Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Most Common Motorcycle-Car Accident

The most common motorcycle accidents do not involve other vehicles. But of the accidents involving another vehicle, the car turning left into an oncoming motorcycle is the most common.

Recently, Ted Laturnus, writer for the Globe and Mail was struck just in this manner. Ted is not a novice motorcyclist, and had written about this type of accident a few years before it happened to him.

If we want to reduce this type of accident what can we do about it? Many approaches have been suggested.

Stiffer penalties for car drivers. Motorcyclists wear bright colours, leave headlights lights on. Public awareness campaigns. Advising motorcyclists to drive as though nobody can see you. Some motorcyclists have the idea that loud exhaust pipes will overcome the "blindness" of car drivers.

In my opinion the key to ever solving a problem like this is to understand what causes it, and I'm not sure anyone has correctly identified the cause of this problem yet. I am not convinced it is simply carelessness, or selective blindness. What if this is not because the car driver did not see the motorcycle, but that it is because the car drivers' brain has not process the information coming from the eye fast enough. Think of it this way. The human brain can process "normal" visual inputs (I'm talking about seeing other cars as being "normal") very quickly, but abnormal inputs (Motorcycles) require a bit of extra thought - which delays the reaction time a half second or so. I have no scientific data on the amount of delay (if there is a delay), but it should be easy for scientists to rig up experiments to measure it. If there is a delay of even half a second, it can be the difference between life and death.

If this hypothesis proves correct, there may be ways to solve the problem. But in the meantime, here is what I think could help.

- Brighter colours on the motorcyclist will help the car driver spot them sooner, and hence give a little extra time for the brain to kick into gear. This has already been suggested.

- If the motorcyclist travels at a lower speed, this will also give a little extra mental processing time to the car driver. I am sure travelling over the speed limit makes it worse!

- Driving on the right side of the lane while passing an oncoming car may give a bit more time. (This tactic has been proven statistically, but I don't remember where I read about it.)

- When I'm worried about someone turning left in front of me, I weave the bike a little to make myself more obvious earlier.

- Sticking to divided limited access highways obviously is safer than travelling busy side streets, because it eliminates the possibility of this type of accident altogether. This is not really a "solution", but it acknowledges that we cannot solve the problem by threatening car drivers with stiff penalties.

I personally don't think the loud pipes count for anything, the car driver does not usually hear the exhaust, or pay any attention to it, or even knows where it comes from if it is heard.

Banning cell phone use would help, as this practice is making a bad situation worse, by slowing even further the reaction times.


  1. The generic classification for these accidents in the literature is ROWV - right of way violation.

    A detailed meta-analysis of motorcycle accidents was conducted for the Department for Transport in the UK revealed that, '[L]ess than 20% of [ROWV accidents] involve a motorcyclist who rated as either fully or partly to blame for the accident. The majority of motorcycle ROWV accidents have been found to be primarily the fault of other motorists' [emphasis added]. When questioned about the situation they were most concerned about, the majority of riders indicated 'collision with right turner' (equivalent to our left turner) led their list of fears.

    Studies in North American reflect similar results, and 'failure to see' - or what is referred to by some as LBDNS (looked but did not see) is a recurring theme in these ROWV accidents.

    A number of theories, including 'inattentional blindness,' have been proposed to account for this problem. In fact, the dual problem of failure to recognize something one is not expecting to see, combined with attention being distracted from the primary task (i.e. driving) appears to be a plausible explanation for this phenomenum.

    But, be that as it may, the responsibility for ROWV where LBDNS is a factor must clearly be placed on the driver of the offending vehicle.

    As long as the police, prosecuters and magistrates are unwilling to impose serious charges (in these cases, likely criminal negligence causing bodily harm or death) 'because [the driver] was so "distraught.",' drivers will not get the message that it is incumbent on them to exercise due care.

    Section 249 of the Criminal Code specifies penalties for criminal negligence causing injury in the operation of a motor vehicle: up to 10 years imprisonment.

    A $125 fine for an improper turn is simply not going get anyone's attention. Incarcerating some drivers who cause serious bodily harm or death to motorcyclists might be a step towards getting peoples' attention on this problem.

  2. Not a great day for riding today in Southern Ontario ... a near blizzard earlier this afternoon.

    One that has been proposed a number of times as a possible, or partial, solution, to ROWV accidents is the use of a headlight modulator.

    I've heard claims both that they're legal in Canada, and that cops will pull you over if you use one. I need to find some time to do research on this.

  3. Great to have just found your blog and info on ageing motorcyclists in general - it's a topic that I've been running on my blog too!

    At 63, I've just voted with my feet to upskill by training as an advanced instructor, mainly to build my skills, but also to put something back into the motorcycling community.

    Best wishes and safe riding,


  4. I still remember in motorcycle training class they taught to approach intersections like we were invisible....and if I come up to major intersections with someone who might be turning left I still remember that and approach with the thought that they don't see me in mind.....

  5. I think all drivers whether you are driving a car, motorcycle or tractor for that matter should always approach an intersection with care and always presume that the other vehicle don't see them, that may just minimize road accidents in general.

  6. Well personally I believe there needs to be more driver education/public awareness programs about motorcyclists. I've seen some commercials on youtube from Europe that appear to have aired on TV there. To top it off, drivers have so many gadgets and other stuff going on instead of being focused on the road. Here is a really good list of common distractions while driving.

  7. When you drive, avoiding distractions is the best option, if you want to avoid accidents on the road. I'm really interested in the hypothesis you've just said. It's true that following this can really help a driver to be safe.