Most of America has a bike. And, expensive or cheap, it usually lives in the garage on rubber-coated hooks and gets pulled out on random sunny days and then forgotten about the rest of the time. But then there’s a small percentage of the population out there, which I’m part of, that rides their bikes all the time, rain or shine, and gets real stuff done on their bikes, like commuting to work and buying groceries. To do this safely requires a few pieces of electronic hardware. Some people, like myself, ride a bit more than that. And, at least for me, I’ve found something really annoying in all of the biking gear I’ve owned.
The piece of hardware still looks pretty damn nice. It’s not that dirty. All of the guts of it still seem to work. But the power button stopped working.
This makes some sense, of course. I usually leave my gear attached to the bike, so it’s not like I’m constantly connecting and disconnecting things. The only actual mechanical thing I’m interacting with is the power button.
Let’s talk about my Garmin Edge 305. I got it a few years ago. It makes my wife feel better to know that I’ve got a GPS on my bike. It makes me feel better to know that the GPS on my bike is completely unrelated to my phone, so that on longer rides, I can put the phone in airplane mode if I’m on the edge of cell service. And I know that it’s functionally obsolete and getting up there in age, but it still works just fine. Except for the power button, which I’m holding in place with a piece of gaffer’s tape. That’s annoying, and, frankly, I’m not looking forward to replacing a fairly pristine-looking GPS that’s just got a power button that’s coming off.
Let’s talk next about my taillight. People unaware of bike safety think that a taillight is extremely important. The reality of the situation is that even a cyclist in a black hoodie who is following the rules of the road is perfectly visible by any driver who is also following the rules of the road. Cyclists riding with traffic generally don’t get hit from behind and, when they do, it’s because the driver is drunk and/or road-raging and/or breaking the law. Still, whilst sharing the road with poorly-maintained cars that don’t have good wipers and may have one of the front headlights broken, a rear light is a nice safety measure. Because, despite not being nearly as important as a front headlight for night-biking safety, it’s still important. I’ll also note that, unlike a front light, you can’t exactly tell when it stopped working, because you don’t normally spend a lot of time looking directly behind yourself, unless you like faceplanting in potholes.
Thus, when a taillight’s power button fails, which has happened to a number of the taillights of different brands I’ve purchased over the years, it’s more than just me being annoyed about a $25 light that’s perfectly functional except for the power switch, it’s something that is hurting my safety.
Now, yes, I’ve had a headlight’s power button fail, and that’s bad but not quite as bad because at least I know if it has stopped working.
As an explanatory digression, I’d like to talk about the Fender Stratocaster. Leo Fender was not necessarily the world’s greatest electrical engineer. His amplifier designs are a bit questionable. On the other hand, when he designed the Strat, he knew that people would be using the pickup selector switch quite a lot, so he correctly specified a make-before-break switch so that if a guitarist switched pickups, there wouldn’t be any crackle because it would briefly have two pickups selected when you switched between pickups. This worked out better than he’d intended when guitarists discovered that they really liked the sound of two pickups selected.
Now, let’s not be too naive here. I suspect that it’s good for business for the light manufacturers to intentionally cheap out on switches. If you’ve ever built an electronic project and looked for just the right switch, you’ll quickly realize that every single switch assembly will come with specifications on how well sealed it is and how many times the switch can be used before it fails. So, somewhere along the way, there is a person who made a decision that profits are more important than people’s lives. I’m sure they don’t see this as a moral decision the way I do.
The part that bugs me is that, of all of the switches I’ve had fail on my bike gear, only once has the switch failed in a safe manner — meaning the light failed such that it was always-on, instead of failing such that it’s always-off. Which is probably more an indication that these things are slapped together instead of planned.
I’ve talked with other riders and it’s not just me. As more and more and more of us start biking (94% increase in San Francisco over the past decade) we clearly are reaching the level where there are normal people riding instead of the spandex legion. There’s enough of us who ride for transportation that we should be able to buy lights that just plain work.