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Why Don’t Drivers See Motorcyclists? Science Explains Why!

Saccadic Masking: How Science Affects Your Driving Skills

Updated August 17, 2018

You might be thinking: “That driver didn’t see me because they didn’t even bother looking,” but that’s not always the truth. As a motorcyclist, it’s easy to feel like you’re being bullied by other road users – remember that car that cut you off? Or that SUV that swerved in your direction? – but the truth is that most four wheeled road users aren’t going out of their way to cause you trouble, they simply didn’t see you. And the problem is this: sometimes they did genuinely look out for you, but they just failed to see you. Thanks to a bit of science that has been clearly explained in the video below, we can see that many car drivers can actively look for you, and still fail to detect your presence. But that doesn’t mean that you should go and apologize to that guy who knocked you off a little while back, because he’s definitely still at fault…

Saccadic Masking 1

The problem isn’t about looking. It’s about looking properly. A quick glance simply isn’t good enough. In fact, two quick glances in either direction aren’t really good enough either. A driver could have the keenest eyes in the world but they’d still fail to detect an approaching motorcyclist if they’re not looking with intent. It’s not about the quality of the human eye – it’s about lapses in the brain.

Saccadic Masking 2

This phenomenon is called saccadic masking. In short: the brain selectively fails to process certain eye movements, and replaces them with a very recent memory. Why does it do this? Because if we actually saw what our eyes were processing, it would be a blur. Confused? Give this great video from the Alliance of British Drivers a watch, and it will explain everything in a clear and concise way.

On top of that, some excellent research from the Texas Tech University also explains another major problem with our observation skills. It’s down to a simple matter of size, distance, and speed. According to extensive research by Prof. Pat DeLucia, the vast majority of people (in general – not just car drivers) believe that smaller objects are generally much further away than they appear, and that larger objects are closer. If you translate that to the roads, cars are often assumed to be a clear, present and immediate danger, while motorcycles, being smaller, are assumed to be too distant to be a problem.

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Prof. DeLucia came to her conclusion after conducting a series of experiments with real people and computer simulations. The simulations offered the participants two choices after viewing two approaching objects of different sizes, posing the question “which will arrive first?” Naturally, the result ended with the larger object getting the most votes, even when it was traveling slower than the smaller object. In brief: the human mind generally prefers to believe that larger objects travel faster, and this isn’t particularly good for the “quick glancing” car driver – distance and speed are a huge part of driving… You can read more about Prof. DeLucia’s findings in her “Current Directions In Psychological Science” study. It’s very enlightening.

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Even with these two great explanations about the human mind and our observational limitations, it doesn’t give road users an excuse to do whatever they want purely because their brains failed to process certain details – so what can we do about it? Firstly, we should all try and put the new method of observation mentioned in the video into practice, and try and share this knowledge around and make our fellow road users think a little more. Secondly, we’ve really got to stick by the old theory that other road users haven’t see you, and we should always reduce speed accordingly whilst approaching intersections, or give a burst of the horn if we think we need to. Being noticed is the most important thing.

We’re not going to be able to smooth out the observation problem overnight though, so definitely spam everyone you know with the usual “car pulling out in front of rider” style crash videos until the world realizes that this is quite a serious problem… This old video from the UK below has always been a favorite of mine…

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Joe Appleton
About Joe Appleton

I’ve done a bit of work here and there in the industry – I’ve even ridden a few bikes for actual money but what it comes down to is this: I ride bikes, build bikes and occasionally crash ‘em too. I like what I like but that certainly doesn’t make my opinion any more valid than yours…

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