Sorry Mate, I didn't see you - an analysis of SMIDSY accidents

Most bike riders these days also have a car licence and drive a car, usually as their main means of transport, using the bike for fun or sometimes commuting. Yet to listen to a lot of the discussion that goes on about "witless cagers" you'd be hard-pressed to realise that.

But given that we nearly all drive cars, and our old friend the SMIDSY accident still accounts for the majority of car/bike accidents aren't we likely at some time or another to have made exactly the mistake that we pillory drivers for? How many of us when on four wheels have done the unthinkable and pulled out on a bike?

As one honest contributor to Visordown said: "Now if I can do this, what chance for the poor booger in his Mondeo who has got no idea of what we are about... what still bugs me is that, if they'd run into me, I'd have heard myself saying, in total honesty, as I helped sweep them to the side of the road: "Sorry mate, I didn't see you"".

I've mentioned before on VD that I nearly took out an R1 when they first came out... poor gloomy light, twin headlights apparently a long way off against a background of trees, me wanting to pull across the path of the oncoming vehicle and turn right, so all I needed was a gap sufficient to make it to the other lane.

Seemed safe enough so I started to go...

But something wasn't quite right about the movement of the lights across the dark background and I hit the brakes again, stopping about halfway across the line.

Just as well I did! By the time I'd refocused on the oncoming vehicle, it was obviously a bike, moving at a fair lick, and MUCH, much closer than I had realised.

Two thoughts struck me at the time. The first was that the widely spaced lights on an R1 DO look like a car further off - I went home and even on the GSXR where they are much closer together, immediately put a different coloured bulb in one headlight - technically illegal but it's my safety I'm worried about here.

The second was that the rider hadn't apparently reacted to me at all. He was just going to sail completely oblivious into the accident I was about to cause. Yes, technically my fault, but did he have to have it with me? Could he not have done something positive himself? There was no blast of high beam and/or horn, no anchoring up, no swerve to the other side of the road (it was clear, remember or I wouldn't have been about to pull out).

OK, so let's take a reality check.

Cars do pull out on bikes. Fact.

In around 90% of them, the bike is on the priority road, so technically it's the car driver's mistake. Fact.

But if we, as bikers, can STILL make that mistake when on four wheels, knowing all we know about cagers doing it to us when we're on two, it's worth looking at in more depth.

I've previously suggested proactive strategies for dealing with SMIDSY incidents, but let's ask some questions about why drivers don't see bikes. If we can understand why things go wrong, it may make more sense as to why it's US as riders that have to deal with the situation, rather than use the "it was the other guy's fault, I had right of way, he should have seen me" excuse.

There are a whole bunch of reasons to worry when you approach a junction:

    There is the driver with simple defective eyesight - plenty of them around...
    There is the driver who doesn't look properly - too many in-car distractions, be it children running amok, the mobile phone demanding immediate attention or just singing along with Des O'Connor...
    There is the driver who does see you but chooses the wrong course of action - is the driver inexperienced, merely incompetent, or not used to the vehicle being driven? Ever had a car towing a caravan pull out in front of you and wondered why? I never get anywhere near hire vans for the same kind of reason...
    There is the experienced and overconfident driver who looks, thinks he has seen everything but "blanked" the bike because he only sees what he expects to see. New drivers and experienced drivers score very differently in hazard perception tests - new drivers check EVERYTHING in sight but cannot prioritise, experienced drivers check SELECTIVELY, prioritise better but often miss the unusual (ie the bike)...
    There is the driver who makes a conscious decision to use you as the gap in the traffic, knowing you will give way - "the bike is softer than a 44 tonner" approach...

Even given that the driver knows what to look for, is actively looking for it, knows what to do and isn't a chancer, doesn't mean he'll see you coming. There are a number of reasons.

Most modern cars have huge blind spots:

    take a look at the size of the A pillar alongside the windscreen on a modern car. They are designed to make the safety cage of the car rigid in an accident and stop the roof from folding up - it's no coincidence they are the size of girders!
    take a look at the pillar behind the driver's head where the doors come together - again it's huge
    take a look at the pillar behind the rear window - once again it is part of the safety cage

Depending on the angle the car takes up, it's quite possible the driver cannot see through you one of these obstructions, and there is always roadside furniture like telegraph poles, trees and letter boxes - if you can't see his eyes, he cannot see you.

But drivers still don't see you when they are looking straight at you and you are in clear view. Why not? Two possible causes. An accident analysis I saw the other day suggested that a contributory factor was "visual clutter" - there was so much going on in the direction the driver was looking that she simply didn't see the bike. The brain was incapable of processing all the information being thrown at it in the time available and bits went astray. Unfortunately, amongst that lost info was the bike.

The second possibility is down to the way the eye and the brain work in tandem to process visual information. It may mean we see things which aren't there or be blind to things that are. Even a conscientious driver, looking carefully, may misinterpret what he sees.

The central part of the retina is what sees detail in sharp focus - it's why you have to look directly at a piece of paper to read what is written on it, but both this and the zone outside this is very sensitive to movement. Try this simple experiment - your eyes will have to move word by word to read this sentence, but if you move the mouse you can see it move over the whole of the screen wherever your eyes are focussed. As you ride, you'll often spot motion out of the corner of your eye (a plastic bag flapping in a hedge or a car approaching in a side road) whereas the driver looking back at you is using the sharp focus part of the eye and may not see you because you don't appear to be moving.

How might he miss seeing you? The brain spots familiar objects by using pattern recognition - as social animals we are very good at recognising faces. As drivers/riders we've trained our brain to recognise other important shapes - the silhouettes of another vehicle, the outline of a pedestrian, the pattern of a road sign. The problem is that we learn to recognise these patterns as whole - break up the outline and it vanishes - try recognising a face which is missing the eyes or the mouth! One VD contributor posted an excellent picture of a "dazzle" camouflaged ship painted in bold strips of grey and blue - it was invisible not because it blended into the background but because the strips gave the eye false outlines to try to make sense of, none of which said 'SHIP'.

When approaching a waiting driver, in certain lights conditions or against certain backgrounds, part of your 'bike plus rider' outline may vanish - so the shape that reaches the part of the brain busily processing this information doesn'ts shout 'BIKE' to the driver's conscious reactions. If you are approaching head on, without adding movement across the background, there is nothing to alert them to the fact they have missed a vital clue until you get very close and the angle of view starts to change.

And as if all that weren't enough that could go wrong, even if the driver does spot you, how does he go about judging your speed and distance?

Well, if an object is heading straight at you, it's very difficult - switch to sport for a moment. If you've ever tried to make the high steepling catch where the batsman has hit the ball straight up, you'll know that it's not that easy to judge the catch as it comes down again - even the best players make a mess of it. You have to use an estimate of distance based on what your experience tells you about the apparent size of the object, then use the rate of change of the size of that object to determine what speed you think it's approaching at, and when you need to cushion the catch.

By contrast a straightforward lob to the boundary is relatively easy to catch even if you have to run to meet it because we use the movement of the ball across the background to give us an extra angle to calculate where it is in 3D.

The driver sitting looking at a bike heading towards him is in the motoring equivalent of that up-and-down catch. At the high closing speeds possible on a motorcycle, it becomes almost impossible to judge distance, speed and time at all accurately.

And whilst we're digesting that, another thing to consider... it's not just driver to your left you have to worry about, what about the driver turning across your path from the opposite direction? You have little time to react and are likely to add the oncoming vehicle's speed to your own, and the driver has to factor in their own speed and distance to the turning point. That accident accounts for a whopping 21% of Killed and Seriously Injured in London, despite being the minority accident. By contrast, vehicles emerging from the left account for only 7% of KSI.

Where's my coat, I'll think I'll take the bus instead!