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Smart bike technology to support elderly cyclists

Smart bike technology to help older cyclists make the right choices in traffic – it sounds like the distant future, but thanks to work being done by UT PhD student Carola Engbers it just got a lot closer.

Accidents involving cyclists have become more frequent in recent years. 65+ cyclists are three times as likely to have an accident as younger riders, but it may be possible to lower these odds. UT PhD student Carola Engbers’ thesis examines whether technology could help older people to ride their bicycles in more safety and comfort.

New technologies and research by Roessingh Research and Development, Indes (a product innovation company), the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and the University of Groningen (RUG) allow cyclists to be given early warning of traffic approaching from behind, and these cyclists can use special lights to indicate their speed and chosen direction.

Interaction leads to accidents

Single-person accidents, such as a collision with a pole, almost never occur without a reason. “They usually happen right after there has been some sort of interaction with another road user,” explains Engbers. “For instance, the cyclist might be startled by someone else, lose balance and end up in the verge.” One of the three components of her PhD thesis looks at how technology might improve the interactions between elderly cyclists and other road users. She also looked at whether older people felt a need for technology, and studied the characteristics of older cyclists who had already had a bicycle accident.

Cars are ahead of bikes

We can no longer even imagine a car having no brake lights or indicators. “Many car technologies have never been tested on bikes, so we specifically studied cyclists’ needs and desires,” explains Engbers, “as well as the effects of these technologies on mental workload and cycling behaviour.”

Light signal or vibration alert?

In her study, 21 elderly people who used their bicycles regularly were asked to cycle on a kind of home trainer with a screen. The handlebars were fitted with LED lights, and vibration alerts were fitted inside the grips. The LEDs were green if there was no following traffic, and turned red when another road user was approaching from behind. The grips vibrated only when traffic was approaching from behind. The study showed that people preferred the vibration alert, as this only appeared when it was needed; the cyclist could therefore concentrate on the traffic.

More research needed

There is as yet no ready-made safety system for bicycles. More research will be needed before this is possible. “We simply examined whether there was a potential for technological aids on bicycles, and what their effect was on behaviour, distance from the verge or from oncoming traffic, and mental workload,” says Engbers. That potential does exist, but more tests will be needed before the technology is available in shops.

PhD at Roessingh Research and Development

Engbers did her PhD research at Roessingh Research and Development (RRD). “RRD has a unique atmosphere, and I was given a lot of freedom to develop myself.” At RRD she was able to work on a socially relevant subject that brought her into constant conversation with the target group, and this taught her to better understand other road users. “I’m a racing cyclist myself, and in my conversations with older cyclists I noticed that they were often angry at racing cyclists who overtook them without warning,” she relates. “So now I have a bicycle bell.”

More information

Carola Engbers carried out her research within the Biomechanical Engineering department of the Engineering Technology faculty; her supervisors were Professor Hans Rietman of the University of Twente and Professor Dick de Waard of the University of Groningen. The public defence of her thesis entitled Keep Cycling. How Technology can Support Safe and Comfortable Cycling for Older Adults will take place on Friday 27 September 2019.

K.W. Wesselink MSc (Kees)
Communication Advisor