Here's How Car Makers Are Trying to Make Streets Safer for Bicycle Commuters

New technology finds ways to alert drivers to the presence of bike riders—and hopefully save lives.

(Photo: Kyle Monk/Getty Images)

Feb 2, 2015· 4 MIN READ
A Wolfe has covered arts, entertainment, and politics for Good, Vice, Flaunt, and other publications.

Amber Nelson moved back in with her parents after grad school, which meant a cycling commute from the suburbs of Puyallup all the way into central Seattle. On a typical rainy morning, a truck turning right on red off a freeway exit failed to look to his right and made a direct hit with Nelson on her bicycle, sending her sprawling into the intersection. The driver got out of his car and proceeded to yell at her.

“I got away with a compound ligament sprain in my right knee and some body soreness from the crash,” Nelson said. “But the sprains in my knee took months to heal, months before I could ride at all, and longer still before I could ride any distance.”

Nelson, like many other cyclists who’ve been hit by cars, talks about her experience in a positive light, as though she's been granted a wish by not being killed. In 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the number of auto-cyclist injuries hovered around 50,000 per year, but it also said only a fraction of these injuries is reported to police. The situation has become so frighteningly common that three major car companies recently unveiled car technology specifically with protecting cyclists in mind.

In 2014, Volvo, Honda, and Jaguar Land Rover all revealed intentions for technologies to help their drivers prevent auto-bicycle collisions. Both Volvo's and Honda’s systems focused on external elements, such as special smartphone apps or a bicycle helmet that alerts drivers to biker presence through short-range communication devices the bikers wear.

With all the technologies, driver road awareness remains key, and plenty of distractions compete for that attention. Federal highway safety officials say more than 400,000 people were injured in car crashes involving a distracted driver in 2012—distractions include texting, grooming, using a navigation system, or watching a video. Another ding or buzz on the road may not be a cure-all.

Jaguar Land Rover has taken a different approach. It has tilted its energy to communications between the car and the driver, earning praise from cycling advocacy groups for shifting the responsibility of paying attention to the automobile driver and away from the cyclists.

So if you’ve parked your Jaguar or Land Rover, for instance, and a cyclist is coming up on your left, subtle vibrations on the door handle will signal you’re in danger of dooring someone—the biker jargon for when a car door opens up and it's too late for the rider to do anything but slam into it.

Still, critics worry about adding more bells and whistles to a driver’s already sensory-overloaded commute. But Nicholas O’Donnell, a spokesperson at Jaguar Land Rover, says the signals to the driver will be subtle and intuitive, essentially reteaching the driver to check and check again.

“We are trying to bypass conscious cognition" or the need to think and interpret a car's warning, O’Donnell said.

Ken McLeod, legal specialist at the League of American Bicyclists, cites benefits in all the planned technology, but he has some concerns about Volvo and Honda. Giving cyclists any tools to track drivers and know for sure if they are going to make a turn could save thousands of people from unnecessary injuries, and it’s impressive that automakers are even thinking about bicyclists first.

“You could see potentially a time someday where pedestrians and cyclists would need to buy something to have this sensor on them,” McLeod said. “And I would hate to see people having to buy that technology just to seek recovery from any damages or injuries. Honda imagines their technology as a cell phone [app], but I think there are certainly questions to be raised about young children and older adults who are less likely (to be tech savvy).”

Safety costs money. Portions of the Honda pedestrian-sensing technology have been released in the 2015 Acura TLX, while Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover are slated to test the technologies in foreign markets before rolling them out in vehicles sold stateside at a to-be-determined date.

With Jaguar Land Rover’s technology, there’s also the question of whether or not drivers choose to heed the car’s warnings. Let’s say a particularly anxious driver feels the vibrations on his steering wheel but feels himself in a hurry and wants to pass a bicyclist with very little room between them. Would a cyclist who is hit in that situation be able to claim the driver knew what he was doing and purposely tried to hit the cyclist?

Frederick Shannon of Los Angeles was riding in a bicycle lane in Los Angeles a few years ago when a driver buzzed him, making eye contact, then sending Shannon flying when he made a quick right turn. Shannon was severely injured and confused about why the driver would purposely put his life in danger when he knew Shannon was there, so he chased the driver down to ask him.

“He said, ‘I saw you there. I thought I could make it. I just had to use the bathroom,’” Shannon said. “The man had almost killed me because he had to poop.”

Shannon's example points to the sort of intent or carelessness that is often parsed by juries and judges when deciding motives and damages in such incidents. If a driver is hit and seriously injured or killed in an accident after ignoring a technologically based warning, does that indicate intent? What if the warning fails for some reason?

“Obviously, it’s a little hard to speculate,” McLeod said. “But as a cyclist, you could point to that technology and use that to show they were negligent. With technology that gives sensory perception cues, it’s harder to tell, but with all these, it’s not as easy for the driver to claim, ‘I didn’t see you. I didn’t know you were there.’ ”

But it’s not out of the ballpark to think that technology like this will be required on every vehicle in the near future, according to Michael Green, a spokesperson for AAA, the federation of American motor clubs formerly known as the American Automobile Association.

The precedent lies in the similar safety-upgrade scenario of the rearview camera, which wasn’t released in American markets until 2001. In March 2014, federal authorities set standards to recommend makers install cameras in all cars by mid-2018. Like the bike-safety innovations, the rearview camera wasn’t released in American markets until 2001 but was clocking success in other countries from about 1996 on.

“The government has come out telling automakers that they need to have rearview cameras in cars now,” Green said. “If the technology can be proven that it will reduce crashes, it may become required. There’s also consideration that in many cases, this tech can increase the cost. When the government approves this, they have to look at that too.”

Despite what the government mandates or how auto companies use their technology, none of this removes responsibility from drivers. Or cyclists.

“This technology just gives them the appropriate alerts in effective and engaging ways to increase awareness so they can make the best decisions,” O’Donnell said. “The control and responsibility is still with the driver.”

Still, maybe if the drivers Nelson and Shannon encountered had been using this technology, everyone would have avoided some tense and life-threatening situations. Everyone is in agreement that something must be done, but it seems up to vehicle owners how much they want to participate.