Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Toronto researchers used eye-tracking devices to determine whether motorists were looking for bicycles when they turned right. Most weren’t.
Bicyclists know it as the dreaded “right hook”—a driver passing a cyclist on the left turns directly in front the rider while making a right turn. It’s among the most common and dangerous kinds collisions between motorists and bikes. (Here’s a textbook example.) And it often leaves riders who survive these infuriating encounters shaking their heads in disbelief: Just what the hell are those drivers looking at?
That’s one of the many things a group of University of Toronto researchers wanted to know when they outfitted motorists with eye-tracking technology and had them make right turns from Bloor Street, the Canadian city’s main drag. The answer: usually not at where the bikes or pedestrians would have been.
In a small pilot study, researchers found—unsurprisingly—that drivers often fail to adequately scan for non-motorists when they turn right at intersections. Some participants don’t look long enough, while others don’t check at all. What did surprise lead author Birsen Donmez, who studies human behavior and transportation, was that more than half of her 19 participants were guilty of such attention failures. And these were drivers between 35 and 54 years old—the ones who, according to insurance companies, represent the lowest crash-risk age group.
“It was a given that people would fail,” said Donmez, “but we weren’t expecting that they would fail to this extent, especially for a low-risk age group.” She added that the initial results were based on “conservative label of failures,” in which a group of three researchers only marked participants when they agree that there was a clear sign of negligence.
The preliminary study, presented earlier this year at Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals Conference, will be part of a larger study on the attention demands of urban driving. It’s a timely one for Toronto drivers in particular: It comes at the heels of a string of fatal collisions among drivers and non-motorists in June. In the span of just one week, two cyclists and one pedestrian were killed by cars in three separate incidents, igniting anger among Toronto residents who call the frequency of fatal collisions between motorists and non-motorists a “state of emergency.” Advocates say 2018 is set to be one of the deadliest years, with 22 pedestrian and three cyclist deaths to date.
That’s despite the 2016 implementation of a Vision Zero program, into which the city has pumped some $122 million to eliminate all traffic-related deaths by 2021. The money has gone towards initiatives like adding stop signs and school zones, and will fund larger projects like redesigning key intersections and adding traffic lights. Still, in the last two and a half years, 101 pedestrians have died in traffic-related collisions, along with eight cyclists.
For this study, participants drove for 35 minutes along Bloor Street, a major east-west artery that crosses downtown Toronto. They were asked to turn right twice—once at an intersection with traffic signals and the other without signals—while a device tracked their eye movement. Both intersections include dedicated bike lanes, but the second also had a row of parked cars between the vehicle traffic and the bikes. Afterwards, researchers followed their gaze, looking for failures to, say, check for pedestrians in the crosswalks or look over their shoulder for cyclists in bike lanes when parked cars obstructed part of the view.
Overall, 11 out of the 19 drivers failed at one turn or another—five failed at both turns—and all were related to not diligently checking for cyclists. (Donmez suspects that might be in part because pedestrians tend to move slower and are therefore, in the drivers’ view longer than cyclists.) Some drivers checked their mirrors but not over their shoulders for approaching cyclists in that second turn with the parked cars. Two checked neither, and one in particular checked too late while turning. Most of the offending drivers, the researchers also found, frequently drove through downtown Toronto, indicating that they were likely familiar with the roads.
“It does show, potentially, an education training issue, but even if you are trained, your attention is limited as there are a lot of things to pay attention to at any given time,” Donmez said. Drivers turing right may be focusing more on vehicle traffic coming from the left. The study is limited by a small sample size and research scope, but in later studies, Donmez and her team hope to parse out the nuances by monitoring driver behavior before turning, targeting specific intersections that have seen several collisions, and by using lighter-weight eye-tracking devices.
She does think the high rates of negligence may be as much as an educational issue as it is a street design problem—something that critics like CityLab’s Richard Florida, a Toronto resident who has spoke and written much about city’s traffic death issue, blame in part on the city’s ongoing car dependence and lack of progress in creating more transit options and bike-friendly infrastructure. Over the last two years, Toronto has only built just 17 miles of bike lanes—about 5 percent of the roughly 350 miles promised in Vision Zero. “Torontonians like to sound off on Americans’ inability to deal with guns and gun deaths,” Florida wrote in a recent Medium post. “But Toronto’ s inability to deal with the car creates its own killing fields.”
Indeed, bike lanes and signage in Toronto is “a bit inconsistent,” Donmez said. “There are certain type of bike lanes on one street and different ones on another; the [traffic] lights are for either pedestrian or the cars, but not for cyclists.”
That inconsistency may also be fueling animosity between motorists and non-motorists, with both sides pointing fingers at one another for not following the rules, according to a 2017 survey of more than 1,500 road users by the insurance company RSA Canada. The survey further found that over 50 percent of pedestrians and drivers don’t know when cyclists have the right of way, and many riders tend to overestimate drivers’ awareness of their hand signals.
Of course, the special challenge with fending off right hooks, in particular, is that “in theory both the cyclist and the driver making the right hand turn are where they’re supposed be,” as MinnPost observed. (Some safety advocates have called for installing side-guards on trucks, to prevent riders from being dragged beneath vehicles.) As this study makes clear, it largely falls upon the bicyclist to prepare for—and expect—the worst when crossing intersections. There’s an alarmingly good chance that the driver coming up on your left isn’t looking out for you.