idea, much better than carrying spare batteries. If you can get one set hard-wired to the bike, e.g. on the reflector brackets you are less likely to get caught out without them. Also try to get a high level rear light that can be seen through car windscreens, e.g. attached to your rucksack.

Remember that helmets do not help you to be seen or to avoid accidents. If you really care about road safety go for the hi-viz jacket before the nice polystyrene hat (that doesn't quite fit properly...).

Assertive, confident cycling also helps. Do not trudge along in the gutter and be aware of traffic coming towards you from other directions, e.g. head on cars overtaking. Light for these guys too and don't assume you will be okay when you only have a rear light (and no front).

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I disagree with much that's in this nicely-written answer. :) Point by point: High-visibility jackets are just as capable of being tight as any jacket. And theft is not a big problem for people in rural areas. And bike-specific jackets are designed to wick sweat away, which is part of why they're more expensive than standard safety wear. The reflective sidewalls on my tires work extremely well, and I think I don't keep my bike as clean as I should. (Can anyone else speak on that?) However, I agree that safety jackets and pedal reflectors are the best ways to scream "cyclist"! –  Neil Fein May 14 '11 at 22:49
    
I will qualify the cycle jacket: 'Night Vision' jackets are great, particularly because of the arms having hi-viz on them that is viewable from the front. They also have some breathability to the fabric that makes them not 100% boil in the bag. However, the hi-viz only 'tabards' to wear over the top cost £25 or so and are not as good as the £5 versions you can get elsewhere because they do not have the standard patterns. Maybe you have disc brakes, the rest of us have rim brakes, the aluminium + pad wear + grease on the back wheel does cover up the reflective sidewalls, at least on my bike. –  ʍǝɥʇɐɯ May 14 '11 at 23:37
    
While I do see a lot of disc brakes in my area, I have rim brakes an all my bikes. If the brakes on your bike are touching the sidewalls of your tires, something is seriously wrong! Are you talking about the rim of the wheel being reflective, or the rim of the tire? –  Neil Fein May 15 '11 at 4:40
    
Oh, and I fully agree that assertive cycling helps enormously. –  Neil Fein May 15 '11 at 4:41
    
Of course the brakes do not touch the tyres. The tyres get dirty, that is all. This dirt covers the sidewalls making the reflective part impossible to see yhrough the grime. And no, that is not just mud, the crud from braking is part of the build-up. –  ʍǝɥʇɐɯ May 15 '11 at 4:46
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In short: Lots of steady light, but don't dazzle.

Multiple rear lights help a lot, both for redundancy (if the battery dies) and to give other road users an idea of how fast they're approaching. I have 2 steady and 1 flashing, and may add another to my helmet before winter. The benefit of multiple lights is really noticeable when approaching a bike from behind, fast, in the dark.

At the front, I have a 900 lumen rechargeable, for which I carry a spare battery, and a little LED on the front fork - again, multiple points of light help define the shape, which is why I've got extra spoke reflectors and light-up valve caps.

A note on high-power front lights though:
They are meant to light up the road, not to shine in someone's eyes. If a driver or another cyclist has 900lm+ shone in their eyes, they will know that something is there, but not know where "there" is very well. These lamps are almost as bright as a car headlight, and there's a reason headlights are generally required to be dipped in the face of oncoming traffic.

Personally I can see no use case for super bright strobes either - even if they don't shine directly into someone's eyes they don't do a good job of marking out where you are, and they're rubbish for illuminating the road - leave the super bright on steady, and by all means add as many small flashers as you like.

Some of this dates back to before I commuted by bike (as a driver who wanted to be nice to cyclists), but with a mix of busy (though generally quite bike-friendly) roads and completely dark paths, I've reached the same conclusions from the other direction.

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One more option for total night visibility:

enter image description here

[Light Trails – Fully LED’ed]

http://www.youtube.com/embed/DTC3zpVz0e0

As a driver I've found passive/reflexive strips totally useless in the dangerous situations on the road. Unfortunately it's not working if cyclist out of the car beams. It makes him/her completely dark and invisible in contrast to the objects highlighted by car front lights. Especially reflexive strips danger because cyclist usually have no idea if he/her visible or not.

I found this video very interesting as example of using active lighting. It shows not only the presence of the some unknown source of red light blinking but the actual size and contour of the cyclist and his bicycle.

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Passive lighting is strictly a "to be seen" thing (see: sheldonbrown.com/reflectors.html). You should never rely solely on reflectors since they work at relatively narrow angles among other things, but you should (must?) have them, at least as a failsafe. While this thing does light you up a lot form the side, I don't see good frontal and rear lighting, and it does look quite distracting (which is not the same thing as being a good notification) on the road. –  Batman Jan 8 at 17:38
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