Discussion – conspicuity issue or cognitive failure?

SUMMARY – visual salience and cognitive conspicuity have both been investigated as potential causes of collisions between cars and PTWs… the conspicuity theory is widely accepted at face value… but there is no compelling statistical evidence that shows a reduction in collisions resulting from ROWV at intersections… as the SMIDSY collision happens worldwide in hugely different driving regimes, the implication is that the crashes are a ‘human factors’ problem, NOT a conspicuity issue… ‘Think Bike’ campaigns have limited effectiveness… the most effective option is likely to be improving rider understanding of drivers’ visual perception issues and cognitive problems, helping the rider adopt a better defensive riding strategy at intersections… 

If you have waded through the previous pages to reach this point, well done. You now have about as good a grasp of why the ‘looked but failed to see’ (LBFTS) error occurs, how it leads to a ‘Right Of Way Violation’ (ROWV) and the resulting ‘Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You’ (SMIDSY) crash as it’s possible to gain as an ‘ordinary’ motorcyclist.

This discussion sums up what we know. If you’ve skipped the detail and headed straight here, you may want to go back in order to clarify specific points after reading this page.

Four deadly words


The crux of the matter is this. Once it was realised that a major factor in motorcycle casualties was that drivers do not see motorcycles and thus collide with them at junctions, investigations into the reasons for these crashes have looked at two different issues:

  • ‘salience’ or visual conspicuity – the ‘bottom-up’ factors such as size, brightness and contrast
  • ‘cognitive’ conspicuity – a ‘top-down’ approach investigating factors such as the workload imposed by driving and the driver’s expectations of what he or she will likely observe

Thanks to the commonsense observation that motorcycles are relatively small when placed next to other traffic objects, and are therefore more difficult to detect, much of the earliest research focused entirely on the first problem of visual conspicuity. The Greater London Council’s pioneering ‘Ride Bright’ campaign and earliest ‘Think Bike’ intervention took the same approach; if the ‘Looked But Failed To See’ error occurs because motorcycles are hard to see, then the campaign should aim to:

  • improve the visual conspicuity of motorcycles
  • make drivers to look harder for motorcycles
Think once

The GLC’s ‘Ride Bright’ campaign ran in the autumn of 1976. As well as encouraging drivers to look for motorcycles, riders were told to wear bright – preferably fluorescent – clothing and to switch on their headlights in daytime.

Did the campaign work? The outcome of the campaign was subjected to statistical analysis by Lalani and Holden (1978):

“The statistical problems of detecting changes in casualties attributable to the change in behaviour from the ‘Ride Bright’ campaign are extremely complicated and difficult… absolute conclusions from the casualty analysis are difficult since the change in behaviour at best affects only a quarter of the motorcycling population who use daytime headlights and only accidents occuring in daylight are likely to have benefited.”

Nevertheless, they argued that their observations based on comparisons of rider behaviour before and after the campaign showed:

“…highly-significant increases in the number of motorcyclists using their headlights during the day and also wearing distinctive clothing.”

The ‘distinctive clothing’ was any garment “coloured yellow, orange or white”. They concluded:

“…from the results in this analysis and from those in other countries it seems reasonable to claim that some benefit to motorcycle casualty trends has resulted from the change in behaviour.

Virtually every road safety campaign since the Greater London Council’s ‘Ride Bright’ campaign focused on the same two solutions – brighter bikes, and drivers who look harder. Unfortunately, we didn’t see a matching reduction in the proportion of collisions occurring at junctions.

, and many researchers today continue to direct their efforts towards enhancing the saliency of the rider and motorcycle via the use of clothing and lighting aids. Probably for this reason, virtually every road safety campaign since Results like this (and similar statements in many other studies over the next four decades) have nurtured the .Probably for this reason,


The conspicuity theory is still widely accepted at face value and so:

  • many research studies continue to try to establish a link between enhanced conspicuity through increased use hi-vis clothing and day-riding lights and reduced PTW crash and/or injury risk
  • policy makers, police, accident investigators, courts and and motorcycle trainers all subscribe to the conspicuity theory based on historical research
  • many motorcyclists do use the conspicuity aids either voluntarily or because it is mandatory
be bright

However, in the four decades since these first interventions, there is no compelling evidence from road safety crash statistics that the proportion of collisions occurring at junctions where a driver says “Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You” has changed for the better.

As long ago as 1989, Olson examined the existing literature in what is known as a ‘metastudy’ – ie, a kind of review that looks critically at a number of studies in a particular area to gain a broader overview. He challenged motorcycle conspicuity as the likely explanation for car drivers missing motorcycles:

“There is a widespread belief that motorcycles are more difficult to detect in traffic than are cars and trucks, which has led to much research designed to enhance motorcycle conspicuity. This paper examines the basic concept and finds that it lacks empirical support. Further, a number of other possible explanations could account for the differences one finds when comparing car-motorcycle and car-car collisions.”

His reasoning was thus:

“The strongest support for the conspicuity hypothesis may be that the offending operator often reports a failure to detect the other vehicle… considered logically, it seems reasonable that motorcycles should be less conspicuous than cars because they are smaller.”

He observed that:

“The conspicuity hypothesis has not been seriously challenged. Almost all investigators have accepted it as fact, concentrating their efforts on means to improve conspicuity rather than on asking whether the hypothesis is correct. This is unfortunate because alternative hypotheses can be advanced. Some have research data to support them; some are speculative. All are consistent with the known facts…”

In other words, because the conspicuity hypothesis was considered to be correct, the researchers were looking to see the results which proved their own test of the conspicuity hypothesis rather than looking for other explanations of their results. Having found what they were looking for, they published their results, which added to the body of evidence supporting the conspicuity theory. It’s become a circular argument.

Olson noted that drivers claiming to have not seen another vehicle is not unique to motorcycle-car intersection collisions. He stated:

“Violations of right of way are a common cause of collisions between automobiles, and afterward the errant driver often claims not to have seen the other vehicle. This should not be surprising. Of all the reasons that someone would deliberately move into the path of an oncoming vehicle, failure to detect it must be high on the list. But if the claimed failure to detect is not unique to motorcycle collisions, then it is not evidence for a special conspicuity problem with motorcycles.”

It’s worth recalling that the authors of that early TRRL report concluded:

“The true effectiveness of these aids will only be realised when all motorcyclists use them and their effect can be observed in the national accident statistics.”

Whilst we don’t yet have universal use of hi-vis clothing, many countries do have universal use of day-riding lights and yet there is a lack of real-world evidence indicating a direct relationship between increased visual conspicuity to be expected from the use of DRLs and a reduction in collisions resulting from the ‘looked but failed to see’ error.

Olson (1989) believed that the basic conspicuity concept “lacks empirical support”. Zoi et al (201?) concluded that with the design of current studies:

“Overall, the conspicuity hypothesis testing remains inconclusive…”

The weakness of the conspicuity theory

Firstly, the ‘looked but failed to see’ error, the subsequent ROWV and the resulting SMIDSY collision are common to ALL driving regimes where motorcycles share the road with other vehicles. To see this, we simply have to look at local crash statistics.

Secondly, if there is such a thing as a ‘standard’ SMIDSY crash involving the ‘looked but failed to see’ error and subsequent ROWV, investigations into collisions suggest that it happens during the day in urban areas, involves an experienced driver, and occurs in all weather conditions, including good weather.

Car vs Bike

So here’s an observation of my own. If the salience of the motorcycle was the sole factor, then it’s reasonable to assume that the ‘Looked But Failed To See’ error, the subsequent ROWV and the resulting SMIDSY collision involving an already difficult-to-see motorcycle would be most common under conditions of poor visibility. Motorcycle / car collisions occur across – and have been studied in – widely differing geographical regions:

  • in high latitude countries such as Sweden and Norway where there are very different day / night driving conditions in summer and winter, with widely-differing weather conditions at different times throughout the years. This means ambient lighting conditions also vary enormously throughout the year
  • in mid-latitude locations such as Israel and California where day length varies rather less over the course of a year, weather is generally less extreme and and ambient lighting conditions are more even
  • in countries such as Canada and the USA where the day length, weather and thus ambient lighting conditions varies greatly across a single jurisdiction

I can find no evidence that collision frequency reduces north to south or increases in poor weather. This suggests that the difficulties drivers have are at least partly the result of problems other than visual salience and conspicuity. 

Here’s my second observation. The ‘looked but failed to see’ error, the subsequent ROWV and the resulting SMIDSY collision occurs in countries with widely differing driving regimes:

  • in countries like the UK and Australia where road users are relatively well-trained before gaining a licence, where there is a road code that is generally adhered to, and where there is a well-developed policing system with a deterrent system for offenders
  • in countries like the USA where road users are relatively poorly-trained before gaining a licence, where there is a road code that is generally adhered to, and where there is a well-developed policing system with a deterrent system for offenders
  • in countries like Thailand where road users are very poorly-trained, where there is a road code that is barely adhered to, and where there is an erratic policing and deterrent system

If the SMIDSY collision happens the world over, in hugely different driving regimes, the implication is that the crashes are a ‘human factors’ problem, NOT a conspicuity issue.

I find it remarkable that these observations seem to have been overlooked.

The limitations of ‘Ride Bright’ campaigns

If the science behind the campaigns calling for the use of hi-vis clothing and day-riding lights can be challenged, then the campaigns themselves should be challenged. Espié in the foreword to the book ‘Increasing Motorcycle Conspicuity – Design and Assessment of Interventions to Enhance Rider Safety’ states that:

“several approaches may be proposed to increase the PTW/rider conspicuity… however many proposed solutions were not supported by scientific evidence.”

The weaknesses of any ‘Ride Bright’ campaign are these:

  • if the motorcycle is where it cannot be seen by the driver (a factor in around one-third of ‘looked but failed to see’ errors), then visual conspicuity aids can have no positive benefit.
  • any benefit that visual conspicuity aids may confer inevitably varies on a moment-by-moment basis as the background behind the motorcyclist changes. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to visual conspicuity.
  • visual conspicuity aids are an entirely passive approach to reducing risk, and rely entirely on the driver seeing, then taking action to avoid, the motorcyclist. The responsibility for avoiding the collision is thus handed entirely to the driver.

Furthermore, we cannot assume that what can be seen to work in one part of the world automatically applies elsewhere. Even within the UK, it should be obvious that conditions vary considerably between the south of England and the north of Scotland, and that there a numerous different riding environments from city centres to remote rural roads. It really should be clear to anyone thinking about the motorcycle conspicuity problem that conclusions from a study conducted into motorcycle conspicuity in one part of the world cannot be safely exported to another locality. It’s inconceivable that the same ‘Ride Bright’ advice can be validly applied across the board.

There has been some recognition of this by researchers; for example, several studies have noted that in local conditions of fine, sunny days on rural roads a black-clad rider on a black motorcycle has greater salience than a rider using saturn yellow hi-vis clothing. But in general, the literature has not really made allowance for differing ambient lighting or background conditions.

Probably as a result of this lack of clarity within the studies themselves, there has only been limited acceptance of the geographical and ambient light conditions within road safety thinking. The mandatory headlights-on rule introduced in Australia was overturned in 1997 after representations by the local riders’ rights organisation who pointed out that the research on which the legislation was based had been carried out in Sweden. Elsewhere, this necessary flexibility does not appear to have made significant inroads into road safety thinking. We are still largely saddled with ‘one size fits all’ motorcycle safety campaigns.

Looking to the future…

Hugger look out for me

‘Think Bike’ campaigns have been running for as long as the ‘Ride Bright’ interventions. But if visual conspicuity aids have failed to solve the ROWV and SMIDSY collision, neither has alerting the driver to the need to search harder for motorcycles. Once again, if these campaigns had worked, we would have seen the results in real-life collision statistics, and as we have already seen, there is no significant change.

To date, the message to drivers has been restricted to simplistic advice to ‘look harder’ or ‘look twice’. But if visual conspicuity is not the problem and conspicuity aids are not the solution, then it’s hard to see how a driver can make any meaningful improvements to their search patterns. It would seem we must look much harder at the cognitive issues that have been identified. The cognitive issues do not appear to be capable of simple solutions.


Perhaps the message to drivers needs to change, but it’s arguable that drivers are the wrong target. On an individual basis, very few drivers will ever make the ‘Looked But Failed To See’ error and commit a ROWV – in other words, their search will almost always be successful in identifying a PTW. Given that failures are so rare, it’s hard to see how an effective behavioural change can be effected to prevent something that almost never happens. As far as most drivers are concerned, it’s likely they believe that what they do works and there is no need to change. The ‘look harder for bikes’ message will be “for someone else”.

The situation is somewhat analogous to a medical problem where there are a large number of carriers of an infection but are otherwise unlikely to be affected, and a much smaller number of individuals who are at risk of catching the disease and suffering much more seriously.

Who should we target?

I would suggest that the most effective approach is not to try to eliminate the disease by treating the carriers but to ‘inoculate’ the smaller, at-risk, population – us motorcyclists.

A valid criticism of the rider thrown up by collision studies is that in an emergency, the motorcyclist rarely manages to perform effective collision avoidance manoeuvres. The ‘No Surprise? No Accident!’ campaign that I am also involved with has the answer to that – the motorcyclist simply isn’t anticipating that things will go wrong. The average motorcyclist still sees it as the driver’s job to avoid pulling in front of the bike, not his or her job to predict that possibility that the driver could make an error and be ready to take appropriate action.

The lack of mental preparation for an emergency to develop is the reason that the motorcyclist’s response is so poor. Once the expected course of events (that the driver will see the motorcycle and NOT turn into its path) is derailed, so is the the motorcyclist’s ability to take evasive action.


To my mind, the solution must be for motorcyclists to be better prepared mentally. Defensive driving is a core principle associated with reducing the risks associated with using the roads, and is accepted the world over. There are many definitions of defensive driving but the basic principles require all road users – including motorcyclists – to be vigilant and respond to changing road and weather conditions as well as the actions of other road users.

Collisions between two vehicles are, by their nature, ‘Two to Tangle’ incidents – if one road user sets up the circumstances in which a collision can happen, the other road user (in this case, the motorcyclist), still has to ride into it for the collision to occur. A defensive-thinking rider should in most cases be able to see and predict a ROWV, and take responsibility for avoiding the other road user’s error.

The biggest indictment of the ‘Ride Bright’ campaign and its successors is that they have produced several generations of motorcyclists who passively accept that the person responsible for the SMIDSY collision is the other road user. Evidence of this thinking can be seen in frequent calls by riders’ rights campaigns for stiffer penalties for “the driver who didn’t look properly”. Unfortunately, this ‘blame game’ thinking goes directly against the principle of defensive driving by absolving motorcyclists of responsibility for staying out of the SMIDSY crash.

My own belief is that the ‘Think Bike’ message needs to be turned on its head; ‘Biker THINK!’

The vast majority of motorcyclists are aware of the risks posed by the SMIDSY and as a group most motorcyclists will be receptive to suggestions as to ways to mitigate the risk of collision. If we can avoid further demonising the driver – though I am aware it’s not always a popular message – it should be possible to persuade riders to accept that the motorcyclist also plays a part in the SMIDSY collision.

For that reason, targeting bikers to make them aware of the cognitive basis for the ‘looked but failed to see’ error is likely to be far more effective than yet more interventions aimed at drivers.

The ‘Biker Down’ course currently being offered by over half the Fire and Rescue Services in the UK and the nationwide ‘Shiny Side Up’ event in New Zealand are – to my knowledge – the first official campaigns to attempt to systematically educate the motorcyclist to understand how the most careful and conscientious drivers’ search strategies can break down and lead to the ‘Looked But Failed To See’ error, and just why anticipating that a ROWV may occur is so important in terms of the motorcyclist’s response to the emergency. I wrote SOBS for the first, and was a keynote speaker delivering SOBS on the second.

Despite the currently limited reach of these interventions, there are encouraging signs that motorcyclists in general are picking up on the issues almost in spite of rider safety campaigns which continue to push the ‘Ride Bright’ line. Whilst there have been isolated pockets of debate on the issues on motorcycle forums since the arrival of the internet, many more riders now have some awareness of the cognitive issues faced by drivers, such as saccadic masking and motion camouflage. Some of the topics have even reached the traditionally hidebound motorcycle press.

It would be unwise to dismiss the use of visual conspicuity aids out of hand, but I believe that if we are ever to reduce the prevalence of junction collisions, the time is right to move away from the ‘Ride Bright’ line and instead employ rider safety campaigns which explain the cognitive issues and encourage riders to take a proactive approach to their own safety.

What’s next? Now we have a better idea of the the research, let’s take what we know, and start putting together some conspicuity strategies that are more likely to be effective.


Since you’re here, I’ve a small favour to ask. If you feel able to make a small donation to the upkeep and continued development of SOBS, why not buy me a coffee? Each contribution is much appreciated. Each cuppa keeps me awake and writing! Thank you.


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Lalani, N. and Holden, E., J. (1978) “The Greater London ‘Ride Bright’ campaign – its effect on motorcyclist conspicuity and casualties” Traffic Engineering and Control Aug-Sep 1978 pp 404-407; Greater London Council

Olson, P., L. (1989) “Motorcycle Conspicuity Revisited”, Human Factors

Rößger, L. and Glenne, M. (2014) ‘Increasing Motorcycle Conspicuity – Design and Assessment of Interventions to Enhance Rider Safety’ CRC Press

Zoi, C., Golias John, Y., G., Saleh, P. (201?) “PTW crashes and the role of perception” Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées, France. Department of Transportation Planning and Engineering, School of Civil Engineering, National Technical University of Athens. Austrian Institute of Technology GmbH, Mobility Department, Transportation Infrastructure Technologies, Austria.

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