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What you don’t see…

October 15, 2012


Why do drivers often fail to see cyclists, even when they’re right in front of them? Psychologist Ian Walker has a few theories. [PDF]

There’s actually a (very) small psychological literature on this, particularly the ‘looked-but-failed-to-see phenomenon’, which is where the rightturning driver looks at the rider but does not consciously become aware of the hazard. Unfortunately, this literature is so small it doesn’t provide very hard answers, but it’s likely the problem is drivers’ expectations, making it a topdown processing problem. The hypothesis is that drivers don’t expect to encounter cyclists at junctions and so their visual search patterns go to the parts of the road where cars and trucks are to be found, skipping the parts of the road where cyclists (and, to an extent, motorcyclists) are found. The way to test this is incredibly simple: behavioural analysis of drivers in, say, Cambridge or York (where one would expect cyclists at each junction) and Basingstoke (where one would not). We expect to see different visual search patterns – and fewer conflicts with cyclists – where cyclists are more prevalent.

Short of moving to a place where drivers can expect to see cyclists all the time, what can cyclists do to avoid getting hit?  As much as government education campaigns may tell you that reflective clothing is the way to go, it’s not always the answer, according to Walker.

David Shinar in Israel has recently been doing studies to suggest that riders’ smaller physical size plays a role in throwing off drivers’ judgements. Most interesting of all, he found that the visibility of riders depends very heavily on the background they happen to be passing at any given moment: if you’re riding in front of  a white house it’s far better to wear black than so-called ‘high-visibility’ gear. To a psychologist, it’s pretty obvious that visual contrast between figure and ground, rather than the rider’s clothes per se, is what will matter. But this seems to be a difficult message for wider audiences to swallow – they won’t let go of the idea that ‘high-visibility’ clothing is always the best thing.

Incidentally, there are other reasons to be suspicious of high-visibility gear, not least that it transfers responsibility from the driver of the metal box that creates the danger to the victim of that danger.

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