Why SMIDSYs happen

We had one of the usual "biker down" threads on Visordown.com the other day. Rider minding his own business on main road, car pulls out from left, rider takes trip to hospital in the back of an ambulance. And of course, we had the usual non-thinking "cars kill bikers" response.

So, if we can drag ourselves out of the blame culture the entire country seems to be slipping into, let's see if we can work out why SMIDSYs (Sorry Mate, I didn't see you) still happen, one hundred years after the first intrepid riders powered off on two wheels.

There are some pretty well documented problems.

1 - the "see and be seen" issue - you have to be where the driver can physically see you for him to have a chance. This is still one of the hardest for both drivers and riders to get their heads round, and many safety campaigns have been based on looking for bikes - I passed some signs in Devon on the subject only the other week. But at the end of the day, the average driver is looking for the same kind of vehicle he's driving - another car.

So, it's vital the rider understands that and the first thing the rider has to do is to LOOK for places where vehicles pull out. If you do that, then you can work out what the driver can and can't see, and put yourself where the bike can be seen. It's no good just to know the junction is there, you have to open up a line of sight to the driver's eyes. Do that and at least you give the other bloke a chance to make the right decision.

Put yourself in the wrong place, and unless Superman is driving, you're invisible.

2 - the possible "camouflage" effects of lights and multi-coloured bike/clothing - riding lights, hi-vis and bright clothing don't necessarily help you be seen.

It might seem obvious that day riding lights and bright clothing help you be seen, but there is plenty of evidence that lights actually "hide" the bike behind them, particularly if you are one of those riders who now ride on main beam. In fact you disguise yourself in a blur of light that makes it difficult to pick out size (and thus distance) and speed.

Hi-vis clothing depends on contrasting with the background. Ever looked at a yellow hi-vis vest against spring foliage? Almost the same colour. An orange bib will be invisible if you happen to be outlined against an RAC van. Oddly enough, the colour that probably stands out best is pink - ask yourself how often do you see something pink as you ride? Nothing in nature and few buildings or vehicles!

Multicolour clothing and paint schemes tend to break up the visible outline that the eye detects as "bike and rider". It's known as dazzle camouflage and has been used to hide targets by disguising their outline. The eye works by recognising shapes the brain has memorised and "flagging" them for more attention (think vintage car owners waving at each other!).

Break up the outline and in certain circumstances unless a driver is particularly "clued in" to bikes, the shape of the a bike doesn't leap out amongst other traffic and shout "BIKE", and you can vanish from the driver's perception. I well remember a tale told by a friend of jumping out of her skin when confronted with two ghosts in the local churchyard, one with no legs, the other headless. It was only when they greeted her that she realized it was two locals from the village. The woman's shock of grey hair vanished against the grey stonework of the church and the man was wearing dark grey trousers that were invisible against the sloping path behind them.

3 - the difficulty of picking up an object headed directly to the view that isn't moving across the background - a motorcycle approaching a driver at a junction is on a collision course until the last couple of seconds and will only appear to "grow", not to move.

The eye only has a very narrow cone of clear focus. The rest is a blur in your peripheral vision. What the brain does is a very clever job of flicking the eye from point of interest to point of interest (see the comment on shapes above), focussing the eye on them, and then filling in a picture of the whole. In certain circumstances, some information will be disregarded and other information will be misinterpreted - ever had one of those weird experiences where you think you see an object at the side of the road and it turns out to be a plastic bag in a hedge? I well remember seeing a bear one evening, clear as anything. Turned out to be a couple of dustbins.

It's difficult to judge speed and distance if something is heading straight to you - witness the difficulty of correctly judging a steepling catch or hitting a lob in tennis. There's no reference of movement against the background to judge your position and timing. It's much easier to catch or hit something you have to run to, because you have that constant movement as reference.

A possible technique is to ensure that you make a positive change of line as you approach a junction with a waiting driver - the movement may be picked up by the driver's eye

4 - the psychological effect of size - viewers overestimate distance and underestimate speed of small objects. Once again it's been well demonstrated by research that drivers have trouble spotting bikes, and then even more trouble working out where they are and how much time the driver has to make the manoeuvre.

Another factor I've read about that has an effect:

5 - experienced drivers fail to scan the whole distance between where they are and the gap they are about to emerge into - they subconsciously assess the kind of road they are emerging onto and look straight into the distance - a bike CLOSER than that gap will be out of the central focus and thus will be invisible until the movement across the background is noticed in peripheral vision which will only happen when the bike is right on top of the viewer (see 3)

And some of the considerations I've thought about recently:

6 - the emerging driver has to look two ways at once... this automatically much more than halves the amount of time he has to see you (think about it - he has to turn his head then refocus in your direction!). Just because you've had the driver in clear sight for 10 seconds and thus have had plenty of time YOURSELF to identify and assess the risk, doesn't mean the driver has had more than a couple of seconds to spot you - and if he looked in the wrong place....

7 - the emerging driver has a very complex set of tasks - they have to engage the right gear/slow/stop/steer on the final approach, check both ways, make sense of the information being gathered and plan their own manoeuvre.

By comparison, the approaching rider has a much more simple set of tasks - spot the vehicle at the junction, decide if they can be seen/have good clearance/are on a good bit of surface, decide if they need to slow.

Whatever the reason for a SMIDSY, it makes sense to be proactive - to make preparations for things going wrong - check behind, cover the brakes (possibly even set them up by applying them lightly) and prepare to brake or swerve.

That way you're much less likely to be taken by surprise and then taken to hospital.