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Seven reasons SMIDSYs happen

This is another early article which seeks to understand the 'Sorry Mate I Didn't See You' SMIDSY collision between a motorcycle and a car, and to go beyond the simplistic 'driver didn't look' explanation. I've left it unchanged bar fixing a couple of typos and adding some extra comments based on my more recent investigations. As I explained in the earlier article, it's important for us motorcyclists to realise that the SMIDSY is a 'Two to Tangle' collision. That is, if the driver SETS UP the conditions in which a crash CAN happen, the motorcyclist still has to RIDE INTO IT to complete it. One of the common factors revealed by accident analyses by expert collision investigators is that many of these crashes COULD be avoided IF the rider:

  1. saw it coming
  2. responded in time

But looking at crash stats we're no better at avoiding them than motorcyclists back in the 1950s. Collisions at junctions remain the most common collision between a car and a bike. So here are SEVEN REASONS SMIDSYs HAPPEN.

Another day, another 'biker down' forum thread. What happened? The rider is minding his own business on a main road, a car pulls out from left, the rider takes trip to hospital in the back of an ambulance. It's so common, it's something that virtually all riders are aware of.

But of course, it also generated the usual non-thinking "drivers 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.

[Recent stats suggest that around 1 in 5 junction collisions happen when the rider isn't where the driver could see the bike. It's not just roadside furniture but also the internal structures of the car too. Seeing a car isn't good enough. Seeing a car isn't good enough.We need a line of sight to the driver for the driver to have a chance of seeing us.]

2 - the '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 solid shape that the brain 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.

[I originally included the word 'possible' when talking about the 'camouflage' effects of lights and multi-coloured bike/clothing. But I've taken it out. Why? My research into the studies on conspicuity shows that it's a real effect.]

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

['Motion camouflage' - our difficulty in detecting something that is moving straight towards us - and the consequent 'peripheral blindness' were known about decades ago in the biological sciences and are behind the hunting patterns of many animals. But only recently has the issue been recognised as applying to humans attempting to detect other vehicles. The suggestion about a positive change of line came originally from an instructor buddy of mine. The eye IS sensitive to lateral movement in peripheral vision, and he develop the idea further into the Z Line, which I talk about in my Science Of Being Seen (SOBS) presentations, and also on the SOBS blog.

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.

[Known as the size-arrival effect, which leads to drivers under-estimating speed and over-estimating distance of bikes compared with cars and vans.]

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)

[This is a learning phenomenon. The brain consumes huge amounts of the body's energy supplies so it employs techniques that reduce energy consumption, and one of those techniques is learning short-cuts that have the same effect. We're taught to look for vehicles when we are waiting to emerge at junctions, but it's not a very effective strategy on a busy road, because what we need to spot are the gaps! Research initially suggested this was a problem for experienced car drivers who learned by experience, but other studies have suggested ALL road users - motorcyclists included - learn very rapidly indeed that a strategy of 'looking for other vehicles' fails at busy junctions, so that we switch to searching for gaps. In nearly very case, it works (if it didn't, every single junction would be littered with smashed cars) but occasionally it doesn't. The risk now is that a vehicle close up to us goes missing because we've focused behind it on the gap. And we pull out, unaware there is a vehicle between us and the gap. It's often a motorcycle but whilst some research suggests that whilst drivers make just as many SMIDSY errors in front of other cars (which we might expect), other research indicates that - adjusted for exposure - motorcyclists also pull out in front of other motorcyclists almost as often.]

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....

[This comment highlights the 'Two to Tangle' issue - the rider caught out by the SMIDSY crash can normally see it coming for several seconds before things start to go wrong, but doesn't use this time effective to prepare. It also hinted at the driver's problem of 'saccadic masking', which is an effect where our vision shuts down when we're turning our heads quickly - it's to help preserve balance and prevent the nausea caused by the background rushing past our eyes - think travel sickness. The very latest research - in September 2019 - also suggests that when traffic gets heavy, drivers don't just lose track of motorcycles, they forgot they saw one. It's another weakess of the brain - it has a limited 'buffer' in which these short-term visial memories can be held ready for processing.]

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.

[Thus hinting at the concept known as 'workload', which I've talked about in another article. It's significant - the driver looking to turn out of a junction has a LOT more to monitor than the rider approaching the junction.]

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.

Then you're much less likely to be taken by surprise and require the same ambulance trip to hospital.

[One expression I repeat over and over on my Survival Skills advanced motorcycle training courses is "What if...?". That's what we need to ask as we ride, but we also need to come up with a "Then this...!" solution to that problem.

Motorcycle Roadcraft talks about the need to be able to deal with "what we can reasonably expect to happen". In fact, that's not nearly enough. What's 'reasonable' won't SURPRISE! us. Thinking ahead, and most of all considering what might go wrong (rather than expecting things to go right) helps us get us mentally prepared for the 'unreasonable' events that could catch us out, so it's the Worst Case Scenario that we need to be ready to deal with. And that could be the driver who appeared to have plenty of time to see us, yet is beginning to turn into our path. THAT is what we have to 'expect to happen' if we are to deal with a developing SMIDSY in a timely manner.]

Kevin Williams
Survival Skills Rider Training

...because it's a jungle out there


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What is Survival Skills all about?

How are Survival Skills Courses put together and taught?
The Making of a Good Instructor - musings on my Driver Education course

Would a National Standard for advanced training be appropriate?
Writing a riding tip - what detail is necessary?
What to do if you've had an accident
Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths

Improver or advanced, pragmatism or perfection?
Piling on the miles
Compartmentalisation & Practice -  the key to learning new skills
Countersteering - Question and Answer

Braking Rules and Tips
Over-confidence and Riding at the Limit
Practice makes Perfect
The Danger of Misunderstanding
Learning from your Mistakes
A Moment of Inattention
Staying Warm
Staying Awake
Don't just ride for yourself, ride for others
Filtering - what's legal and how to do it
Cornering Problems 1 - Lean or Brake?
Springing into Summer - polishing off the winter rust
Group Riding - Rules and Tips
Awareness of Risk and Risk Management
Cornering Problems 4 - Stability and the "Point and Squirt" technique
Cornering Problems 3 - Staying out of trouble! Pro-active Braking or Acceleration Sense?
Cornering Problems 2 - Staying out of trouble
What is Risk?
Avoiding Diesel
The Vanishing Point - is it enough?
Posture - the key to smoother riding
When the Two Second Rule is not enough
Riding in the Dark
Roundabouts - straight lines, stability and safety
Slow Speed Control
Aquaplaning - what it is and how to deal with it
Rear Observation - when to & when not to!
Staying upright on icy roads
KISS - 'Keep it simple, Stupid' or Low Effort Biking
Overtaking Safety - avoiding vehicles turning right
Proactive versus Reactive Riding
Living with  Lifesavers
Which Foot? The Hendon Shuffle - Question and Answer
Carrying a passenger - Question and Answer
Riding in the rain
Riding in strong winds
Sorry Mate, I didn't see you - an analysis of SMIDSY accidents
Ever gone into a corner too hot and had it tighten up on you?
The Point & Squirt approach to corners
A time to live...
Target Fixation - Question and Answer
The Lurker, the Drifter and the Trimmer
The five most important things I learned as a courier
Overtaking - Questions and Answers
Precision riding - or keeping it simple?
Wide lines, tight lines, right lines - the law of Diminishing Returns
Surface Attraction
Euphoria - when your riding is just too good to be true
Straight line -vs- trail braking
Sit back, close your eyes, relax... and hope for the best
Before you overtake, do you...?
Do you need to blip the throttle on a downshift?
Holiday Riding Tips 1 - Dealing with hairpins (a new occasional series)
Holiday Riding Tips 2 - The (drive on the) Right Stuff
Why SMIDSYs happen
Avoiding dehydration - riding in hot weather
Riding errors - and avoiding them
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - riding in fog
Where does Point and Squirt come from?
Overtaking - lifesavers and following distances
Offsiding - what is it, and why you should think before you do it!
Anger Management - dealing with "red mist" and "road rage"
That indefinable gloss
Overtaking on left-handers - experts only or best avoided?
Apex or Exit - what's important when cornering?

Developing 'Spidy Sense'

Armchair Riding - how to improve summer skills in winter

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 1

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 2

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