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.