Cycling Road Safety
There’s an article in this month’s Cycling Plus about The Science of Safety. Based on research by Ian Walker (famous as the world’s fifth best lair. No, really) at Bath University, it makes interesting reading.
He’s looked quite extensively into the behaviour and riding stance of cyclists, and how these impact (that’s probably not the right word . . .) on the clearance and notice that drivers take of them. He rode a bike wearing various disguises, including the Laydee Cyclist wig, and the Lidless Wobbler, and conducted eye-tracking experiments to see if drivers reacted differently. There are some interesting findings:
- When not wearing a helmet marks you out as more of a risk - drivers give you a wider berth.
- The same goes for looking like a woman. It’s just what the research says - don’t blame me for this!
He also has some interesting thoughts on where on the road to ride - in the gutter is a definite no-no. There’s glass, metal debris, loose drain covers, and all sorts of hazards there. Similarly, sticking to the I ride three feet from the kerb no matter what isn’t so smart either. When it’s dangerous, drivers will still squeeze through even though it’s too tight for comfort. When circumstances dictate, take control of the road. And the law is kinda on your side about this - for now.
Most importantly, your eyes seem to be one of the most effective means of communicating with drivers - glancing over your shoulder, indicating that you’re about to make a manoeuvre, or a fixed stare into the eyes of the driver waiting to pull out from a T-junction. Dark glasses, while very cool, do not really help here - a lesson I’m going to take to heart.
Actually, I think it’s something I already knew. When I was a student I was a world class hitch-hiker (Loughborough to Paris in 10 hrs, 15 minutes - and not just in a single ride either; regular trips to visit my future wife, leaving work in Chatham at 15:30, and guaranteed to arrive at her parents’ between 22:45 and 23:15). But here’s the valuable lesson - to get drivers to stop, they have to notice you’re there. Sure, I made big, smart-looking signs to say where I wanted to go. But the critical factor is making eye contact. If you can do that (without resorting to the axe-murderer stare . . .), then it’s much harder for the driver’s brain to relegate you to being part of the scenery - you get elevated to the status of “Potential Human”, and the chances are, you get the ride you need.
Anyway . . . Ian Walker’s research page has more details, and you can also download a summary of his results (Drivers Overtaking Bicyclists -in pdf format), including lots of quantitative stuff to really excite your inner geek.
And one last thing from the research. Yes, drivers of white vans really do drive badly when they overtake you. So it’s not paranoia - they really are out to get me.