London Cycling Campaign (LCC) says local authorities and transport fleet operators should not install technology aimed at improving the safety of cyclists around London until a series of questions regarding how the systems operate in practice have been satisfied, amid fears that they could actually increase the risk to cyclists.
LCC says that while its Safer Lorries, Safer Cycling is making progress in getting London boroughs to sign up to use only highly trained drivers and vehicles with specific safety equipment, there are concerns about a rush of products coming to the market.
It’s unsurprising that there is so much interest in developing such devices, with more people cycling and the issue of cycle safety having risen up the political agenda, including a strong focus on ensuring how to keep riders safe when they are sharing the road with large vehicles – according to LCC, lorries make up 5 per cent of the capital’s traffic, but account for half of cyclist deaths there.
With more councils signing up to LCC’s Safer Lorries, Safer Cycling pledge and therefore committing that their own vehicles, and those of any contractors or subcontractors they use also adhere to those standards, its an area that is bound to prove attractive for companies able to get products on sale that meet that need.
LCC however fears that some of those products may actually have a detrimental effect on the safety of riders, and those concerns are outlined in a post on the LCC website by the organisation’s campaigns officer Charlie Lloyd, himself a former lorry driver and now its expert on improving road safety.
“Because of the media attention accorded to lorry fatalities and our own high-profile around these events,” he writes, “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.”
Lloyd reveals that several devices have been launched which use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags placed on bicycles, which relay information to a receiver’s cab to warn of the presence of cyclists, and how LCC reviewed one of those systems, Cycle Alert, last year, which it adds has now been launched to market.
Ahead of its launch earlier this year, Cycle Alert’s co-founder, Peter Le Masurier, said: “Many systems have been designed for HGV’s, so that drivers can be more aware of cyclists close to their vehicle.
“But everybody needs to take responsibility for their own safety on the road.
“Cycle Alert empowers cyclists to make themselves more obvious to HGV drivers – no mean feat when you consider the relative size difference – and allows HGV drivers to protect themselves from the devastating impact of an accident.
“In fact I was inspired to develop this technology when I heard an interview with a truck driver who had been involved in an accident with a cyclist – I recognised then that not one but two families are left devastated by such incidents.”
In our article about the launch of the product, we noted that while it was an interesting concept, without extensive uptake from haulage operators and more importantly cyclists themselves, with compulsion presumably not an option, it was hard to see how it could significantly increase safety.
LCC has similar concerns, with Lloyd pointing out that it expressed concerns about Cycle Alert in its review, saying, “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."
Another issue raised by LCC is the way in which such devices are marketed, such as Cycle Safety Shield, currently being tested at the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in Berkshire, with the company hoping to install TFID tags on Barclays Cycle Hire bikes and which is touted as enabling drivers to “concentrate on driving and not be continuously checking for cyclists."
LCC says: “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,” it adds. “Before any system is adopted for use by companies or governments then we must have answers to these questions:
• 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?
• What happens if drivers begin to rely on a system that only shows a minority of cyclists?
• 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?
• 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?
• 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?
• Will cyclists with the device fitted assume that it's safe to go up the left side of any lorry?
• If drivers stop looking out for cyclists, will this have a detrimental effect on pedestrian safety? (as LCC points out, many more pedestrians than cyclists are killed by lorries most years in London).
LCC adds: “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,” it concludes.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.