INTRO – the ‘Science Of Being Seen’

A magician knows that the ‘world’ we see has been built entirely inside our brains. The magician knows that the audience about to attend the magic show understands that they are going to be fooled, yet still can’t spot the tricks.

When we ride a motorcycle or a scooter, we become the magician and the drivers and other road users all around us are our audience, and one of our magic powers is invisibility. But there are a couple of extra deceptions involved:

  • the motorcyclist isn’t aware that he / she is a magician and about to fool the audience
  • the motorcyclist’s audience of drivers doesn’t know the biker is a magician

Remember, everything you read here is intended to unmask our very own unintentional motorcycling magic show. Come on in to discover the science behind the magic, and just how it is that every time we set out on two wheels we have the potential to turn invisible and fool our audience.

In February 2018, I spent the month in New Zealand as a speaker on the Shiny Side Up Tour 2018. I was there to deliver my ‘Science of Being Seen’ presentation to audiences of ordinary motorcyclists at no less than seven different venues on the way around the country.

The ‘Science of Being Seen’ (or SOBS for short) is a short presentation I created back in 2011 for Kent Fire and Rescue’s road safety award-winning ‘Biker Down’ course. Biker Down was devised by fire fighter James Sanderson as a motorcycle safety intervention with twin goals:

  • first aid and accident scene management – thus helping the rider to cope better with the scene of a crash most likely (but not necessarily) involving another rider
  • crash avoidance – thus staying out of trouble in the first place and thereby not needing some else to deliver emergency assistance

I created SOBS to fulfil the crash avoidance role for Biker Down. It looks at the problem of collisions between motorcycles and other vehicles (which are usually cars) at junctions. Most of these collisions are ‘Right Of Way Violations’ (ROWV) where the driver turns across a motorcycle’s path. ‘Sorry mate I didn’t see you’ is the most commonest explanation offered by the driver, which has led to these collisions being given their own popular name – SMIDSY, from the initial letters.

Driver looking 2

SMIDSY collisions are a significant road safety issue. In analyses of motorcycle crashes and rider injuries, it’s been estimated that if we could prevent these collisions, it would reduce motorcycle casualties in the UK by no less than 25% (Clarke et al, 2007).

Significantly, this crash isn’t unique to the busy roads of UK, nor Europe, nor even the western world. The crashes happen where there are relatively good standards of training, where there are strict road rules, where there is strict enforcement of those rules, and where there is next-to-no training, where drivers and riders play fast and loose with the local traffic code, and where there is little police presence. In short, it’s a world-wide problem and motorcyclists have the same collisions with turning vehicles wherever motorcyclists and drivers of other vehicles share the roads. It’s not surprising that there have been numerous road safety interventions aimed at reducing the risk to riders from turning vehicles. Research into these collisions and the interventions designed to prevent them are international and stretch back many years.

Canada keep an eye out for motorcycles

However, these interventions aimed at preventing collisions between drivers and motorcyclists have had – at best – very limited effectiveness. The ultimate measure of success of these interventions would not be demonstrated in laboratory or off-road trials, but would be measured in a real-world change in the overall distribution of motorcycle crashes. If these campaigns and interventions worked, we would expect to see a reduction in the proportion of collisions between cars and motorcycles occurring at junctions. That’s simply not happened. Urban junction collisions remain the single-most common crash involving a powered two wheeler (PTW – a motorcycle, scooter or moped) and a car or other four-wheeled vehicle.

Why haven’t these interventions had the results that were expected?

My own belief is that both motorcyclists and drivers alike are receptive to receiving better information about just why collisions at junctions happen. Drivers do not want to put bikers at risk any more than riders want to be at risk from other vehicles. But as the road user most at risk from the ROWV at a junction is the motorcyclist, it makes sense to target interventions towards the rider. So the biker was the focus of the original SOBS presentation first delivered it in 2011 and the rider remains at the focus of SOBS today.

SOBS therefore aims to help all riders understand just how our power of invisibility works. SOBS breaks new ground by presenting the background research in a way that is accessible to the ordinary motorcyclist without a science background. Taking between thirty and forty minutes to deliver, the presentation offers all motorcyclists:

  • a fuller understanding of the potential for driver error and specifically the visual perception problems that result in drivers turning in front of approaching motorcycles so riders understand that SMIDSYs don’t happen because “drivers don’t look properly”
  • a critical look at the evidence for the effectiveness of existing conspicuity aids such as hi-vis clothing and day riding lights, and a review of what could constitute an effective motorcyclist conspicuity strategy
  • a better understanding of the potential effectiveness of proactive strategies, allowing motorcyclists to become better at protecting themselves from the ROWV by becoming active players in avoiding the collision, rather than a passive partners in the crash

Before I go any further, I want to make two points crystal-clear. By suggesting that there are problems with the way that drivers perceive PTWs on the road, SOBS is not casting the motorcyclist in the role of the ‘victim’ of SMIDSY crashes. Nor by suggesting there are proactive strategies that the rider can use does SOBS seek to ‘blame’ the biker for failing to avoid the crash. The fact is that we are human, and all humans make mistakes. Until there is a complete technological solution, drivers and riders will continue to err. Until that time, it makes sense to improve our understanding of the reasons for these collisions, because that in turns leads us to a far clearer vision of the effective strategies that will help us all stay out of trouble on two wheels.

Ultimately, I firmly believe that SOBS can create a generation of riders better-equipped with the knowledge and practical solutions to avoid being caught out by the ‘looked but failed to see’ driver error. As of autumn 2018, Biker Down is delivered to motorcyclists all over the UK by just over half the UK’s fire services, and has been taken up by the UK military forces. Most – though not all – deliver a modified version of SOBS. I personally deliver my SOBS presentation for Kent Fire and Rescue.


So what’s the reason for construction this website?  It has several functions:

  • firstly, it allows anyone who has attended Biker Down and seen a SOBS presentation to discover the background to the SOBS presentation
  • secondly, it’s a resource for the far greater number of motorcyclists who do not have access to SOBS
  • thirdly, it is – to the best of my knowledge – the first fully-annotated, carefully-structured and in-depth resource for motorcyclists and drivers alike which details the wealth of research that exists out of sight of the ordinary road user

These pages build on the work started by the presentation by referencing the research material on which the presentation itself is based, and as you’ll see there is an astonishing quantity of scientific research into the causes and consequences of the SMIDSY collision. But the vast majority of that research sits in university research libraries and is only ever read by other researchers. This website helps each and every rider access that research.

So carry on reading to discover the fascinating human perception background to the SMIDSY. To move forward to the next page, click on the link below marked ‘Next >’.

But since you’re here, I’ve a small favour to ask.

Researching, documenting and constructing the ‘Science Of Being Seen’ site has, as you’ve probably realised, taken many hours of hard work. As it stands, I believe the information here is of immense value to each and every motorcyclist, to help understand and defend against the most common crash wherever you are in the world.

The content is not hidden behind a paywall, access is entirely free.

But to keep working on the SOBS project, I need your help to continue to improve the content and keep it updated with the latest research. All work on this project is carried out in my own time and I don’t have sponsors. If you feel able to make a small donation to the upkeep and continued development of SOBS, why not buy me a coffee? Each contribution is much appreciated. Each cuppa keeps me awake and writing! Thank you.


Continue your journey to the next page… Next >



Clarke, D. D., Ward, P., Bartle, C., Truman, W. (2007). “The role of motorcyclist and other driver behaviour in two types of serious accident in the UK”, Accident Analysis and Prevention, 39, 974-981.


Last updated:

Friday 23 November 2018 – edited for clarity, correcting typos



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Photo credit Paul Townsend