City employee shines light on a remedy for nighttime bicycle-car crashes

A cyclist tests out a bike lane lighting system in an Austin warehouse in April 2017. (Courtesy ATXN)
A cyclist tests out a bike lane lighting system in an Austin warehouse in April 2017. (Courtesy ATXN)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s not hard to find a cyclist in Austin who’s been hit by a car — or at least had some close calls. Seemingly every bike rider has stories of a driver who got too close or saw the two-wheeler just in time.

A city employee wants to change that and now she’s getting her chance to do so. It’s thanks to a program designed to give people like her exactly this kind of opportunity to improve the city.

It can’t come soon enough for cyclists like Josh Hostetler. Without a car, a bike he named Abby — after soccer star Abby Wambach — is his ride. It’s decked out with disc brakes for faster stopping and a front light, but safety measures like those aren’t always enough when you share the road.

Hostetler has been hit by cars twice.

“I just got hit by her car and I flew off her hood into the middle of the road,” he remembered from the second time it happened. “Thank goodness there was no traffic. No traffic on my left, no traffic opposite because I was in the middle of the road lying there.”

That wreck happened at night, when many bike crashes happen.

“I started thinking, what if the road could light the bicycle?” Robin Camp, project manager for the City of Austin’s Public Works Department, said. Camp did more than just think about it; she proposed a plan to light up bike lanes and the people in them.

Her motivation was personal.

“My brother was struck and killed by a drunk driver while he was riding a bicycle,” she said. That was a few years ago in San Angelo, but it inspired her to try to do something about it.

Camp got about $8,000 in funding through the city’s first-ever Idea Accelerator program, a way to solicit ideas from city employees to make Austin work better and smarter.

She and her team tested the idea in a warehouse in April. The prototype consists of lights planted in the ground; as a cyclist approaches an intersection, where Camp’s research showed a majority of crashes with cars happened, the lights start to flash.

The system not only illuminates the rider, it alerts drivers that someone on a bike is coming up to the intersection. It’s based in part on designs she saw in the Netherlands. Some American cities with strong bicycle cultures have also experimented with lighted bike lanes.

Camp hopes she can pull some meaning from her own family’s tragedy. “Maybe we can protect someone else,” she said.

The team will continue analyzing data for the next month or so, and Camp said she’d like to see a pilot program in place in a few Austin roads within a year to start testing the idea.

Ultimately, though, she couldn’t say what the final system would look like. They gathered a lot of feedback from riders and drivers during testing and even since then.

The design, the brightness of the lights, the sensitivity of the trigger, how it will be powered and other variables are all still up for debate. In fact, they might not include lights at all, possibly relying instead on glowing markings on the pavement.

Whatever form it takes, it wouldn’t stop every crash. Cyclists KXAN spoke with were more concerned with distracted driving than a lack of visibility; but they, like Camp, said if it helps even a little bit, it’s worth trying.

“It’s one of the most dangerous activities we do every day,” Hostetler, the cyclist who’s been hit twice, said of commuting in general, so we should be looking out for each other on the road.

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