How a bit of software and tech may save the lives of many cyclists

Last week I stumbled upon this video while shopping for new bike gear.

Last week I stumbled upon this video while shopping for new bike gear.

I was immediately impressed by the concept and execution, and though I remain skeptical that any new bike tech is really revolutionary, I ordered up the $200 rear radar light to test it out myself on an existing Garmin computer. I’d seen rear video camera concepts but they seemed like overkill on a bike, and though I could always use a helmet-mounted rear view mirror, those don’t work very well either. My main hope was this system from Garmin would reduce my anxiety when I’m out on the road by myself.

Safety in numbers

Ideally, I prefer to ride in small groups, with 3–10 people because cars give you space and room as a bunch, but it’s so rare to get people’s schedules lined up that it only happens a handful of times a year for me. Group rides are great though, if you’re feeling strong you can push the wind at the front or rest by following wheels near the back. The person in the very back can’t relax completely though, as traditionally, that person will frequently look back to check for approaching cars. When the tail end of your group sees something they’ll often yell “CAR BACK” to the entire group, and everyone will go single-file close to the shoulder to allow vehicles to pass. Professional riders and teams often have a “follow car” to act as a safety buffer, so no one has to watch for cars.

The story is different when you ride alone (which is probably 95% of the time for me). You ride with the flow of traffic and essentially trust every passing car is paying attention and isn’t going to veer into you. This is a fairly safe assumption, but a couple years ago within five miles of my house on roads I frequently ride, three cyclists were hit by cars in separate incidents, with one of them dying instantly. I chalked it up to smartphones and texting, since distracted driving is most often the culprit when people get hit these days. I often wondered if there’d ever be a technical solution that could assuage my anxiety.

On Anxiety

It’s not easy to deal with anxiety and I didn’t realize until a few years ago that you can do things to curb anxiety directly instead of wishfully thinking happy thoughts would solve my problems. Say you’re irrationally anxious about sleeping at home alone. You can try and read happy books before bed and ignore your worries, but chances are you’ll still suffer from fitful sleep and nightmares. But you can do something concrete like get a house alarm that is set to go off if any door or window is ever opened. Solutions that directly address a problem are way more effective than wishful thinking for me.

The Varia System

Safety doesn’t come cheap, as Garmin’s new system requires both a $200 LED tail light with radar as well as one of Garmin’s $300–500 bike computers that supports it. I ponied up the dough and hoped for the best. Last week it arrived and after a couple rides in various situations I have to say I’m not only impressed, but I’ve quickly grown to love this system.

Once you have the rear light mounted and sync’d to your computer, you simply start riding normally and whenever a car approaches you from behind (up to 500 feet away) the right side of your bike computer screen will turn red, beep, and show an approaching dot animated on your screen. In real world riding I’ve found I got a heads-up about 5 to 10 seconds before a car passed me. The accuracy is very good, as I found in the first 15 miles of riding every single car behind me appeared on my screen, and multiple cars show up as multiple dots, one per car. The tail lights are even supposed to get brighter and blink faster as cars approach, to better make riders visible to drivers.

Does it work?

Overall, in my first few days of owning this setup, I’m blown away. I ride several times a week on lonely farm roads without any bike lanes, and often I only encounter 3 or 4 cars in an hour long ride, but historically, I’ll have a low-level worry the entire trip. I wasn’t sure if getting some ample warning for approaching cars would appease my fears but so far I have to say it does wonders for my sanity. Riding with this tech lets me be calm for most of my rides, and when I hear a beep, I can go on a slightly more active alert for a few seconds, glance back if I want to make sure the driver is passing me with ample room, then return to relaxed riding once they have passed. I’ve found I can use it to know when I can take the lane to make left turns and I can also see someone approaching before a pinch point (like a tunnel or set of curves where passing is impossible) and slow down to let them pass instead of sharing a thorny section with a car immediately behind me.

Ideally, this product works best when riding on low-traffic roads, out in the countryside where bike lanes are rare but most drivers have plenty of space to get around you. Using it in a major city would probably be non-stop beeping and maybe there’s some utility in that but I found its greatest strength was when I was riding alone out on normally quiet roads.

I don’t know if this will be a ground breaking device for everyone, but if you live and ride on country roads and have a small part of your brain that is constantly worried about that truck approaching might actually hit you, this device is for you. While I’ve only had it for a few days I can already tell the change in my perceived safety level is night and day. While this light won’t prevent a collision from ever happening, I feel like the added awareness and brightly flashing light will hopefully be enough to keep drivers alert and away until the day collision-detection and auto-braking in cars are ubiquitous and required in every vehicle.

Bottom line: I’m really glad I got this.