What an RAF pilot can teach us about being safe on the road

RAF fighter pilot“Sorry mate, I didn’t see you”. Is a catchphrase used by drivers up and down the country. Is this a driver being careless and dangerous or did the driver genuinely not see you?

According to a report by John Sullivan of the RAF, the answer may have important repercussions for the way we train drivers and how as cyclists we stay safe on the roads.

John Sullivan is a Royal Air Force pilot with over 4,000 flight hours in his career, and a keen cyclist. He is a crash investigator and has contributed to multiple reports. Fighter pilots have to cope with speeds of over 1000 mph. Any crashes are closely analysed to extract lessons that can be of use.

Note: You can now download the original article by John Sullivan which includes further insights: Dropbox link.

Our eyes were not designed for driving

We are the result of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. Our eyes, and the way that our brain processes the images that they receive, are very well suited to creeping up on unsuspecting antelopes and spotting threats such as sabre-toothed tigers.

These threats are largely gone and they’ve been replaced by vehicles travelling towards us at high speeds. This, we’ve not yet adapted to deal with.

Why?

Light enters our eyes and falls upon the retina. It is then converted into electrical impulses, that the brain perceives as images. Only a small part of your retina, the centre bit called the fovea, can generate a high-resolution image. This is why we need to look directly at something, to see detail.

The rest of the retina lacks detail but it contributes by adding the peripheral vision. However, a mere 20 degrees away from your sightline, your visual acuity is about 1/10th of what it is at the centre.

Try this scary test to see quite how much detail you lose in your peripheral vision

  1. Stand 10 metres away from a car.
  2. Move your eyes and look just one car’s width to the right or left of that car.
  3. Without moving where you eyes are now looking, try and read the number plate of the car.
  4. Try the test again from 5m.

The test shows you quite how little detail you are able to truly capture from the side of your eyes.

That’s not to say that we cannot see something in our peripheral vision – of course we can. As you approach a roundabout, you would be hard pressed not to see a huge lorry bearing down upon you, even out of the corner of your eye – obviously, the bigger the object, the more likely we are to see it. But would you see a motorbike, or a cyclist?

To have a good chance of seeing an object on a collision course, we need to move our eyes, and probably head, to bring the object into the centre of our vision – so that we can use our high-resolution vision of our fovea to resolve the detail.

Here’s when things get really interesting

Your brain fills in the blanks

When you move your head and eyes to scan a scene, your eyes are incapable of moving smoothly across it and seeing everything. Instead, you see in the image in a series of very quick jumps (called saccades) with very short pauses (called fixations) and it is only during the pauses that an image is processed.

Your brain fills in the gaps with a combination of peripheral vision and an assumption that what is in the gaps must be the same as what you see during the pauses.

This might sound crazy, but your brain actually blocks the image that is being received while your eyes are moving. This is why you do not see the sort of blurred image, that you see when you look sideways out of a train window.

The only exception to this, is if you are tracking a moving object.

Another test to try

If you are not convinced, try this test.

  1. Look in a mirror.
  2. Look repeatedly from your right eye to your left eye.
  3. Can you see your eyes moving? You can’t.
  4. Repeat the test with a friend and watch them. You will see their eyes moving quite markedly.

You can’t see your own eyes move because your brain shuts down the image for the instant that your eyes are moving. This is called Saccadic masking.

In the past, this served us well. It meant we could creep up on antelopes without our brain being overloaded by unnecessary detail and a lot of useless, blurred images.

However, what happens when this system is put to use in a modern day situation, such as a traffic junction?

Why we miss motorbikes and bicycles

At a traffic junction all but the worst of drivers will look in both directions to check for oncoming traffic. However, it is entirely possible for our eyes to “jump over” an oncoming bicycle or motorbike.

The smaller the vehicle, the greater the chance it will fall within a saccade.

motorbike in a saccade

This isn’t really a case of a careless driver, it’s more of a human incapacity to see anything during a saccade. Hence the reason for so many “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you” excuses.

The faster you move your head, the larger the jumps and the shorter the pauses. Therefore, you’ve got more of a chance of missing a vehicle.

We are effectively seeing through solid objects, with our brain filling in the image.

Additionally, we tend to avoid the edges of the windscreen. The door pillars on a car therefore create an even wider blindspot. This is called windscreen zoning.

The danger of playing music

Our ears help us build up a picture of our surroundings. However, inside our cars or with music playing, our brain is denied another useful cue. Additionally, bicycles are almost completely silent, so won’t be heard by car drivers.

How accidents happen

Let’s say you are driving along. You approach a junction and you notice a lack of traffic. You look left and right and proceed forward. Suddenly you hear the blast of a horn, as a motorbike flashes in front of you, narrowly avoiding an accident.

What just happened?

On your approach, you couldn’t see there was another vehicle on a perfect collision course. With a lack of relative movement for your peripheral vision to detect and the vehicle being potentially hidden by being near the door pillar, you miss it entirely.

Lulled into a false sense of security you looked quickly right and left, to avoid holding up the traffic behind you, and your eyes jumped cleanly over the approaching vehicle, especially as it was still close to the door pillar in the windscreen. The rest of the road was empty, and this was the scene that your brain used to fill in the gaps! Scary, huh?

You were not being inattentive – but you were being ineffective.

Additionally, if you didn’t expect there to be a cyclist your brain is more likely to automatically jump to the conclusion that the road is empty.

Now that you’ve been warned. What can you do?

motorbike can't be seen

Forewarned is forearmed, so here’s what we can do.

Drivers:

  • Slow down on the approach of a roundabout or junction. Even if the road seems empty. Changing speed will allow you to see vehicles that would otherwise be invisible to you.
  • A glance is never enough. You need to be as methodical and deliberate as a fighter pilot would be. Focus on at least 3 different spots along the road to the right and left. Search close, middle-distance and far. With practise, this can be accomplished quickly, and each pause is only for a fraction of a second. Fighter pilots call this a “lookout scan” and it is vital to their survival.
  • Always look right and left at least twice. This doubles your chance of seeing a vehicle.
  • Make a point of looking next to the windscreen pillars. Better still, lean forward slightly as you look right and left so that you are looking around the door pillars. Be aware that the pillar nearest to you blocks more of your vision. Fighter pilots say ‘Move your head – or you’re dead’.
  • Clear your flight path! When changing lanes, check your mirrors and as a last check, look directly at the spot which are going to manoeuvre.
  • Drive with your lights on. Bright vehicles or clothing is always easier to spot than dark colours that don’t contrast with a scene.
  • It is especially difficult to spot bicycles, motorbikes and pedestrians during low sun conditions as contrast is reduced.
  • Keep your windscreen clean – seeing other vehicles is enough of a challenge without a dirty windscreen. You never see a fighter jet with a dirty canopy.
  • Finally, don’t be a clown – if you are looking at your mobile telephone then you are incapable of seeing much else. Not only are you probably looking down into your lap, but your eyes are focused at less then one metre and every object at distance will be out of focus. Even when you look up and out, it takes a fraction of a second for your eyes to adjust – this is time you may not have.

Cyclists and motorcyclists:

  • Recognise the risk of being in a saccade. High contrast clothing and lights help. In particular, flashing LED’s (front and rear) are especially effective for cyclists as they create contrast and the on-off flashing attracts the peripheral vision in the same manner that movement does. There’s nothing wrong with leaving these on during the day. (Especially if they are rechargeable)
  • The relatively slower speed of bicycles means that they will be closer to a point of collision if a vehicle begins to pull into their path. Turn this to advantage – when passing junctions, look at the head of the driver that is approaching or has stopped. The head of the driver will naturally stop and centre upon you if you have been seen. If the driver’s head sweeps through you without pausing, then the chances are that you are in a saccade – you must assume that you have not been seen and expect the driver to pull out!
  • Recognise that with a low sun, a dirty windscreen or one with rain beating against it drivers are likely to have less of a chance of seeing you.
  • Take a cycle training course – this will teach you where you need to be positioned on the road, how to use your eyesight to make sure drivers pay you attention and other useful techniques that can minimise dangers. See: How to make your next bike ride safer than the last.

What should we do with our human weakness?

John Sullivan’s findings and suggestions are excellent. However, they rely on drivers changing well embedded habits. Personally I believe that, unlike RAF pilots, a driver is very unlikely to change their behaviour. Therefore, I’d suggest that this is another reason we should be looking at building safety in to our roads, with Dutch style cycling infrastructure.

Two important takeaways for cyclists: Increasing your contrast helps you be seen. Think flashing bike lights. Also, remember the importance of good road positioning.

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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

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173 Responses to What an RAF pilot can teach us about being safe on the road

  1. Tony 22/12/2012 at 7:54 am #

    it is interesting that in the Netherlands flashing lights are banned. any explanation for that?

    • hank 26/04/2013 at 6:18 pm #

      it is historic I think, legislation from way back.

      *all* bicycles had dynamo powered lights and maybe it was introduced to stop people getting away with faulty lights and dodgy connections, in Holland you get fined or riding without lights.

      http://www.rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/fiets/vraag-en-antwoord/wat-zijn-de-regels-voor-fietsverlichting-en-reflectie-op-een-fiets.html

    • greg 26/08/2013 at 8:11 am #

      probably because emergency vehicles use flashing lights;
      most jurisdictions used to ban flashing lights for this reason.

    • Koen van Leeuwen 26/08/2013 at 11:00 pm #

      Flashing lights are not legal, but the police says it’s better to have a (flashing) light than no light. Therefore flashing lights are tolerated.

    • Vincent 24/10/2013 at 11:45 pm #

      Same thing in France. Legally, flashing lights are reserved for emergency vehicules, but I assume this is an old law that hasn’t been updated to take into account small flashing lights for bicycles.

    • Dosman 22/11/2013 at 12:28 pm #

      A flashing light may be more visible for you, but it is also more difficult for you to determine the distance between you and the flashing light in comparison to a steady light
      (see here: http://www.bikeforums.net/archive/index.php/t-835454.html and here: http://bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/2294/safety-data-which-is-safer-head-tail-lights-which-blink-or-emit-a-steady-beam).

    • michael gill 05/12/2013 at 2:48 pm #

      I’m not convinced by flashing lights. Your light could be flashed on during a driver’s saccade, and flashed off for the couple of milliseconds their eyes stop near you.

    • John 08/12/2013 at 11:54 am #

      I don’t like the flashing lights , as they irritate my light sensitive epilepsy

    • kat 11/12/2013 at 10:50 am #

      Ive always thought that it was banned due to causing epilepsy attacks. Not 100% sure though. I also wouldn’t recommend flashy lights as when sitting in huge truck. I sometimes did not see flashy lights because when I looked and the flash was off, then you scan the other way and look again. All of a sudden there is a cyclists coming out of your blind spot. (Ps I was in passenger seat for research)

    • Q.B. 28/03/2014 at 2:12 pm #

      Dutch sold Mahattan for peanuts centuries ago. Their politicians don’t look like to be the sharpest knife in the drawer.

  2. MrCommuter 31/12/2012 at 11:39 pm #

    Tony: Our road infrastructure is not suited to cycling like it is in the Netherlands. In this country we have to jump through hoops to compensate for the safety shortfall.

  3. Kim Hardwick 02/01/2013 at 12:31 pm #

    A great article. Would it be ok for me to copy this information for use in my transport blog?

    • John Sullivan 02/01/2013 at 1:48 pm #

      Very kind of you to ask Kim – please feel free to spread the word – the more people that read and understand this then the safer the roads will be. Note that you can download the original article from the link in the first paragraph. Please post a link to your blog – I am always interested to see how this information is received…

      ATB, JS

      • Bernard 03/01/2013 at 2:07 pm #

        Hi John,

        A question for you: are you aware of eye tracking studies done with RAF pilots/motorists/cyclists? I work in human computer interaction and have an interest in eye tracking (studies of how saccades and fixations affect computer usage).

        thanks,
        Bernard

        • John Sullivan 03/01/2013 at 4:19 pm #

          Not in the sense that you are referring to Bernard – the Harrier simulator used to employ an eye-tracking system in its simulator for projecting a high resolution image where it was needed, but it was not an analysis tool and I’m not aware of any such studies – that doesn’t mean that haven’t been any, just that I am not familiar with any… ATB, JS

      • Peter 20/01/2013 at 8:38 pm #

        Hi John – may we share this article in our Institute of Advanced Motorists newsletter?

        Thanks,
        Pete

        • John Sullivan 21/01/2013 at 8:02 pm #

          Hello Peter,

          I am very happy or you to use the article in your newsletter – the more widely this information is circulated then the more likely it is that it might contribute to preventing accidents. Thank you for the courtesy of asking.

          Very respectfully, JS

        • John Sullivan 24/01/2013 at 2:14 pm #

          BTW – could I get a copy of your newsletter Peter? Many thanks, JS

      • Jukka Vehkaoja 10/06/2013 at 6:50 am #

        Hello
        could it be possible to publish your story in our website. I translate it in Finnish. It opens many new point in our way to view and see.

        rgds

        Jukka

        • Andreas 10/06/2013 at 3:14 pm #

          Certainly Jukka, please go ahead.

      • Kim Hardwick 10/07/2013 at 12:46 pm #

        Hi John

        Sorry it’s taken a little while but have just posted your information as well as a link to this blog’s article.

        Find the post at: http://whitehillbordontransport.wordpress.com/

        Kim

        • JS 09/01/2014 at 5:50 pm #

          Great – thank you for spreading the word Kim.

      • Nick G. 09/01/2014 at 5:33 pm #

        John
        That is a great Article. I work at Boscombe Down and read it on our Intranet. When not at work I am an IAM Motorcycle Observer and if possible would like to use your article to educate the wider audience?? Are you happy for me to reproduce it and use it in another presentation i am preparing??
        TIA . . .. . Nick G.

        • JS 09/01/2014 at 6:22 pm #

          By all means Nick – please spread the word and help to make our roads safer! JS

  4. Pete 24/01/2013 at 8:28 pm #

    Thanks John and will do – do you have an email address?

    • JS 09/01/2014 at 5:52 pm #

      Thank you Peter.

  5. David 10/02/2013 at 11:15 am #

    Check out a piece of research by ‘Most and Astur’ on the interaction of colour of riders and accidents at junctions. Puts hiviz in a whole new light .

  6. David 10/02/2013 at 11:18 am #

    Most and astur : feature based attentional set as a cause of road traffic accidents

  7. David 10/02/2013 at 11:28 am #

    What I take away from that study along with the article presented here, is that cyclists get filtered out of a motorists rapid scan of the road. 90% of motorists are looking for vehicles which will cause harm to themselves. Cyclists do not fit the bill. Might I propose that despite its perceived conspicuity, hi viz yellow can be filtered out by motorists during a rapid scan of the road and actually contribute towards smidsey not prevent it?

    • Robert 03/04/2013 at 9:14 pm #

      I am in Portland OR where bicycle commuting is very common year round, day, night, in the rain, etc,… Regarding High Viz colors, I see alot of it and believe it may have the ability to interfere with an instinctive recognition of what is being seen.
      For instance, it appears to me that while bright fluorescent color may be in the visual field, it may take rational effort to identify the object, orient on it and make decisions about how to relate to it spatially.
      I suggest this may be due to a reduction of an edge effect or edge contrast. Fluorescent colors emit additional light in the visual range and I believe this reduces the appearance of distinct edges on the object being viewed. It may be analogous to the known camouflage effects of countershading and counterillumination.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camouflage#Countershading
      When I see something with distinct edges, my ability to know what it is and how to relate to it seems greatly enhanced and seems more or less instinctive. I am not convinced High Viz works as well as many people think it does. I would love to see some research on this.

    • Debra Storr 29/07/2014 at 2:25 pm #

      I had a car pull out of a side road and clip the rear offside f my car.
      The conversation went

      Him: I didn’t see you.

      Me: But the car is yellow.

  8. Jo 24/02/2013 at 11:30 am #

    Two (or maybe three) things I think would help:

    Firstly we should persuade our MPs that technology to prevent speeding should be put into all motor vehicles apart from emergency ones. The perception is that would lose them votes so we need to change that perception – I would consider it a vote-winner in my household. If there was any help in references that could be made in such a letter I would welcome that.

    Secondly any road user who is found to be a dangerous driver should, at their own expense, pass the Institute of Advanced Motorists test. I consider myself to be a careful driver but I took some lessons with these people a while ago, and found I had developed a large number of bad habits over the years that needed correcting. That would give them extra funds and therefore clout to help with the first of these solutions to give them half a chance against organisations like the AA.

    Of course you could also challenge the Head of Transport in your LA to cycle over the roads they are setting the repair budget for – avoiding pot holes on a bike probably makes me into that ‘idiot’ every driver should be expecting!

    • John Brown 24/11/2013 at 11:40 pm #

      Firstly, exceeding speed limits is side issue. Speed limits are a necessary line in the sand but always recognise that they are a blunt tool. Many high profile cycle deaths have been very low speed (think lorries turning at junctions). I would further suggest that being hit at 35mph in a rural road (60mph limit) is going to be as lethal to you as it would be in a built up area (potentially more so given the increased length of time of getting help to you).

      Now if you want to discuss inappropriate speed,,,, But then how do we define, ‘inappropriate,’ to the technology.

      One possible solution might be the, ‘black box recorder,’ which would be carried by all road users (including cyclists), then in the event of an issue, the data can be analysed by a human adding context. This wouldn’t stop the issue occuring but would allow retrospective resolution. There is already some recent precedent for this with a cyclist in the US being prosecuted for traffic offences based on the data captured by his mobile phone. In the UK the police are well versed in using mobile phone data in non traffic related issues, it’s only a small step further. In addition there are several influential camps that are keen to compel motorists to carry them so I would suggest this is likely to only be a matter of time.

      Secondly, training is clearly a help, but as you also highlighted, maintaining that training is critical. Unless all road users (including cyclists) are regularly retrained (realistically by compulsion) then its value is severely limited. One possible small improvement might be a requirement to resit a theory test every 10yr (coinciding perhaps with the photocard renewal in the UK).

      Of course it is incumbent on ALL road users (including cyclists) to not behave in a dangerous manner. It is clearly in everybody’s interest that dangerous road users (in whatever form they use it) are dealt with, whether by retraining, removal or some other means. A crucial part of that is identifying the perpetrator. Identifying motorised vehicle drivers has a recognised system. Identifying the non registered road user is an issue, but (like the speed) is seperate to this article which deals essentially with the issue of observation and links and so up for discussion elsewhere.

      Re: Pot holes. I feel your pain :-)

  9. Mark Martin 22/03/2013 at 1:19 am #

    Fantastic! This nicely underpins what we’ve been teaching riders for decades about side road and using peripheral vision, based upon a Japanese road observation method. Now we can bring our resources and teaching in alignment to this understanding and up to date.

    Thank you Andreas!

  10. liz 22/03/2013 at 8:21 am #

    Can you say more about the Japanese road observation method? It sounds interesting – is there a link?

  11. Pat 23/03/2013 at 8:54 pm #

    Very good article, but in my view it leaves another matter out. If we are used to seeing something then we are more likely to recognise it it when we do see it. For example, a person interested in birds will be better at recognising them and will notice far more birds than a person who isn’t interested in them. Far fewer car drivers today have an interest in bikes (motorised or not) than was the case forty years ago- therefor far fewer car drivers notice bikes, and even fewer understand their limitations. Without an understanding of both the strengths and limitations of two wheeled transport it is impossible for a car driver to correctly take them into account.

  12. bob craven 26/03/2013 at 5:25 pm #

    In answer to Jo

    Speeding as such is not the problem as the vast majority of accident/collisions occur well within the speed limits of the road on which happen. It is inapproprate speeds that are sometimes the cause or contribute to such incidents.

    To my mind there are just as many so called Advanced drivers or riders involved in accidents as there are who are not. Yes there should be a penalty and that could involve a course of instruction as well as other penalties. All Advanced drivers/riders should be re assessed at regular intervals as they are only re assessed with Rospa and not the others.

    As regards this report one might as well say that if one blinks then it is just as dangerous as the conditions given. certainly at speeds in excess of 1000 mph or maybe a sneaze. or a cough. maybe…..Dont disagree with A pillars, mobile etc.

    The thing i do not and cannot disagree with ,as a motorcyclists for nearly 50 years, is the danger of low sun in the eyes of a driver and the blinding effects it has on anyones visibility.
    One may as well be naked for all the good it does one or indeed be driving a double decker bus or pantechnican. It will not be seen. Another problem is after rain with a wet road surface with the sunlight shining on it, one cannot look at the road without squinting. Another dangerous condition.

    Whilst Hi vis etc are a consideration and highly visible in good daylight conditions i would argue that they can blend into the background particularly at dusk and dawn and when overcast with heavy cloud and or raining .then they blend in with all the other reflected lights from shop windows and street lighting thats is there and includes reflective road surfaces also.

    Neither can i disagree with the drivers recommendations on how to look or observe at junction etc. but must admit that even if being looked at directly by a driver i never trust that they have seen me and always ride as if they havnt. I never ride close to the kerb unless there is traffic in front of me and i wish to be seen by maybe another vehicle stopped at a junction, where i would not be clearly seen if i was in a more outside postition. I do however prefer to be so far away from the vehicle in front that there is enough space to be seen when that vehicle passes such a junction. This gives me and the other driver time to see and react should it start off inappropriately.

    I totally agree that more training should be given on junctions and looking but with many more europeans now driving in this country about 20% of drivers will look to their left first and not to the right, thats the way they didin it in europe.

  13. Bryan 02/04/2013 at 4:00 pm #

    Brilliant article! Thanks for the read.

    As a driver, motorcyclist and cyclist, I’m all too aware of how easy it is for two-wheelers to be unseen on the roads, and how woefully inadequate existing safety measures are at preventing entirely avoidable accidents (at least here in Singapore).

  14. Rhian Hughes 09/04/2013 at 2:05 pm #

    I’m looking for an email address for you John (Sullivan), I was hoping to discuss something with you if possible.

    • Andreas 09/04/2013 at 9:08 pm #

      I’ll pass on your email :)

      • Rhian Hughes 10/04/2013 at 8:53 am #

        Thank you Andreas :)

  15. Aileen Brown 18/04/2013 at 3:51 pm #

    I have just joined a ‘behavours’ group looking at what we can do to change the behavour of drivers, cyclists & potential cyclists. We work with both the local council (BANES) & British Cycling. Would you be happy for me to share this artice with our group?

    • John Sullivan 25/04/2013 at 2:16 pm #

      Feel free to share Aileen – spread the word!

  16. V 19/04/2013 at 8:02 am #

    Could not agree more. Same kind of “eye-techiques” (if you will) can be applied across the field. I’ve received counter special forces training during my service and also familiar on how to really maximize chance of spotting relative information. This is relative easy when you are built to spot stationary or relatively slow moving targets… add speed to target and yourself and you’ve got yourself a whole new ballgame. Will share this on FB, if you don’t mind.

    Keep it up John!

    V from Finland

  17. John Sullivan 25/04/2013 at 2:16 pm #

    Feel free to share V – spread the word!

  18. Andy 27/04/2013 at 8:29 pm #

    It was interesting to read the science behind things which I had noticed over the years. We are all told to keep our eyes on the road but not what this really means or how to do it. There is a useful parallel at sea. “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and by hearing.. .. so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the rsk of collision”. A sailing instructor really drilled home the full appraisal part. It is about evaulating everything around you in a structured way, to decide what is a hazard to you and what is not. It was a useful lesson and one I have always remembered.

    A lookout by hearing too – so no MP3 players or music on the brdiges of ships. But how many times have you come across cyclists and pedestrians oblivious to their surroundings with headphones plugged in their ears.

    Another feature of the regulations for seafarers is that there is no right of way at sea. Instead the vessel which should give way is identified, but if it doesn’t, then the obligation to give way also passes to the vessel which would have been expecting to continue unimpeded. I have often thought that giving a right of way to one vehicle over another on the road removes a responsibility from the vehicle with that right. I wonder how driver behaviour, and training, would be affected if always at the back of the mind there was the risk that you didn’t have a right of way, but instead an obligation to avoid collisions.

    • Greg 09/05/2013 at 11:20 am #

      You sound like my dad… who spent 20 years as a radio officer on the ships.
      I hold a car license, boat license, motorbike license and I ride my bike to work through the streets of Adelaide. So far, I’ve only been run over by a truck…. :)
      The comments from Andy resonated with me. When teaching me to drive Dad used to say “give way to the right but watch out for the bastards on your left!” I use the same advice teaching other drivers.

    • another andy 10/05/2013 at 1:05 am #

      no right of way at sea – reminded me of the anecdote that ends… “change your heading now to avoid a collision” – “no, YOU change heading, this is a lighthouse”

  19. sjy 01/05/2013 at 11:14 pm #

    JS – interesting !
    I think all cyclists will improve with mt. biking experience.

    “Focus on at least 3 different spots along the road to the right and left. Search close, middle-distance and far.”
    so true.

    When I support new mt. bikers I advise them there are 3 fields of vision to get used to , – whats the trail turning into 20+m way (is it a steep climb/ swamp, rock garden coming up : what gear to change to ),
    most importantly what is my current speed / inertia taking me directly into 3- 5m away : what body position to move toward,
    and less importantly whats right infront of the bike, 1m away : any final adjustment in steering.

    Processing this info becomes critical for mtb racing. Will help for all safe cycling also.

    Simon, NZ.

  20. another andy 10/05/2013 at 1:08 am #

    great article, hopefully i can put the info into practice :D

  21. Ian Brett Cooper 12/06/2013 at 4:36 pm #

    “when passing junctions, look at the head of the driver that is approaching or has stopped. The head of the driver will naturally stop and centre upon you if you have been seen.”

    Sorry, but this is nonsense. I used to do this 20+ years ago, until two drivers within the space of a few weeks looked directly at me and proceeded to pull out right into my path.

    Cyclists should ALWAYS assume that every car potentially entering our roadspace is going to do the most stupid/homicidal thing possible, so for threats ahead of us we should moderate our speed to make sure we have escape options, while for threats behind us we should check to make sure that a driver has reduced his speed to ours so that we reduce the level of danger he poses.

  22. Wolf 20/09/2013 at 2:49 am #

    They do not allow flashing lights facing forward in QLD, Australia.
    Not big fans of ANY extra lights here, nor a they bike friendly.
    Apparently, extra lights, flashing lights etc etc… are a distraction to motorists.
    How’s that for uneducated?!

  23. Cleat Eastwood 21/10/2013 at 9:10 pm #

    My friend Mrs Toddy just pointed out that if you need to be told to slow down at a junction or roundabout you ought not be driving a car in the first place – I think thats what she said, I’m a bit deaf.. I SAID I’M A BIT….oh

  24. Christian Haines 23/11/2013 at 9:22 pm #

    Hi. Very interesting. Do you mind if I copy to my blog? I’ll include the links and a link back.
    Cheers.

    • John Sullivan 24/11/2013 at 12:15 pm #

      Feel free to share Christian – the wider the message is spread, the more effective it will be. Thank you for asking. ATB, JS

  25. John Brown 24/11/2013 at 3:28 pm #

    Insightful article, thanks.

    Re: Flashing v Solid lamps.

    It’s all back down to the brain again I’m afraid. Again our forces are very well versed on this phenomenon. Ask any sniper about what the brain is looking for when assessing an area for a threat / target (think driver scanning for cyclist), and you’ll be told about signatures and triangles.

    The brain picks up a solid lamp sooner because it is constantly coming towards us (the cheetah about to eat us threat / the car that’s going to hit us threat). The flashing lamp is a spectral highlight / reflection that is basically noise we can ignore. Couple this with the saccadic masking mentioned above where the flash on will not always be seen even if being looked for (and let’s face it, it often isn’t).

    There is some benefit to a flashing lamp very close up, but I would suggest by then it’s too late, you want to be picked up and treated as a threat as soon as possible.

    Granted it does seem a little counter intuitve, but I would encourage all who care to take 10min out their evening commute just to stand in a busy street of reasonable length and watch for cyclists. Where are you picking cyclists up and what sort of light do they have?

    This is only going to be more significant with the trend towards daylight running lights on cars which will further drown out flashing lamps.

    So in short a flashing light in addition to a solid lamp is fine if you want, but PLEASE ensure you use a bright solid lamp.

    • Andy 26/11/2013 at 11:17 pm #

      I am not sure that the parallel you draw with snipers assessing an area for threats is the same situation as we have on the roads. Surely in a military situation the opposition doesn’t want to be seen so the training is about how to find things which are trying to hide. Cyclists are rather keen on being seen.

      I would agree that a solid lamp is easier to pick up than a flashing one, thus fixed lights on ships are easier to spot than flashing ones on buoys at night. But I suggest this only holds true where there are few lights and a lot of darkness. The urban environment is anything but dark, so displaying a flashing light is about being different from the background and its illuminations.

      I decided to get a flashing rear light for my bike, before they were legalised, having noticed time and time again that I was drawn to understand flashing lights on the road more so than fixed ones.

      I have also noticed that a cyclist displaying a dim red light (because the batteries are running down) is more likely to merge into the background light clutter than the same dim light which is flashing.

      We are schooled to recognise flashing as hazard – be they car indicators (yellow), vehicles working on the highway or airport (yellow), emergency services (blue) or bouys and lighthouses (white, red, yellow, green). Is this perhaps some primeval instinctive reaction to flickering and flashing – perhaps associated with a flickering fire which could be dangerous?

      However I am not a fan of front flashing white lights on bikes. I can see that they have a use to be the visual equivalent of a car horn – a visual instead of a sonic wake-up call. But to have them flashing all the time is to forget that we have two very good safety features called eyes which will help avoid accidents more so than any light. A flashing rear light helps to make up for not having eyes in the back of my head.

      The trend towards daylight running lights on cars is an odd one and not something which I think should be supported. When everybody does something the value of doing it diminishes because eveything becomes the same. You may have seen suggestions that cyclists should display lights during the day. How can the cyclist possibly show up as different? A couple of years ago I was out on my bike when I nearly had an accident due to daylight use of headlights. Turning right into a road at a T junction I had to wait a while for gaps in both directions. From the left a good sized gap appeared but the oncoming car was driving on full beam, but its nearside lamp had failed. As I pulled across I realised I was in nomansland but had to keep going because my relative movement revealed that the headlight was not on the car at all, but on a motorbike and he was much closer! It was a quirk of road alignment, relative road positioning and relative speed but the motorbike was rendered invisible because of its own headlight.

  26. Arlene Harris 26/11/2013 at 2:53 pm #

    Re the subject of solid v flashing bike lights: I was driving home in the dark last night along an unlit road. In the distance were two flashing lights – one above the other. As I got closer it turned out to be a flashing tail light of a cyclist plus a flashing light on the back of his helmet. From a distance I didn’t immediately recognise the rider as a cyclist, they looked like the post-mounted flashing lights at the side of the road that they have outside schools instructing motorists to reduce from 30mph to 20mph. Having just bought front and rear lamps for my bike I have decided to keep them on solid/static.

    A very interesting article and has open up a valuable debate. Thank you!

  27. Jon 27/11/2013 at 10:20 am #

    As a motorcyclist I share many of the same problems as cyclists. The SMIDSY “excuse” being one. This article highlights that the issue is one of looking but not seeing, otherwise known as not looking properly. When a motorist looks (often just quickly glancing) left then right, he focuses only on the middle distance (or threat area). He misses everything in between due to saccadic masking. This effect is compounded by something called chronostasis. This is where the brain fills in the time, lost during the masking phase, by adding that time into what the eye is currently looking at. (You can try it by quickly at a clock with a second hand, for a brief moment it will appear to freeze.) This explains why a driver can look straight at me but still pull out. He has seen me but his brain made him believe I was stationary!

  28. Oliver 27/11/2013 at 10:56 am #

    Interesting reading, but it’s just one person’s hypothesis and shouldn’t be presented as fact.

    The original essay contains the caveat “I am convinced that it is the phenomena of saccades and fixations that is most likely to lead to this sort of accident”, but this article omits that.

    Very irresponsible reporting.

  29. David 27/11/2013 at 12:28 pm #

    I never use flashing rear lights , only bright ones which are at least as large and bright as a cars brake light. This is from my own observations that when driving I fail to correctly locate very small flashing lights in the dark. Now I know why!!! Read this research:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/7571470/

  30. David Backman 05/12/2013 at 2:19 pm #

    I’m not a fan of flashing/blinking lights on bicycles.
    Sure, they may help in calling attention to that there’s SOMETHING out there, but they don’t do squat for answering:
    - what is it?
    - where, exactly, is it?
    - and how is it moving?

    A HUGE part of traffic safety is predictability, and with flashing lights adding very little information apart from the presence of SOMETHING, I’d say they’re generating a lot more confusion than safety.

    If I was free to decide, I’d make reflective vests mandatory.

    To me, nothing says “unprotected human ahead” as well as the recognisable shape of a human torso appearing at the appropriate height.

    As a car driver I don’t mind the flashing lights, but i don’t think they help me either.
    I’ve never had an incident where I’ve been “late” in spotting a cyclist, or runner, or dog walker etc wearing a reflective/hi-viz jacket/vest.
    And as soon as that torso light up I can make a decent guess about where they’re likely to be in reference to the road, how fast they’re likely to be moving and where they are likely to be heading.
    The “light advantage” offered by the car together with reflective stripes seems to outperform small flashy thingies several times over.

    As an urban cyclist, they don’t do anything for me either.
    In dense city traffic, there are so many light sources moving along, getting momentarily blocked and changing direction that one more variable source can easiiy entirely disappear against the changing background.

    As a suburban cyclist I find them immensely annoying, particularly in combination with a light fog or rain. They create a halo, often the width of the whole bike path. My ability to judge sideways position of the light is particularly affected.
    Now, admittedly, being “forced” to approach or to pass at a walking pace isn’t a risk.
    But passing a well defined object at cruising speed wasn’t much of a risk either.
    And, with the lower approach speeds usually encountered between bicycles, I’ve never had an incident where I’ve been “late” in spotting a cyclist using sensible, fixed-light equipment, and preferably, wearing a reflective/hi-viz jacket/vest either.
    This time I do mind the flashies, and I can’t see any benefit from them.
    Only possible advantage I can see – apart from good battery life – would be if those people preferring to move in traffic in “stealth mode”, for some obscure reason would suddenly take a liking to decent powered flashing lights – as opposed to those keyring-sized lights worn hanging freely as seems to be their current custom.

    In military / defense terminology, the act of “seeing” something is often divided into: detection, classification, and identification. Flashing lights may help with the 1st, but does nothing for the other two.

  31. mike 17/12/2013 at 3:07 am #

    I was run over by a 4wd last year. I was standing stationary on the footpath when he suddenly reversed from a parking spot perpendicular to the road across the footpath and drove over the top of me flattening both my legs under the rear wheel. He only stopped because a shocked bystander managed to get his attention. He then proceeded to return to his parking spot thus flattening me a second time.

    There were two issues. (1) I had no idea there was anyone in the car because the windows were that heavily tinted I could not see inside the vehicle – otherwise I would have avoided being in the position I was in in the first place.
    (2) The guy was in such a rush that he did not look for anything but cars. It was a one way street and I happened to be standing slightly downstream from the centreline of the reversing vehicle. He had reversing sensors , a reversing camera and I was clearly visible in his mirrors.
    So why did I become potential road kill ? – the driver did not look. He was too intent on slipping in front of the approaching police car that had its emergency lights on – the very vehicle I had stopped for – that he didn’t bother looking what was behind him – only what was happening out his drivers’ side window.
    The SMIDSY excuse is often used by people who don’t even bother to look.
    Drivers need to slow down and stop using cars as time management devices.
    It is now a year on and I still have difficulty walking. The driver was not charged with anything which explains why our roads a filled with drivers that have no clue about basic pedestrian and cycle safety.

  32. Bernard Twiddy 30/12/2013 at 1:41 pm #

    What a fascinating article. Amazing that one can be a driver for over sixty years without realising the sight limitations which we all have. Clearly a double look at road junctions and moving your head forward and back in between is essential. Mind you the number of times the door pillars and also door mirrors stop you seeing that vital picture of a moving object is frequently an issue. So never accelerate fast out of a halt at a road junction, you never know you might save someons life by doing it cautiously! I can’t wait for Stephen Wilkinson-Carr’s SMIDSY talk on Monday 27th January.

    • dr2chase 01/01/2014 at 4:43 pm #

      And you should realize also that if you are driving a car, you are also rendered somewhat deaf, too. The first reaction to this news is denial, but it’s been measured — merely having the windows up renders you as deaf to the world as wearing a pair of in-ear (not ear-bud) headphones. Windows on and stereo on, you’re deaf.

      http://rideons.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/an-ear-on-the-traffic/

      • david 01/01/2014 at 8:33 pm #

        And the Motorist being deaf affects a silent cyclist’s safety in what way exactly? a deaf cyclist is compromising his own safety though.

        • dr2chase 01/01/2014 at 8:36 pm #

          Cyclists aren’t silent, for one thing — at least if you’re not deaf. With the windows down and stereo off, while driving, you can hear other cars around you, you can hear people call out for your attention, you can notice emergency vehicles coming much sooner and do a better job of locating them.

  33. Peter Allen 24/02/2014 at 9:02 am #

    John,
    I am writing to ask permission to use your excellent article in our Newsletter? (spring 2014).
    we have about 100 members in a county wide group of advanced car drivers and motor cyclists
    Observation is a key part of the advanced Drivers procedure as set out in “Roadcraft” The Stationery Office, London ISBN 9780 11 708187 1 Author the Police Foundation.

    Thanks in anticipation.

    Peter Allen
    Cambridgeshire Advanced Drivers and Riders
    01954 211446

  34. JS 24/02/2014 at 12:55 pm #

    By all means Peter, please do. I can send you a pdf of the original article if you like – the photos will be better quality. Just let me have an email address, or email me via Andreas if you prefer.

    ATB, JS

  35. Peter Allen 06/03/2014 at 9:01 pm #

    John,
    My email address is
    science@huccombe.org.uk
    and you may send pdf attached.

    thanks in anticipation.

    Peter Allen

  36. Michael Henry 11/03/2014 at 3:39 pm #

    Very interesting! I added this to my own blog and linked back to you and the London Cyclist.

    http://www.280dude.com/2014/03/11/what-an-raf-pilot-can-teach-us-about-being-safe-on-the-road-reblog/

    Thanks,
    280 Dude

  37. Ross 10/06/2014 at 11:32 pm #

    Hi John, My interest in this phenomenon was triggered from my coaching shooters. Eyes are needed apparently!! As I got deeper I realised that our visual shortcomings are downright dangerous in moving worlds. I got into why do people not see trains a kilometre long and STILL hit the bloody things?

    The realisation was that they always hit the front of the train. 9/10 times at the A pillar – either side of the vehicle. It reeked of the A pillar blindspot. But the question of the rest of the train kept me intrigued for a while.

    I thought about walking across a crossroad when pedestrians can walk in all directions across it when the “walk now” sign comes up. Never – or extremely rarely – does someone walk into anyone. We are very good at dodging. We can anticipate when someone is going to pass 100mm in front of us from quite considerable distances. We can tell when some is going to pass behind us. We can make subtle changes in speed or direction if we are on a collision.

    My thesis is that other than the part of the train that is going to hit you, all the rest of the train is going to pass behind you. Thus, your peripheral warning system is being completely fooled by this nasty picture in that it thinks that what is in the peripheral vision is not a danger.

    You never see vehicles hitting 1, 2 or 3 carriages back. Always the front. A fact that should no longer be ignored.

    I tried to approach New Zealand Rail a few years ago after they made an “improvement” on their trains. They not only had the standard headlight, they installed “gutter lights” down low on the front of the engine on both sides. I tried to point out the problem but they have ignored it. I even suggested they install the gutter lights at the rear of the engine down low so that they might be in the vision of the vehicle driver.rather than in all likelihood of being behind the pillar.

    The other warning system we have is if an abject is headed towards us from the side we can dodge very quickly. Our reaction system is “tuned” to pick up an image that is expanding towards us at a “danger rate”. In other words, as long as something begins to loom towards you we will respond automatically, close our eyes, move our head and body out of the way without realising we have done it. The number of times a bee or a fly has hit my closed eyelid while riding is staggering. They closed before the bee his the eye.

    Now this triggered an interesting idea for making long things more visible. If a string of lights were put along the side of carriages – or long trucks – and when the horn sounded they blinked in sequence towards the front of the train – or truck. Thus, the peripheral vision would pick up a virtual motion that is headed towards the driver.

    I would love to try it sometime.

  38. geoff 23/07/2014 at 9:01 am #

    Hi John, a useful message and something of a wake-up call for those cyclists who think that hi-vis or hi- contrasting clothing doesn’t matter – that it’s the drivers responsibility to see us. I’ll post to the Carmarthenshire Cycling Forum site, thanks.

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