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© 2017 Haley Ritchie

City of Ottawa first to don staff with turning signal bike helmets

It’s a helmet with built-in turning signals and brake lights – and Ottawa is the first city to be testing it out.

It’s a helmet with built-in turning signals and brake lights – and Ottawa is the first city to be testing it out on its staff.

“We’re always looking at different kinds of technology that can apply to a road safety perspective,” said Rob Wilkinson, coordinator of Safer Roads Ottawa, a joint initiative between the city and Ottawa Police.

“For the most part we’ve looked at automation – whether it’s the automatic license plate recognition system, school bus cameras, and so forth,” he said.

Earlier this year the force began using a new tool that could measure the distance between cyclists and passing cars, which was later loaned out to Montreal and Gatineau to try.

“We’re finding things out there and we’re trying to lead the charge in regards to technology and being the first to try this stuff,” said Wilkinson.

The Lumos helmets have bright lights built in and turning signals connected to buttons on the handlebar. When a cyclist wants to indicate a left or right turn they can press the corresponding button to activate a flashing arrow on the side and back of the helmet.

The helmet also incorporates a brake light – it’s able to sense when a cyclist is slowing down and the helmet automatically responds by lighting up red. Right now it’s available on backorder for the price of $150.

The idea started with two engineering students at Harvard University in Boston.

“Me and Jeff [Chen] would lose our lights all the time and got pretty frustrating thinking ‘Do I ride without lights or do I not ride at all?’ That was the genesis of how we got started,” said co-founder Eu-Wen Ding.

The duo built their prototype and began wearing it around Boston, as a side project. Soon they had requests from buyers looking to buy their own – and after launching a Kickstarter in July of 2015 they were contacted by the City of Ottawa.

Wilkinson ordered 12 helmets before they were available to the public. That makes Ottawa the first city to try them out on a municipal fleet.

Five helmets were given to city councillors, while others went to staff and community partners. They were so highly demanded that Wilkinson doesn’t get to use one.

“That was a special case with the City of Ottawa, and those were from our first batch,” said Ding. “We’ve been talking to a number of different cities but Rob was the first to act quickly. We’re really interested in partnering with police, EMS, city councillors and counties.”

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper is one of the Ottawa residents who has been testing out the helmet on his commute to work.

“Having the signal light just gives me a little more confidence that people have time to see what I’m doing,” said Leiper, who appreciates it in cases where using hand signals isn’t convenient or obvious to drivers. “I’m enjoying the extra visibility.”

Leiper said he’s also received a lot of curiosity and interest since donning the light-up helmet – and some criticism.

“There’s certainly members of the cycling community who have reacted negatively, because they feel it begins to make the cycling experience more like a car experience,” he said.

“We’re trying to get to that ideal where cyclists don’t have to wear a lot of high vis and protective material to get around safely. Something that ratchets up the car-like aspects of cycling is going to get people’s backs up.”