Defensive surveillance for cyclists

This could have been me:

A bicyclist riding along Old Homestead Highway was hit by a vehicle Friday evening.

At about 6:43 p.m. Swanzey Police and Fire Department responded to a reported hit-and-run accident on Route 32.

The vehicle was described as a white SUV, possibly a Chevy Blazer, with a black roof rack. It’s missing its passenger-side mirror as a result of the accident, according to Cpl. Robert Eccleston of the Swanzey police.

The cyclist suffered serious injuries and was transported to Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene.

A couple of years ago it was me. I got sideswiped on a bike ride in another part of the county. In that case too, the impact also broke off the passenger-side mirror. Luckily I only suffered a bruised leg. According to a follow-up report, this cyclist suffered “skull fractures on the left side of his head, where his helmet hit the pavement, a broken shoulder and severe road rash.”

When it happened to me, I was furious for weeks. Every time I saw a sedan similar to the one that knocked me off my bike I looked for the telltale missing passenger-side mirror. And I formed a clear idea of a product that might have prevented the hit-and-run, or failing that, nabbed the perpetrator. It’s a pair of bicycle-mounted cameras, front and rear, that trigger on approaching traffic and take sequences of shots that can identify approaching vehicles.

Here’s why I imagine this could work. I don’t know about yesterday’s hit-and-run, but in my case it didn’t feel like an accident. We were the only two vehicles on the road. There was plenty of room for the car to give me wide berth. But some motorists like to hassle cyclists verbally, and once in a while that escalates to a cat-and-mouse game. That’s a game people these people play because they think they can get away with it. There’s no expectation that the sideswiped cyclist will be able to prove that it happened, or capture the identity of the car. In my case, when I jumped to my feet after tumbling along the roadside, only to see the car speeding over the top of the next hill, I remember thinking: “You bastard, if I only had your license plate number you would regret this.”

Defensive surveillance isn’t just a capability that cyclists need, of course. It makes sense for motorists to identify and record oncoming traffic too. But car-on-car violence is a game played on a level field. Car-on-bike violence is so unequal that I’ll jump at any advantage I can get.

Does the product I imagine already exist? Maybe, but I don’t think so. There are obviously scads of cheap helmet- or bike-mountable cameras. What I’m looking for, though, is one that’s optimized for defensive surveillance. I think that means a gadget that senses oncoming traffic, and then shoots sequences of high-resolution stills. Ideally it’d come with two pairs of mounts. One pair would be fitted to my bike’s handlebar and seat. The other pair would be fitted to my car’s dashboard and rear deck. For extra credit, the car would keep the cameras charged so they’re always ready to defend the bike.


PS: Meanwhile, my low-tech solution is a helmet-mounted rear view mirror. I have always used one, and can now scarcely imagine what it used to be like to have to crane my head around — and wobble my bike — in order to see what’s behind me. With a helmet mirror, situational awareness only requires rapid eye flicks that become an automatic habit. Obviously the habit wasn’t fully automatic, but after the incident a couple of years ago I’m even more vigilant. I watch every car that approaches from the rear, and am always mentally preparing a dive into the ditch.

18 Comments

    1. In the Netherlands, such a flag is commonly used for small kids’ bikes. So the reaction here is “oh, there’s some bike that’s going 7 km/h”.

      “Kid on a bike” meaning “can deviate from the proper course quite unexpectedly”, this does however result in more room :-)

  1. I own a recumbent bicycle and I recently switched from a below-seat-steering to an above-seat-steering cycle. The reason: you can more easily mount a mirror on it. I really like having that extra situational awareness.

    It works better for me than a helmet-mounted one, though I use such a helmet mirror during the summer holiday when cycling with my kids: easier to keep track of them when they’re in an unsuspected corner :-)

    About the camera: even in bicycle country The Netherlands I haven’t heard about such a situation-aware camera. You do have people with a camera on their frame that takes a picture every 10 secs or so to get a nice movie of their trips. But that’s mostly aimed to the front…

  2. I wonder about the other side of it — is there some way to create a sort of bicyclist All Points Bulletin when this does happen, via email / SMS / Twitter or similar — the likelihood is that these criminals have done this to folks before, and folks after, a network of bicyclists might be able to gather information, and if it is real time, maybe even catch the license plate while riding up the road.

    I’ve had enough bad experiences that I’d subscribe, if the use of the APB was conservative.

  3. I have mounted a Sony MHS-PM1 on my helmet. I record every ride in HD and have caught quite a bit of interesting footage.

    The camera faces forward only. However, I usually count on having passed a vehicle prior, or looking at him while he passes me to identify his license plate. I have never encountered a situation that warranted a police report, just a typical yelling match.

    Here is one for you. Biker’s fault though. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_UOlIdwUUM

  4. On thinking about this further, I guess what maybe I’d like to see is a common hash tag where bicyclists could blow off steam from close calls by reporter reckless and aggressive drivers by posting a brief note somewhere describing the time, place, vehicle, and license plate of the incident. When hit and runs like this happen, it might end up used by the police or the bicyclists to track down suspects.

    I imagine, for example, that this is not the first time this SUV has endangered a bicyclist. If there were a record of other times available, it would be a start.

    1. a common hash tag

      Funny you should mention that. I was on a panel at Gov 2.0 with several folks who are working on next-gen public safety. In both cases, their sites enable people to file reports. But you have to sign up to make a report, and when you do the info doesn’t stay public where it could produce network effects.

      Doing this kind of thing more out in the open, with ad-hoc tags enabling dynamic rendezvous and aggregation, is exactly what I suggested.

  5. Jon, do you have any theories on, or defenses against, motorists who honk as they come up on bicyclists? In some cases, I think drivers tap on the horn thinking they are being nice/safe by making you aware they are passing. They may not realize how freakin LOUD a horn is outside the car, or how startling it is a rider! In other cases, they are clearly just being jerks.

    I don’t remember driver’s ed including any rules or etiquette tips on passing cyclists, but it may happen in some states; maybe more of this or some other campaign could make drivers more aware how to share the road?

  6. In some cases, I think drivers tap on the horn thinking they are being nice/safe by making you aware they are passing.

    Right.

    In other cases, they are clearly just being jerks.

    It’s even clearer when they shout at you. And although I often wonder about it, I really don’t have a theory for that.

    I don’t remember driver’s ed including any rules or etiquette tips on passing cyclists

    Of course there’s a need for etiquette on both sides. Cyclists who refuse to get into single file when there are cars passing are also failing to share the road as they should.

    1. As a cyclist who bikes to work every morning AND a driver, I have to admit my frustration with other bikers as well.

      You’ve got cyclists who ride the opposite direction of traffic, don’t have their hands on the handle bars, cut in front of cars from blind spots, ride in the middle of the road, etc..

      Sometimes cyclists drive me more crazy than drivers. The primary issues with drivers are: failure to signal, can’t stay in the lines, try to pass other vehicles at red lights (from the parking lane), cut off bikers in turns, unpredictable “body” language etc…

  7. It could be rigged quite easily to take high-res, wide angle continuously and erase all but the last 10 seconds, until acceleration exceeds some number. Then it could stop erasing.

    Or, of course, if triggered by the cyclist.

  8. > PS: Meanwhile, my low-tech solution is a helmet-mounted rear view mirror.

    I find sound vitally important to my situational awareness. I can discern the size, speed and sometime the craziness of an overtaking vehicle. When I see bicycle riders with ear buds I cringe.

  9. Jon, are you aware of Bikewise.org? A global crash, hazard and theft reporting site that we believe is one important piece of the Gov 2.0 solution that you’re working on.

    Our data is centered in Seattle at the moment, but we do have reports from >25 states and 5 countries, and we’re just getting rolling. Your comments and suggestions would be very welcome!

  10. That’s a great idea, and nicely done!

    The trick, as with any data-gathering effort, will be to lower the activation threshold for contribution while controlling spam.

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