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Helmet-cam captures bike accidents (and could make cycling safer)

It needs to be easier for cyclists to safely navigate our busy city streets. H4NUM4N

CYCLING IN AUSTRALIA: Every year, dozens of cyclists are killed and thousands are injured while riding on Australian roads.

Statistics such as these, coupled with all-too-frequent horror stories about big-city riding, have made cycling an unappealing prospect for many.

In fact, a recent survey of 1,000 people found unsafe road conditions to be the single largest deterrent for would-be cyclists.

So how can we make our roads safer for our cyclists?

One method is to analyse the last few seconds before a cycling crash occurs. Finding out what happens in those final seconds was the main objective of my recent study of cyclists’ experiences on Melbourne roads.

In my study, a compact video camera was attached to the helmets of commuter cyclists, recording their trips to and from work for a four-week period. The footage captured the cyclists’ point-of-view as they rode along, and what they saw when they turned their heads, including:

  • vehicles to their right
  • vehicles parked to their left
  • distractions, such as signs, shopfronts and people they perved on.

A driver cuts the cyclist off, pulling into the bike lane. Video courtesy of Marilyn Johnson, Monash University.

The footage captured the experiences of 13 riders over 127 hours and in that time, 54 “events” were identified – two crashes, six near-crashes and 46 “incidents”.

(An “incident” was similar to a near-crash, where one road user needed to take some evasive action. However, these incidents were less severe than near-crash events.)

We’ve since analysed each of those events, frame-by-frame.

In 87% of the events captured, the driver was responsible for the action that preceded the event. In 74% of those events, the driver cut the cyclist off, turning in front of the cyclist without either:

  • providing enough space
  • indicating effectively
  • a head check.

The footage showed that, rather than being focused on the cyclist they had just cut off, drivers were instead focused on other vehicles on the road.

If you take cyclists out of the equation, the behaviour of the recorded drivers was safe. Large-enough gaps were selected when entering and exiting parallel parking bays, lane changes were done safely, turns were done safely, and car doors were opened without endangering other road users.

Unfortunately, none of these behaviours were safe for cyclists.

The role of driver behaviour in cyclist safety was found to be more significant than previously thought. Previously, the emphasis was on how cyclists needed to improve their behaviour to improve their safety.

A driver cuts across the bike lane, narrowly missing the cyclist. Video courtesy of Marilyn Johnson, Monash University.

While cyclists certainly need to obey road rules and be courteous to other road users, my study shows that cyclists’ behaviour alone is not the answer.

In essence, drivers need to be more aware of cyclists on the road. It is essential for cyclist safety that drivers look for cyclists before they change their direction of travel, particularly when turning left.

How can drivers improve cyclists’ safety? Here are a few ways:

  • Always do a head check before turning left.
  • Always indicate for five seconds before turning.
  • Always allow one metre when overtaking a cyclist.
  • Allow cyclists to travel across an intersection rather than turning in front of them.

Most cyclists ride defensively and assume drivers have not seen them. This behaviour was seen in the footage, and cyclists’ evasive behaviour was the main reason near-crashes did not become actual crashes.

Negotiating large intersections can be challenging, and dangerous. Video courtesy of Marilyn Johnson, Monash University.

But there are a number of ways cyclists can improve their safety. One of the most effective methods is to stay out of a driver’s blind spot, particularly when travelling near 4WDs and commercial vehicles.

This can be done by staying either in front of or behind any vehicle that might be in an adjacent lane. Another effective safeguard is for cyclists to make eye contact with nearby drivers.

But cyclist safety isn’t just dependent on how cyclists and drivers approach one another – changes to roads are also needed.

All levels of government can contribute to ensure all roads are cyclist-inclusive and intuitive for cyclists and drivers. This can be achieved by:

  • introducing continuous, connected bike lanes that do not end unexpectedly in preference for vehicle lanes
  • maintaining curbside road surfaces
  • removing ambiguous road markings, such as on-road bike lanes painted across parallel parking bays.

Of course, a bucket of paint and a bike symbol stencil is not enough to create safe spaces for cyclists on the road: drivers need to know how to use the space.

Education for new and existing drivers about cycling-related markings and infrastructure is essential in ensuring a safe space is available to cyclists.

A driver cuts the cyclist off while turning left across the bike lane. Video courtesy of Marilyn Johnson, Monash University.

So, what happens in the last few seconds before a cyclist crash occurs? A wide range of behaviours and reactions: reactions to other road users, to the road space and to the environment. Each of these factors needs to be addressed, independently and interdependently to improve cyclist safety on our roads.

We’re on the road to safe cycling; we just need to make sure everyone gets there safely.

Read the rest of Cycling in Australia.

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