High-tech warning lights added to O'Connor bike lane

New LED lights will activate when cyclists approach the intersection at Waverley Street, as a warning to southbound drivers on O'Connor planning left turns across the bike lane.

Motion-activated LED lights a warning to drivers at intersection where cyclist was struck

A system of cameras, motion detectors and LED lights has been installed at the intersection of O'Connor and Waverley streets to protect cyclists.

As a cyclist approaches the intersection from either direction, cameras will detect his or her presence and relay the information to a computer that triggers the flashing of nine LED lights located on either side of the intersection. The lights are mounted on flexible poles between the bicycle lane and the roadway.

The idea is to give drivers better warning of approaching cyclists, if they are planning a left turn through the bikeway from O'Connor or crossing the intersection from the west. 

"Unfortunately at times people are on auto-pilot when they go somewhere, and they want to go from A to B and they don't see 100 per cent of what's going on around them," said Sgt. Mark Gatien, one of the officers in charge of the traffic unit at the Ottawa Police Service.

"When you're turning across the path of a bike lane, we must have the drivers look. And this brings their attention to that."

Because the cameras detect both speed and body heat, the lights are not activated by passing cars or pedestrians, though the lights are configured to flash in response to people approaching on skateboards or in motorized wheelchairs.

Sgt. Mark Gatien of the Ottawa Police, Jason Lee of SmartCone technologies, and Rob Wilkinson of Safer Roads Ottawa have worked together on the new LED light warning system.

History of collisions at intersection

The system is a project of Safer Roads Ottawa and the Ottawa police, with technology developed by Stittsville startup SmartCone Technologies. It will be in place for about a month, during which time Safer Roads Ottawa will also collect and analyze video data to figure out its effect on safety in that intersection.

A cyclist was struck there by a left-turning vehicle in October 2016, just hours after city councillors and the mayor officially opened the new bikeway.

The man was taken to hospital in stable condition with injuries to his shoulder and ribs. About two weeks later another cyclist was struck there by a left-turning van, in an incident captured by a fellow rider's helmet-mounted camera.

Mixed reviews from cyclists, nearby residents

Another cyclist, Gary King, was hit in November 2016 while using the bikeway a little further north, near Somerset Street.

King called the new light system a "positive effort" but had questions about how well it would work in practice.

"Will drivers come to rely on it rather than taking a proper look?" King asked in an e-mail.

King also suggested that the alert system is really a band-aid solution to the bigger problem of the bikeway's design, a two-way lane on the left side of the road. 

"Instead of doing the right thing, the city went with the option that would least inconvenience drivers and that is just simply the wrong approach," he said. "The nature of driver habits on O'Connor warrants going back to the drawing board to get this right."

Lawyer Matthew Gervan, who works near the intersection of Waverley and O'Connor, calls the intersections along the O'Connor Street bike lane a nightmare for drivers. (Susan Burgess)

Matthew Gervan, a lawyer who works nearby on Waverley Street, said he's had many near misses himself in that intersection, as a driver

"At night it's even more dangerous because there's a lot of bikes that don't have any lights on at all," he said. "It's kind of a driver's nightmare."

The new lights are unlikely to make a difference, he said, especially with no signage in place to explain why they're flashing.

Cyclist Gillian Montoya is a regular user of the O'Connor Street bike lane and says lights to alert drivers of cyclists in the intersection are a good improvement. (Susan Burgess)

Cyclist Gillian Montoya, a regular user of the O'Connor bike lane, was more positive.

"I was honestly just in a situation where I had a car that was turning left and they didn't see me, so I think it is a lot of responsibilty on the biker to be aware of the cars that are looking to turn," she said. "But I think it is a good idea to have in place here. Because raising your arm isn't always seen in the dark."

Daniel Boyer, who uses the bike lane with his motorized wheelchair, also welcomed the new safety measure.

"I think they should do this (in) every intersection," he said. "At least it would give the cars a heads up."