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Hey, Where’d You Get That Black Eye?

No, this isn’t an archived interview with Scott Russell (do you remember the barroom brawl that kept him on the sidelines at Daytona one year?). But it is about motorcycles, about motorcycles in arguably the most popular category on the planet for all the manufacturers in the far east – the middleweight – or 600cc class.

A little history first, though. Damn little, actually. Remember the ’80s? Remember the endurance racer fixation some of us got that inspired us to transform our street bikes into look-alikes, right down to the single, offset projector beam headlight? I remember. The bikes looked cool, but, having been raised to give preference to function over form, I had to wonder what it was like to ride those bikes at night. I also wondered whether or not it was possible to see far enough ahead of the bike to make a difference – compared to not having a headlight at all. Being afraid of the dark (at 80 mph, at least) as a kid kept me from investigating this situation beyond the theory level.

Lately, I’ve had considerable opportunity to experience this “one-eyed” approach to night vision aboard modern machinery . . . the very latest, as a matter of fact. And there is more to come, unfortunately. I’m talking about the one-sided, low-beam headlights we are seeing on the middleweights.

Maybe I’m alone on this, but I feel strongly that this trend needs to be reversed. Why? Because I like to have as much candlepower turning night into day as possible, and the daytime visibility of the machine by those nasty steel cages can only improve when two high-beam (or low-beam) headlights are burning, instead of one.

Using the current Honda CBR600F4i as an example, only the left light is on in low-beam mode. Yes, there is a swath of light illuminating the road immediately ahead during the night, and even though it satisfies the D.O.T. regulations, it leaves one to wonder how much better lit up the road would be if two halogen bulbs were lighting the way. It would have helped me see the aluminum ladder lying in the #2 lane of I-15, just outside of the right side of the light pattern. I missed it, but only just. With a light dedicated to the right side, I feel that would have been less of a close call. And how about daytime visibility?

Imagine you’re riding down a two-lane road on a sunny day in a rural setting, with driveways and side streets. With only the left side of the headlight functioning, you’re vulnerable from the right side – the side where a driver will be pulling into your path, possibly not seeing you. How about on a freeway and you’re in the center lane. The driver to your right makes a lane change not realizing you’re there. Would the headlight guarantee visibility? No. Would it help? You bet.

Suzuki had this setup to themselves, initially, on their 2001 GSX-Rs. Then Honda joined in with the F4i, and now we see the new Kawasaki ZX-6Rs have gone the way of the cyclops. What a waste.

Honda’s own Interceptor 800 has an outstanding headlight – two low-beams, and two separate high-beam lights. Does the Interceptor rider have a greater appreciation of night time illumination than the 600cc CBR/ZX/YZF rider? I think not. The roads these days are pretty dark after work. With daylight savings time still months away, the motorcycle commuter has a real need for good headlights.

Suzuki recognized, and admitted through action, that this single-low-beam-approach was not the way to go, and for 2002, both headlights were again functional in low beam mode. Suzuki went so far as to point this out in the ’02 press material. They must have listened to the complaints. Suzuki’s ’03 model year retains two-side functionality.

The marketing aspect is obvious. The middleweights of ’03 are more “racers with lights” than ever before, but should marketing be allowed to meddle in an area of motorcycle function so closely tied to safety?

Another possible motivation for this could be that the fewer, and smaller lights demand less wattage from the electrical system, thus allowing a smaller alternator. The reduced mass helps engine acceleration, and hence the drive out of a corner. For AMA Supersport racing, the stock charging system must be in place and functional. That’s great on a race track, and maybe to a lesser degree, your favorite back road, but what about the commute home in the dark at the end of the day?

I’m very much in favor of individual choice. Make both sides of the headlight work and then let those who want “the look” unplug one of the beams.