Could “brainy lights” help reduce cycling casualties?

12.00 | 9 April 2014 | | 5 comments

A new bike symbol light could “make a major contribution to cyclist road safety”, according to research by University of Oxford.

The “Brainy Bike Lights” comprise a pair of front (white) and rear (red) lights which are clearly visible from all angles at up to 20 metres distance in daylight or darkness. They are designed to speed up driver reaction times “because the brain detects and interprets the bike symbols more quickly – enabling quicker and more accurate identification of cyclists by drivers”.

The lights have been developed over the past three years by Crawford Hollingworth, who is described as a “behavioural expert and cyclist”, and have been the subject of original research by the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Oxford.

Mr Hollingworth says that that most urban cycling accidents are caused by cars or taxis hitting cyclists from behind. To combat this he has invented a very different type of bike light using the international symbol of a cyclist on a bike.

Professor Charles Spence, University of Oxford, said: “This bike symbol light could make a major contribution to cyclist road safety. Our brains interpret symbols very rapidly; within .001 of a second of seeing something our brains have made a decision about what it is and how to respond."

Crawford Hollingworth, who is co-founder of behavioural change research consultancy The Behavioural Architects, said: “Cognitive functions of tired drivers are strained – especially in rush hour when many drive on autopilot.

“Using insights from behavioural and cognitive psychology about how the brain works, I found the quickest way to increase driver awareness and recognition of a cyclist was to use a bike symbol with a person on it.

“It is easy to identify the red or white bike symbol as belonging to a cyclist, tapping into what is called ‘system one thinking’ which is fast and intuitive.

“The light will give drivers some vital extra milliseconds in which to brake, or take evasive action, or stop significantly more quickly.

“The bike symbol is also a short cut to all things bike related in drivers’ minds, subconsciously priming them that there is an unprotected and vulnerable human being on the road."


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    Anything of this nature that can attract the eye and thus increase conspicuety is a good thing. I have now, due to the introduction of front of vehicle day running lights, become concerned with the same as regards to motorcycles. However, I have seen a white come pale green light on some bikes (I think BMW) and they stand out from other lamps.

    Maybe a good idea for motorised twin wheeled vehicleS, motorcycles, scooters etc to be able to show such a light for oncoming or turning traffic. It will help them stand out as different from the increasing melange of illuminations now being lawfully required to be shown.

    bob craven Lancs
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    Bob, I agree about road position and cyclists are taught to take up a positive position, normally at least an metre out from the kerb. Or as I say, if you hide in the gutter you won’t be seen!

    Mark, Caerphilly
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    I believe that the greatest problem we have is that cyclists are in the main forced to ride near to the kerb. It’s not then in the frontal area searched by a car driver and its peripheral, so the accident occurs when the vehicle is at the front of but side of and out of line of sight to the driver. If a cyclist took up and owned a more centre of carriageway position, or directly in front of driver, then he would suffer less incidents but more than likely frustrate the driver behind. However in heavy traffic it’s probably the cyclist that will have to slow down and stop behind other traffic as opposed to filtering or lane changing. So what I am saying that they should integrate more and own their own space like a motorcyclist has.

    bob craven Lancs
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    A fascinating innovation. It will be interesting to see whether the benefits over traditional bike lights in terms of helping drivers respond more quickly to the presence of cyclists in cluttered urban settings will be offset by any potential changes in behaviour by those displaying them. It would be interesting to know if the researchers plan to study behavioural changes amongst cyclists using the lights as well as drivers. Sounds as if this has great potential in other areas of road safety as well.

    Robert, Dorset
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    A most excellent invention, well done to Mr Hollingworth for his insight. It uses the fact that the object schema we store in memory is most likely a side-on view of a bicycle (or motorcycle for that matter) and not a head-on view. This is because the features of the object, such as large wheels seperated by a frame are at their clearest in this configuration and so are not easily confused with any other object. There is an excellent party game you can play if you ask people to draw certain objects in a limited amount of time. The bicycle is one of the objects that is always drawn side-on as the game requires a rapid retreival of the schema from memory. What you have stored is always what you draw and even the order in which the components of the object are drawn is informative. With bikes it’s always the wheels that get drawn first. This development in understanding of brain function shows us that there might well be an issue in SMIDSY accidents where drivers only get to see the front of a bike, not the side.

    Duncan MacKillop, Stratford on Avon
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