Motorcyclists literally see the road differently than drivers

Highlights of the Motorcyclist Safety Study article:

  • A Bournemouth University study found motorists don’t scan for or perceive road threats like motorcyclists
  • Not consciously following motorcyclists often stems from the way our brains process information
  • While there are ways drivers can draw attention to themselves, drivers have their own share of road safety responsibilities.

Whether your two-wheeled ride is motorized or not, it’s almost inevitable that at some point a car will cut you off. And unfortunately, this can sometimes be fatal for motorcyclists and cyclists. Wearing and maintaining proper safety gear certainly helps, but it doesn’t do much. However, given the amount of safety technology the average car carries these days, why does this continue? Well, according to a recent study, it’s probably because drivers and motorcyclists see the road very differently.

New UK research shows drivers don’t pay attention to the little things the way motorcyclists do

A line of bikers on the highway surrounded by cars | Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Even in the best of circumstances, the open road presents many dangers to motorcyclists that armored airbag jackets cannot withstand. But the first step to mitigating the danger is to identify it. And a new study from Bournemouth University in England has found that drivers seem to be unaware of some of the risks drivers notice.

PhD researcher Shel Silva, herself a cyclist, organized the study to determine how people process visual traffic information, RideApart Explain. This involved collecting eye tracking data and interviewing drivers and drivers after collisions. And the results were interesting, to say the least.

On the positive side, motorists and motorcyclists have identified large objects, such as tractor-trailers, as potential threats. Yet while drivers viewed cars as potential threats, drivers did not do the same with bicycles. Also, drivers often didn’t pay attention to motorcycles, period.

This is a significant problem for cyclists, since simple physics dictates that when a car meets a bike, the car wins. And it’s not like the noisy pipes have any effect. But the problem is not necessarily visual, or rather not only visual. It is also a mind.

Suppose they don’t see you; ride as if you were invisible; it’s a constant refrain in the classrooms of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. And if the Bournemouth University study is any indication, it seems motorists really don’t see motorcyclists. This is partly due to the blind spots of vehicles, as well as trucks and SUVs, which are getting bigger every year. But it also stems from flaws in the way the brain processes information.

How Drivers’ Brains Can Block Them From Seeing Motorcyclists

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First, the human brain is programmed to recognize certain things as potential threats. Large objects, especially large, fast-moving objects, are one of them. But a motorcycle is smaller than a car, so our brain prioritizes the car to avoid overworking itself. It’s called “selective attention,” and while it works well in nature, it’s dangerous in modern society. Also, because bikes are smaller, it’s harder for our brains to accurately judge their speed.

Second is masking, which has nothing to do with COVID-19 precautions. Masking refers to the brain’s ability to “suppress” what it thinks is unnecessary visual information, Motorcyclist Explain. For example, saccadic masking eliminates visual blurring that accompanies jerky movements of your eyes, or “saccades.” Your brain also masks the visual disturbance that occurs every time you blink. Neither is a problem at race pace, but that’s a different story at road speed. Jerky masking can cause you to miss vital information, like a biker coming in from the left.

Saccadic masking is also linked to another motorcyclist brain-related safety issue: inattentive blindness. Remember that earlier passage about how the brain prioritizes information to avoid overworking itself? Well, if a motorcycle appears during a saccade that is suppressed, our brain labels that motorcycle as unimportant. Therefore, even though your eyes see the bike, your mind will not consciously inform you that it is there.

In addition, our peripheral vision does not transmit much information. Instead, our brain fills the relatively small field of vision with things it historically knows are nearby. So if something new, such as a motorcyclist, enters your peripheral vision, your brain might not perceive or process it.

In short, when a driver says he did not see the motorcyclist, it is not necessarily because his vision is poor. That’s because evolution has trained our brains to take shortcuts.

Road safety requires drivers and drivers to do their part

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So what does this mean for motorcyclist safety? On the one hand, Silva recommends riders make “minor lane adjustments” before turning or performing other maneuvers, RideApart said. Theoretically, this draws attention to the bike, forcing the rider’s brain to prioritize it.

Wearing bright colors and/or reflective clothing also helps. The same goes for tracking a vehicle’s blind spots and staying out of them. Additionally, advanced safety technologies like blind spot monitoring are starting to trickle down to the motorcycle world.

However, road safety is not a one-way street or a one-person show. Motorists are responsible for operating their vehicles in a manner that ensures the safety of others. And that means keeping several things in mind.

First, recognize that motorcycles don’t handle, accelerate, or move like cars. Depending on where you live, this may mean understanding how filtering and channel splitting work. I highly recommend taking an MSF course, even if you don’t own a motorcycle, just to understand the mindset of the rider.

Second, even if your car has blind spot monitoring, know that it is not a substitute for attention. As the IIHS recently demonstrated, ADAS technology is far from perfect. And it’s meant to help, not replace the driver.

Third, keep in mind your brain’s “shortcuts” when driving. Don’t scan the road in large chunks, you might miss something. Check your blind spots before changing lanes or turning. And force yourself to pay attention to small objects.

After all, we are all on the same road.

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About Frances R. Smith

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