Eye tracking at intersections
Yes, they really don’t see you

Only half of drivers are scanning for bike riders and pedestrians when they make left turns at intersections, according to new research.

Left hooks are one of the most feared moments in any bike rider’s life.

You are zipping long in the bike lane, you have a green light, you are about to pass through the intersection, and then, without warning a car in the traffic lane turns left straight into your path.

Researchers now think they know why: drivers are focusing their attention elsewhere and not looking out for bikes.

To investigate the possible causes of the high rate of left hooks (right hooks in left-hand-drive countries) researchers at the University of Toronto fitted eye tracking devices to drivers and sent them through busy city intersections on a route that required them to turn across a popular kerbside bike lane.

The participants ranged in age from 35 to 54, all with more than three years of driving experience.

What they found surprised them – more than half of the drivers failed to gaze at an area of importance, where cyclists or pedestrians would be located, before turning.

And attentional failures were more likely for those who drove more frequently in downtown Toronto.

“There are a lot of visual and mental demands on drivers at intersections, especially in a dense, urban environment like downtown Toronto,” said researcher Nazli Kaya.

“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,” she said.

It appeared that drivers less familiar with an area were more cautious when turning.

“The results were quite surprising,” said Professor Birsen 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.”

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.”

Until those infrastructure changes are made, “Drivers need to be more cautious, making over-the-shoulder checks, and doing it more often,” said Donmez.

“The takeaway for pedestrians and cyclists: drivers aren’t seeing you. Not necessarily because they’re bad drivers, but that their attention is too divided,” added Donmez.

“When crossing a street, your assumption should be that the car doesn’t see you.”

The researchers are planning to build on their work, conducting road tests with a larger participant pool and more intersection locations throughout the city.

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