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Creating 'brainy bike lights' to make it easier for drivers to see cyclists

In the year ending September 2012, 3200 cyclists were killed or seriously injured on Great Britain’s roads. This represents an 8% increase over the previous year. According to the Department of Transport, ‘there is a well-established upward trend in pedal cyclist casualties’; with the year 2012 being ‘the eighth year that the number of seriously injured cyclist casualties has increased’. This statistic was published alongside others showing a 6% increase in the number of pedestrians and a 4% increase in the number of motorcyclists reported killed or seriously injured during the same period.

In many cases, the drivers involved in these accidents claimed not to have seen the cyclist.  This is supported by evidence from eye-tracking experiments in which under simulated driving conditions, drivers failed to ‘see’ 22% of cyclists, even when they were clearly in view. Clearly, then, there is an urgent need to help make drivers more aware of cyclists, and other vulnerable road users.

One innovative solution to this problem was thought up by the behavioural neuroscientist Crawford Hollingworth who wondered whether the internationally recognised symbol for a cyclist would tap directly into a driver’s brain and hence be identified more effectively than traditional static or flashing bike lights. However, support from solid neuroscientific evidence would likely encourage the uptake of the improved light design by cyclists and therefore potentially increase the impact in term of reduced accidents.

Brainy bike lights

Enter Professor Charles Spence from the Department of Experimental Psychology.  He devised a series of experiments to determine whether or not the new bike light design would be spotted by drivers more effectively.  His team investigated three key questions:

  • How well people could detect the presence of the bike symbol lights compared to standard bike lights in cluttered visual scenes, such as during rush hour traffic on a dark evening in Central London?
  • Whether people would be able to spot the presence (vs. absence) of the bike symbol lights more quickly and accurately than when they were looking for standard bike lights in exactly the same setting.
  • The attitudes of people towards various cyclist-related concepts that might be associated with (or primed by) the bike symbol light (e.g., safety and visibility) compared to standard bike lights through a computer based questionnaire.

Charles' research group demonstrated that there was a significant performance advantage for the bike symbol lights in terms of faster reaction times. There were also fewer misses and misidentification errors with the bike symbol lights than with standard bike lights (which are easily confusable with the lights of other road users). These results were further supported by the results of the questionnaire in which people consistently evaluated the bike symbol lights more favourably in terms of their potential safety benefits than standard bike lights. Taken together, these results provide evidence to support the claim that by using the bike symbol lights, rather than standard bike lights, a cyclist may make it easier for other road users to spot them.  

Bike symbol lights are now on the market under the name of ‘Brainy Bike Lights’. However, further research is necessary in order to confirm the advantages these lights offer.  In addition, the real impact of these lights on reducing pedal cyclist casualties will not become apparent until some time after they have achieved significant market penetration.