More than half of drivers don't look for people walking or cycling when turning right

professor wearing eye tracking device
© Nazli Kaya wears the eye-tracking device used to accurately assess where drivers were looking when turning at intersections. (Credit: Laura Pedersen)

A new study from U of T Engineering makes a good case for Vision Zero – fix the infrastructure, because you can't fix the people.

Vision Zero is a bit of a joke in North America, where they talk about education and enforcement before they would anything that would inconvenience drivers. I have noted before:

So instead of trying to pass silly laws that ban texting and walking, to “perfect human behaviour,” they try to get to the root of the problem: humans are fallible, everybody has responsibility, there are no such things as accidents but in fact solvable problems.

Now new research from the University of Toronto School of Engineering proves the point: you cannot rely on people to do the right thing, you have to design the roads to prevent problems. In this study Nazli Kaya, working under supervision of professor Birsen Donmez, found that more than half of drivers they studied failed to scan for cyclists at right turns.

“There are a lot of visual and mental demands on drivers at intersections, especially in a dense, urban environment like downtown Toronto,” says Kaya in a press release. “Drivers need to divide their attention in several directions, whether it’s other vehicles, pedestrians or road signs and traffic signals — traffic safety instantly becomes a major concern.”



HTML5 IconUniversity of Toronto

While wearing eye-tracking equipment, the drivers made right turns from a major artery to a side street, crossing a bike lane that I use regularly, feeling more safe and protected than I did before they installed the controversial lane. It evidently was a false sense of security:

  • Eleven of the 19 drivers failed to gaze at an area of importance, where cyclists or pedestrians would be located, before turning.
  • All attentional failures were related to not making frequent over-the-shoulder checks for cyclists.
  • There were more failures turning into Major Street, due to parked vehicles blocking drivers’ views of the bike lane.
  • Attentional failures were more likely for those who drove more frequently in downtown Toronto.
  • It appeared that drivers less familiar with an area were more cautious when turning.

“The results were quite surprising,” said Donmez. “We didn’t expect this level of attention failure, especially since we selected a group that are considered to be a low crash-risk age group.”

She reiterates also what we have said about vision zero (and everything else) -- that it is all about design.

Donmez believes changes to road infrastructure is needed to improve traffic safety, pointing to the inconsistent implementation of bike lanes as one of the many hazards facing Toronto streets. “I think it’s an infrastructure issue. I don’t think it’s an education issue. When you look at the bike lanes in the city — they appear over here, but disappear there — the more unpredictable the road rules are, the more challenging it is.”

bloor street crashLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Recently, just a few blocks away on the same bike lane, a woman was killed by the driver of a truck making a turn. Was it inattention or bad design? So many deaths of cyclists and pedestrians are caused by people speeding, which they do because people drive as fast as the road is designed to let them; it is almost involuntary. Design a road for 60 MPH and people will go 60 MPH, even if you sign it at 40. Add pedestrians who have a choice of walking half a mile to a crosswalk or risking going straight across, and you will have the latter. Mix an increasing number of people on bikes in the same lanes as people in cars, and you will have drivers hitting cyclists. Allow right turns on red lights and you will have squished people.

We have to all accept that people are not perfect. Now we know that even responsible people in a low risk cohort knowing that they are part of a study screw up, so imagine the population at large!

vision zero people are part of the equationVision Zero/Screen capture

We know how to fix this, with true Vision Zero. But as I wrote about my city before,

The problem comes from basing everything on getting drivers home three minutes sooner instead of getting everyone home alive. In Toronto, they still believe in the former, which is why they will never understand or implement Vision Zero.

More than half of drivers don't look for people walking or cycling when turning right
A new study from U of T Engineering makes a good case for Vision Zero – fix the roads, because you can't fix the people.

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