SUMMARY – if you’re a driver, you need to understand how you’re likely to make the ‘looked but failed to see’ error before it happens… far from being ‘dangerous’ or ‘badly-behaved’ road users, both the driver and the rider in a SMIDSY are likely to be riding and driving as they usually do… move your head from side to side to check behind the car’s blind spots… turn your head more slowly and remember that bikes can be harder to spot… on busy roads take a moment longer to give bikes chance to appear from where they might be hidden… on faster roads take a moment longer to see how quickly bikes are moving…
So far, SOBS has been aimed at bikers. However, it’s likely to have crossed your mind that I’ve said nothing about the driver – a comment that’s been made on a number of occasions: “yes, SOBS is all very well, but what about the driver who makes the mistake?”
It’s a valid question but I will make still two points:
- the first – as I have mentioned several times already – is that the SMIDSY crash is a ‘Two to Tangle’ incident – the driver can set up the circumstances in which a collision can happen, but the crash can only happen if the motorcyclist rides into it. As many of the collisions ARE avoidable is the rider sees it coming, AND the rider comes off worst, I am convinced that is really is a reasonable way of approaching the problem of junction collisions.
- the second is a bit more complex but draws on what’s known as epidemiology. You may have heard this term used in medical studies. In essence, it’s the study and analysis of the distribution (who, when, and where) of health issues and their treatment. We have a similar problem with junction collisions. There are two populations, drivers and motorcyclists. One group – the drivers – cause the collisions. The other group – the motorcyclists – suffer the consequences. Which group does one treat? The obvious answer is to tackle the drivers because they cause the crashes. But they outnumber motorcyclists around 100 to one. For every driver that DOES cause a SMIDSY, there will be 99 that don’t. We only have limited resources, so if we think in terms of where we’re most likely to do most good with a limited budget to fund interventions to prevent the collisions, ‘innoculating’ the motorcyclist rather than attempting to ‘cure’ the driver is probably the best option!
Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean we should absolve drivers of responsibility and so the rest of this page is aimed at how drivers can do their bit too. So if you’re a biker reading this, what I suggest you do is send the link to some of your car driving friends.
So from here on, I’ll assume you’re a driver.
Image Nikola Treći
First things first. My experience is that debates revolving around ‘responsibility’ are generally a waste of time when it comes to things that go wrong on the road, and particularly fruitless when it involves motorcycles and cars. Because the motorcycle is nearly always the ‘no-fault’ vehicle, many bikers firmly believe that the problem rests entirely with the driver, and that the motorcyclist is simply the victim of the crash. Put a motorcyclist and a driver together to discuss the SMIDSY and things often get quite heated, quite quickly. Thanks to our blame culture, the starting point is almost always whose ‘fault’ it was, with both sides starting with accusations; “the driver didn’t look properly” says the rider, “the biker didn’t make themselves visible” says the driver. The argument ramps up; “the driver was distracted”, “the biker was riding too fast”. If it gets really heated, logical thinking totally evaporates as the two sides retreat behind statements such as: “all drivers are out to kill bikers”, “all bikers have a deathwish”. At that point, any fruitful discussion is at an end, yet a moment’s rational thinking on either side would show that the two statements are nonsensical.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a debate on driving forums as a biker and a driver go this way as they get stuck into each other. Yet it should be blindingly obvious to both sides that this kind of dialogue takes us nowhere. In fact, it leads to mutual antipathy between two groups of road users who desperately need to understand each other better. Understanding can only happen if we have a better grasp of facts, and that’s why I’ve spent a lot a of time in the previous pages attempting to debunk some motorcycling myths about the SMIDSY.
So in the interest of balance, and to create a better understanding of the problem for drivers, here’s the first myth; “drivers don’t look properly”. Well, if you didn’t, you’d not get very far – you’d be bouncing off things all day long. The road safety industry always talks about how many crashes occur because someone ‘not looking properly’, but what we never hear is how many crashes there aren’t. The true proportion of ‘looked but failed to see’ collisions as a total of all the potential incidents is tiny.
Here’s the second; “drivers put bikers at extra risk”. It’s only actually true in one particular manoeuvre – and that’s when you are turning into a side road or entrance with a motorcycle coming the other way.
Here’s another; “distracted drivers are a common cause of motorcycle accidents”. Once again, the evidence doesn’t support it. Yes, there ARE distracted drivers out there and driving distracted by a phone or something else certainly ups the risk. But the fact is that collisions where driver distraction plays a significant part aren’t as common as we tend to believe – in fact, just one fatality out of just over fifty was put down to a distracted driver in the last set of figures I have for fatal motorcycle crashes in London.
And one last one; “it’s the dangerous bikers who are at risk”. Well, speed certainly affects the CONSEQUENCES of a collision and even the best protective clothing can do little to protect a rider who hits a car at speed. But the evidence suggests that the vast majority of collisions occurred when the motorcyclist was NOT speeding and was actually within the speed limit.
So the important point for YOU to take away is that the vast majority of collisions between cars and bikes involve ordinary drivers and bikers, both of whom are doing ordinary things that they’ve done thousands of times before without a problem. In short, the person most likely to cause a SMIDSY is not ‘bad driver’ but you, the one thinking you’re doing everything right.
OK, that sounds a bit accusatory, but it’s down to the way our safety culture that has to apportion blame after a crash. The assumption is that careful road users don’t make mistakes, and so crashes only happen because of carelessness. In reality, we’re human, and humans err. Even careful drivers err, and most crashes involve drivers who a moment earlier believed they were being careful.
So, having got that out of the way, what’s my advice to you, the careful driver who wants to avoid putting motorcyclists at risk at junctions?
UNDERSTAND THE BIKER: Picture the scene. The rider is ambling along, in no rush, probably with the headlight on (there’s been no off switch on new machines for a while now) and perhaps wearing hi-vis clothing. The rider sees a vehicle ahead waiting to make a turn. With a clear line-of-sight, the rider sees the driver looking in his direction and assumes that the driver has seen the approaching motorcycle. And then the driver pulls into the bike’s path.
Because drivers massively outnumber bikers here in the UK, from the individual driver’s perspective it’s a rare error – you WILL see most bikes and you may never have pulled into the path of a motorcycle, let alone actually caused a crash. But the numbers work both ways – because bikes are massively outnumbered by cars and other vehicles, this scenario will have happened to virtually anyone who rides a powered two-wheeler (PTW). In fact, from the average biker’s perspective this ROWV happens over and over and many riders have crashed as a result of not being seen! But unless the rider understand the issues, the only common-sense explanation that explains how a driver looks at him or her but fails to see the approaching bike is “the driver didn’t look properly”.
Image Cyrus Gomez
In fact, there are three possible explanations:
- you ‘couldn’t see’ the motorcycle
- you ‘looked but failed to see’ the motorcycle
- you ‘looked, saw and misjudged’ the motorcycle’s speed and distance
You looked but couldn’t see the motorcycle: Motorcycles are small. They are easily hidden. They disappear behind other vehicles and roadside obstructions. It can happen when you’re emerging from a side turning, and even when you’re turning right – remember, a bike is narrow and what look’s like a gap may have a PTW tucked over near the centre-line and still out of sight. Whenever possible position to see all of the oncoming lane, and if you can’t see all of it, remember a bike could be hidden.
Maybe you would argue that it’s the biker’s job NOT to hide in this way (and I’ve talked about opening up lines-of-sight in my advice to the bikers), but there’s absolutely nothing the rider can do about the blind spots in your car. Over the years, the windscreen pillars and the vertical support pillars behind the front doors have all got a lot thicker in order to provide a better safety cage within the vehicle. Because PTWs are tall and narrow they will easily disappear behind them, even when they are scarily close. Remember, the bike could be coming from right or left and if your car is at an angle to the road, then the bike could be concealed by the door pillars, even your passenger or the headrests. If the bike happens to be behind the pillar when you look in that direction… SMIDSY.
One regularly proposed solution is “take longer to look” – the idea is that the bike will reappear around the pillar after a moment. But that’s not necessarily the case. If the motorcycle’s line-of-approach happens to be directly along the line-of-vision blocked by the pillar then it’ll stay hidden almost to the point of collision. This can happen when the car is stopped, or when both vehicles are moving. This is sometimes called the ‘constant bearing problem’ and is better known in nautical and aviation circles. The only solution is not just to take a longer look, but to physically move your head from side to side so as to clear the view behind the pillar blocking your view.
You looked but failed to see the motorcycle: As I said earlier detection failures are massively outnumbered by the detection successes but that’s what makes it hard to understand why you can look and not see a motorbike in plain sight. First of all, you only have a narrow cone of focused vision and like all of us, your vision flicks around the from point to point, building up a composite picture of what’s around you. But you don’t see everything. Your involuntary attention is attracted towards some objects more than others. Other cars, trucks, buses etc are strong attractants and pull your vision straight to them. Unfortunately, motorcycles are narrow and even when riders use hi-vis clothing and lights, they are weak attractants and harder to spot than a car. It can happen when the motorcycle is being followed by a car. If you only see the car somewhat further off and think you can pull out safely in front of it, you’ve just set up the circumstances in which a SMIDSY can occur.
Frequently, it’s the motorcycle’s movement across the background that draws your attention, but if the angles line up just right (wrong?) as the rider approaches the junction where you are planning to make your turn, it’s possible that there isn’t any significant movement against the background. That’s known as ‘motion camouflage’ and even though the motorcycle is in clear sight, it can be overlooked. You never become aware of it, at least, not until it’s right on top of you.
Here’s another problem. As your eyes are drawn to the strong attractants you momentarily focus on each (a fixation) – a fraction of a second later you become consciously aware of whatever it is – you ‘see’ it. And then your eyes move onto the next attractant. As the eyes move from object to object, your vision skips right through areas where nothing attracted your attention. The really bad news is that when your eyes move quickly from one object to another, the brain shuts down the visual feed because the movement would be disorientating and upset your balance. What you actually see is a series of snapshots but you don’t realise this happens because your brain cleverly fills in the blind area (known as saccades), but the consequence is that you can look at one car, switch your gaze to the next, and if that hard-to-see motorcycle between them hasn’t registered sufficiently to cause a fixation, you simply won’t see the bike. The problem is worst when waiting to pull out of a side road – you’re looking from left to right and much of what’s between those snapshots goes missing. Maybe you’re thinking this seems unlikely… but drivers pull into the path of other cars, even buses and trains, because they never spotted them! Turn your head fast enough and anything can fall into a saccade and never make it to your conscious awareness. The solution is simple – turn your head more slowly to give the harder-to-detect objects a chance to jump out and into your consciousness.
You also learn where vehicles come from, so that’s where you look. Of course, as a car driver you’re thinking in terms of where your own car would be. That’s partly why drivers miss filtering motorcycles and cyclists – you’re looking in the wrong place. Don’t just look at cars – look either side of them.
Image by Anh-Duc Le
Of course, you probably think that when looking to turn at a junction, you’re looking for vehicles. It doesn’t work like that. You rely on the ability of vehicles to attract attention to alert you to their presence, but in fact what you’re really searching for – and bikers do just the same – is search for gaps in the stream of traffic. All road users rapidly learn to look where they expect to see a gap, and that’s where your eyes automatically move. And if that PTW hasn’t caught your attention, you won’t see it – only the gap. and in front of them. Avoid quick glances. If that means missing the opportunity to turn into a tight gap, it means it was too tight. Turn your head more slowly, take longer to search the scene and if you think you have spotted a gap, scan all the way back towards your car. If you’ve missed a motorcycle, that’s where it will be – already almost on top of you.
You ‘looked, saw and misjudged’ the motorcycle’s speed and distance: It’s true that motorcycles are often moving a bit quicker than the traffic around them (they accelerate faster so it’s not surprising) but this one is usually down to something called the size-arrival effect. The motorcycle arrives before you expect, shocking you and because you don’t misjudge the speed of cars very often, your automatic conclusion is “the biker must have been speeding”. Nope, it’s a weakness of the human brain – it’s not very good at judging speed and distance of small objects like motorcycles. It calculates that there’s more time to complete the manoeuvre than there really is. Once again, there’s a simple solution to this misjudgement problem – having seen a motorcycle, just pause for a second to watch it. That way you can double-check that it’s really as far away and travelling as slowly as you thought it is.
Don’t rush: A factor in junction collisions is attempting to make the turn in a rush. It’s not always a driver – a scooter rider nearly SMIDSY’d me when I was in the car not so long ago. Snap decisions are the ones that go wrong. Take a little bit longer. Don’t ‘glance’ but LOOK. Don’t look once, look TWICE.
Think Once, Think Twice, Think BIKE! It’s probably one of the most-well known bike safety slogans and it dates back to a public information film of the mid-70s, yet it still has a point today. It’s easy to forget that there are bikes on the road when you don’t see them very often. OK, that’s pretty much impossible if you drive in London or other major cities but remember wherever you drive, just because you haven’t see a bike doesn’t mean there isn’t one heading towards you. When the road is full of other cars, vans, trucks and buses, just remember to ask: “is there a bike there too?”
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de Craen, S., Doumen, M., Bos, N. & van Norden, Y. (2011) “The roles of motorcyclists and car drivers in conspicuity-related motorcycle crashes”, Stichting Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek Verkeersveiligheid SWOV, Leiden, Netherlands
Pintoa, Cavalloa and Saint-Pierre (2014), “Influence of front light configuration on the visual conspicuity of motorcycles”. Accident Analysis and Prevention 62
Helman, S., Weare, A., Palmer, M. & Fernandez-Medina, K. (2012) “Literature review of interventions to improve the conspicuity of motorcyclists and help avoid ‘looked but failed to see’ accidents”. TRL Road Safety Group 5 PPR638
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