Invisible motorcycles – it’s magic!

Back in March 2018, I wrote a post on my site entitled:

“On a bike you’re a magician”

I went on to explain that “the world we see ‘out there’… has been built entirely ‘in here’ inside our brains, and that even when we attend a stage magic show and KNOW we are going to be fooled, we still can’t spot the tricks… when it comes to riding… we have two additional problems:

  • the motorcyclist’s audience isn’t expecting to be tricked by the biker
  • the motorcyclist isn’t aware that he / she is a magician and about to fool the audience!

Ever since I started work on the Science Of Being Seen (SOBS) project, I’ve done my best to get over the various issues – the visual perception problems that all road users have when it comes to spotting motorcycles and other two-wheelers in a traffic stream, the reasons why we shouldn’t be relying on hi-vis clothing and day-riding lights, and why we must work on pro-active responses to threats near junctions.

I’ve done my best with limited resources. But here is what can be done when you want to explain those concepts and have a small but professional production facility behind you.

I can’t help but wonder whether my March post inspired this video. I’ve no complaints if it did because I have to admit that the end result is highly impressive as Ryan, the FortNine ‘Science Guy’ presents a quickfire, light-hearted and slightly-offbeat presentation which covers, in short order:

Saccades and saccadic masking – the visual ‘shutdown’ that happens when we turn our heads too quickly. We think we see a smooth-scanning colour video as we look from side to side, but in fact the brain cannot cope with the blurring images. It masks most of the visual feed takes a series of snap-shots called ‘fixations’. Small objects like motorcycles caught in the saccades are left out – masked – when the brain reassembles the snapshots into what we perceive as video. He also makes the same point I do – “the solution is simple. Slow your scan”. The saccades are smaller and we are less likely to miss a motorcycle.
selective attention – “just as the brain blocks data it considers blurry, it also blocks what it considers irrelevant.”

He illustrates this by playing a couple of clever visual tricks that show how when we’re focused on one task, we miss other events happening around us. I cover the same ground when I talk about ‘inattentional blindness’ and ‘semantic meaning’.

He explains that danger or sexual signals are picked up very quickly, and that two tonnes of car is far more likely to be detected as a threat than a motorcycle. Using the horn to create a ‘threat’ that attracts attention is something I constantly recommend. About the only point on which I’m not convinced is the suggestion that wearing red creates a more threatening image and acts as an attractant. It will depend on whether that red colour actually creates a contrast against the background and is capable of being detected first of all.

Peripheral blindness“in just 20% off the line of sight, humans lose 90% of their vision – bad news, you’re legally blind in your periphery”. Once again, it’s a point I make on SOBS and we both explain how the brain plays us a trick. It uses ‘historical information’ from snapshots – remember those fixations – grabbed as our eyes move around the scene to paint what appears to be a current, wide angle colour picture. It’s not, and vital data – like a motorcycle – can be missing.

From there he draws a rather more tenuous – but still relevant link – to collisions that happen on our own doorstep. Close to home, we all mentally switch-off and expect what usually happens – no motorcycle. He argues that in residential areas we riders have to be doubly-alert for the driver who’s relaxed because he’s nearly home.

More importantly, like SOBS, he emphasises the need for movement at intersections to attract attention when we’re likely to be in the driver’s peripheral vision. The use of our arms to creating movement may seem unconventional, but think of it in context of the rider slowing or turning – I often use arm signals to emphasise a signal when I’m about to manoeuvre in an unexpected place.

Motion camouflage and the constant bearing problem – although he doesn’t use those terms, he covers the twin phenomena of ‘motion camouflage’ and what’s known in aviation and boating circles as ‘the constant bearing problem’. “As two vehicles approach the same spot at the same speed before a collision they occupy a constant place in each other’s field of view. There’s no relative movement so YOU need to move.” That’s exactly the point I’ve made on SOBS – be PROACTIVE. Don’t wait for the driver to see the bike – change that constant bearing by changing speed.

Beam blindness – is an excellent term and better than ‘blind spots’ which we are more likely to be familiar with. It’s pretty obvious that the beams (usually known as the A pillars) either side of the windscreen create physical blind spots for all drivers, but Ryan mentions a much less well-known phenomenon – and one I only discovered whilst researching SOBS: “you know those vertical beams either side of your windshield? You don’t see anything near there. The brain gets bored easily so it eliminates stuff that’s constantly in frame.”

Ryan is making the point that the problem goes deeper that the physical blind spots. We’re not even aware that something COULD be hidden by in a blind spot. He uses our own noses as an example – we don’t see it without consciously looking for it. The brain simply wipes it from our visual image because it’s always there. Similarly, the A, B and C pillars are always there in a car, and we tend to forget them without consciously making ourselves aware of these obstructions. So we suffer ‘beam blindness’ where our brains create these mental blind spots.

And in fact, it’s worse than that – it seems that our brain also blanks out some of the VISIBLE background to either side of the pillars. In consequence, the blind area we don’t ‘see’ that’s reated by the pillars is even wider than we think.

What can we do about it? Understand the problem. “The solution, when you ride towards a vehicle at 10 or 2 [o’clock] is to know that you’re probably invisible.” And to remember that we’re also invisible if we’re approaching a vehicle that’s angled so that the driver is looking back over his / her shoulder – the B pillar between the doors will be an obstruction to vision.

Contrast blindness“the air force has determined that contrast is the greatest factor in the visual acquisition of targets. It turns out they’re primarily concerned with not getting shot but we can take their research and flip it.” First, he makes the excellent point about knowing where your shadow is: “fighter pilots love to attack out of the sun”. That’s a tactic that has been exploited since WW1 and with the sun behind us, we’re harder to spot too. Second Ryan mentions that fighter planes are painted to blend with their background and reduce contrast. He asks – as I have done many times – why is rain gear often black? He recommends – as I do – high contrast gear when it’s raining, not on bright sunny days.

And that’s FortNine’s excellent ‘Invisibility Training for Motorcyclists’ in a nutshell.

Having watched it, doesn’t it make you wonder why it is that MOTORCYCLISTS like Ryan and myself are having to put this kind of primer together for bikers? Why is it that the hugely-funded road safety organisations still seem to be totally oblivious to the need to communicate these issues to motorcyclists? As Ryan and I have both shown in our different ways, the science is out there.

2 thoughts on “Invisible motorcycles – it’s magic!

  1. Truly valuable information for riders. So why is it that riders don’t see the need to understand it? Why do riders ficus on the responsibility of the driver to see us, rather than our responsibility to understand why they don’t, and to ride accordingly?


    • Good question, Pete.

      But the main reason is that our road safety is based on apportioning blame… so the person who makes the mistake from the traffic rules point of view is the one who is held responsible, no matter that the other party rode into the crash that the first set up. And that means riders generally can feel superior to drivers because they didn’t make the FIRST mistake. As you can probably imagine, that’s not a popular point of view with riders generally.


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