See and be seen: Garmin’s Varia bike radar

With a game-changing, built-in camera, Garmin’s Varia RCT715 offers round-the-clock safety and peace of mind

This piece has been made in association with Garmin. 

Last year, my brother, George, was hit by a car when cycling home from work. The driver passed him too closely as he was rolling along the traffic-heavy South Circular in the suburbs of South East London, hit his handlebars, and the bike slid out from under him. Fortunately, George came out of the ordeal with no serious injuries – just a few bumps and bruises and a pair of ripped bib shorts. The driver of the vehicle didn’t stop to check if he was hurt. Instead, they drove off, leaving him lying by the side of a busy road.  

Afterwards, when we reflected on what had happened, we came to the conclusion that George was very lucky. Things could have been worse. We knew, however, that if this driver continued to drive carelessly, other road users were being put at risk, and there was every chance the outcome might not be favourable the next time. It became our mission to find out who was driving the car, to ensure they became aware that there were consequences for putting others in danger.  

We reported it to the police, and found there was a camera on a bridge near the site of the accident. A few weeks followed as we aimed to gain permission to view the CCTV. When it was granted, the police informed us that the car’s number plate could not be seen on the camera and we didn’t have an independent witness, so the case had to be closed. There was no hope of finding the car, or the driver. It was a bleak outcome, but one that’s depressingly common when incidents involving drivers and cyclists are reported to the police. If my brother was carrying or wearing a camera at the time the hit and run occurred, we would have had a much stronger case when reporting the driver to the police. But, there has never seemed to be a simple way to do this – we didn’t want to strap cameras to our heads or bodies before heading out on a short commute.  

That was, until Garmin released its new Varia RCT715. Coming seven years after the brand released its first iteration of the Varia, the game-changing potential of this little device, which simply clicks on to the back of your seat post, should not be underestimated.

The same but better

In 2014, when the first Garmin Varia, the RTL515, was released, it was well received among the cycling community. It’s a device comprising two key parts; the first: a bright, compact red tail light that allows you to be seen by approaching vehicles from up to one mile away. The second: the Radar, which connects with a head unit via Bluetooth and detects vehicles approaching from behind at a distance of 140 metres. When a car is behind, the Varia sends audio or visual alerts to the head unit – acting as a rear view mirror without the rider even having to turn their head.

Not only that, the device’s flash pattern changes when a car (or other vehicle or object) approaches, to try to make you even more visible to the driver. Had my brother been using the Varia when the driver who hit him was approaching, he would have had a warning that someone was coming quickly, and he might have been able to react before the driver reached him.

With the newly-released Varia RCT715, Garmin has retained the most popular and  useful features of the previous iteration but has added one huge upgrade: a camera.

Above the bright rear light, Garmin has added a 1080p lens with a 140-degree field of view. Through a few simple adjustments via the Varia app or on the head unit itself, the device can be set to video the whole ride continuously, or the built-in accelerometer can trigger automatic incident detection to capture sharp and  clear video footage before, during and after an incident. This means that a rider will always have video evidence of any problems that occur when riding, ensuring car users can be held accountable for dangerous driving.  

The Varia RCT715 has the potential to hugely improve the experiences of cyclists all over the world. It addresses issues that might put someone off riding a bike, connecting riders to their surroundings. With a battery life of up to five hours with  the radar and tail light on ‘solid high’ or ‘night flash’ and up to six hours with the light flashing, it offers riders uncompromised safety for the entire ride.

But perhaps even more important than improving rider awareness, the Varia RCT715 also has an effect on car drivers. With the Varia light, cyclists can be seen from a long distance, giving drivers ample time to adjust their behaviour. As the Radar flash pattern comes into force, the driver will know they are being watched  and could start to behave better as a result. Plus, the more cyclists who hold drivers accountable by submitting video evidence to police in the event of an accident, the more road users will realise that there are consequences to dangerous driving.

Fundamentally, we don’t feel it is an exaggeration to name the Varia RCT715 as a device with the potential to save the lives of cyclists. For riders themselves, it does two things: allowing them to see and be seen. On isolated stretches of roads or climbs with sharp switchbacks, reminders that cars are approaching are invaluable. In many countries, road systems aren’t designed with the safety of cyclists in mind, and this device puts the power back in the hands of those on two wheels. Garmin has achieved all of this while still creating a unit which looks sleek  and stylish and is simple to set-up and use.  

In a world plummeting towards a climate catastrophe, if a device like this can encourage more people to ditch the gas-guzzlers and hop on a push bike then the impact of the Varia RCT715 speaks for itself.  

For me, George, and undoubtedly cyclists all over the world, just clipping this small device to our seat post may change our fate on bike rides more than we’d ever know. It could have meant George stayed upright on that commute home from work, and it could have meant that the driver who hit him faced at least some consequence for their actions. At £349.99, it might be a hefty initial investment, but we’d argue that a device which adds enjoyment, peace of mind and extra safety to a bike ride is worth it.

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