In Attentional Blindness

George_Tranos_Outside_EdgeIn Attentional Blindness

By George Tranos

If you’re a regular rider (or driver for that matter), it’s obvious that other drivers just don’t see motorcycles. Here in the northeastern United States, motorcycles make up a very small percentage of the overall number of vehicles on the road. Even during the height of riding season, drivers are just not used to seeing bikes. They are conditioned to see and avoid larger vehicles like other cars, buses and trucks. Motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians do not normally pose a threat to car drivers and as a result they don’t look for them.This not seeing what is right in front of you is called inattentional blindness. Studies have shown that focusing on one specific task can blind you to other things happening around you. This lack of situational awareness can be disastrous for motorcyclists. This means that drivers are just not looking for us and don’t see us even though we are right in front of them. We blend into the background and appear invisible.

On top of this, many drivers today are so distracted by other things that their perception and reaction times are already slowed. Using cell phones, texting, adjusting music, eating, programming navigation systems and interfacing with other vehicle passengers are all things that drivers are doing that take away from their primary task of driving. So in addition to not seeing us because they’re not used to having motorcycles around, they react poorly and slowly because they are distracted. They run right into the back of a big yellow school bus and say, “I never saw it!” Don’t expect them to seeing you on your small motorcycle.

So what can you do as a rider to lessen your risk around these types of car drivers? Your best bet is to assume that you’re invisible! As my friend, Ralph Angelo, wrote in “Help! They’re all out to get me!: The Motorcyclists guide to surviving the everyday world,” you should ride thinking that other drivers not only don’t see you but want to hurt you. If you do this, then you should develop a riding strategy to reduce risk.

One strategy espoused by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) is SEE – Search, Evaluate, Execute. You should search for any hazards and identify them early. To do this you should scan far ahead (MSF suggests 12 seconds ahead) for any cars, pedestrians or other dangers that could imperil you. Next you should evaluate and prioritize each hazard. Form a plan to answer the question, “what if?” Finally, execute your plan should the hazard develop.

In order to effectively implement your strategy, your riding skills must be fully developed. You should routinely practice swerving and threshold braking so you can perform these things when the need arises. If you’ve never practiced these skills, you will probably overreact when the time comes to use them. Threshold braking requires a gentle to firmer squeeze of the front brake lever to allow the motorcycle’s front suspension to compress so that the front tire is loaded with traction first. Grabbing the front brake lever too rapidly is a sure recipe for a front tire skid and subsequent low side crash on a bike not equipped with anti-lock brakes. Progressive braking is a skill that must be practiced in order to approach maximum braking performance just prior to the threshold of skidding. If your front tire skids, you should immediately release and reapply with less pressure. Swerving is another crash avoidance technique that requires practice. Swerving requires a press on the handgrip in the direction of the swerve and a second press back in the opposite direction to recover. The throttle should be held constant during the swerve as all available traction must be available for cornering. Any acceleration or deceleration lessens the traction available during the swerve.

Some riders also try to increase their conspicuity to help other drivers to see them. A rider using a white or light colored helmet has historically been under represented in crash statistics. Other items that can help you be seen are a brightly colored jacket or vest with retro-reflective material and additional driving lights on your motorcycle. Some riders swear by the additional lights especially those that form a triangle (three points) of lights that can make your bike appear larger when it is coming at you.

Whatever you do, being aware of other drivers’ inability to see you will help you approach them with additional caution. Intersections have historically been the most dangerous place for riders as drivers turn left across their path claiming to not have seen them. Riders can improve their odds by identifying these situations early, slowing down, adjusting lane position and covering their brakes.

While it is incumbent upon all motor vehicle operators to avoid collision, everyone should be responsible for their own safety. Unlike cars, motorcycles don’t have crumple zones or airbags to protect us. Avoiding the crash should be your safety mantra.