Drivers May Not See You,
Even When They’re Looking Right at You

The volunteers file in one by one. They are told they will be watching a film clip and be asked a few questions about it afterwards. You might want to STOP and click the link to see a version of what they saw and test yourself before you continue. 

In the film, there are two teams, each with their own basketball, one dressed in black and one dressed in white. The volunteers were tasked to count the number of times the white team pass the ball. The film starts. One, two, three, four, they count to themselves. At the end of the clip, the volunteers are queried. Most of them counted correctly; there were 34 passes. Then, they were asked a few more questions ending with, Did you see the gorilla?

“The gorilla? What gorilla?” They respond, aghast.

Halfway through the film clip, which runs for about 1.5 minutes, a student dressed as a gorilla walks into the centre of the play area, stops, beats her chest a few times, then walks off the other side. Only fifty per cent of the film watchers see the gorilla, even though it is in plain sight for nine seconds.

Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons conducted the original experiment. In their book, The Invisible Gorilla, they ask, “What made the gorilla invisible?” They explain, “This error of perception results from a lack of attention to an unexpected object. It goes by the scientific name, inattentional blindness.”

Chabris and Simons tracked people’s eye movements, and many film watchers had missed the gorilla even when they’d looked directly at it. They didn’t see something they didn’t expect to be there and had no relevance to their task. Scholarpedia.org defines inattentional blindness as “the failure to notice a fully visible but unexpected object because attention was engaged on another task, event, or object” That’s what happened with the film-watchers and the gorilla.

The reason drivers don’t see you when they are looking right at you is because you are the gorilla.

So, now you know why drivers may not see the motorcycle directly in front of them, even when it appears they are looking right at it? They didn’t expect to see it, so they don’t, even when it is right in front of them, just like the gorilla. Especially when their attention is diverted to other driving issues (e.g., a big truck entering the scene) or non-driving issues (e.g., a phone conversation).

Attention seems to be a zero-sum game. That is to say, if we have ten attention chips and use seven of them up doing one task, we only have three left to handle all the rest. But the driver doesn’t have to be on the phone to be distracted. What if they are in a hurry because they’re late for work (4 chips), upset because of a fight with their kids, spouse, parents, or partner, etc., just as they walk out the door (3 more chips). That leaves just 3 to notice your motorcycle, something, if they aren’t motorcycle riders, they likely don’t expect to see.

It doesn’t make them bad drivers, just human. After many experiments, Chabris and Simons discovered that no skill allows one group to notice and another not. For all of us, drivers of cars, trucks, and motorcycles, sometimes we notice, and sometimes we don’t. And, we’re oblivious to the times we don’t see unless a critical situation arises. We drive or ride on, happy as a clam, unaware of our peril or that we might have put someone else in danger.

So, are we forever at risk?

The answer is yes and no. Chabris and Simons also discovered that we suffer from the illusion of attention. That is to say, most of us think we will recognize something unexpected even if we’re focused on something else. It is an everyday illusion that affects us and can lead to life-threatening situations. But there’s hope. They tell us that “…becoming aware of the illusion can help us take steps to avoid missing what we need to see.” There’s more good news. When researchers at New York University revisited the gorilla experiment, they found that we are pretty good at spotting things that stand out. In the original, the gorilla walked onto the set, stood in the middle, beat its chest, and then walked off. It was the same height as the other volunteers and the same colour, black, as one of the teams. In the new experiment, film watchers noticed the gorilla when it ran on, beat its chest, and then ran off. Similarly, film watchers noticed the gorilla when it walked on, jumped up and down like a gorilla, and then walked off.

Our motorbikes can easily blend into the background like the original gorilla. We are especially at risk when approaching directly towards a fellow driver because our profile is small. Not only is it easy to blend into the background, it is hard for drivers to comprehend the speed we are going.

So, how can we act like the gorilla in the second experiment? In, Motorcycling The Right Way: Do This, Not That: Lessons from Behind the Handlebars, Ken Condon gives us some sage advice. “You can combat this by gradually moving from one side of your lane to the other to cross the driver’s field of vision. Choose an approach angle that creates the greatest contrast of motion between you and the background. Even a lane width is often enough to separate you from the landscape and alert drivers that you are in motion and help them more accurately judge your approach speed.” Of course, that is only one tactic to deal with intersections. We’re going to discuss others in our next post.

We can also increase our ability to stand out by wearing hi-viz gear to help set us apart from the background. There is controversy about how much this helps, but at least in this rider’s mind, it can’t hurt.

But, the biggest error a motorcyclist can make is assuming that drivers see them, especially when the driver is looking at them. That said, once we are aware of the illusion of attention, we can improve our chances by being hyper-vigilant, minimizing our distractions, and always assuming that drivers don’t see us, even if everything indicates they do. 

That’s all for now. Get out there, ride safe, and be seen.

In case links break here are the links:
For “see a version of what they saw and test yourself” : https://youtu.be/vJG698U2Mvo
For “Scholarpedia.org”: http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Inattentional_blindness

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