25 years of bike lighting improvement, but why doesn’t Tesco allow kids to change their batteries now?

Sometimes it’s the little things that alert us to the slow decline of the West towards a world of Idiocracy. DW needed some bike lights, and I’d bought some from Tesco a while ago so we got another set. Innovation is a marvellous thing in the world of bike lights.

Nightriders from the 1980s. The good thing about them was the plastic brackets didn’t snap off like the cheap one do now. The bad thing was the contacts and switch were flakey and had a shocking power drain.

25 years ago I used to have a set of Ever Ready Nightriders, great big things that took D cells. The route back from BBC Television Centre to my crummy shared house in Alperton was 5 miles, taking in the A40 westway and Hanger lane gyratory system. At least the 12r day 3/4 day week BBC AP shift pattern meant it wasn’t in the rush hour, though often returning in the night.

Bike journey from BBC TV centre to Alperton. Not sure I’d go up the Westway nowadays, the traffic was manageable in the 1980s. Google maps offer a different bike route but I didn’t know about that.

Everything was wrong about bike lights for this journey. The A40 westway is a major arterial road, and I used rechargeable D cells, which then as now were a little AA cell with a great big wrapper to make them D sized, so their capacity was low, just about enough for the 5 mile journey. Thatcher’s recession meant the roads were potholed so the lights took a lot of vibration.

Something people underestimate these days is just how damned expensive batteries used to be. The capacity of rechargeable batteries was lower than use once types, but it would have been a serious cost. Rechargeables and chargers were also flakey in the 1980s as well as being dear – the chargers tened to knacker the batteries as there was no attempt to monitor state of charge. So not only have bike lights improved dramatically nowadays, but the batteries are more reliable and have more capacity – an AA battery was about 500mAh then, whereas now Maplin will sell you one of five times that capacity.

Cateye’s revolutionary 1990s HL-500 light. Why did it take such a long time for humanity to realise that mounting the batteries vertically on a bike light was such a stupendously bad idea, given that’s where all the rattle and shake happens?

The fantastic insight from the Cateye HL 500 was still over ten years in the future. Like all great innovations, it was both obvious in hindsight and deceptively simple. Basically never, ever, mount the batteries vertically in a bike light. All the road vibration is in this plane, and a bike is unsprung, so it shakes the bejesus out of any spring contacts, which get weak and ratty for the 0.5A that a incandescent bike light runs at. So you end up with an unreliable product. I was always thumping the crap out of Nightriders to get them to come back on again.

Unlike those lights, needing charging at each end, the Tesco lights would have lasted me a week, all on 6 AAA cells rather than four Ds.

Tesco’s Chinese manufacturer also achieved an insight that the designers of the expensive Bspoke light I had got earlier failed dismally on.

Bspoke bike light – FAIL on excessive directionality

That was so directional you couldn’t see it was on as a cyclist unless you waved your hand in front of it, and sideways visibility was dire too. So enter Tesco’s bike light set, along with minimalist instructions. Nothing wrong with the lights at all – the front light can be seen from above (by the cyclist) and the side (by the cars about to drive into your path) as well as the front. Great functional design, though typically ropey Chinese aesthetics, for an ancient culture with a long artistic history China doesn’t seem to export any of that heritage in its industrial design. The Bspoke was far better aesthetically, even if they didn’t screw it to a bike and try it at night where the design flaw would have been immediately apparent 😉

Tesco bike light set and manual

So why the portent of the decline of the West? Well, take a look at the few words on the instructions.

Batteries should be replaced by an adult? WTF?

What has happened to British children in the last 30 years? If you’re old enough to ride a bike on the public highway and so need lights, you’re old enough to change your own batteries. It isn’t as if this is a 45 volt valve B+ battery from yesteryear, we are talking AAA 1.5 volt cells. Fair enough to warn against leaving batteries in the way of babies and toddlers who are going to put them in their mouths, but you really should have progressed from the thumb-sucking stage by the time you take your bike on the road, or even (tsk tsk) on the pavement (sidewalk to any American readers wondering what exactly is wrong with riding a bike on the pavement 😉 ).

There’s no earthly reason for the CYA statement prohibiting non-adult cyclists from changing their batteries and Tesco need a slap roung the chops with a wet fish to get them to wise up and stop infantilising our children by suggesting that swapping batteries is some risky exercise requiring a hazmat team or at least Mum or Dad.

The evidence of the dead hand of Tesco Group Legal Services is also evident on the other side. Who the hell is going to call up the local council and say “I have some BIKE LIGHTS I need to dispose of in a SAFE way”. It ain’t gonna happen. Yes, if you still have some NiCad batteries you should really go out of your way to take them to a recycling facility because Cadmium is nasty shit that pollutes water as it leaches out of the landfill sites. But bike lights? Heck, my council tells us to put used paint tins in the household waste in the bin ratherthan taking it to the city dump. The dump used to have a special facility to take old paint tins, but now they outsourced it to Viridor actually dealing with the sort of household rubbish households generate would cost more so they don’t take some categories. Electrical waste probably falls into the ‘too hard category as well’.