LCC lorry expert asks whether some new safety technologies could increase danger to cyclists not reduce it

Charlie Lloyd, LCC campaigns officer and a leading road danger reduction expert, asks whether some of the newest high-tech lorry safety gadgets actually have the potential to increase risk to cycling, rather than reduce it.

News Update 28th June 2013

Since LCC published this story on 6th June both the manufacturers of Cycle Safety Shield and Cycle Alert have been in touch.

Cylce Alert have posted a long reply below this story and LCC have responded.

Safety Shield Systems have told us they will withdraw their RFID product. They have consulted us about developing a different system intended to have 100% detection.

We've been campaigning for measures to reduce the danger to cycling from lorries on London streets for years. Most recently, our 'Safer Lorries, Safer Cycling' campaign has persuaded nine councils to sign up to our lorry safety pledge to only used the best-trained drivers and best-equipped lorries.

Because of the media attention accorded to lorry fatalities and our own high-profile around these events, it's not surprising that a week rarely goes by when we aren't contacted about another device aimed at reducing the casualty count. A few of these are wacky ideas, but most have some merit. Very few get taken beyond the prototype stage into production.

Recently, there has been a group of similar devices based on RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags. The idea is simple: put a tag like a supercharged Oyster card on every bicycle and a detection system on every lorry. The bike ‘talks’ to the lorry, telling the driver where the cyclist is. The better systems might turn on a camera or allow extra messaging to give the driver more information.

We reviewed one such RFID system, Cycle Alert, last year, and that company has now gone into full production, including a launch event at the Tate Modern. In our review, we expressed doubts as to the practical application of the system:

"The main problem with this device appears to be the logistics of installing devices on potentially millions of bikes in the capital and the UK."

When we visited the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) earlier this week we had a chance to see how well these systems work. As well as Cycle Alert, the TRL is testing Cycle Safety Shield, which has ambitions to equip all Barclays Cycle Hire bikes with their device. There are also other similar systems at the prototype stage.

Lorry drivers told that they can "concentrate on driving and not be continuously checking for cyclists"

Cycle Safety Shield has started an aggressive marketing campaign, sending emails to every councillor in many London boroughs asking for councils to adopt their product. The testing of the system at TRL is not yet complete. We find parts of their website quite distressing: they say that they are “working in partnership with TfL”; they also suggest their device allows "the driver to concentrate on driving and not be continuously checking for cyclists".

We are deeply sceptical this approach will reduce danger on London streets. The designers of many of these devices claim that if they can stop even one cyclist death a year it will be worth it. Our fear is that these systems actually increase risk by giving drivers and cyclists a false sense of security.

We have seven burning questions about how these systems work in practice, and have told the TRL testing team of the potential pitfalls. Before any system is adopted for use by companies or governments then we must have answers to these questions:

  1. How many of the 1-2 million bikes in London need to fit a tag before a lorry driver can be sure he'll not put a cyclist in danger?
  2. What happens if drivers begin to rely on a system that only shows a minority of cyclists?
  3. Even if the system notifies a driver to the presence of one cyclist, how will they know about any other other bikes without tags in the immediate vicinity?
  4. If the alarm goes off at a three junctions in a row and is silent at the fourth, should a driver assume there are no bikes in the immediate vicinity?
  5. Is it a failsafe system? How will the lorry know if the battery in a bike’s tag has died? How will the cyclist know that the lorry’s system is turned on and working?
  6. Will cyclists with the device fitted assume that it's safe to go up the left side of any lorry?
  7. If drivers stop looking out for cyclists, will this have a detrimental effect on pedestrian safety? Most years far more pedestrians than cyclists are killed by lorries in London.

In recent years we, Transport for London, the police, GLA and many councils and much of the transport industry have made great progress changing the way the transport industry operates. Our aim has been to introduce a ‘safety culture’ so drivers and managers work together to identify risk and work out how to reduce them.

This safety culture might include safety devices, but a key requirement is better driver training and awareness. Any device that gives a sense of security without actually delivering it for the majority of cyclists and all the pedestrians in London is likely to increase risk.

We urge all councils and transport operators not to adopt these systems until there are convincing answers to these important questions.

Replies

The following is a reply to the LCC blog of 6 June. 

Within the blog the author asks for a response from us.   Below is our response, which is published in full on our blog and has been submitted as drafted within the comments section of the LCC blog and sent directly to the author.

We need to set a few matters straight before responding to his specific questions.  

The author mentions that we launched at Tate Modern.  This is not factual.  We were working with the Met Police as part of their awareness days and our system was fitted to an Eddie Stobart lorry with whom we have been trialling and developing the product.  The Tate modern was just one of many venues chosen by the Police to conduct awareness days.   We are also not in full production as the author states.  We are due for a full launch in September 2013.

We are not in any way associated with Cycle Shield.    Our entire campaign has been heavily focused on education of both drivers and cyclists to improve road use and make streets safer.  We have been steadfast in this approach to ensure that our system encourages and promotes more awareness, not less!   We have never said our system is the one solution to the problem and would never imply that by having they system cyclists and drivers are somehow absolved of care.  To imply otherwise is simply misleading.

The author raises the issue of a 'false sense of security'.   We have mentioned to the author in the past that such assumptions are dangerous and groundless and we have presented comments from  senior driver trainers from some of the country's leading companies and manufacturers stating they thought our system would make drivers more aware of cyclists.

Our response to the seven questions:

1.  LCC Question - How many of 1-2 million bikes in London need to fit a tag before a lorry driver can be sure he'll not put a cyclist in danger?

We don't really understand the question.  If it means how many do we think need to be fitted to reach critical mass and in the sbsense of a complicated mathematical formula for new product launches we would say 50% of the cyclists that exist in London.   Not every one will have one, people still choose not to wear a helmet and people will still Cycle and drive irresponsibly, but our mission through our product is to generate an increase in education for all road users (a shared goal) and thus greater safety. 

Vehicles will always present a danger to cyclists by their very nature and we have never said our system will completely eradicate this danger.  And before you ask, that number above is wholly achievable.

2. LCC Question - What happens if drivers begin to rely on a system that only shows a minority of cyclists?

Our system isn't the only answer. Drivers still have mirrors and a number of other safety devices.  It is part of the solution and will raise awareness of cyclists to drivers and improve education of drivers and cyclists alike.   

3.  LCC Question - Even if the system notifies a driver to the presence of one cyclist, how will they know about any other bikes without tags in the immediate area?

We have never said this system replaces the current safety measures in place for drivers.  Quite the opposite!   If a cyclist doesn't have a tag  and the driver has been notified of one cyclist that does, the driver is already more aware of cyclists and ought to be looking in mirrors and following their training.   Through our product we aim to educate cyclists that they have no place in a blind spot in any event so we hope to potentially save lives and reduce injury through having a system that will alert a driver, educate them and cyclists alike.  Indeed, the commercial industry like our product as it places an element on responsibility on the cyclist. 

4.  LCC Question - If the alarm goes off at a three junctions in a row and is silent on the fourth, should a driver assume there are no bikes in the immediate vicinity ?

If the light is on there is a cyclist there!   We would never advise a driver that he should assume any such thing. 

5. LCC Question - Is it a failsafe system? How will the lorry know if the battery in a bike's tag has died?  How will the cyclist know that the lorry's system is turned on and working?

Is it a fail safe system?  The cycle unit has a green flashing light (not distracting) that indicates the unit is working and the battery is ok.  Think smoke alarm.  If the light turns to red then the battery is flat or the product is not working.   Likewise the driver will be notified if the vehicle system is not detecting.  We are also providing operators with a maintenance checker for use in the yard/workshop. 

The onus is of course on cyclist and driver alike to check their systems are working.  This would become part of the drivers daily checks.   Lorries will have signs indicating that their vehicles are fitted with cycle alert. 

A driver will know if the cyclist unit is working because the light will come on and he will be told there is a cyclist present. 

6.  LCC Question - Will cyclists with the device fitted assume that its safe to go up the left side of any lorry? 

Why on earth would they think this?! Our message is very clear and follows all common advice about sensible cycling.  We would most certainly never advise to do this or even imply that it safe to do so.   Our goal is to educate.  Frankly, this strikes us as just a mischievous question. 

7.  LCC Question - If drivers stop looking out for cyclists, will this have a detrimental effect on pedestrian safety?  Most years far more pedestrians than cyclsits are killed by lorries in London. 

To suggest drivers will stop looking out for cyclists is scaremongering and simply incorrect.    Our aim is to make drivers even more aware of cyclists and we believe this will happen.  Cycle Alert is a door opening device for education and improved driving standards.  To this end, drivers will be more aware and better educated towards all road users.

We welcome challenging debate and it is right that safety systems should be challenged.   We are all trying to improve road safety for cyclists and all users of the road so let's discuss how systems such as ours can work towards achieving this.

Cycle Alert:

Your replies here show a worrying lack of understanding of the logic of building reliable safety systems. 

Just as an example - a flashing light does not show that a system is working correctly. It only shows that the flashing light part of the system is working correctly - the operative part might be malfunctioning - but the user will never know until it's too late. 

(This isn't true of other safety systems, like, for example, cameras. One can tell immediately whether a camera is working or not, because one can see the image.)

This lack of verification means, in effect, that neither the cyclist nor the truck driver can ever rely on the information (or 'protection') given by your product - which makes it, at least useless, and quite possibly dangerous.

LCC is pleased that both Cycle Alert and Cycle Safety Shield have noted our comments and engaged in considering how to resolve the problems.

It appears that we will continue to disagree with Cycle Alert about the importance of sub-liminal behavioural responses to safety equipment which can lead to a 'sense of security' tending to undermine the protective effect. Where the actual protective effect is low due to partial, random take up of the devices then there is a possibility that the net result will be an increase of risk at the whole network level.

These behavioural changes happen to both cyclists and drivers without us being aware of it.

The importance of sub-liminal behavioural changes is understood and widely studied in safety critical industries such as aviation, mining, chemicals and the military. It is less well understood in road transport and cycle safety.

Comments on the Cycle Alert responses to LCC's seven questions (see what they have written above).

1.  LCC cannot see how this type of system can be effective without a very high take up by all cyclists. If only half the bikes have working tags the other half could be at greater risk. The Cycle Safety Shield response to this question was 95%. We think you would have to aim much higher than that to account for the thousands of new cyclists who take to London's roads each month as the population changes. There are thousands of bikes in sheds and yards which might be brought back into use at any time.

2. This relates to our understanding and experience of the actual behaviour of drivers.

3. In at least two recent fatal crashes and one high profile serious injury the lorry driver saw one cyclist then turned and ran over another. In a safe system the responsibility of the driver and operator must not be conditional on the responsibility or irresponsibility of the cyclist. The opposite is also true. Cyclists must have care for their own and every other road user's safety.

4. As above, this is about actual behaviour not about what advice might have been given.

5. A failsafe system is one where, if one element breaks down, the system reacts in a safer way. If there is a fault with railway signals all the trains get red lights and stop until the problem is understood. A system that depends on equipment used by 2 million different operators that cannot communicate when it breaks down is not failsafe.

6. As above, human behaviour is more complex than you think. This question about how cyclists might react was prompted by a discussion with a police cycling expert.

7. As above. LCC thinks that the Cycle Alert response shows a lack of understanding of the behavioural aspects of vehicle operation in an urban street environment. The question about the greater risk to pedestrians has not be addressed.

This post was edited by London Cycling Campaign at 2:13pm 28 June 2013.

CYCLE SAFETY SHIELD RESPONSE

I represent CYCLE SAFETY SHIELD and I am responding to the recent article regarding safety systems to protect cyclists from collision with HGV`S.

Following the article from LCC I visited their offices and met with Charlie Loyd regarding the comments and concerns raised in the article which are all listed above.

Following a long discussion, which i found to be very beneficial, we both agreed that fitting cyclists and pedestrians with tags may not be the way forward. Even if we were to free issue the tags, which was our aim, there would still be people would choose not to use the tags and drivers of HGV`s who would not know if a cyclist was tagged or not. There was also the problem with pedestrians who would again also need to carry a tag!

We originally adopted this type of system as we have succesfully used the same syatem in the construction industry to avoid collision between plant and site personnel. This has been a success due to the fact that the issue of the tags can easily be policed as everyone entering site is issued with one. 

I agree with LCC that this is not the case with the general public in London.

We have therefore agreed with LCC to develop a system that only needs to be fitted to the HGV and not the cycle or pedestrian.

The new system is based on technology we use on another system for the rail industry and can be easily adapted for this application.

The system will only detect cyclists, motor cyclists and pedestrians at a set range and will warn the driver from inside the cab.

The new Cycle Safety Shield will be ready for production within six weeks and LCC have agreed to attend the test of the system to review is suitabilty.

Regarding the agressive marketing, we simply wanted as much feedback as possible on the product from as many people as possible. We acheived this and took on board both the possitive and negitive comments made.

We appologise if this was seen as mass marketing and in future we have decided to gain opinion through the LCC and its supporters. 

We would welcome further comments at this stage from anyone regarding desired features and benefits of the system before final development.

 

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