In Gadgets We Trust
by Dirk Koenig
Safety is an important concern for all motorcyclists, whether they know it or not. For most riders the obvious concerns about protective gear and proper training are reinforced every time we see a tank top clad rider aboard a brand new motorcycle wobbling cautiously around a dry, smoothly paved corner, sandaled feet dabbing at the pavement all the while. What’s often not so obvious are some of the shortcomings of the motorcycles themselves in helping to ensure a safe ride.
Motorcycles are obviously smaller than cars and are harder to see from almost any aspect. But particularly from the rear where, with the exception of some larger motorcycles with huge flashing taillight bars, there just isn’t much to see. The small tail section of most motorcycles, especially on sport bikes, presents a black tire with a black mudguard hovering over it, a semi-reflective and poorly illuminated license plate and a small taillight. While the frontal aspect of a motorcycle offers a powerful modern halogen beam as a testament to the presence of an oncoming motorcycle, more and more cars are coming from the factory with daytime running lights which, in some opinions, help to obscure the motorcycle’s blazing headlight in a sea of lights on vehicles of all types. Ultimately, a motorcycle is not a car and cars are what most car drivers are looking to avoid crashing into.
Many motorcyclists, in my experience, are also big fans of gadgets, gewgaws, tschotchkes, thingamajigs and goodies. For every cruiser rider who has bolted on some extra chrome or a new set of handlebars, there’s a dual-sport rider who has upgraded a bash plate or added brush guards or the sport bike owner who has mounted an exhaust kit and a tinted windscreen. We like little things that make our bikes into “Our Bikes” and I’m no exception. In this article we’ll take a look at a sampling of gadgets that can make motorcycling a little safer for all of us.
Headlight modulators have been around for quite a while. They are relatively simple devices that switch the head light from low beam to high beam at a prescribed frequency. This gives the headlight a flickering appearance and serves to make the motorcycle stand out in traffic. It’s rumored that the first prototype units that came out flickered at a rate, which in laboratory studies caused a fixating effect on the human nervous system. That is, it caused subjects to stare at it and thereby ‘target fix’ on the flickering object. Any student of the MSF’s Riding and Street Skills class will tell you that ‘you go where you look’ and it’s no different when you’re driving a car. The flickering rate was adjusted to fall outside of the ‘fixating’ frequency and thereby avoiding the misfortune of car drivers driving over even more motorcyclists.
Headlight modulators can be install easily, and a light sensor turns the modulator off during evening and nighttime riding as required for D.O.T. approval. There are many manufacturers of headlight modulators including Kriss Inc., Kisan Tech, American Motorcycle Network and others. Prices run from $85 to over $150 for some twin lamp sport bikes.
The function of a taillight modulator is to flash the taillights to increase visibility of the motorcycle. Since the human eye senses movement, the flashing of the motorcycles lights aids in making the driver aware that a motorcycle is doing something in front of them. Admittedly, you can do this by pumping the brakes, but this prevents you from applying maximum braking since you have to repeatedly release the brakes to make it work. Plus, it doesn’t involve a gadget, so what’s the point?
This modulator usually comes in the form of an electrical “black box”, which takes the stock wiring in on one side and passes the ‘modulated’ signal back out to the lights. Usually this involves making the turn signal lamps into rear running lights and then flashing them along with the brake light for a few seconds before going to solid (non-flashing) full brightness until the brakes are released.
A new invention from Kisan Technologies integrates microelectronics into the light bulbs themselves and involves nothing more than replacing the taillights. The Kisan bulbs use a flashing rate that decays exponentially over 5 seconds. That is, the light starts flashing very fast and gradually slows down to further enhance the ‘I’m slowing down’ message being sent to the car drivers. At $59.95 each or $99.95 a pair, though, it gets a little expensive when taillight bulbs blow out.
A “black box” modulator is around $80 and when bulbs break you need only buy a replacement bulb to get back into action. These are also available from the same manufacturers who make headlight modulators.
License Plate Frame Light
In a similar vein are license plate frames equipped with LEDs, which flash and dance appropriately when the brakes are applied. They mount just like any other kind of license plate frame, but are wired into the taillight harness. Costing from $50-$65, you’re not saving much over a taillight modulator, but if you prefer not to have your taillights doing anything funny, this might be the way to go.
Inturace Frame Sliders
OK, not really a safety gadget, but it will lower your repair costs if your safety gadgets don’t prevent the collision. Frame sliders from Inturace mount on the frame of most modern sport bikes, and have nylon ‘mushrooms’ which protrude past the bodywork. In the even of a slide, the bike will wear down a cheap nylon blob rather than those expensive plastic panels. I have heard that motorcycle racers have been using these for quite a while to reduce the cost of getting back on the track after a spill, and it’s high time that they start getting installed on street bikes, especially the bikes of those people whose personal mission has been to spread a thin layer of bodywork across the streets and highways of Minnesota.
High Output Bulbs
High output halogen bulbs are no strangers to motorcycles. Higher intensity white light helps riders to see what’s in front of them when they ride at night, and brighter headlights are easier for car drivers to spot in traffic. I haven’t evaluated the legality of some of these replacement bulbs, but if you’re running two 80-watt headlights, you’re likely to be in violation of the law. There are some bulbs that have reasonable low beam brightness and switch to very bright high beams. These are preferable on the street, since high wattage bulbs can also cause a drain on the electrical system in city traffic leaving you with a battery in a weakened state. Also, I have heard reports of high intensity headlights overloading the wiring (designed by the factory for the stock bulbs) and either popping fuses regularly or, worse, melting your wiring harness or the reflectors inside the headlight itself. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, HID (High-Intensity Discharge lamps found on expensive European cars) are not legal for street use except in auxiliary lighting applications.
Kisan Technologies also offers Tire Alert, an electronic tire pressure-monitoring device. You’ll know when either of your tires starts to lose pressure. Transducers take the place of your valve stems and transmit the tire pressure to a dash mounted display. One extra-cool feature of the Tire Alert is that it always displays cold tire pressure. It has a thermal sensing unit that compensates for the increasing tire temperatures and sends the calibrated cold pressure to the display. Starting at $250, you can get rid of that silly $7 pencil-type pressure gauge that you carry everywhere…
One simple, and not always cheap, way to increase your visibility on the street is by using retro reflective tape. Our hometown conglomerate 3M makes some of the finest stuff on the planet, although you can expect to pay a hefty price for the best they have to offer. The SOLAS reflective tape runs about $2 per foot. You can buy this stuff in some outdoors stores, but you’ll find the best stuff at emergency services suppliers. These are the same outfits that sell reflective vests and other safety equipment to ambulance crews, police departments and road construction and utility workers. There are a number of these sources online.
One more item I’d like to mention, which is slightly out of the price range of a gadget, is the Aerostich Roadcrafter in Hi-Vis Lime Yellow. This outfit is like a Hi-Liter you can wear. Its Day-Glo, Fluorescent, Atomic Whiz color is unmistakable at any distance and is designed for the urban commuter and foul-weather rider. Plenty of scientific research went into finding a color which is most easily seen by the human eye under all light conditions. Unlike true fluorescent colors, this stuff doesn’t require the ultraviolet radiation of sunlight to jump out at you, which is why it remains effective in overcast and low-light conditions and when illuminated by incandescent car headlights. If you want to be conspicuous (possibly in more ways than one) while riding, this is the way to go. At just under $700 for the one-piece Roadcrafter, it’s an excellent insurance policy for the dedicated Ride-to-Worker.
Listed below are some sources for the items mentioned in the article. I have not purchased items from all of theses sources and cannot guarantee the quality of customer service you will receive. Some of these links are for resellers of merchandise and their products may be available elsewhere for a lower price. Use these links as a place to get started and do some investigating on your own to find the right source for you.