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Car culture: Auto tech makes bike safety a priority

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

I was riding on a two-lane paved county road, part of the course of the Michigander 300-mile bicycle tour several years ago, and midway through the fourth day’s 60-mile route, a group of 25 riders pulled over at the top of a steep hill to rest. A motorist who had been following the group on the two-lane rural road pulled over and stopped her car next to us and said to me, “I followed these riders for as long as I could safely, but I don’t think it’s safe to follow them anymore.”

I struggled to figure out what she meant, and then realized that she was implying that motorists might do something dangerous if they are inconvenienced for too long by being held up behind cyclists. Maybe frustrated drivers would pass our group of cyclists on a blind hill or corner?

That comment brought to my mind the conflict between bikes and cars sharing the same road. I’ve loved bikes since I was a kid because they’re cool mechanical things that go fast. Same reason I love cars. But in a collision between bikes and cars, the loser is obvious. In Michigan, car vs. bike accidents dropped from 2,246 in 2004 to 1,902 in 2013, but the number of deaths rose from 21 to 29.

I see both motorists and bicyclists showing a lot of courtesy sharing the roads, but in truth I hate worrying about being hit by a car when I’m pedaling on a narrow two-lane road. That’s because I’m always tense riding where there could be a driver distracted by a non-ignorable text message from a boss, and not see me, especially if I’m riding alone. I’m much happier riding on roads with groups, and I’m in riders’ nirvana cruising on Detroit’s now-famous Slow Roll, whose thousand-plus pedal fans you can join this Monday when it cruises to Saint Andrews Hall.

But I’ve recently sampled a few ways to lower my anxiety riding alone, and it’s coming from technology. There are now sophisticated devices for cars, made up of photo-imaging technology and radar sensors matched to collision avoidance systems. One system called Cross-Traffic Braking by supplier Continental is meant for slow-speed collision mitigation with bicyclists and pedestrians when a car is pulling out of a parking spot. This system will stop a moving car, or prevent a stopped car from moving out of a parking spot when there’s a rider or walker approaching.

Other camera systems can identify the objects in front and rear camera images and use “probabilistic modeling” to tell if a moving rider or hiker is aimed toward the path of a stopped or moving car. If the system thinks a collision is imminent, it will brake the car. In Europe, a cyclist-aimed automatic braking project, with a consortium of automotive suppliers and car manufacturers, began last July and runs until 2016. It will test the latest bicycle detection systems on cars. The results of those tests will factor in with overall safety ratings for European-market cars in 2018. I expect that since the systems use existing driver assist pieces, and the connection to automatic braking is largely with software, that North America will get them shortly thereafter. One of the biggest hurdles now rests in whether these automatic systems will train drivers to pay less attention when driving.

There are devices under development that bike riders can wear, but they aren’t very popular. “There are some things that can warn you if a car is approaching directly behind at a rapid speed,” says Bill Strickland, longtime editor and expert at Bicycling magazine. “There are some proximity sensors, but none of that’s useful for a cyclist: We’re traveling slower, and by the time the sensor goes off you’re probably already in trouble. There’s no fender-bender with a bike.”

I recently drove several cars equipped with pre-production versions of collision mitigation systems from Continental, and they worked as promised. Driving near bicyclists and pedestrians on the road felt like they had invisible force-field shields that kept cars at bay. The systems are coming none too soon. Somewhere between eight and 12 million Americans ride bicycles at least twice a week, says Bicycling’s Strickland. They are fitness folks who ride for health, recreational riders who do it for fun, and work commuters. All three groups list safety on the road as a big concern. “The fastest growing segment is urban biking, that’s double-digit growth every year.”

Young people moving to cities “use bicycles to commute,” says Strickland. “A bike is easier to deal with, and saving time is a big reason. Riding is cheap, it’s easy, and the cities themselves have become so congested. Driving is fun, but driving in the city is not fun.” Riding instead of driving is catching on when new riders discover there’s only about a month’s learning curve to find solutions to other problems with riding, such as bad weather, he explains. “There are simple solutions to what looks like overwhelmingly complicated problems.”

The most dangerous problem of riding bicycles on the same streets used by cars — collisions — is finally headed toward extinction.

Phil Berg is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.