Study confirms right-turning drivers don’t check for bicyclists

Sakkas Cahn & Weiss

Intersections are dangerous for pedestrians and bicycle riders. Bicyclists are especially at risk when cars make right turns.

A recent study by the University of Toronto used eye-tracking technology to show that right turn drivers routinely fail to scan the area where cyclists and pedestrians would be. Namely, an over-the-shoulder check could prevent many car-bike accidents.

‘Right hook’ collisions are among the most common bike accidents

Like New York City, Toronto has miles of designated bike lanes. And like New York, those bike lanes are only as safe as the motorists who share the road. The UT study specifically examined the problem of right-turn collisions at intersections, one of the most common causes of bike accidents with injuries. There are three common scenarios in which the victim on the bike has the right-of-way:

  • The driver turns right and strikes a cyclist who is continuing straight.
  • The driver overtakes a cyclist and cuts them off when turning right, causing the bike to crash into the passenger side of the car.
  • The driver is turning right from a side street and pulls out into the path of a cyclist in the roadway or bike lane.

These “right hook” collisions frequently result in serious injury or death. In the first scenario, the bike rider may be run over or clipped and thrown to the pavement. In the second scenario, the rider smashes into the frame of the vehicle or is thrown over the hood of the car. In the third type, the rider hits the driver side of the vehicle or is struck broadside.

Drivers aren’t seeing bikes, and often aren’t even looking for them

The UT study outfitted 19 drivers with headgear that accurately tracked their eye movements as they navigated downtown Toronto. The test subjects were instructed to make right turns at specific intersections so their behaviors could be compared.

The study found that 11 of the 19 drivers did not visually scan the zone on their right where a cyclist or pedestrian would be expected. A few drivers checked their mirrors, but none made an over-the-shoulder check before turning.

Ironically, the drivers who were most familiar with the streets in the study were least likely to make a head check for cyclists. Drivers who were less familiar with those intersections were more cautious when turning. Complacency is a killer.

Education is part of the solution

Researchers noted that drivers’ views were sometimes obstructed by parked cars. In general, drivers’ attention is greatly divided at intersections. Any additional distractions — such as a smartphone, loud music or engaging with passengers — greatly increase the risk of hitting a bicyclist or pedestrian.

Other studies have shown that drivers are not always familiar with the rules of the road pertaining to bike lanes or yielding the right-of-way when turning. Simply educating drivers to make a visual shoulder check when turning right, and to slow down or pause a beat when making a right hook, could go a long way to preventing bike tragedies.

Cyclists have to assume that drivers do not see them, unless they have made eye contact with a driver who is stopped, slowing or signaling a turn. As the saying goes, the graveyard is filled with people who had the right-of-way.

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