19 January 2022

Why drivers look but do not see


Following on from my last blog which looked at ‘safer overtaking’, another common factor in the road incidents I have worked on, not just recently at MLS, but in my 26 years as a Police Officer, is the question of ‘why drivers look, but do not see’?

The most common cause of motorcycling fatalities is where another vehicle pulls out into the path of a rider when exiting from a junction onto a main carriageway. Such collisions are often categorised by the Police as ‘Looked but failed to see’ errors.

It has always baffled me how a driver can look right or left, yet fail to see an approaching vehicle and, most commonly, an approaching motorcyclist.

Motorcycles are less conspicuous than cars whilst travelling on a road because they are smaller, slimmer and against some backgrounds, they can be hard to pick out.

After attending a collision, we would complete a ‘Stats 19’ form providing details of the accident circumstances, with a separate section for each vehicle involved, each person injured and the final part of the form being ‘Causation Factors’, or the Reporting Officer’s view as to how and why the collision had occurred. 

Under the driver/rider error or reaction column is a box labelled ‘Driver failed to look properly’. This was often the box which was ticked.

Failed to look properly - Stat 19 FormThe ‘driver failed to look properly’ issue is certainly not a new phenomenon, so why has this factor never been addressed and what can we do to remedy this?

If we take a closer look at this type of collision we can break it down into the two elements involved, the motorcycle rider and the vehicle driver.

The motorcyclist's perspective

To avoid such collisions, it’s our responsibility to make ourselves more obvious to drivers.

You should be familiar with Regulation 86 of the Highway Code which states: 

For motorcyclists riding during the day, make yourself as visible as possible from the side as well as the front and rear. You could wear a light or brightly coloured helmet and fluorescent clothing or strips. Dipped headlights, even in good daylight may also make you more conspicuous. However, be aware that other vehicle drivers may still not have seen you, or judged your distance or speed correctly, especially at junctions.

Highway Code - Reg 86So, the Highway Code gives motorcyclists advice on what to wear so that they can be seen better.

With this in mind, have a look at the next image.

Look but don't see motorcycle in the distanceThe rider in the image above is following most of the advice from the Highway Code. They are wearing a white crash helmet, the headlight of the motorcycle is illuminated and they have adopted an offside position to maximise the distance between their motorcycle and the front of the emerging vehicle.

However, even then, is he easily identifiable? Would you have noticed him if he hadn’t been circled for you? If he was travelling at 60mph, do you know how long it would take for him to reach the junction? So, does what you wear actually make a difference?

The Driver’s perspective

Here I am discussing those drivers who pull out of junctions without looking properly. I’ve sat and read about various ‘experiments’ which have been conducted by different organisations in order to establish exactly why drivers ‘look but do not see’. From what I have gathered, there appear to be numerous explanations. Several believe that it’s due to the ‘size-arrival effect’. As a driver stops at a junction waiting to turn right, his judgement is affected by the size and shape of the approaching vehicle and the perceived threat or danger level associated with that vehicle should they pull out of the junction and collide with it. A large HGV approaching from the right poses far more of a danger and a higher risk of injury than a 50cc moped, so a car driver will not pull out in front of one.

Other studies talk about size and shape of the approaching motorcycle and contrasting backgrounds and how the eye focusses on larger moving objects as opposed to a smaller, thinner motorcycle. Or, as in the image above, the motorcycle simply blends into the background of other vehicles and the surroundings.
Another factor might be the inability of car drivers to judge the approaching speed of a smaller vehicle, such as a motorcycle, with or without the headlight illuminated.

From my own personal experience, I can agree in principle with all of the ideas I have read, but they appear to miss one crucial factor which I think is quite important, and that’s ‘time’.

No one has enough of it and everyone seems to be in a rush to get from A to B as quickly as they can.

Why should drivers have to stop at a ‘give way’ sign if they can roll up to the junction, have a quick glance left and right, and keep on moving across the white line and on with their journey? This is why I think collisions of this type occur; drivers not taking long enough to ‘actually look’, not taking enough time to firstly establish what vehicle is approaching and secondly, how fast they are approaching.

I see this every time I take someone out for their Advanced Motorcycle test as part of the IAM Roadsmart programme.

As the rider approaches a roundabout, they are taught to look to the right to ‘get their gap’. As I follow behind, I watch the rider look, once, twice, three times, four times, sometimes more, to the right as they approach the white line entering the roundabout. Then, they look again to the right after they have crossed it and committed to the roundabout.

I think this is a great example of looking but not seeing. When I do their debrief at the end of the test, I ask them to imagine standing on the roadway, in the same position on the road as their bike was as they approached the roundabout, and take a photograph, then taking a few steps forward and taking another photograph and so on. By looking to the right briefly for 4 or 5 occasions, that’s exactly what they are doing. I then ask them to imagine looking at one of the photographs they have taken and to tell me the speed of the approaching car. They usually stand and shrug their shoulders and say, ‘I can’t’. That’s exactly my point. I tell them to stop taking ‘photographs’ that provide no information and actually look right and keep looking right until they have taken in the speed and direction of the approaching vehicles. That, to me, is Advanced riding.

As we all know, there is a difference between ‘looking’ and ‘seeing.’
So, how do we address this issue?

There doesn’t seem to be any direct answer. Can we change how the brain works and perceives things?

Do we replace every ‘give way’ sign with a ‘Stop sign’ in the hope that coming to a stop will make drivers take the time to look properly? On a more achievable level, how about changing the way new drivers are taught to deal with junctions, with more emphasis on looking out for motorcycles.

The list of things we can suggest for drivers is endless.

However, as motorcyclists, if we can’t address the problem with the car drivers, then we need to do something about it ourselves. We need to change our riding manner and our way of thinking in order to avoid junction collisions. The scenario of the driver pulling out because they did not see will not go away in the near future. I think that’s something we can’t actually change, but we can do things to help ourselves.

It shouldn’t be a case of a rider thinking ‘I’m on the main road and I have right of way’. Yes, you’re probably right, but if the vehicle driver pulls out and you collide with a car at 60mph, you might not live to tell the tale.

Another phrase I dislike is, ‘I could see the driver looking at me’. What if he is looking past you, at the emergency vehicle a short distance behind you, with its blue lights flashing?

We need to change that thought process and adapt how we ride in certain situations.

Car pulling out in front of motorcycle at a junctionApproaching a junction with a vehicle waiting to emerge on to the main road, you should ask yourself ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ With this in mind, instead or riding past the front bumper of the vehicle at the speed limit, we need to adjust our speed and position. Slow down, and move to a position away from the front of the vehicle, but bear in mind not to move too close to opposing traffic. You need to balance the hazards. If you still feel uncomfortable riding in the position that you’re in, then the only option you have left is to reduce your speed even more. Above all, never sacrifice safety for speed.

Another tip, if you are riding behind a vehicle, or several vehicles that are turning off to the left ahead, and there is a vehicle waiting to emerge out of the junction, don’t ride directly behind the vehicle in front of you. Move to the nearside and make yourself more visible to the waiting driver and also reduce your speed. As the car in front of you turns off, move away from the front of the waiting vehicle as you near it.

I always slow down and watch the front wheel of any vehicle waiting at a junction as I approach, looking for wheel rotation. Has the car actually come to a stop? Is the vehicle still moving? I don’t look for ‘eye contact’ How can you possibly look into a driver’s eyes from a distance away and be sure the driver is looking at you or even be sure he has seen you? If the vehicle is still moving as it approaches the junction, I slow down more. Once I have passed the hazard, a quick mirror check and I’m back on the throttle, if it’s safe.

If car drivers don’t look out for us, we need to look out for ourselves!



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