The Startle Effect – SOBS, meet No Surprise!

Over on the Survival Skills Facebook page I’ve spent the last few Fridays looking at an unusual court case where a judge withdrew the case from the jury, after rejecting the prosecution’s case that a rider involved in a fatal collision with a pedestrian had to time react when the pedestrian stopped unexpectedly.

The incident reminded me of the words of Chesley Sullenberger – the Miracle on the Hudson pilot – “the startle factor is real, and it’s huge”. He was talking to a US Congressional hearing into the two aviation accidents involving Boeing’s 737 Max, and refuting claims that an alert and properly trained pilot could have dealt with the issues the plane was throwing at them.

Sound familiar?

Think bike? Think again!

Now, take a look at the photo. You may remember it as one of the long-running series of ‘Think Bike’ products, aimed at the driver.

The idea is, given the target, to try to make a driver aware of just how hard a bike can be to spot.

As soon as I saw it, my thought was that the message should be ‘Biker, Think’. And that’s because it’s a perfect illustration of the point that I regularly make when discussing the Science Of Being Seen (#SOBS); the effect of any CONSPICUITY AID – in this case, the bike’s headlight – depends entirely on WHAT’S BEHIND the rider.

It’s not the lightness of clothing, or – as in this case – the brightness of the headlight, it’s the CONTRAST against the BACKGROUND.

And that’s the message that is so difficult to get over to riders, despite my best efforts and the inclusion of SOBS as a module of the Biker Down courses that have been run by so many fire services in the years since this campaign. When the photo reappeared the other day, the riders’ responses were predictable:

:: drivers don’t look hard enough for bikes

:: the rider should be wearing hi-vis clothing

They both miss the point.


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Drivers fail to spot motorcycles for well-documented reasons – in this case, it’s the camouflage effect of the bike lights against the wintery background behind the rider.

And the belief that conspicuity aids stop ‘looked but failed to see’ incidents is mistaken. There’s little compelling evidence from crash statistics – junction collisions are as common as they ever were. It’s easy to check.

So we end up with a double whammy…

a driver who either never sees the bike before pulling out – or possibly spots it halfway through pulling out and SURPRISED! stops dead, blocking the rider’s path…

and a rider who expects to be seen (“because I had my lights on and drivers are more likely to see bikes with lights”) and caught by SURPRISE! only reacts at the very last second when he / she realises the car’s pulling into the bike’s path.

Only by understanding BOTH the Science Of Being Seen AND the No Surprise? No Accident! approach to riding do we get a full understanding of the issues thrown up by this simple photograph of a bike blending into the background.

And we’ll only begin to reduce junction collisions by understanding BOTH sides of the collision – why the driver makes the error that puts the biker at risk, and why the biker fails to predict a highly predictable error. This is what’s known as ‘INSIGHT’ – seeking to offer understanding of the relationship between a specific cause and effect within a particular context.

It’s a type of learning that revolves around problem-solving through understanding the relationships between our own abilities (self-awareness) and the ‘system’ in which we’re operating. Insight is the basis for all my training, incidentally.

If we focus on simplistic and reductionist explanations alone, we may know WHAT went wrong, but without looking for embracing, holistic explanations we’ll never know WHY it went wrong.

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