TEXT: RAMÓN OLIVER IMAGES: ALBERTO CARRASCO
Making cyclists more visible to drivers and bike riding safer for everyone. With that goal as the starting point, Fundación MAPFRE and Bosch Spain have produced a report entitled Attention when Driving: Cyclists Invisible to Drivers, which was officially presented in Madrid on June 20. In 2017 alone, there were 8,065 incidents in Spain involving people riding bicycles; the tragic outcome was a total of 78 killed, 694 hospitalized and 7,035 injured but not requiring hospitalization. These figures call for reflection and, above all, action.
Getting drivers to see cyclists is a challenge taken on with the aim of helping reduce the alarming number of traffic accidents affecting what is undoubtedly one of the most vulnerable groups on our roads. With this intention in mind, Fundación MAPFRE and Bosch Spain have been investigating the behavior of automobile drivers with respect to cyclists. To do so, they analyzed the responses of 1,031 drivers after they had overtaken a cyclist riding along a street. The experiment was carried out under controlled safety conditions. After overtaking a cyclist, the vehicles were invited to stop at the nearest roundabout. The researchers then asked them if they had even noticed the cyclist and, if so, whether they had perceived any hazard during the overtaking maneuver.
A second part of the study consisted in monitoring the behavior of 15 drivers aged between 20 and 57. This was achieved through the use of various sensors and measuring instruments to record the physical and brain reaction times of these drivers, as well as their behavior behind the wheel in the face of certain stimuli such as the presence of a cyclist. Their palm sweat, heart rate, facial expressions, or the direction of their gaze were just some of the indicators analyzed. All these data produced relevant information regarding the attention level, stress endured or the brain resources brought into play by the participants in the study when driving.
One of the variables studied in the field work was the influence of wearing reflective high-visibility vests. Sometimes the cyclists participating in the experiment were wearing this garment, while others times they were not. The results of the experiment were revealing. In the case of the cyclists who wore a vest, solely 35 percent of drivers confirmed having “consciously seen the cyclists”, compared to 65 percent who denied having seen them. These figures are even more alarming in the case of riders who were not wearing any reflective element at all. Only 23 percent of drivers remembered having passed someone riding a bicycle. Moreover, in general, drivers in neither of the two groups perceived any hazard in their maneuver. A mere eight percent of those who overtook a cyclist wearing a vest acknowledged having felt some risk on doing so; a percentage that descended dramatically to four percent in the case of riders not wearing the reflective garment.
According to the findings of Fundación MAPFRE and Bosch Spain, this reflective garment considerably augments drivers’ concentration, increasing the “subconscious effective visualization” of drivers by up to 12 points, with respect to cyclists not wearing one. As regards behavior on the road, these differences translate into drivers maintaining a greater safety distance and an increased level of attention when driving their vehicle.
Learning how to “see” cyclists
“We must learn to look out for and see the cyclists who share the road with us automobile drivers,” was the warning from Jesus Monclús, Accident Prevention and Road Safety manager at Fundación MAPFRE, during the presentation of this study to the media. Mr. Monclús highlighted the fact that a lack of attention and distractions have become the leading cause of accidents, rather than speeding. And accidents affecting cyclists are some of the most frequent. “The bicycle is an excellent vehicle.” It’s healthy, ecological and more efficient from an energy standpoint. However, much remains to be improved on the safety front,” he stressed.
Fundación MAPFRE’s head of Accident Prevention and Road Safety underscored the fact that cyclists’ road safety is mainly a question of education. In this regard, he proposed measures such as informative programs targeting car drivers and prospective buyers, tax incentives for new safety technologies, reducing the speed of automobiles in residential areas, and enforcing the use of “properly fastened, approved crash helmets” for cyclists. Moreover, at the educational level, this expert advocated “including safe bike riding within the physical education subject taught at both elementary and high-school level.”
Only one in four drivers remembers having overtaken a cyclist, despite having been barely five feet away from them
The urban mobility panorama has changed dramatically in just a few years. Bicycles, scooters, ride-hailing services, peer-to-peer ridesharing (cars or motorcycles)… all these developments have radically changed the traffic on our city streets and are clearly having an impact on road safety issues. “Some five years ago the use of bicycles in urban areas was minimal and purely for pleasure; no one considered the bike a transport vehicle,” said José Luis Zárraga, head of the Traffic Accident Reports Unit within Madrid’s municipal police force, who also participated in the presentation. In addition, those who rode bikes did so in a rather reckless manner. “They didn’t know the traffic regulations and, if they knew them from being drivers of other vehicles, they didn’t seem to be aware that they also applied to cyclists,” the police chief declared. “Nor did drivers understand that bicycles were also vehicles with rights and obligations similar to theirs,” he added. Today, this panorama has changed dramatically because “bikes are here to stay,” Zárraga concluded.
Fundación MAPFRE proposes promoting actual bike rides for automobile drivers, so as to make them aware of the hazards to which these road users are exposed daily
Technology to the rescue
Technology can help fill the space the human factor does not seem capable of reaching. During the event, Bosch Spain presented to the media its automatic emergency braking system with cyclist detection. According to the estimates of its creators, this system could prevent — or, at least, reduce the consequences of — up to 43 percent of personal injury accidents involving bicycles in urban or interurban environments.
This Bosch system includes a video camera capable of identifying cyclists and anticipating an imminent collision. The system then automatically activates the electromechanical brake servo in just 190 milliseconds. In addition, at speeds above 80 km/h (50 mph), the system warns drivers of the possibility of an accident.
At the end of the presentation, journalists had the chance to witness a demonstration of this braking system, and even participate in it as passengers in the cars. The simulation experience took place in a specially-prepared circuit installed on the Castellana thoroughfare in Madrid, with crash-test dummies simulating cyclists crossing in front of vehicles equipped with this braking system.
Jesús Monclús, manager of Accident Prevention and Road Safety at Fundación MAPFRE
Should we drive better?
The leading cause of accidents is no longer speeding, but rather distractions. This is due to the fact that, in general, we are permanently distracted when driving. And not just from time to time, because the phone rings or we’re changing the radio station; rather, it’s become a routine matter. We’re capable of driving to and from work in a mechanical fashion and remembering practically nothing about the journey afterwards. But when something unexpected arises, such as a pedestrian or cyclist crossing in front of us, we react late because our brain is a million miles away.
Why does this happen?
The reason is that we drive using every part of our brain except for that which we should use the most: our rational brain. We human beings have three kinds of brains: the reptilian or instinctive; the sensory or automatic; and the rational. Our reptilian brain is the one that suddenly pops and, for example, makes us instinctively sound the horn when something scares us while driving. Our sensory brain allows us to drive in a practically automatic mode. But our conscious brain, the one precisely that makes us more human and which is the part which should make all of us take better care of others, is the one we use the least when driving.
Lorenzo Jiménez, press officer at Bosch Spain
Is the automotive industry ready for this new mobility scenario?
I believe it is. In this context where people are seeking mobility that is increasingly greener, safer and more comfortable, the industry has been committed to this for some time. Firstly, through emission reductions in internal combustion vehicles, but also through the introduction of electric cars or alternative fuels. And secondly, vehicle safety is increasing with systems such as emergency braking with the detection of pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles, thus making urban mobility much safer.
Regarding safety, does the technology-education combination work?
For me, the ideal equation would be education first, and then technology. Whether it be automobiles, industrial vehicles, motorcycles or bicycles, it’s really important that drivers and riders receive good road safety education and respect the regulations and other road users. And this includes pedestrians. This can all be achieved through education. However, we human beings are not perfect. We make mistakes, we suffer from distractions, slipups, tiredness and diminished levels of attention. In such cases, technology can be of great help to drivers and pedestrians alike.