These are NOT bike lights!

6 04 2011

MEC white Turtle light...

Update: I revived this year old post because I’ve been seeing a lot of these non-bike lights on bikes lately and realized something – in addition to all the problems I list below the fact their low power forces cyclists to use them on flash mode to try and get everyone’s attention. This works to a degree, but the result is a very obnoxious dazzling effect if you happen to be right in the narrow beam of one of these lights and not all that much visibility for the cyclist if you are not. That’s plain bad for everyone involved. Get something that uses rechargeable batteries, that’s got a reasonable amount of power and use it on steady mode.

I’m going to pick on MEC a bit here, but to be fair there are many versions of these cheap key chain lights floating around made and sold by various companies.  Note I called them key chain lights not bike lights.  They provide plenty of light to see something in a dark tent or to use while repairing a flat tire.  They absolutely do not provide enough light to be seen by at night in the city. Not even if you double up on them and have two on each end of your bike.

The sad part is that because stores like MEC sell them as bike lights lots of people assume they must work in that application and grab a red one….if they are feeling spendy maybe also a white one for the front…then they ride around town at night assuming they are visible to motorists…even though they are not.

This isn't a bike taillight...

Here is what’s wrong with them:

  • they use a low power LED with a small battery = poor amount of light emitted.
  • they dim dramatically as the small battery gets used which puts out even less light. Especially when it’s cold out.
  • the max amount of light is emitted along a narrow range of angles from the front of the light.
  • the simple mounting method of a stretchy band doesn’t maintain the angle of adjustment well and provides a limited range of angles you can set the light at…all of which means a car driver will likely get only a small amount of the little light that comes out of the unit.
  • batteries are expensive [for the power they provide], not rechargeable and hard to change so lots of people run them until they are dead even though the amount of light put out during the last 50% of the battery’s run time is pathetic.
  • they give riders the false sense of security by making them feel like they are visible in traffic when the are not visible at all.

Turbo Turtle light

MEC also sells the Turbo Turtle light which was two LEDs in it.  It’s still not a bike light.  It’s just a better key chain light.

So what would I recommend?

  • buy yourself a good red bike tail light like the Planet Bike Superflash and get some rechargeable batteries for it.  Not only will this be better for the environment, but you’ll save $$$ if you ride at night a lot.
  • buy yourself a decent 1w or 2w white LED for the front of your bike like the MEC Shark as well as some rechargeable batteries.
  • I would also recommend you get some reflective material on you in addition to a proper bike light.  There are lots of options, but my favourites are reflective leg bands.  They are cheap, never run out of batteries and keep your pants out of the chain!  I keep one or two permanently on the handle bars of each of my bikes just in case I stay out after dark unexpectedly.
  • Now assuming you’ve done the things I recommended above if you want to add some of these key chain lights to your bike or helmet as an emergency back up to your main lights and/or to add even more visibility go for it.  That’s an appropriate use for lights of their performance level.

$12CDN gets you these bike lights!

What if I can’t afford real bike lights?

  • well first off key chain lights are not cheap…the MEC Turbo Turtle lights run $4.50 each [$9.00 for a set white & red] compared to $12.00 for the decent MEC light set in the photo above.  Use both for a year and see which batteries cost you more to keep running…not even considering the fact you’ll get way more light out of the real bike lights.
  • okay so what if you can only afford $5 for one red MEC turtle light?  Save some money and buy one reflective ankle band for $3.25.  Then ride your bike assuming no one can see you at night.  You’ll be safer than riding confidently with one red key chain light on your bike.  The reflective material works with a car’s powerful headlights to illuminate you better than a key chain light.



10 responses

25 02 2010

Great insight, Vik. I think the last point you make is the best. “Assuming” that people can see you is incredibly dangerous when they can’t. I’ve been caught without a light before and I ride quite differently than when I’m lit. It’s a bad combo to have high confidence and low light.

25 02 2010

Or look into some of these ideas for using flashlights:

25 02 2010

Sure Ken – LED flashlights can work really well – just make sure you use a mount that lets you aim them properly so the light goes where you need it.

25 02 2010

Superflash rocks. Most things from Planet Bike are excellent value.

The MEC keychain lights are also not waterproof for any length of time.

A light on the helmet front and rear gets seen over parked cars, and is backup if those on your bike burn out.

25 02 2010
Jean Montambeault

I can testify that you are exactly right about the Turtles which nearly cost me to be hit by a pick up truck.

On the other hand I tried rechargeables with my Planet Bike rear Superflash and 1W front and they are of no use whatsoever in cold weather. They just go dead, to revive when warmed up.

28 02 2010

Use lithium batteries in real cold. Also, flash function seems to work longer/brighter in the cold than steady does.

10 01 2011
Tim Horton

Its about time that the dummies stopped using those tiny key chain lights. And especially the bozos who put a red light on the front thinking they will be seen better.

6 04 2011
Micheal Blue

Good points.

6 05 2011
Aggie Janicot

we use these little lights all over the Netherlands. They are cheap when on sale from Hema (about 2 euros) and if they get stolen… whoppie. They are perfect for Dutch city biking since we have dedicated bike pathways.

If someone is using them for randonneuring… they’re a moron.

21 05 2012

I like reelight. They cost more than $12 but they never need any batteries and the drag is imperceptible. I tried putting my bike upside down and spinning the front wheel with the reelight attached. It kept going for minutes. They are not bright enough to light up the road, but they are ideal for being seen.

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