Visual Attention Failures Towards Vulnerable Road Users at Intersections: Results from On-road Studies

Nazli Eser Kaya, MASc thesis, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, 2019
Professor Birsen Donmez, Supervisor


Urban intersections can be dangerous. According to police records, many road users are at risk. Already at the beginning of this research (first quarter of 2018), three cyclists and one pedestrian were struck at Toronto intersections. During that summer, we saw a string of vehicle-pedestrian and vehicle-cyclist accidents in the city, with 21 fatalities as of June, 2018.

There are a lot of visual and mental demands on drivers at intersections, especially in a dense, urban environment like downtown Toronto.

Drivers need to divide their attention in several directions. Whether it’s toward other vehicles, pedestrians, or road signs and traffic signals, traffic safety is a major concern. Thus, it is crucial to study what drivers pay attention to at busy urban intersections. It is also important to understand how individual differences (e.g., cyclist status of the driver, general attentional ability, and road design) affect driver attention at intersections. This is the first study to date that uses eye-tracking equipment to accurately analyze where drivers are looking while making a turn at an intersection.

seated in driver's seat of car wearing eye-tracking device
Nazli E. Kaya wears the eye-tracking device used to accurately assess where drivers are looking when turning at intersections. (Credit: Laura Pedersen)

The experiment participants ranged in age from 35 to 54, all having a full G-license with more than three years – so-called low-crash risk drivers. Half of the participants were recruited as frequent cyclists.Findings were alarming:

  • Almost half of the turns (42% out of 442 unique turning events) were identified as a failure.
  • 63% of these failures were with high criticality, meaning the participant failed to gaze at a certain area of importance (e.g., bike lane on the right) during the entire turn.
  • Failures were predominantly related to checking for cyclists.
  • Failures were significantly more common at higher risk intersections.
  • Failures were significantly more common among non-cyclist drivers.
  • Relation to general attentional abilities and self-reported driving behaviour was found to be significant at a marginal level.

A literature review was also conducted on implemented and/or proposed interventions to support detection of cyclists by drivers.

Changes to road infrastructure are much needed to improve traffic safety, highlighting the inconsistent implementation of bike lanes as one of the many hazards facing Toronto drivers.

The key takeaway for pedestrians and cyclists: Drivers often do not see you. Not necessarily because they’re bad drivers, but because their attention is too divided.

Access via TSpace / U of T Libraries: Abstract and full thesis “Visual Attention Failures Towards Vulnerable Road Users at Intersections: Results from On-road Studies.”

Supervisor contact information

Professor Birsen Donmez
Tel: (416) 978-7399