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Sensor that tells lorry drivers when cyclists are in blind spot wins Guardian innovation award

Device was dreamt up at 'hack day' backed by Honda - but it won't solve cycle safety issues on its own...

The developers of a simple transmitter that alerts lorry drivers to the presence of cyclists in their vehicles’ blind spots have been awarded £2,000 to help develop their idea, conceived during a ‘hack day’ organised by The Guardian and Honda’s Dream Factory.

The device, called Bike Alert, was one of four innovative ideas shortlisted following the hack day – which actually spanned a weekend – in November, organised by Rewired State.

Guardian readers have now voted it as the concept most deserving of the funding, which has been provided by Honda.

According to developers Sym Roe, Emily Christy, Matthew Applegate, Dr Kevin Fong, “Each bike would be fitted with a tiny transmitter uniquely encoded to only interact with the BikeAlert receivers.

“The receiver (in the vehicle) can see the signal and knows a bike is very close and potentially in a dangerous position.

“Sensors take over for further positional data along with integration with on board speakers for further positional information which crucially is not distracting for the driver.

“The receiver would also tie in with road accident data to provide simple but vital warnings to the driver.”

In theory, it’s a cheap and potentially effective solution that would go a long way towards improving the safety of cyclists around HGVs, but there are some caveats.

Dr Lee told the Guardian: “Once we pinpointed the HGV issue [the disproportionate amount of cycling fatalities resulting from cyclists being in the blind spot of a left-turning lorry], and realised that this is a long-standing problem, we thought, well, it shouldn't be too hard to come up with some way to solve this."

While Bike Alert is certainly a welcome innovation, with the combination of sensors on bikes relaying information to the cab a compelling one, it’s unlikely to “solve” the issue on its own.

After all, it is only one aspect of improving the safety of cyclists around large vehicles – sensors on lorries themselves, mirrors (whether fitted to the vehicle or at junctions), driver education, the design of road infrastructure and discouraging cyclists from riding up the inside of large vehicles at junctions, among other things, all have a part to play.

Moreover, such a device would need to jump through a lot of legislative and regulatory hoops if it were to become mandatory for lorries, as the developers hope might ultimately be the case.

That’s going to take a lot more than the £2,000 it’s won courtesy of the Guardian's readers.

Also, it would not only need to be adopted by HGV operators on a wholesale basis, but crucially would rely on drivers actually using it to be effective, which might well depend on the culture of the firm involved and the extent to which it promotes best practice in safety in the first place.

Finally, even if Bike Alert were to end up as a standard feature on new bikes in the UK, it would also rely on owners of existing bikes to obtain a sensor themselves and place it on their frame, and it’s debatable whether even a national awareness campaign would result in more than a tiny minority doing so.

We don’t want to sound unnecessarily negative – anything that helps improve the safety of cyclists on our roads gets our vote, and it’s telling that the team that developed Bike Alert saw the situation as serious enough to address it.

Sadly, however, the situation is unlikely to change overnight – and it’s going to take more than one product, however compelling, to help reverse it.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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WolfieSmith | 12 years ago
1 like

Looking at the diagram I don't think a large blue striped fan shape attached to the front of my bike would really help. The wind resistance without flapping around would be terrible...

don_don | 12 years ago

I don't think this relies on GPS - the article talks about sensors in the lorry reading info from a transmitter on the bike.

The obvious possibility is that this might be achievable using an app for smart-phones, which presumably will be ubiqitous in a few years. That would negate the need for any special equipment, on the cyclist's part at least. Mobile phones already emit random signals which can be tracked, although the privacy implications are another matter. See here:

I have to admit a slight bias though. I cycled across Romania with Kevin Fong when we were both young pups. I then lost touch with him, but miss him dearly!!

kamoshika | 12 years ago

I was just about to write a reply about all the reasons I think this is a really bad idea, but horizontal dropout has said it all for me....

horizontal dropout | 12 years ago

I think this is quite worrying for several reasons:

The technology here isn't really explained in enough detail but if it relies on GPS I wouldn't trust it. My phone GPS tracker tells me I've been through peoples gardens, over roofs, along the middle of the river etc. Could it this device tell a lorry driver where I am to within half a meter?

As bobbypuk says there is the issue of liability - if the battery in your transmitter has run out and you get run over, who is at fault? What about all the bikes that don't have them? If you don't have one will the courts and insurance companies start apportioning greater liability to the cyclist as they are with helmet wearing?

It's pretty unlikely that all bikes will be equipped with transmitters. Does a lorry driver assume that if there is no warning signal there are no bikes nearby? That increases the risk for those without.

The whole approach seems to be more of the same - make the cyclist responsible, don't address the real problems.

So no thanks, I'll take better infrastructure, better education for drivers and all the other approaches which really make cycling and streets in general better. Jan Gehls would just laugh.

PS, it would be interesting to see the breakdown of motorists and cyclists in the voting for and against this entry.

bobbypuk | 12 years ago

Strikes me as a REALLY bad idea. Over reliance on technology leads to lazy drivers who don't think or look, just look at people blindly following satnav for an example of this.

And then there's the question of liability. If a cyclist is injured and the alarm hadn't gone off whose fault is it? Could the driver excuse their behaviour based on the failure? Will cyclists assume with these that lorries are aware of them?

Anything that shifts responsibility from drivers and cyclists to anywhere else is a bad idea. The solution is educating both parties, better designed roads and lorries and proper penalties for people making mistakes.

JohnS | 12 years ago

Not only is there little point in a proximity alarm (which is already available on many cars when reversing) unless it's compulsory, but drivers will become dependent on it and not bother to look when they can see in their mirrors.

Farky | 12 years ago

mmmm, nice thought, slightly misplaced as you say.

These things already exist on Dakar races, they warn approaching vehicles on sanddunes of motorcyclists stranded on the blind side of dunes. Reverse use but same idea.

Cost - thats going to be the main issue here...and then theres the issue of reliance of technology rather than awareness of the road. Could cause more harm than good, almost excluding cyclists that dont have the sensor.

Its a start and a thought.....raising awareness!

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