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
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,
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
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
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.