“I see.” said the blind man!

This article will explore the concept of “Inattentional Blindness” and how it applies to passenger vehicles that turn or pull in front of motorcycles and violate their right-of-way.  It will also discuss strategies we, in the police motorcycle community can use to reduce it from happening to us.

[3] Inattentional Blindness(IB) occurs when we fail to notice an unexpected object or event, which is fully visible.  We readily see the object if we are looking for it, but we fail to see it because our attention is on other things.

One of the most well-known demonstrations of IB is a video [4] that shows a group of people passing a basketball back and forth.  Half the group is wearing white uniforms and the other half black uniforms.  Participants in the study are asked to watch one team or the other, and count how many times the ball is passed from one player to another player on that team. Almost one third of the people watching the video fail to see a person in a gorilla suit walk through the middle of the game.  It is not a trick, once you are told about the gorilla you see it.  We don’t expect to see a gorilla and we are concentrating on looking at, and counting the passes between players.  This effect is IB.

The item in the video that is not seen: the gorilla, is referred to as the incongruent stimuli.  It is hiding in plain sight.  Often when we are riding our motorcycles on streets and highways we are the incongruent stimuli.  We are there but the other drivers don’t see us.  Studies show us that intersections are one of the most dangerous places for motorcycle collisions due to other vehicles violating our right of way.  I believe a significant portion of these collisions are due to Inattentional Blindness.  We all have seen that look of shock and surprise from a car driver after we have carried out a collision avoidance maneuver when they have violated our right-of-way and we present ourselves beside them to let them know the error of their ways.  The British have an acronym for this type of incident.  They call them SMIDSYs which is an acronym for Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You.

SMIDSYs are very real and potentially very dangerous.  We utilize a systems approach to riding to help us identify potential threats and hazards while riding, and we train, practice and engrain collision avoidance techniques like braking and counter-steering so we can escape from these events that can cause us harm.  Now that we know about Inattentional Blindness we should do everything we can to prevent getting into a situation where other drivers might not see us and avoid having to utilize a collision avoidance maneuver.

Motorcycles makeup somewhere around 2% of the vehicles registered in North America.  Take into account seasonal riding and the fact that many motorcycles are used leisurely; our actual percentage of the motoring population may be lower than that.  Bottom line: The other traffic does not expect to see us.  You may be surprised to learn that the car driver’s most likely to commit a SMIDSY move are experienced drivers.  Studies show that experienced drivers adapt through time to perform driving as an automated process, neglecting uncommon vehicles that may be encountered on the highway even if they are conspicuous.  The “experience” a car driver gets over a number of years develops his or her “Perceptual Set”.  This means what you expect to see, determines to a large extent what you actually see.  They are used to not seeing motorcycles, so they don’t see us when we are there.

[3] Simmons, D., (2007) Scholarpedia http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Inattentional_blindness
[4] Simon & Chabris (1999) http://www.simonslab.com/videos.html

Many good programs have been instituted to try and change or minimize the occurrence of SMISDYs due to IB using signs, commercials and bumper stickers to warn motorists to watch out for motorcyclists.  These are all worthy ventures but I think we need to institute a little more control over our own destiny.

Due to the small front profile of motorcycles an effect called “Looming” does not help us the way it helps larger vehicles. This lack of looming can contribute towards a SMIDSY event.  To understand the looming effect we must first understand some aspects of human perception processes. [3] When an object is moving towards or away from the human eye it is called Z-motion.

When an object is moving laterally across the field of vision of the human eye it is called X-motion.

[3] Motorcycle Action Group (2006) How close is to close? www.network.mag-uk.org/…/How%20Close%20is%20Too%20Close.pdf

The human eye picks up and perceives X-motion much easier than it does Z-motion. Looming is the rate of expansion of an object that is exhibiting Z-motion.  An object will double in size with each halving of the distance from the viewing point. Due to the small front profile of a motorcycle when it is coming towards you from a distance its perceptual size does not increase as rapidly as a larger vehicle and so the human eye has trouble perceiving that the object is approaching.

Further complicating things is something called ‘Motion Camouflage”.  This phenomenon has been studied in the animal kingdom by observing dragonflies.  Research [4] as shown that a predator (dragonfly) can move rapidly towards its prey while appearing stationary, and therefore remain undetected. By following a prescribed pattern of motion that continually places the attacker between the target and some landmark the predator does not create any X-Motion and exploits it’s minimal Z-motion.  When riding motorcycles we may inadvertently hiding ourselves in the background.

To recap: The odds are stacked against us.  The other drivers don’t expect to see us, so they don’t.  The human eye has trouble perceiving a small object coming directly towards it and we may be hidden from view due to being camouflaged into the background landscape.

How can we fight back?

For one, be aware of Inattenional Blindness and ride as if the other drivers don’t see us.  Be acutely aware of situations where you may be invisible.  You can reverse engineer the problem and determine if you are creating any X-motion. Pick an object in the distance out in front of you, say a signpost or tree.  Observe the object in relation to the elements behind the object.  If you do not see any lateral movement in the object that should tell you that you are not producing any X-motion and your Z-motion may not be perceived.  Be alert, your cloaking device may be on.  Some people advocate creating X-motion by weaving within the lane to increase your chances of being seen.  I can agree that it may work, and I don’t rule it out as a defensive strategy but I personally would rather not add more tasks to my busy riding responsibilities.  I would rather recognize that I am in an increased risk environment and put my energy into awareness and potential avoidance strategies like rolling off the throttle, covering the brake and identifying my escape routes and potential avoidance techniques.

If they are not used to seeing us, then let’s give them something they are used to seeing.

According to a study[5] undertaken by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the move to increased daytime running lights(DRLs) on passenger cars degrades a motorcycle’s ability to be seen.  That is, as DRLs have become more commonplace on passenger cars, drivers become accustomed to searching for two headlights (passenger car front profile) and overlook or subconsciously fail to see the smaller, single light front profile of the approaching motorcycle.  To overcome this IB effect I propose that two motorcycles riding side by side increases their front profile by mimicking the front profile of a passenger car with two headlights.  They are used to seeing two headlights so we will give them two headlights to see.


[4]Australian National University,(2003) Dragonflies prove clever predators  http://info.anu.edu.au/ovc/media/Media_Releases/2003/030605Dragonflies

[5] NTSA (2005) The effects of motor vehicle fleet daytime running lights (DRLs) on
motorcycle conspicuity www.nhtsa.gov/DOT/NHTSA/NVS/…/Binder_DRLS.pdf

I do not take this notion lightly and I have previously written an article supporting police motorcycle officers riding side by side.  You must have good training, good people, good skills, good policy and discipline if you want to do it right.  But here is one major benefit of partner riding.

But you may not have a partner, or your department may require you to work solo, so what can you do?  The $30,000 answer is: increase your conspicuity.  Conspicuity [6] is ‘the ability of a vehicle to draw attention to its presence, even when other road users are not actively looking for it”.  Many studies like the Hurt Report have decried the value of light colored helmets, reflective clothing and lighting.  But we know, even with all these things on our side, they may not see us due to IB because they are not looking for us.  How can we “pop” out of the background?  I encourage and endorse the use of improved lighting to get the other driver’s attention.  I think a modulating or oscillating headlight is an effective attention getter and maybe useful for daytime use when motor units are responding with emergency lights activated.

A study on the improvement of daytime conspicuity of motorcycles [7] by the German Federal Highway Research Institute concludes the addition of two daytime running lights (DRLs) to the front of a motorcycle significantly improves its conspicuity.  The traditional setup of DRLs on a motorcycle is to place them in close proximity to and on either side of the headlight.  I believe from a distance it just becomes one big light and defeats the purpose.  I am a proponent of developing a frontal lighting triangle to improve conspicuity.  A company named Motolight® produces one of the best products out there suitable for this purpose [8].  Motolight® is a manufacturer of durable and easy-to-install halogen auxiliary motorcycle lights designed for use on virtually any type of motorcycle. The lights allow riders to See, Be Seen and Be Safe™ while on the road. They are available in a variety of mounting options, styles and finishes.  The preferred location for the auxiliary lights is on either side of the front calipers.  This creates a lighting triangle that will make you pop out of the background landscape.

 I see said the blind man photo 1 “I see


[6] FEMA (2009)  Emergency vehicle visibility and conspicuity study http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/fa_323.pdf
[7] Federal Highway Research Institute (2009) Improvement of daytime conspicuity of motorcycles. www. bast.de/…Daytime-Conspicuity…/F1-Daytime-Conspicuity-PTW.pdf

[8] https://motolight.wpengine.com