Older people who cycle stay healthy and independent for longer. Unfortunately, this group is also more vulnerable than other road users. Traffic psychologist Frank Westerhuis is investigating how elderly cyclists can stay mobile.
Text by Bert Platzer. Photo by Bert Otten.
In few other countries in the world is the most revolutionary invention since the wheel as widely embraced as in the Netherlands. According to figures published by the RAI, there are no fewer than 22.8 million bicycles in the Netherlands: devices that convert muscle power into high speeds via a dizzyingly simple mechanism. Those who master the act of balancing on two wheels can look forward to fitness, mobility and independence. But where motorists are protected by airbags and crumple zones, cyclists are their own crumple zone. Older cyclists are even more vulnerable: CROW Fietsberaad calculated that they are 3.2 times more likely to have an accident resulting in an injury than younger cyclists. Enter Frank Westerhuis. This traffic psychologist has devoted his PhD research to keeping older cyclists mobile (“older” generally meaning over the age of 65).
‘The Dutch population is ageing and people are also living longer,’ says Westerhuis. ‘This means there is a real need to stay mobile at an older age. Cycling contributes to an individual’s quality of life; elderly people who cycle stay fitter and can go wherever they want. But if things go wrong with older cyclists, it can go really wrong. When I fall off my bike, I might have some pain in my shoulder for a week or so. For elderly people, there is a much bigger chance that they will break a hip, for example. So, we want to make sure that people can keep cycling longer without accidents happening.’ As a traffic psychologist, Westerhuis looks at how people behave in traffic and how that behaviour can be influenced. So, how do older cyclists behave in traffic? ‘Many elderly people are becoming more cautious. Their reaction time is slower and they have a poorer overview of what’s going on,’ says Westerhuis. ‘They often compensate for this by cycling slower, looking around better and taking more time to do things, but then it’s nice to know what other people are going to do, so they can take that into account.’ Take the simultaneous green junctions in Groningen, for example, where cyclists travelling in all directions get a green light at the same time. ‘This is very unpredictable because traffic comes from all sides and it is not clear what everyone is going to do. This is a difficult situation for a lot of elderly people. Sometimes, instead of crossing diagonally, they first go straight and then left. Some also get off their bike and walk to the other side.’
Predicting a cyclist’s behaviour is no easy task, as was demonstrated during an experiment in which elderly and young people had to predict a cyclist’s intentions based on filmed traffic situations. ‘The test subjects watched 24 clips. A camera followed a cyclist for a while, and then the film was paused: are they going to go left, right or straight on? It turned out to be very difficult to predict, even for young people. They got it right in about 33% of the cases. So if you just take a stab in the dark, you’re just as likely to get the right answer. Westerhuis experimented with electronic devices to improve predictability. On the CRUISer project he collaborated with the scientific research institute Roessingh Research and Development and product developer Indes. ‘One problem elderly people have is balance. With both hands on the handlebar it’s much easier to balance than when you have to stick out your hand to indicate in which direction you want to go. So for that reason, and to make it easier to predict each other’s intentions and make traffic more predictable, we have developed an electronic system to fit on the bike, which includes a flashing light. Such an indicator can help older people feel more secure in traffic for longer and communicate their intentions better.’ The project also experimented with the two other features of the system: a headlight that gets brighter at higher speeds and a brake light. Westerhuis explained that it is difficult to measure whether these features result in greater safety. ‘It’s very subjective. The majority of older cyclists thought it would be useful to have these things.’
The project showed that changes to the infrastructure can also improve the situation for older cyclists, such as the “forgiving” cycle path, which Westerhuis developed in collaboration with Royal Haskoning and the Fietsersbond. ‘Cycle paths are getting busier and busier, and the current paths are not designed for this. The idea behind the forgiving cycle path is that people are given more room to make mistakes, for example if someone swings out or has to swerve for someone.’ The best way to make cycle paths more forgiving is to make them wider, but that’s usually too expensive or not possible due to lack of space. That’s why verge strips half a metre wide were introduced at test sites; these are essentially transition zones between the asphalt and the verge which people can use in case of emergency. Due to the surface of the verge strip (ridges or artificial grass) it’s not particularly pleasant to cycle on, but cyclists can easily get back onto the asphalt without the risk of falling over. To investigate whether these measures would actually work, a previous, so-called ‘natural cycling’ study was used, in which cyclists were given a camera for a week to film their everyday cycling behaviour. ‘We asked another group of cyclists to cycle with a camera attached to their bikes. What we saw was that when people cycled on a forgiving cycle path, they rode closer to the right edge. Perhaps these strips will give the elderly more confidence, so that they can use the cycle path more efficiently.’ Although Westerhuis himself is far from falling into the ‘elderly cyclist’ category, his research has made him more aware of his behaviour in traffic. I try to be clear about what I’m going to do, for example by extending my hand when I turn left or right.’ As a cycling enthusiast he hopes to enjoy cycling for many years to come. ‘I cycle a lot; to relax and to get to work. Ever since I was young I have tried to cycle as much as possible. Besides being a great and practical form of transport, it’s also healthy and fun.’
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