Cycling Gear Startup Pitches Pricey Wearables With Fear

Even as cycling is getting much safer in the United States, this Los Angeles company is pitching expensive jackets based on its dangers

From the Lumenus Kickstarter campaign. (GIF: Kickstarter)
From the Lumenus Kickstarter campaign. (GIF: Kickstarter)

Lumenus is the latest Kickstarter project targeted at cyclists that bases its pitch on the dangers of riding a bike. When and if it goes into production, the company’s jackets and backpacks will connect with your mobile via Bluetooth low energy in order to flash turn signals, brake lights and other signals, mainly directed at other road users.

“The problem that Lumenus addresses is the alarming rise in cycling, pedestrian and motorist accidents globally,” Jeremy Wall, the company’s founder says in its Kickstarter video. “Fashionable tech based apparel to prevent accidents from ever occurring is our solution.”

Ironically, in making cycling sound dangerous, Lumenus fits into a larger narrative that’s slowing improvements in safety in America. In fact, in places like the Netherlands where cycling is the most safe, people normally don’t wear special gear at all (not even helmets).

“In some ways, it really reinforces the canard the cyclists are responsible for their own demise,” Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, told the Observer in a phone call. Mr. White was careful to say that it’s important for cyclists to make themselves visible at night, but added, “I take issue when the conversation becomes solely about what the biker has to do to protect themselves.”

Cycling is quite safe, and it is getting safer.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration latest safety fact sheet, cyclist fatalities have been basically flat at around 700 per year since 2004 (with a low of 628 in 2009 and a high of 786 in 2005), even though bike miles traveled in the USA has been rapidly increasing (more than doubling from 2001 to 2009), according to the League of American Bicyclists.

The lion’s share of the deaths and injuries that do happen, Mr. White told us, are caused by negligent driving.

Lumenus emphasize the dangers of night riding, in particular, yet deaths shown in NHTSA are roughly equal at day and night (50% from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and vice versa); however, as Mr. White points out, since there are fewer cyclists on the road at night, that does indicate a higher rate of collision after dark. Still, the numbers don’t exactly justify buying a jacket that costs half as much as a good city bike, brand new.

Lumenus joins a chorus of new products, such as the X-Fire laser bike lane and the Blaze Burner, that pressure riders to buy their way to greater safety.

Mr. White said that the largest return on cyclist safety comes from protected bike lanes and related bicycling infrastructure. In other words, the most effective actions place no onus on riders, and, in doing so, makes riding more attractive, which could provide the best safety return of all.

Injury Prevention showed in 2004 that incidents of collisions with motorists go down as more people walk and use bikes. A result that was corroborated in 2014 by the University of Colorado in a specific case study in the city of Boulder.

The myth that equipment is the solution to bike safety has been tested on a nationwide basis in Australia, a country that has made it a crime to ride without a helmet. The University of New England’s Dorothy Robinson found that the laws did not decrease head injury rates among cyclists. “By discouraging cycling, they deprived many of healthy exercise and pollution-free transport, adding to the billions our sedentary lifestyle already costs,” she writes. “Helmet laws have therefore done more harm than good.”

The L.A. based company has $43,000 pledged toward its $54,000 goal, as of this writing, with 27 days to go. That said, a successful campaign doesn’t always mean a product ships.

In a conversation between Mr. Wall and Outside (where the magazine speculates that he could be the Steve Jobs of wearable tech—arguably premature praise), the young inventor articulates a more compelling vision for wearables as assisting in wayfinding. Biking the back country or in particularly complicated cities can be frustrating when riders don’t know their way. Checking directions on the go is tricky. Lights on wrists or handlebars that signalled riders when to turn could make cycling more attractive, which would help all riders.

Based on the interview, those applications do appear to be on the company’s strategic plan for their $200 and up coats and jackets, but it’s not at all what it is emphasizing now. Lumenus did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Instead, by marketing around cycling’s dangers, Lumenus adds to a pervasive narrative that causes every cyclist’s mother to constantly ask about his or her helmet. Which is too bad, because that conversation is keeping riders off the road.

The safety equipment cyclists really need is other cyclists. Rather than pledging $100 for a light up backpack, cautious riders would probably be better off buying a good set of normal lights for $20 or $30 and giving the difference to your local bike advocates.

Cycling Gear Startup Pitches Pricey Wearables With Fear