Motorcycles & Bicycles Really Are “Invisible” To Many Drivers

Everyone who has ever ridden a motorcycle or a bicycle is familiar with this situation. You are riding along, minding your own business and enjoying the sunshine, when suddenly a car pulls into your lane or pulls out right in front of you or turns directly in your path. It’s like the driver of the car just didn’t see you. New research published by the The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society suggests that, in fact, drivers often do not “see” motorcycle and bicycle riders even when they look right at them. They call the ‘looked but fail to see’ (LBFTS) phenomenon “inattentional blindness” and it may play a major role in “looked but failed to see” crashes.

Lead author Kristen Pammer is a professor of psychology and associate dean of science at Australian National University. She reports,”When we are driving, there is a huge amount of sensory information that our brain must deal with. We can’t attend to everything, because this would consume enormous cognitive resources and take too much time. So our brain has to decide what information is most important. The frequency of LBFTS crashes suggests to us a connection with how the brain filters out information.”

Along with fellow researchers Stephanie Sabadas, and Stephanie Lentern, she asked 56 adults to look at photos taken from a driver’s perspective that showed routine driving situations. At first, the people were asked to decide if the situations they saw in the pictures represented safe or unsafe driving conditions. In the final photograph, the researchers inserted an unexpected vehicle into the scene — either a taxi or a motorcycle. Half of the participants reported they didn’t notice the additional vehicle at all. Of those who did, two thirds identified the taxi while less than a third identified the motorcycle.

The researchers suggest that better driver training could help alleviate the problem. “Motorcycles appear to be very low on the priority list for the brain when it is filtering information,” Pammer adds. “By putting motorcyclists higher on the brain ‘radar’ of the driver, hopefully drivers will be more likely to see them. In the meantime, we need to be more vigilant, more active, and more conscious when driving.”

Those of you who ride bicycles know that you are even lower on the priority list than motorcycles. That’s why bicycle advocates recommend bike lanes that are physically separate from vehicle lanes. Painting a white line down a street and calling it a bike lane may make some people feel they have made a useful contribution to bicycle safety but it is an illusion.

Any qualified traffic engineer will tell you it is not speed that kills. It’s differences in speed that are potentially lethal. The person poking along the interstate in a DeSoto at 35 mph is more likely to cause an accident than the person going 10 mph over the speed limit in a Corvette.

What does this study tells us? To me, it suggests that the computer controlled autonomous cars of the future may do a far better job of recognizing a motorcycle or a bicycle than a human driver. The computer will have no ordered ranking of vehicle priority. All obstacles on the road ahead will be given equal weight. Thanks to new self driving computers that can process trillions of bits of data a second, everyone else on the road — other drivers, motorcyclists, bicyclist, pedestrians –even dogs — will stand a better chance of not being in a collision while out and about on the highways and byways.

Of course, people on two wheels can also take reasonable precautions to prevent collisions with other vehicles. Riding without a helmet is a no brainer, which is what you may become if you don’t put your helmet on before you ride. There’s a reason why medical professionals who work in emergency rooms call people who ride without a helmet “organ donors.” Lane splitting, while terribly exciting, is an open invitation to get crushed between the front fender of a Belchfire 5000 and the minivan in the next lane.

When I was first learning to ride a motorcycle, a friend told me to assume that someone was going to pull out unexpectedly from every driveway or cross street. He emphasized that I needed to expect a car to blow through every stop sign or traffic light along the way. His advice saved my bacon on more than one occasion. There is another factor at work, here. Just as many motorists fail to see those on two wheels, many motorcyclists and bicyclists ride as if they expect everyone else to get out of their way. That attitude is often just as dangerous as the “looked but failed to see” phenomenon.

Leaving Firenza, Italy after a lovely day of sightseeing one day, I was in heavy traffic on a twisty downhill road. Suddenly, a fellow on a rice rocket came blasting by on my left. He was over the yellow line in the oncoming lane and going fast. Ten minutes later, I came upon him again. He and the motorcycle were lying in a twisted heap in the middle of the road. His severed left leg was several yards away.

Arrogance and riding are a recipe for disaster. David and Goliath is a wonderful story, but in the real world, motorized Goliaths win 99% of the time. Ride smart and get home safely. Blaming the driver who looked but didn’t see you will be cold comfort if you are a vegetable.

Photo credit: Foter

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