Drivers often fail to look for cyclists, pedestrians when turning right

The scenario of inattentive drivers cutting off bicyclists during a turn is so common that it's gotten its own nickname: the right hook.

In this situation, a driver passes a bicyclist who is riding with traffic on the right side of the road. Whether they fail to register the bicyclist, forget about them, or simply think they have enough room to safely maneuver, the driver then makes a right hand turn. The bicyclist, suddenly encountering a vehicle turning into their path, has to slam on their brakes or make evasive maneuvers.

A recent study from the University of Toronto suggests that this obliviousness to other road users is fairly common among drivers. When monitoring drivers at busy intersections, researchers found that more than half of them failed to look for bicyclists or pedestrians when making a right turn.

"There are a lot of visual and mental demands on drivers at intersections, especially in a dense, urban environment like downtown Toronto," said Nazli Kaya, who led the study. "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."

The study included 19 volunteer drivers between the ages of 35 and 54. Each driver had at least three years of driving experience.

Participants were outfitted with eye-tracking equipment to determine where they were looking while making a turn. One turn took place at a four-way intersection controlled by traffic lights, while the other involved a turn at a T-intersection onto a one-way street. Both turns required drivers to cross a bike lane and sidewalk in a commercial district with considerable foot and cycle traffic.

Eleven of the 19 drivers failed to look at an area where bicyclists and pedestrians might be present before turning. These drivers neglected to look over their shoulder to see if anyone was approaching in the bike lane or on the sidewalk before making the turn.

Drivers were more likely to make an error at the T-intersection, where parked cars between the roadway and bike lane impeded the view of any bicyclists and pedestrians. Researchers also found that drivers who were unfamiliar with the area were more cautious in turning than drivers who knew the neighborhood.

Birsen Donmez, a University of Toronto professor and Canada Research Chair in Human Factors and Transportation, said the results were surprising. He said older drivers were selected specifically because they are considered to be more attentive and less at risk for crashes.

"The takeaway for pedestrians and cyclists: drivers aren't seeing you," said Donmez. "Not necessarily because they're bad drivers, but that their attention is too divided. When crossing a street, your assumption should be that the car doesn't see you."

According to the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles, drivers in the state must yield the right of way to a bicyclist when a bike path intersects the road. Drivers must also yield to bicyclists or pedestrians when turning across a bike lane or sidewalk.

In addition, the DMV recommends that drivers not make a right turn immediately after passing a bicyclist. Instead, they should slow down and allow the bicyclist to clear the intersection before making the turn.

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