In a cold and uncaring world, we cyclists are used to the idea that we’re responsible for our own safety. We attach lights to every part of our bike, we wear foam hats, and we’re pathetically grateful when people don’t run us over.
According to GPS giant Garmin, being hit from behind is “the leading cause of cycling fatalities” (in the US at least) and to address this they’ve released the Varia Rearview Radar. It's a development of the Backtracker system from iKubu, a company Garmin acquired last January.
The Varia system consists of a 63g rear light with a built-in radar detector and, if you buy the complete bundle, a 29g head unit that gives you a visual indication of how many vehicles are approaching, and some sense of how quickly they’re going. (With mounts, the system weighs around 130g.) Individual cars (or buses, bikes etc.) are shown as lights moving up the screen’s central strip, while the threat level LED switches from green to amber when something’s coming, or red if it’s coming especially quickly. At the same time, the tail light reacts to approaching vehicles by illuminating more of its LEDs and flashing faster, the idea being to draw drivers’ attention as they close in on you.
If you have an Edge 25, 520 or 1000 computer already, it will provide much the same functionality as the Varia’s head unit, albeit in monochrome with the 25. In fact, the computers go one better by providing audible warnings, something the Varia's own head unit curiously omits.
Video review of the Garmin Varia
In busy urban settings, the Varia provides too much information to be useful and it can be quite confusing as it only notifies you of objects moving faster than you. On quiet country roads the system makes rather more sense, sometimes detecting cars before you’ve heard them, but without audio cues, you may not actually notice what’s going on on the screen. An out-front mount will help put the head unit closer to your eye-line, but in any case the fundamental issue we have with the Varia is that we don’t really know what to do with the information it presents to us.
It may be reassuring to be warned about cars before they overtake you, but unless you dive into the hedgerows whenever something’s coming, it’s not clear how this makes you any safer. If the threat level indicator turns red, that just means something is approaching particularly quickly, but it doesn’t tell you how close it’s going to pass you, or whether the driver is drunk.
The Varia's technology is impressive, and we look forward to seeing where Garmin might go with the concept, but we're not convinced that it's all that useful in its current form. We can see hearing-impaired cyclists or perhaps riders of a nervous disposition who don’t do a lot of over-the-shoulder checks appreciating the Varia, but for most of us it’s an expensive way to buy the illusion of safety. We like the idea of the reactive rear light, but at the current price it's terribly dear.