Monday, January 4, 2010

Drivers Are Not All Blind

Ride like everyone is blind and out to get you. That's good advice, but with time you are obviously going to figure out this is not really true. And then you will need to refine your mental image.

First, lets assume the truth is most drivers are sighted, although sometimes there is a time lag before they "clue in" and recognize a motorcycle as another vehicle on the road. Until then they may see the motorcycle, but this unusual sight is placed mentally in the same class as unicorns or dragons. Once their brain responds correctly, after a lag of 1 to 5 seconds usually, they realize that this object obeys the same rules of the road, and laws of physics, as a car, and they react accordingly.

Does this knowledge have any implications for your driving strategy? More often than you think, you are in a situation where a car driver has less than a second to recognize your motorcycle. Let's say you are stopped in the middle of a road, waiting to make a left turn, a big SUV is approaching from behind. At the last second, the SUV swerves around you, but then you realize there was a smaller car tailgating that SUV. That tailgating driver has less than a second to recognize you as a vehicle on the road. Other situations will occur that are more difficult to predict, such as a driver who is fiddling with their collection of CD's, then looks up at the last minute to see where their car is. Of course this is stupid behaviour, but it happens. The reason it happens is because the stupid driver has pretty good reflexes or they would have had an accident a long time ago, and learned their lesson. The problem for you, the motorcyclist, is that the stupid driver's reflexes are only fast enough when cars are involved, but that extra second delay in responding to the sight of a motorcycle is too much, and a crash may happen.

So far, you might be wondering how this is different from driving as though everyone is blind? Actually, not too different, but there is one place where you could benefit from this knowledge. Sometimes you are in a situation where you have the right of way, where the car driver is looking straight at you, and you decide to move ahead. At this point, you have forgotten, or are ignoring just this once, the rule that everyone is blind. But then the driver pulls out in front of you anyway, as if they were deliberately trying to kill you. But no, it turns out there was no homicidal intent, it was just that 2 second delay in the recognition. They simply didn't see you early enough.

One of the very worst situations for a motorcyclist is the oncoming car, making a left turn. It happens because of two visual problems. Just a quick reminder, "seeing" involves light going into the eye and making an image on the inside of the eyeball, on a screen called the retina. The brain has sensors that pick up this image and interpret what is going on, including such calculated things as size and motion of the image. The brain does not "see" everything on the retina as equally important. Big things and moving things get transmitted to the brain first. Close stuff takes priority over faraway stuff. Familiar stuff is recognized quickly, unfamiliar stuff takes more time to figure out. Now lets continue with the car turning left.

The small size of the bike on the retina of the eye makes it look further away than a car at first glance, and there is also the 2 second delay in recognition. The reason this type of accident is so bad is that you have almost no reaction time, and the car is a solid object that will bring you to a sudden stop. Sudden stops on immovable objects are very hard to survive, compared to sliding along a horizontal surface.

What can you do about this situation? If you see an oncoming car with it's turn signal on, and you are all alone on the road, you could try a slight weaving motion. This has the effect of increasing your visibility to the car driver. It's a bit hard to understand at first, but think of it this way. If a motorcycle is coming directly toward you, it presents a still image on the retina. Although it is slowly getting bigger in the car driver's eye, it is just not moving enough to get attention. The eye is better at detecting motion across the field of view. Think for example you are looking for toad on a muddy path. If that toad moves you are going to see it, until then it is almost invisible. As a motorcyclist, you want to be that moving toad, and hope the car driver is not really trying to kill you, and trust me most of them they aren't.

Photo: I photoshopped this together from an Australian Cane Toad, a motorcycle accident picture from a left turning car, and a Rebel "doo rag" from this web site. I would recommend Mr. Toad get a helmet to go over that doo rag.

1 comment:

  1. I suspect I may have linked this British analysis of motorcycle accidents previously.

    My sense is that North American findings would be quite similar (except, of course, for the fact that 'right turns' should be read as 'left turns' ;-)

    The theme that emerges (once one excludes the predictable accidents from very young, inexperienced and overly aggressive male riders) is that of ROWV (right of way violation) accidents. In those, 'less than 20% of these involve a motorcyclist who rated as either fully or partly to blame for the accident.'

    Of the three findings in that report, the first was: 'There seems to be a particular problem surrounding other road users’ perception of motorcycles, particularly at junctions. Such accidents often seem to involve older drivers with relatively high levels of driving experience who nonetheless seem to have problems detecting approaching motorcycles.'

    In my humble opinion, part of the problem is our society's attitude to traffic 'accidents.' In fact, many (if not the majority) of those 'accidents' are due to negligence - drivers simply not taking their responsibilities behind the wheel seriously enough.

    Police and crown attorney resources are limited, so charges of 'careless driving' are generally plead down to some lessor offense. The laying of a charge of 'criminal negligence,' even in serious 'accidents,' is rare.

    Even if the driver is convicted of 'careless driving' the penalty is generally the minimum $200, and the six demerit points are in most cases not enough for license suspension.

    The Ontario Highway Act on 'careless driving:' Every person is guilty of the offence of driving carelessly who drives a vehicle or street car on a highway without due care and attention or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the highway.'

    'Due care and attention'? Perhaps the Ministry of Transport needs to remind drivers that the act means 'due care and attention' to the act of driving, not to keeping up with your phone calls, email or makeup.

    As far as 'reasonable consideration for other persons using the highway ... well, when was the last time we saw any of that?