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These threats are largely gone and they’ve been replaced by vehicles travelling towards us at high speeds.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.


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.


  • 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.


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

  1. Steve Essex 01/11/2012 at 1:16 pm #

    This is sound stuff. In addition in a study looking into why motorcyclists get hit (I can’t recall its title) included a section on distractions, noting that with satnav, more complicated instrumentation etc. car drivers’ eyes could leave the road for up to 7 seconds… However I’m more than a little worried about the assumption that Dutch style infrastructure will automatically make things safer. One characteristic of Dutch infrastructure is that it moves the point where cyclists cross a side road away from a main road. Doing this is against the advice in this article which suggests that cyclists are more likely to be seen the closer they are to the path of motor vehicles. Dutch infrastructure is safer in the Netherlands because car drivers expect to see cyclists on cycle paths and to give way to them. Here there is a lot of relearning by drivers before we get to that state of affairs. Something the article says is possible for RAF pilots but “a driver is very unlikely to change their behaviour…” The very thing we need for Dutch infrastructure to work here.

    • Andreas 01/11/2012 at 2:32 pm #

      I’d like to stress that a call for Dutch style infrastructure is one that comes personally from me, and not necessarily from the RAF pilot.

      Steve – For clarity, when I say Dutch style infrastructure two examples that I could call upon in London would be Tavistock St and early sections of Cycle Superhighway 3. Perhaps these examples would fall short of Dutch style design but for London, it’s what we have for comparison.

      I believe these routes are safer for cyclists because drivers expect there to be cyclists (and it’s well sign posted) that there are many cyclists in this area. It’s that prompt for added awareness by drivers that I believe Dutch style infrastructure provides. That, along with segregated paths means a lower likelihood of collisions with vehicles. There are additional features such as separate traffic lights for cyclists that I also believe go a long way towards removing the onus on drivers and place it on road design instead.

      You make an important point about drivers not changing their behaviour and the need for this to make infrastructure in the UK work. I’d perhaps say that the design should consider drivers limitations to change behaviour and make that a large part of how we design our roads.

    • Schrödinger's Cat 05/11/2012 at 5:31 am #

      The “ride in the middle of the lane” advice only refers to vehicular cycling – it makes no sense where there’s a Dutch-quality cycle path. To suggest that recommending Dutch infrastructure goes against the (VC-only) advice in the article is nonsense. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.

      Crossing traffic at right-angles enables better visibility and management – whether it’s a hump with give way for either the cyclists or motorists, or traffic lights. I agree that UK drivers would have some adjustments to make, but when dealt with properly by the infrastructure this won’t be too much of an issue. At unsignalled junctions, priority can be made clear by raising the cycle path on a hump, give way markings, coloured tarmac on the cycle path and line markings for the edge of the cycle path. Busier routes should use traffic lights anyway, so no issues there.

      It’s a bit of a cop-out to suggest that because UK drivers aren’t used to cycle infrastructure we shouldn’t install it. There was a time before zebra crossings and traffic lights too, but we got used to them. If we want cycling to ever become mainstream in the UK, Dutch-style cycle infrastructure is the one thing we should be asking for – it’s the only proven way to achieve safe mass cycling.

    • Craig 05/11/2012 at 6:37 pm #

      A Dutch friend of mine reckoned the reason it got better in Holland was actually because the first thing they did was change the law to make it so an accident between a bike and a car was automatically the drivers fault unless it could be proved otherwise – this meant the motor lobby put pressure on government to create the separate cycle facilities and means that car drivers are very paranoid around cyclists – whereas in the UK I know several people who’ve been seriously hurt in accidents, but the drivers at fault didn’t face any repercussions for their negligence because there weren’t enough witnesses (2 required in Scotland) – or witnesses were unsure what they saw.

      There is an argument is that all drivers should first learn how to ride a bike – every driver I know who is also a cyclist is a considerate and cyclist aware driver who always remember to do a lifesaver look over their shoulder whenever turning for example… When I did my driving test I scored high enough in my hazard perception test to be a driving instructor – I put this entirely down to being a cyclist – when anything moving has the potential to seriously injure you: you pay a lot more attention to what’s going on…

      • Schrödinger's Cat 05/11/2012 at 8:13 pm #

        Strict liability only came into force in The Netherlands in 1992, years after the majority of the current cycle infrastructure was put into place and after the resurgence in cycling had already been firmly established. Perhaps it made the motor lobby more friendly to cycle infrastructure, or openly push for it, but the cycle infrastructure was created without such a law in place.

        It would be a great thing if all drivers had to do cycling training as part of their driving test, but the millions of drivers already out there would still be out there. Also, bad habits form anyway – very few people drive the way they did on their driving test. If only everybody did, there would be no accidents!

        The Highway Code assumes this automaton-filled world of perfect drivers following all the rules all the time. It’s just not realistic, unfortunately!

      • Steve Carter 08/11/2012 at 11:12 am #

        This. I’m sceptical about crossings with added bumps, markings and coloured tarmac. Excessive markings and signage simply give the brain more work to do and give the bicycle more competition to get noticed. A widespread simplification of signage and markings would make the actual road users easier to spot.

        • Schrödinger's Cat 10/11/2012 at 4:49 pm #

          Hi Steve,

          I agree that simplification would be good – I mentioned the humps, etc., because they’re required for cycle path priority over road under current UK regs.

          The UK seems to over-engineer everything, road-wise, filling the space with signs and markings wherever possible!

  2. Barton 01/11/2012 at 1:17 pm #

    Interesting article. Especially since just two days ago did I yell at a man driving (while talking on a hand-held mobile), “How could you not see me!??!?!?” Near miss, but freaked me out enough to verbally abuse him.

    And I am guilty of the same thing when I cycle. I pull up to a stop sign, look for cars, but rarely look for cyclists. This is especially true in the morning as I cycle in the dark, where I am looking for lights, no necessarily moving objects. And with the number of ninja cyclists in my city, I really need to look for movement and not lights.

    • Andreas 01/11/2012 at 2:35 pm #

      Exactly – it’s often the cyclists that surprise me. After reading the report by John Sullivan the first time, I immediately started being more cautious and trying to more carefully scan rather than assuming the road is empty. I wish this article could reach more drivers!

    • JS 01/11/2012 at 7:08 pm #

      If you are looking for movement, stare at a fixed point and let your peripheral vision work for you. If it’s dark, look off-centre from your area of primary interest (because the ‘rods’ in your peripheral vision need lees light than the ‘cones’ in your fovea).
      (JS – author of the original article)

  3. Dave H 01/11/2012 at 2:10 pm #

    Recognise also that a key route for non verbal communication is through the eyes, as the phrase a picture paints a thousand words well describes the ability to communicate a complex message more rapidly via the visual cortex than any aural information.

    Eyes can indicate consent to priority or other action. Pedestrians have perfected the ‘You WILL stop for me at the Zebra Crossing glare through the windscreen of an approaching car. Go figure.

    Above all make this the mantra for every road user “The only contact I want to make with another road user is eye contact”

    I’m pleased to note that the piece recognises that without turning the head, the eyes are only effective over a 120 degree segment at any one time, which actually narrows down as speeds increase above 20mph, the top speed of sustained running, which our bodies have evolved to have as a maximum unassisted operating speed*, and the option of the 360 degree cover provided by ears is an essential connected safety system – pilots use this through having alarms to direct their eyes to controls that require immediate attention. So no earphones, and for car drivers crack open that driver’s window, like most professional drivers do so that you can hear those things which you might not be able to see.

    *The ability to run into trees and rock faces, fall over etc, and be resilient enough to walk away has delivered a fit human body which has a high survival rate in impacts of up to 20mph, go faster and the chances of breaking something seriously increase exponetially (as the kinetic energy you have to dissipate increases with the square of the speed)

    • Andreas 01/11/2012 at 2:45 pm #

      Thanks for adding additional interesting insights Dave. Totally agree with the importance of eye contact – without a doubt one of the top recommendations for staying safe on the roads is to establish eye contacts with drivers. Glance behind your shoulder and catch their eye and when coming up to a junction, keep an eye on where the driver is looking to assess whether they have seen you.

      • Barton 01/11/2012 at 5:31 pm #

        I think this is doubly important as we enter winter in the northern hemisphere. I have started wearing my Buff as a balaclava in the mornings (this morning there was a biting wind and a temp of -3 where I live). And your vision is definitely restricted as you attempt to stay warm.

      • k8 01/11/2012 at 11:40 pm #

        I am sorry but the eye contact mantra just doesn’t do it for me and I am not at all convinced by it – not convinced that cyclists can do it properly and safely, and that it makes the blindest bit of difference.

        Firstly I am a really yoga-fit person, but I can’t stretch my body round enough to look at drivers behind me while I am cycling in a way that is safe or effective.

        Second, very often when I do stare into the driver’s side of a windscreen, I am horrified to see them looking the other way, texting their mates, reading an A-Z, fiddling with the radio, pinching their girlfriend’s bosoms.. you name it I have seen it.

        Third, I find very often that when I do make eye contact, for instance with someone revving up to come out of a side turning, he or she assumes my eye contact means that I have seen him or her and that they are therefore at liberty to undertake the dodgy manoeuvre of pulling out and cutting me up. I have experienced painful collisions twice in just this circumstance.

        I have such lack of confidence in this “look them in the eyes” mantra. In my view it is an illusion grasped at by some cyclists who hope that if they do something (wear a crash helmet, wear high-vis, carry a lucky rabbit’s foot) it will make any difference. I know it is taught on Bikeability courses.

        • GL Aus 06/11/2012 at 1:56 am #

          K8 that is exactly why the mantra actually works. You’ve looked into a windscreen and seen exactly what you need to see, and that is that the person in the vehicle is totally unaware of you and so you need to watch out. If you looked in and saw the guy looking back, you have an opportunity to communicate each other’s intentions. The brain is particularly good at zoning in on eyes, eyes could mean a threat, so we spot them instinctively. We developed the ability to know if we’ve been seen, and work out what those eyes are looking at. While that means you can tell if the driver has seen you or not, looking at the driver also triggers the driver’s instinct to look at you because his brain is aware it’s being watched. Looking at the driver tells you if he’s seen you, but it also tells the driver to look back at you too.

  4. charlie lloyd 01/11/2012 at 2:24 pm #

    The key to Dutch style infrastructure on local roads is that junctions are designed to slow all traffic down, to reduce the risk and consequences of conflict. Unlike UK junctions which are designed to maximise traffic flow.

    • Andreas 01/11/2012 at 2:39 pm #

      Interestingly, yesterday I tested out two routes. One the way to my destination I used the back roads and cycle routes through central London. On the way back I simply used the busy main roads.

      I’d assumed there would be a big difference in the time taken.

      However, the fast route took 24 minutes and the “slow” route took 25. Plus, on the fast route I was working up a sweat, whereas on the slow route I was taking it easy.

      Therefore, I don’t believe that Dutch style infrastructure would increase our journey times on two wheels.

  5. Dave Jackson 01/11/2012 at 2:46 pm #

    The bit I would quibble with is, “the driver is not being inattentive, just ineffective” If the driver does not slow down enough to check in a more rigorous manner, it is dangerous driving. End of story. That said, I do like to improve my chances and cycle with lights on whatever time of day or conditions I am cycling in. Since I have started doing this, the number of near misses I experience has dropped dramatically. Most of my near misses when cycling now are with the ninja cyclists and pedestrians who often walk in cycle lanes in Cambridge.

    • gary 02/11/2012 at 12:00 pm #

      Hi Dave….do the pedestrians usually have earphones in? Ipeds? lol

  6. Sci 01/11/2012 at 3:43 pm #

    A note about your tips for cyclists and *motorcyclists*. Having a black moped I’m especially concerned about visibility, but have been warned off adding extra lights to the bike. Any motor vehicle is bound by very strict rules about extra lighting. Particularly any flashing lights.

    I’d just like you to put a footnote/correction in there that flashing lights (sadly) apply only to bicycles, not motorbikes.

    • Andreas 01/11/2012 at 4:53 pm #

      Hey Sci – thanks for your suggestion. The suggestion for flashing lights only appears in the sections that relate to cyclists.

  7. Pete 01/11/2012 at 6:15 pm #

    More than one front light is good – I have three on my motorcycle, main light plus two smaller spotlights to make a triangle. Supposedly good because it’s an unfamiliar shape. When I cycle, I have two front lights that flash at different rates so there’s an interference pattern. I’ve also taken to wearing orange hi-viz, as it seems to stand out better in the street than yellow.

  8. Mighk Wilson 01/11/2012 at 7:55 pm #

    I’m surprised at your recommendation of “Dutch-style cycling infrastructure” after such otherwise good advice. Separate facilities may address the saccade effect (though probably not in all circumstances), but they also guide cyclists into even worse blind-spots, such as coming up on the left of left-turning motorists, or hiding cyclists from opposing right turning motorists (those of us in the U.S. and Canada need to flip those lefts and rights).
    Such a “Dutch-style” facility was built in St. Petersburg, Florida, and on the sole time I biked it I was right-hooked by a motorist. (No crash; I was looking out for the problem, but she was totally oblivious of what she’d done.) She was looking left and turning right as I was coming up on her right side. Yes, we had concurrent greens — she was allowed to turn right at the same time I was allowed to go straight. I know the Dutch wouldn’t do that, but that’s the “best” we can expect in the U.S. No way traffic engineers are going to give the <2% of road users who are cyclists their own signal phase.

    • Schrödinger's Cat 05/11/2012 at 5:16 am #

      So that’s not “Dutch-style cycling infrastructure” is it? The problems you describe do not occur with the kind of infrastructure Andreas is recommending.

      You call the cycle path in Florida “Dutch-style” but then go on to mention one very un-Dutch aspect which negates the whole thing. Having lettuce with your steak doesn’t make you a vegetarian!

      It may or may not be true that your government would not implement Dutch-style measures, but therefore your difficulties are political, not physical.

      Andreas’ recommendation for Dutch-style cycling infrastructure is valid.

  9. William 01/11/2012 at 10:14 pm #

    This has little to do with visibility, so not really relevant here, but… no article on cycling safety would be complete with mentioning: Never get caught between the curb and a left turning lorry! A dear friend was one of many killed in this way. Wait behind or do whatever necessary to get out in front before the light turns green. Every good bike rider should use his bell/horn more readily to avoid potential danger before it happens.

  10. William 01/11/2012 at 10:16 pm #

    This has little to do with visibility, so may not be completely relevant here, but… no article on cycling safety would be complete with mentioning: Never get caught between the curb and a left turning lorry! A dear friend was one of many killed in this way. Wait behind or do whatever necessary to get out in front before the light turns green.
    Every good bike rider should use his bell/horn more readily to avoid potential danger before it happens.

    • dr2chase 12/11/2012 at 2:53 pm #

      Regarding bell/horn — I think those are useless for automobile traffic. First, just as we are trained to assume that drivers are blind, we should also assume that they deaf. Windows up, stereo on, they are actually deaf and will not hear your bell. Second, if you blow the horn, at least here in the US drivers have been trained to interpret “horn” not as “safety problem, STOP!”, but “get out of my way, GO!” What they’ll do when they hear your bike horn is as good as a coin flip.

      Bells are good for pedestrians and other cyclists, and even that requires a little care; too close to the pedestrian and you’ll get the panicked jump, probably not into your path.

  11. Gary 02/11/2012 at 10:53 am #

    What a load of rubbish (the drivers not seeing you bit, not the why they don’t see you bit).
    There is no excuse for a driver not seeing you, if you take precautions as a responsible road user. Likewise, other road users (drivers of motor vehicles) should be as responsible as you, however, this is not the case.

    EVERY social ride and EVERY commute I do you see the same thing.

    When I ride my bike I take the right precautions, these include: 3 lights on the front (1 solid and 5 flashing LEDs) 3 lights on the back (1 flare stick, 6 flashing LEDs), reflective strips on my bag, reflective strips on my clothing. I stay in the cycle lanes where I can (avoiding pot holes, glass and general badly maintained bits).
    I signal in time. I don’t creep up the inside of buses/lorries etc that are at the front of the queue. I catch drivers eyes, however, I have been sideswiped on a number of occassions, taken out from behind once and EVERY time the driver said that they didn’t see me (one after being behind me for a good minute and overtaking me………

    Next time you commute or go on a ride make a mental note of how many of these you see:

    Drivers using mobile phones
    Driver creeping inside and ASL or over the stop line
    Drivers reading notes for a meeting they are about to attend
    Drivers messing with a SAT NAV
    Drivers looking back to talk to their children on the school run
    Drivers putting on makeup
    Drivers drinking coffee on the go, not when stopped
    Drivers that don’t indicate when turning left
    Drivers that indicate left at the last minute
    Drivers that don’t indicate when changing lanes
    AND MY FAVOURITE…..Drivers smoking joints, openly whilst driving (love the smell of a good joint on my commute home)

    I find it amazing that other motorists don’t berate other motorists when they see them on the phone………

    Motorists shouldn’t worry about us poor old cyclists doing anything wrong, other motorists should worry more about other motorists……

    I just hate excuses being made for drivers when its not that difficult to see a cyclist on the road. NO EXCUSES.

    • Barton 02/11/2012 at 4:17 pm #

      The smell of a joint on your commute home? I get it on my commute in. Five blocks in a row, right in the heart of my city. Granted, these aren’t motorists (for the most part) but people standing on corners/platforms waiting for the bus/train. Typically with cops standing a few feet away….. not really the fresh air I’m looking for when I commute at 6am.

  12. Robin 02/11/2012 at 11:12 am #

    An interesting and well written article, thanks Andreas.

    Another illustration of the saccadic masking effect is the way that when you look at your watch, the second hand often seems to freeze for moment before starting to move again. The saccadic masking means you don’t see anything during the period your eyes are homing in on the watch, and when they do, your brain retrospectively fills in the blank time with a copy of what it sees straight afterwards. You think that you’re seeing the second hand frozen in real time, but not only did that never happen, if it had been happening, it would have been half a second ago! Frightening when you apply that to driving.

    • JS 02/11/2012 at 7:04 pm #

      You’re absolutely correct Robin – the only reason I omitted this from my article was to avoid getting too ‘advanced’ in an article for general consumption – 10/10! 😉

  13. Jeroen (NL) 02/11/2012 at 11:27 am #

    I cannot imagine what it’s like to not having Dutch style infrastructure, had it all my life. It is indeed a blessing in urban areas and saves many lived compared to the mass of bike traffic.
    But don’t be fooled: as with ABS braking and winter tires, feeling safer on the road also evokes dangerous biker’s behaviour! You have no idea what groups of school commuting youth can do on the road. Not to mention boken lights, headphones or earplugs, phoning, etc. When you have a right to the cycle lane, all else is forgotten and does not matter, until hit by car who did not see you at nightbecause your lights were broken.
    Our system is safer, agreed, but could be much safer when all players play by the rules.

    Tip: when visiting Amsterdam, tourists must assume cyclists come from any possible direction, including air and underground and canals, for your own survival… here, the cyclist is the agreed perst.

  14. Kelly 02/11/2012 at 11:59 am #

    Hi guys.

    I’m siding with the awareness issue. Motorists simply do not expect cyclists to be on the road. I’m not sure of the figures of cyclist’s commuting compared to motorists but we are the very small minority. Take the cities in Vietnam or Thailand as an example, their roads a made up mostly of scooters. That’s how people get about. They are aware of each other, regardless of the use of rules, and cars are the odd ones out (people scooter on ahead around them).

    The sad thing is unless there are more cyclists I’m not so sure much more will be done. More cycle lanes are being introduced which is great but I’m I can’t say I’m too hopeful of a complete transition to a saver bicycle friendly culture.

    My next point is, drivers are lazy! How many people drive to work and they don’t remember the journey? How many cyclists have the same thing? Fewer I’m sure but I can remember a time when cycling a quiet road when my mind moves to the lessons I’m teaching in half an hour and before I know it I’ve cycled a mile or two on a straight road having not really remembered much. Is this to say we are unaware? Well, that’s another argument. But my point here is, drivers are lazy. How many actually take a good look around before making the left turn (right if you’re in the states). Unless there is another big fat car turning in front of them, they have no idea whats happening on their inside.

    Separate issue. Recently I had a nearly collision, as did the car next to me, with an oncoming car traveling towards us and turning his right. However, there was already a car ahead of us. stationary waiting to take that right! He had undertaken her cutting in front of us approaching to make the turn. In fear more than anger I screamed ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ at him, realising his window was wide open, repeated and hearing me perfectly did not even acknowledge the situation, didn’t look at me, just carried on his illegal and dangerous behaviour.

    Let me ask you guys this… how many times at a crossroads do motorists try and beat you to the turn! God for bid they’re slowed down by a cyclist and have to wait 10 seconds extra.

    All……. this being said. Cyclists are not by any means sensible! There are roadies who are generally pretty good, apart from the training/time conscious (guilty at times), but there are novices, old men on their mountain tanks cycling home from work with the only road sense of ‘dodge the traffic’. A lot of people, not just the mountain tanks I speak of, believe that because they are on a bike, they need not adhere to the highway code. They can go through a red light if they want, turn across oncoming traffic, cycle on the paths and so on.

    Motorbikes, I don’t really have an opinion on having never ridden one and rarely come into contact with them.

    • gary 02/11/2012 at 12:09 pm #

      Hi Kelly

      I think one of the issues is that the majority, not all, motorists see cyclists as a hinderance (spelling).
      Like you say, how many times do you get a motorist that wants to beat you to the crossing, or the roundabout, or tries to overtake you when there is a pedestrian island on your right….impatience.

      How many of us have had a motorist pull out from our left, just in front of us to get in front of us…

      God forbid we ‘hold up’ traffic for 10/15 seconds.

      Motorists should remember:

      As a cyclists I am saving YOUR children from harm by not putting CO2 in to the atmosphere.


    • Barton 02/11/2012 at 4:19 pm #

      The crazy thing is, most cyclists don’t see – or look for – other cyclists either!

  15. Ian Brooks 02/11/2012 at 12:42 pm #

    An interesting, well written and helpful article, thanks Andreas.

    It is helpful in the sense that it raises understanding as to why the most frequent contributory factor in personal injury collisions reported to police and through to DfT (stats19) is `looked but failed to see` (failed to look properly).

    Do drivers go out to deliberately injure vulnerable road users? – I believe not.

    But are they sufficiently `on-task` to ensure that they fulfil their duty of care to other society members – frequently not! The list of avoidable distractions above (thanks Gary) and more! increases the likelihood that the process of identifying a hazard AND then reacting to it appropriately will be compromised. Luck or bad luck then comes into play as to whether the error, lapse or violation results in a tragedy.

    With 12 out 16 cycle deaths in London in 2011 involving a commercial vehicle, on at-work journey – the question arises as to what organisations are doing to identify and control the risks they create (or at least contribute to) with regard to their on-road activities. In particular can organisations demonstrate `so far as is reasonably practicable` that they have adequate management arrangements in place to ensure that their drivers know and comply with the guidance contained within the Highway Code – I fear not.

    A trio of well-respected safety academics titled an article `What-You-For-Is-What-You-Find & What-You-Find-Is-What-You-Fix` that captures the issue at hand. This looked but did not see or didn’t even look – is a systemic failing where there is significant scope for improvement if there were greater compliance with existing good practice and the law (road traffic + health & safety).

  16. K 02/11/2012 at 1:45 pm #

    I tried to share this.
    There is no share using email button.
    I don,t like facebook, twitter etc. email is nice and simple.

    Please may we have one.

  17. Rickster 02/11/2012 at 3:09 pm #

    Very good article with lots of top-rate advice, I’ll use it when riding out here in Calgary, Canada.

    Another item though, is whether people who hit bikes just use the “didn’t see you” statement as an easy legal defense. My question would be: would a reasonably skilled driver have seen the object which they hit?

    – If the driver DID see it and went ahead an and hit it anyway, that’s seems like pretty much a criminal offense, and needs dealing with in that fashion.

    – If they DID NOT actually see it, while lots of other drivers did, then that driver is partially unskilled and needs to have their a) vehicle operation training, and b) insurance rates adjusted to fit. Along this line, if a not-bike-hitting driver says “oh sorry, I didn’t stop at that intersection because I didn’t see the STOP sign, then one would have to adjust that driver’s a) training and b) insurance rates adjusted to fit.

    I’d like to see this kind of legal action applied in “hit a cyclist and claims not to have seen them” cases. But I don’t think it will actually happen.

  18. Steve Summers 02/11/2012 at 10:20 pm #

    All this talk about how our eyes work……………….there is no excuse for any of us not looking properly.
    I drive a car or ride a motorcycle to work all week but evenings and weekends I cycle so see things from all sides.
    Best comment here was the list of all the disgracful things car drivers do whilst driving instead of looking at the bloody road. Saying that, far too many of Londons cyclists are suicide jockeys.
    Imagine yourself in other peoples seats/saddles when sharing London’s hellish roads, it would make things better for everyone.

    Steve Summers

    • Greg 02/11/2012 at 11:22 pm #

      I’m sorry Steve, you’re wrong – and if you’d experienced what I have you’d agree. Thankfully all very low speed, nothing bad happened, but I was going to the airport early one morning and I got in my car, started the engine, drove to the road end in the housing area where I lived. No music on, no coffee, no mobile, no distractions. Just me, been awake for over an hour, I was fully alert, fine, setting off on a usual drive.

      I live in France, so I looked left, looked right, looked left again, started to go. Car! A while f—ing car! It was there! Going slowly, like me, I braked (I wouldn’t have hit it anyway) and the other driver braked too. We looked at each other, I shrugged and apologised, he waved me on and said no worries, I carried on.

      But I reflected on that at the time. ‘Steve Essex’ mentioned a motorcyclist study – which I’d read actually, but also can’t remember the title – and after the event it weighed on my mind. I hadn’t given it much thought when I read the study, but here I was, someone without any medical condition, without distraction, alert, normal driver – actually someone who would normally pride themselves in being particularly diligent – and I completely missed, not a bike, or a motorcycle, but an entire white medium-sized hatchback car!! WTF?!

      I later reflected carefully on what happened. I wasn’t expecting any traffic at the time of day (it was pre-7am on a normally quiet culdesac), it was dawn (poor contrast), the car would’ve been almost exactly in my door pillar as I looked right, it clearly fell perfectly into a saccade. My brain filled in the gap my eyes skipped over and I was *convinced* there was nothing coming, so I went.

      You can poo-poo that all you like, and doubtless there are zillions of poor drivers on the road who are not paying attention, but the specific issues this article talks about *are* real, they affect us all, we are all human and I have first hand experience of the effect the author describes. It’s sobering, I can tell you! I just thank my lucky stars it happened to me in a low-speed environment in a housing area and with another car, and not changing lanes on a motorway, or worse, pulling out of a busy roundabout into an unfortunate motorcyclist/cyclist I hadn’t registered.

      Needless to say, while I’ve always been a diligent ‘indicator’ and always done what motorcyclists all ‘the lifesaver’, the glance over the shoulder before switching lanes, I now also look twice, as the article says. When I find myself at a junction that appears empty, and I’m tempted to glance, glance, go, nowadays I resist the temptation and have another look. You never know what you missed until it’s too late, and you don’t have to be looking at your phone to miss the obvious!

    • Greg 02/11/2012 at 11:42 pm #

      By way of a follow-up, and to quote a motorcyclist friend of mine, “If you think you’re perfect, you’re already dangerous…” I’ve spent a lot of time in cars, on bicycles and on motorbikes – it doesn’t mean I’m infallible. Mistakes are sometimes genuine. One day you might actually be the cause of an accident, though I obviously hope not, and it may not be because you were negligent. Your eyes may fail you. It *does* happen.

      • John Sullivan 14/11/2012 at 4:06 pm #

        Thank you for sharing this Greg – I think most people who have been driving for a while, if they are honest, will have experienced something similar.

        All the comments about drivers being distracted are valid (and in my original article I made brief reference to the entirely unnecessary hazard that such practices represent) but the limitations of our eyes is an ADDITIONAL factor.

        I am just trying to tip the odds in favour of avoiding collisions – there is no silver bullet.

        And I love your comment about being perfect – I’ve always said that the day I fly a perfect mission is the day to stop – because it would mean that I had stopped being self critical.

        A little more humility on the roads, from ALL users, would go a long way…

  19. Dave Holland 04/11/2012 at 1:51 am #

    Andreas, you say “a driver is very unlikely to change their behaviour”, this is why cyclists should use existing infrastructure and behave in a predictable manner as other lawful users of the roads – “Cylists fair best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles” -Forester.

    • Schrödinger's Cat 05/11/2012 at 5:06 am #

      Seriously, Dave? You expect eight year-old children to act as drivers of vehicles? Or my 80 year-old granny? Forester’s cycling elitism has resulted in an almost zero cycling rate in the US – the oil companies couldn’t have done a better job of it themselves.

      Forester fans are on the wrong side of history. People simply don’t want to ride a bike amongst motor vehicles – it’s not pleasant, and it feels dangerous.

      The Netherlands has the highest cycling rate, the lowest cycling accident rates, the safest roads in the world.

      The UK only has a good road safety record because pretty much nobody cycles, and children are strapped into a car every time they leave the house.

  20. Dave H 06/11/2012 at 12:52 pm #

    (A different Dave H to the one I saw above)

    I came close to pulling out on a motorcycle once at a junction where the main road approached over a hill and it was close to dawn. First look right and I registered a couple of lights in the distance, looked left and it was clear, looked right again as I was about to pull out and there was a motorbike (probably speeding a bit) that I hadn’t seen before. I think he happened to be between me and the car and obscured one of the car lights on the first look so I saw what I expected. Now I do a pigeon impression and move my head slightly if I’m unsure.

    As for cycling and driving, I find that having cycled to work, it makes me far more appreciative of when to hold back from passing a bike when I’m in the car. Having driven to work and watched cars in a hurry, it makes me cycle in a more aware manner to make it clear to drivers that now is not a good time to pass by moving out more to the centre of the lane so there isn’t space to try to squeeze past.

    When it comes to ninja cyclists, that’s Darwin at work. The ones who cycle in a manner to avoid cars are likely to survive, the rest will eventually run out of luck, although preferably not using my car (or bike) to do so.

  21. Marcel Hubers 06/11/2012 at 3:41 pm #

    A personal rule I always apply when I ride on a bicycle is: look forward, be aware of movement and listen backwards. Unfortunately car drivers (and fighter pilots) can’t apply this beacause of a cabin around them and music on the radio. In short: use your six senses to be aware of everything moving towards you. That’s why I’m not in favour of plugging an i-pod in your ears while cycling or car-driving.

  22. George Riches 07/11/2012 at 9:19 am #

    When approaching a junction where you have priority, but a motorist is waiting to enter the main road, look at the vehicle’s wheels. Movement of those against the road surface is easier to see than guessing the driver’s intentions by looking at their head.

  23. Liam 08/11/2012 at 2:07 pm #

    this is amazing!

    for all the lates cycling news & deals check out:



  24. John J 08/11/2012 at 7:46 pm #

    Brilliant article aboiut eyesight and its failings – but guys, you’re missing the obvious.

    80% of the time we are on autopilot – cruising along, thinking about everything but driving/cycling, and the trip to & from work is the worst of the lot – it was safe yesterday so why should today be any different? That means that 4 out of 5 of our fellow road users are thinking about everything but the road. (How many times have you arrived at work with no recollection of part of the trip?)

    In my past life I can recount plenty of experiences driving a very large white car, lit up with blue strobe lights flashing, and making one hell of a row – only to find a driver/rider pulling out across my path oblivious to my presence. How do you fail to see a Police Range Rover on a ‘shout’? And yes, typically “sorry mate, didn’t see you…”

    More importantly – if they failed to see me – you really have a big, big problem on a bike (powered or not).

    I was advised ‘treat everybody else as a fool’ which for some time I resisted – until I came to accept that we are all fools when our minds are elsewhere.

  25. kerry 09/11/2012 at 11:13 am #

    fascinating article, thank you. this finally explains something that happened when i was passenger in a car a few years ago. waiting at a T-junction, driver (experienced, attentive, usually an excellent driver) went to pull out, I said “stop, no!” and luckily he did. bright red articulated lorry about 70 yards away, approaching fairly fast from the left. he had NOT seen it and was very shocked. finally, the explanation – it must have been during a saccade.
    now i always look both ways as a passenger and comment on anything i consider relevant, and encourage my passengers to do the same. they might see what i have somehow missed – even though i look twice, move my head, etc.
    i wouldn’t have believed it was possible to ‘not see’ a bright red 42 tonne artic in good visibility, but having seen it happen, now i know it is possible.
    i’m a horse rider, and i assume that it is 100% my responsibility to make sure other road users know i am there. it’s easy to forget that although i can hear them approaching, they don’t know i am there (on blind bends etc). the same applies to cyclists… don’t assume they know you are there just because you know they are there… that’s childish logic.

  26. Liz 10/11/2012 at 10:38 am #

    Excellent article – one of the main failures of drivers is that they believe they are all seeing.

    At the start of the article you also make the assumption that people will see big obvious things like HGVs. More frightening still is the research done for Dept of Transport now some years ago, where analysis of accidents involving collisions into the back or side of HGVs concluded “even though the drivers should have seen the HGVs, for some reason they didn’t”. Meaning, yes, it was blindingly obvious that an HGV was in front of the car, but they didn’t see it.

    We all need to be humble on the road ….

  27. Jane 10/11/2012 at 4:03 pm #

    re. flashing lights- when driving I have glanced at a cyclist and failed to see his flashing light until I glanced a second time- presumably the first time it was off rather than on! I think a permanent light is safer, but the best would be a combination of one permanent and one or more flashing

    • Liz 12/11/2012 at 7:59 am #

      … I thought you had to have a static light in terms of law. Flashing light can only be supplementary for that reason?

      • David 14/11/2012 at 1:18 pm #

        Since 2005, due to sloppy thinking, its been legal to have flashing-only. If a flashing light is also capable of showing a steady light it can’t be approved without the steady light conforming to standards – but if there is no steady-light capability it can be approved without.

        Which is simply lunatic – anyone who drives knows that you can’t track the movement of a flashing light nearly as well as a steady light if you’re on a moving platform yourself (and a car is usually moving when it’s of any danger to cyclist). It’s one of those things on which motorists always agree when you mention it.

        But that doesn’t stop cyclists saying otherwise, and equipping themselves with lights which motorists can’t track. Suicidal frankly, but suicidal behaviour fully sanctioned by the law.

  28. L Foster 11/11/2012 at 6:11 pm #

    All valid and accurate points, but overlook one thing. As a driver in charge of a ton+ of fast moving battering ram, you’re supposed to look properly. Most don’t even try.

    • Liz 12/11/2012 at 8:01 am #

      Agree that you are supposed to look properly andthe point of this article isn’t to let people off the hook but to emphasise that. My point is to say, look harder and we must also do all we can as well to help people see things which aren’t obvious, like trailers (at junctions, roundabouts etc) where they might be hidden. I think we can all then be less forgiving of people who don’t look

  29. Helen 13/11/2012 at 5:38 pm #

    We don’t need Dutch style cycling infrastructure. We have a perfectly good cycling infrastructure, you just need to get the cars off it.

    In the UK, roads are public highways. Cars and their drivers don’t actually have the sole right to use them and they should actually give way to vulnerable road users. Time was, when there were fewer cars, that this was the case. As car use has increased, drivers have shouldered everybody else off the road not by right, but by might.

    If we segregate users we simply make it OK for drivers to argue that cyclists should not be on the roads. We shouldn’t segregate – we should make it very clear to drivers that they are sharing space with other, more vulnerable road users. As such, they should look, properly and be very, very careful what they do.

    Unfortunately I don’t have the time to find the reference now but I remember reading some research some years ago that demonstrated how much more likely drivers are to see cyclists in a police uniform than cyclists in civilian clothing. Yes, the brain filters information from the eyes – but drivers can see cyclists, they just choose not to register that fact.

  30. ian Francis 13/11/2012 at 7:14 pm #

    What about it being made compulsory for all cyclists to have lights fitted.

  31. broken shaman 14/11/2012 at 12:33 am #

    Excellent article. The only point I would make, is that while flashing lights on bicycles may attract the eye, flashing lights only on bicycles in the dark are very difficult to track in order to tell the direction and speed of travel.

    • Mark Kerle 14/11/2012 at 2:12 am #

      Great article. Have experienced it myself as a driver, pedestrian and cyclist. That is I have been the perpetrator and the victim. However I will now take a little more time and reduce my liklihood of being neither in the future. I will take great comfort in circulating this far and wide.

    • Laurence Gillian 14/11/2012 at 9:41 am #

      Yes agreed! Ultra bright white LED manic flashing lights aimed towards the oncoming people/traffic are the bane of my cycle home along the narrow canal! >.<

    • Paul Cheshire 15/11/2012 at 8:52 am #

      Fantastic article by John Sullivan, I have long referred to causations of collisions as a lot to do with human / animal reactions such as multi tasking, reaction times, defence mechanisms, how we gather information and mention much of what he has. However, his article does put more meat on what I like to draw attention to. I also agree that as a motorcyclist we should expect that most drivers will not adopt the solutions given an we should be prepared to ride defensively as suggested.

      Paul Cheshire
      North Wales BikeSafe Coordinator

  32. Laurence Gillian 14/11/2012 at 9:40 am #

    Great article. It’s a funny old thing sight – we’re pretty blind really, lose the ability to see colour in the dark. (rods vs cones).


    Hearing really is one of our purest senses… yet road users – seem keen to numb this sense with noise canceling audio systems! 😉

    Have a great day! Lau

  33. John Sullivan 14/11/2012 at 4:16 pm #

    I am obviously very pleased to have generated so much interest, and I would give special thanks to those honest enough to admit that they have experienced some of the issues that I describe.

    All the comments about drivers being distracted are valid (and in my original article I made brief reference to the entirely unnecessary hazard that such practices represent) but the limitations of our eyes are an ADDITIONAL factor.

    I am just trying to tip the odds in favour of avoiding collisions – there is no silver bullet.

    And there is a great comment above about not being perfect – I’ve always said that the day I fly a perfect mission is the day to stop – because it would mean that I was either perfect (and therefore had nothing else to learn and might as well quit at the top!) or (more likely) had stopped being self critical, which is inherently dangerous.

    A little more humility on the roads, from ALL users, would go a long way…

    • Paul Cheshire 15/11/2012 at 8:55 am #

      Hi John,

      Any further information you have would be greatly appreciated for my workshops.

      Great stuff

      Paul Cheshire
      North Wales BikeSafe Coordinator

    • Bernard 03/01/2013 at 1:32 pm #

      “A little more humility on the roads, from ALL users, would go a long way…”

      Amen to that.

      Anyone who has not experienced any of these issues is either a) an alien, or b) lying! 🙂

      An excellent article John. When I get home tonight, I’ll be reading the paper with interest.

      I will also try my best to put some (if not all) of your suggestions (I have over the years, started doing some of them out of experience) into practice as I cycle.

      Both cyclists AND motorists should read this.

  34. Helen 14/11/2012 at 5:17 pm #

    Agree about the humility, John. We all make mistakes – you just have to hope the person coming the other way doesn’t make a mistake at the same time. I cursed myself when pulling out of a junction on my push bike – the cars stopped for me so I pulled out, only to find a motorbike overtaking the cars, heading straight for me. I really should have known better, I know that in heavy traffic motorbikes are often overtaking. Fortunately that day the motorcyclist was more alert than me so we didn’t collide, and I learned from the experience.

    It’s just the carelessness of drivers that gets to me. Because they are encased in a nice metal box, it seems to me that they are a lot less aware than many vulnerable road users.

  35. jim anderson 14/11/2012 at 7:33 pm #

    good article, drivers do go into auto mode when on familiar roads,usually on side roads pulling into main roads when taking the chidren to school in the morning is a prime example. This article should be added to the driving test as an aid to better driving

  36. Stephen Lewis 14/11/2012 at 9:42 pm #

    “This article should be added to the driving test as an aid to better driving” So how do you add an article to the driving test? As a driving instructor I already get pupils to move their heads, look-think-do. Look early, way before you get there, look for clues (reflections, refraction, lights, reactions from others) as there are many to see. Keep looking, never stop until you are 100% it’s safe to go.
    But what about after the driving test? Remember a new driver has 100% of the skills but 0% experience. Experienced drivers (not all but a good percentage) have 75% of the skills but 100% experience, over time they edit what they “need” to into what they “want” to do. Is that a good idea? People need to read articles like this to remind themselves of what they should be doing all over again, see the forest for the trees and you may just avoid one of them.

  37. judith killen 16/11/2012 at 9:27 pm #

    European studies show that cyclist (& other vulnerable road user) safety is improved by: separation, road rules (speed limits, drug and alcohol monitoring, safe cars…), enforcement of road rules. The safest urban speed limit is apparently 40km/hour or less. How many of us are prepared to drive (& cycle!) at such a low speed routinely? Hard to complain if we’re not prepared to respond to the data.

  38. John Sullivan 16/11/2012 at 9:46 pm #

    Andreas has very kindly made my original article available through a Dropbox link at the top of this page (just below the first picture).

  39. James Davidson 17/11/2012 at 9:36 am #

    Helen (14/11/2012) said, amongst other things “Because they are encased in a nice metal box, it seems to me that they are a lot less aware than many vulnerable road users.” And this is true. What is worse is that car manufacturers build machines which encase them ever more effectively; modern cars are cocoons built for maximum comfort and ease of use, which deny drivers the experience of what they are actually doing, which is propelling a heavy (largely) steel box at high speeds in (increasingly) congested and dangerous conditions. Not that this is the cause of carelessness, but it must be a major contributor. And I speak as a drive and only a very occasional cyclist.

    • Richard Herron 12/02/2013 at 12:03 pm #

      This is a very valid point. The vast majority of drivers go into switch-off mode when in their metal cocoon.

      Electronic control devices (I have a 2001 car and it has fly-by-wire integrated throttle and a clutch sensor linked to power steering) detach people from the reality of driving.

      Video games and computers seem to have had an effect on peoples perception of real world scenarios and further, one might argue that violence and dramatisation in Films de-sensitises people to what happens when bone and flesh strike metal at high velocity.

      Driving recently I saw a motorcyclist on a straight 30mph wide urban road come to the centre-line in preparation for turning right into a side-road. He stopped and effectively became a pedestrian stopped in the middle of the road, skin and bone.

      ALL the vehicles behind him were simply intent on getting by him on the inside. The first 3 cars didn’t even slow. The 4th slowed a little and the van behind him nearly rammed both. The Lorry (6 vehicles back), only just stopped when he finally realised that he didn’t have enough room to pass. This is not an uncommon scenario.

      Point of this is that people have a “one-in-front” mentality, being that “there is a vehicle in front of me so I must pass it”. Some of this is borne from a misunderstanding of a constantly reinforced message of “Make Progress” and “Drive up to the speed limit, otherwise cars behind will be impatient with you”. What happened to “driving at a speed appropriate to the road and traffic conditions”? Congestion, particularly on urban roads with dual parking and excess street furniture make distractions ever more prevalent.

      I don’t believe that the current standards of training are suitable and breed lazy, impatient drivers. The emphasis is on testing and therefore learning to a standard just to pass the test, not on training and retraining.

      No fighter pilot would ever be let out there with millions of pounds worth of equipment if they were simply “just good enough”.

      Going a little off track here, but bear with me:- Further I believe that Speed limits are exactly that. A limit. NOT the speed you HAVE to drive AT. Currently these are ENFORCED by negative means (fines and points). All modern cars have electronic speed control and fuel supply systems. If they were fitted with retarders which were operated by GPS ring fences on High Risk speed limit zones, nobody could ever be capable of speeding. The technology exists and is very cheap.

      I believe there is a good case for raising Dual Carriageway and Motorway speeds as modern cars are more capable of stopping…, in the right hands! Where safe to do so and where a driver concentrates adequately there should be no excuse for an accident, regardless of speed.

      Everyone should take the attitude of “Am I capable of Stopping, whatever happens?”. When I was small I used to travel out with my friends’ Dad who was a lorry driver. he always used to say that there should be no need to ever use the brakes on a Motorway. Whilst this is a somewhat quaint notion now, you can see his point.

      Whilst out with Bill one day in London (approximately 1974/5), even he as a very careful driver was unfortunate enough sadly to run over and kill a cyclist. This is something which was always with him and has stayed clear in my mind to this day.

      Speed is is not the only factor. It is often cited by Police as “a factor” in the majority of accidents. This is an obvious statement and irrelevant, as that is the whole point of motor vehicles as stated by James Davidson above:- propelling at speed.

      If fighter pilots can move at speeds of 1000MPH and have very few accidents, there is clearly much to be learned from the training they receive.

  40. Frank 17/11/2012 at 10:14 pm #

    Great article….

    As a fifteen year motorcycle courier…..in my experience, I would add two things.

    Bright colors/lights….DON’T rely on them…..in an increasingly day goo/ bright advertising/ neon lit world, I found CONTRAST to be equally as useful….IE I rode a black motorcycle/ black lid/black clothes…no daytime lights on, and actually found LESS people seemed to pull out on me.

    Secondly…..risk perception……..IE no/ very little risk acknowledged by the brain in pulling out on a smaller object…..bike, push bike,pedestrian etc…………so ride as if you are ALWAYS invisible……

    • James Davidson 18/11/2012 at 11:06 am #

      Good to drive anything that way, I’d say. Always safer to assume the other driver might be an idiot.

  41. Dave H 18/11/2012 at 6:50 pm #

    Personally lights are more conveniently fitted to cycles, …. as the law prescribes.

    However cyclists protested strongly against the compulsion to use rear lights, when this was pressed on them around 80 years ago, reasoning that the rear reflector should provide the required ability to be seen by another road user overtaking them.

    Having rear lights merely provides an excuse for a following driver to progress at speeds greater than those at which they can stop within the distance they can see to be clear – in the beam of their headlights. Road safety might well be enhanced, albeit following 6-9 months of serious carnage, if the requirement to have rear lights was discontinued. Drivers would then adopt to the culture of never driving at a speed greater than that which they can stop from … in the distance they can see to be clear.

    Oddly enough that’s what is says in the Highway Code.

    • MG 06/12/2012 at 9:38 pm #

      I am not sure limiting all traffic to 5mph is a very practical suggestion.

  42. Dave H 18/11/2012 at 6:52 pm #

    Sorry if last comment a bit obtuse – previous comment said cyclists should have lights… not correct – cycles have lights..

  43. Al Barnard 19/11/2012 at 10:49 pm #

    Hi John,

    Long time no see. Great information in your article that everybody can relate to.
    Best regards,


    • John Sullivan 20/11/2012 at 6:28 pm #

      Thanks Al – long time indeed! Hope you’re keeping well? JS

  44. Trevor Clarke 22/11/2012 at 10:25 am #

    My dad told me when I started driving to treat every other road user as an idiot that will do the least expected thing in a given situation. I have added my second maxim: always drive/ride/walk as if nobody else has seen you.

    I have come off my bike twice: once when somebody did something unexpected and I lost my balance and once when I was sure a driver had seen me and they turned across me.

    A lot of the comments above are of the form ‘i’ve done my bit, other road users should be more aware/careful/considerate’. The only person who can ensure your safety is you: relying on somebody else who no matter how aware/careful/considerate they are normally may be distracted or temporarily incapacitated is a recipe for disaster.

    • dr2chase 22/11/2012 at 12:35 pm #

      re: “The only person who can ensure your safety is you”

      I disagree. That too often gets twisted into victim-blaming — “well what did you expect, he did not ensure his own safety”. We have a responsibility to others as well, and we have laws and police departments to help put some official force behind that responsibility. At least in the US, the laws-as-written (if not as-enforced) put a heavy responsibility of drivers; they *must* stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, with no restrictions at all on the pedestrian — who might be traveling at a jog in the dark, who is not required to look first, who is not required to wear reflective material or hazard yellow. If the driver “didn’t see him, couldn’t stop in time”, there’s a law for that too — “driving too fast for conditions” (or variations on this). Again, these are rarely enforced as written, but that’s what written.

      Bicycle riders have gone a substantial distance in taking care for other people’s safety simply by choosing to ride a bicycle; by design, they are far less dangerous than automobiles, and the statistics prove this.

      I should add, here in the US we have a few states with these insane “stand your ground” laws, where “ensuring your own safety” can include “killing the other guy with a gun”.

      • Markew56 24/12/2012 at 4:30 am #

        dr2chase, you are using the “stand your ground” law totally out of context. It has nothing to do with motor vehicles or driving/riding. And I’m sure you know this.
        These laws are for defending one’s life when being Threatened by an assailant who is intentionally trying to hurt or kill you.

        • dr2chase 13/01/2013 at 8:15 pm #

          I don’t think I have taken that silly law out of context. Read the text of (for example) Florida’s law:

          “… However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:

          (1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or … ”

          I find it peculiar that it combines “necessary” and “no duty to retreat” (what if retreating would prevent the harm?), but note that there is definitely no mention of intent, just the cookbook “if deadly force necessary to prevent harm”.

          So I think my point stands — the every-man-is-a-safety-island approach can lead to some pretty unpleasant outcomes.

    • mike_LCC 13/01/2013 at 7:59 pm #

      “The only person who can ensure your safety is you”

      This is certainly true on one level, insofar as anyone can choose not to travel on the roads by bicycle

      However, evidence points strongly to the fact that the most important factor to affect your safety while you are riding a bicycle is how well other people drive

      You can certainly take some mitigating action against bad driving, but even the most experienced cyclist can get wiped out by a motorist who simply isn’t looking

      just ask Bradley Wiggins…

  45. Chri Harris 22/11/2012 at 12:19 pm #

    A number of my very experienced cyclists friends have fallen off recently, mostly due to potholes and other obstacles on the road. Perhaps the need to ” Focus on at least 3 different spots along the road” would help prevent this. It surprising how they appear out of nowhere even though you are constantly on the lookout.

  46. Russell 04/12/2012 at 2:33 pm #

    lot of good points John but, as a motorcyclist and Defence Scientist (Australia), I would argue about lights on vehicles being always effective. As your own photo shows in the pdf article – vehicles with lights on coming out of a highly lit background are effectively camouflaged – a motocycle almost completely disappears. In fact this method of camoulfage was employed on Torpedo bombers in 1943 – a row of headlights to match the horizon skylight behind the aircraft (Yehudi Lights). Therefore switch lights on when the background is dark, lights off when travelling away from the sun.
    Good point about music and other audio distractions such as phones. Have you ever been involved in “Cockpit workload” experiments? – in essence give a pilot/driver a driving/navigation task then load him/her with a variety of distractions until the task begins to suffer. It seems that we are capable of ignoring (Mentally switching off) music or chatty radio programs but a direct conversation is harder since some response will likely be required. Turns out it’s easy to ignore someone in the vehicle with you ( they may take note of the traffic situation and wait or stop talking) but a remote conversation – mobile phone – demands a much higher percentage of your available concentration….. and the driving suffers.

    • John Sullivan 05/12/2012 at 5:46 pm #

      Russell, you make some very good points, all of which I am familiar with and withheld purely to keep the article to a manageable length. You are absolutely correct to say that against a light background you will actually present greater contrast if you do NOT have your light on – RAF training aircraft usually adopt an all over black livery as this presents the greatest contrast against a light sky, whereas operational aircraft are usually painted a light grey to make them harder to detect visually.

      Indeed, there is a good argument that a cyclist/motorcyclist wearing black all-over not only presents good contrast against a light background, but will also present a more recognisable shape, whereas different colours can break-up the overall shape in a manner akin to camouflage.

      However, there is no single solution to making yourself visible, just as there is no single solution to camouflage – there is no point camouflaging yourself as a tree if you want to hide in the desert!

      It all comes down to tipping the odds in our favour. Until we have clothing that can change colour automatically (and there are people working on this!) then we need to decide what approach will provide the greatest contrast for MOST of the time – or, more precisely, during the periods that we are most vulnerable to collision.

      If I was going to ride across a prairie then I might adopt an all-over black look. However, most of the time we will have background clutter (buildings, hedges, traffic, etc) that makes dark colours less effective. So while you are correct that lights are (strictly speaking) not effective ALL of the time, I would contend that they are MORE effective than the alternative, for MOST of the time (please forgive capitals – no underlining available).

      I would also disagree that ‘no light’ is always better when the sun is behind you – if there is any background at all then there is a far greater danger that you disappear into its shadow, which will always be dark, even if the object is light in colour. And will riders really remember to switch lights on/off as they negotiate different terrain? Uncertain. And finally, even if you ride to work across a prairie, it’s when you get into the town that you are MOST likely to encounter the traffic that could kill you.

      On balance – my personal recommendation is to leave your lights on.

      As to cockpit workload… let’s just say that every simulator ride, every training sortie, and every real mission is a mini-experiment in cockpit workload! And having been an instructor I have also seen first-hand how a student begins to miss inputs as they reach task-saturation. Seeing people text/phone while driving horrifies me because I know exactly how much of their capacity is being absorbed, and how little is left with which to drive safely! I would gladly see drivers routinely pulled over and tasered for driving while texting/telephoning!!

      Great points Russell – thanks.

  47. goobernutz 07/12/2012 at 7:09 pm #

    As a cyclist, high-powered flashing lights drive me nuts. If I’m unlucky enough to be behind someone who is using these, I’ll either pass as quickly as I can or simply stop for a minute to let them get far ahead of me.

    At night these lights do nothing but blind the person behind you. As has been stated, tracking the direction of a flashing ufo on the side of the road is all but impossible for drivers.

    Have there been studies done on the effectiveness of steady vs. flashing lights?

    If flashing was so much better, why do cars have steady lights?

  48. Tina Saunders 09/12/2012 at 2:16 pm #

    Hi John

    Brilliant article very informative the pauses and filling in of the gaps makes total sense didn’t know about that before.
    I am a driving instructor and a very keen motorcyclist and I think learning to ride was the most amazing experience I now know how dangerous the roads are for 2 wheels of any kind its a mine field of hazards for 2 wheels. I always say to pupils that you are to think every other road user is a moron and will Guarantee you do something totally unexpected and dangerous within five minutes of driving.
    I totally agree with the use of mobiles in the car I would just add to the fact of “Tasering” them every time they are they are caught to also crushing the car and the mobile.
    I can not believe every day I am out teaching i can sit at the lights and can normally see at least 2 drivers on the phone and another one with no seat belt on.
    Something has to be done about road safety but no government will ever vote for anything that will really help because next election they will loose votes.
    I think that all new drivers should have to take re-tests 6months to a year after they have passed to show that there standard of driving has improved and then a driving test every 5 years, I also think that you should have to have an eye test (perifferal vision, reactions and distance) before you go for a driving test you have to take this proof to your driving test. You should also have to have an eye sight test at regular intervals and the results go to the dvla to be registered on your license. I also think that opticians should be able at the moment to report people to the DVLA who they know drive but have bad eyesight and so are a danger on the road.
    I still get peer pressure and people don’t like it because I don’t break the speed limit especially when I am on 2 wheels (1st and foremost I don’t want to get points on my license that could loose me my teaching license) I don’t agree with all the 20mph zones that are coming in, whats the point there not policed, the speed limit should stay as it is the only limit that needs to be changed is the motorways as I dont think 80-90 is a problem on them. It’s not speed that kills its drivers and rider that cant drive or ride safely and keep there concentration on the road, mile for mile motorways are the safest roads they dont have as many accidents but when they do they tend to be quite large.
    There aren’t enough police out there to police the laws we have already that is why people don’t give a damn about what they do because they spend most of there life not getting caught.
    I had better stop now otherwise i could rant and rave till the end of time. I would love to make our roads much safer but I don’t think that will ever happen.

    Thanks Tina

  49. Eric D 12/12/2012 at 7:11 am #

    We definitely need to train motorists to look for cyclists.

    Remember that you can be registered blind with tunnel vision,
    but still pass the drivers’ sight test.

    Don’t assume because you make eye-contact and the driver nods back that
    a) he’s seen you – he could be talking to someone via bluetooth or hands-fre
    b) he won’t drive at you – stay defensive

  50. Sue 19/12/2012 at 8:23 pm #

    John, thanks for a very interesting read. I’ve been spreading the word far and wide to my cycling friends, and it’s great to see the reaction being so positive. I’ve always been more of a defensive cyclist and found I was doing many of the things suggested in your article as a cyclist. Now, as a driver, I am doing more when behind the wheel as well.

    I also added a flashing LED to my daytime commutes and have found that I am catching a driver’s eye more consistently now. As a result, I have just bought rechargeable flashing lights for all of my family members’ bikes for Christmas.

    Thank you once again.

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