Commuting by bicycle has been shown to reduce stress, lower emissions and help address traffic congestion - yet many of us perceive it as a dangerous activity. New research out this week shows that to get drivers to give you more room on your bike all you need is a brightly coloured top and a big fat arrow to sew on to the back of it.

Although the use of bicycles as a mode of transport has become more popular over recent years, surveys show many people still hesitate to get on a bike due to their perceived risk around safety.

This fear is valid, as our roads are still primarily designed for larger vehicles, and government economic priorities over decades have focused funding on building more connected road networks. Until recently, a much lower priority was given to building separate cycle paths, even though the evidence is clear that cycle lanes not only encourage more people to ride their bike but also keep them safer.

Cyclists, e-scooterists and pedestrians who use the road are referred to as "vulnerable road users", and according to the World Health Organisation make up almost half of the world's traffic fatalities. Though improved engineering design of vehicles and new safety technology has helped motorist reap the benefits by being more protected inside a car, not much has changed for cyclists.

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The biggest reason given by drivers for a crash with a cyclist is that they didn't see the bicycle. Photo / Stuart Munro
The biggest reason given by drivers for a crash with a cyclist is that they didn't see the bicycle. Photo / Stuart Munro

Helmet-wearing bike riders who have to share the road with other vehicles can decrease their risk of a road traffic accident by increasing their visibility to motorists - having front and rear lights, and wearing brightly coloured reflective clothing. Road design still has a large part to play however, with a UK study showing high-vis clothing did not increase a cyclist's safety on the road where there was a lack of overtaking space for cars.

In incidents involving vehicles colliding with cyclists, the biggest reason given by drivers for the crash is that they didn't see the bicycle, either because they weren't looking for a bike or they were being inattentive to the side of the road.

To try to increase cyclists' visibility and focus the attention of the driver towards them, researchers decided to combine high visibility clothing and road signage to see if drivers paid more attention.

Monitoring cyclists out on the road wearing different items of clothing, the scientists measured the speed and distance at which cars passed them, as well as the cyclists' perception of how fast and closely they had been passed.

High visibility apparel with a
High visibility apparel with a "keep right" arrow added could save lives on the roads, suggests research. Photo / Michael Craig

Clothing options included low and high-visibility and reflective cycling apparel, some of which had different symbols and shapes on the back.

The research published in the journal Sustainability found traffic passing a cyclist gave more respect - slowing down their speed and giving a wider passing distance - for the riders wearing high visibility apparel with a "keep left" arrow similar to those on road signs. As this study was carried out in America, the New Zealand version would have be a big fat keep right arrow.

The shape and design of the arrow, like an official road sign, seemed to make the motorists more aware of the cyclist, while the bright colour helped to draw attention to it.

Though separated cycleways are still the best way to reduce fatal accidents for cyclists, the cost is still a limiting factor. In the meantime, crafty sewing and a big reflective arrow for the back of your cycle jacket might be the extra safety boost you need.

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