I make regular trips by bike along the Worcester and Birmingham canal tow-path. At this time of year I get reminded of the state of cycle lighting in this country, as I find myself trying to see where I'm going because someone coming in the opposite direction thinks the best approach is to imitate a lighthouse. Wrong. Have you ever seen a car with a bright flashing white light on its roof, beaming out light forwards, sideways, and into outer space? No. That's because such a light does nothing to help you see where you are going, and it dazzles oncoming vehicle operators. Also, it is difficult to judge the distance to a flashing light, which is not what you want when a motorist is trying to decide if they can move safely. The flashing is particularly problematic on an unlit path, where it will also induce motion sickness and possibly an epileptic seizure. The flashing light concept comes from the idea that a dim cycle light will be more noticeable if it flashes, but in fact it wont be noticeable at all if the vehicle behind has car headlamps. Modern lighting technology renders flashing front lights obsolete, because you can now buy good, bright, well-designed steady lights that don't get through batteries at an alarming rate. And they don't cost an arm and a leg, if you know what to look for.
The British standard for cycle lighting amounts to you must show a white light in the direction of travel, and it mustn't dazzle (it also permits a flashing light, within a certain frequency range). This is woefully inadequate. All the while we remain a member of the European Union, there is a far more detailed cycle lighting specification available to us, commonly known as StVZO. StVZO stands for Straßenverkehrs-Zulassungs-Ordnung, which translates as Road Traffic Licensing Regulations. The specification is sufficiently detailed to be used as a design specification for cycle lights, so if you buy an StVZO-compliant light and mount it correctly, it will illuminate your way without dazzling other users, and it will be bright enough that flashing is not necessary. In order to achieve this it will be designed to create a trapezoidal beam pattern that illuminates the road or path, but which doesn't shine into the eyes of an oncoming vehicle user. The British standard allows the use of a conical beam (like a torch), which will never be both bright enough to see by, and non-dazzling. Because the StVZO regulations have become the established norm across parts of continental Europe, and bike lights are fitted by law to bikes during manufacture, StVZO-compliant lights are commonly available and do not need to be expensive. In fact, I paid far less for a front light, a back light, a dynamo, and P&P from the Netherlands, than you will pay if you buy one of the front lights listed in the latest edition of the Cycling UK magazine. Without StVZO compliance, your only option is to read the reviews and judge manufacturer's marketing spiel and reputation. Bicubic lens? Sounds great, but does it help you see where you are going any better than any other lens? Computer-designed optics? Sounds good, but means nothing (everything is computer-designed these days, including my drawings below). Anti-dazzle beam technology? Sounds good, but how is that judged - nine out of ten cats can't be wrong? Without a meaningful standard, manufacturers can charge whatever they think they can get away with. Just because you spent lots of money on a light, that doesn't mean it will prove to be both effective and not anti-social.
So do yourself and others a favour, and get yourself at the very least an StVZO compliant front light. Better still, get yourself a set, complete with dynamo (and as Si Davies has pointed out on our Facebook page, BBB orange bikes are supplied with a hub dynamo). That means you will have great lighting bolted to your bike and ready for action at any time.