A magician knows that the ‘world’ we see has been built entirely inside our brains. The magician also 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 of drivers
- and the drivers doesn’t know the biker is a magician
Back in the late 70s, I left university with a degree in the biologicial sciences. As a job wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I worked as a motorcycle courier in London. As a result I very quickly acquired a lot of practical experience in dealing with heavy traffic, including avoiding the most common collision involving a motorcycle and another vehicle in a built-up area, the so-called SMIDSY crash, named for the driver’s explanation:
“Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You!”
These collisions occur when the driver turns across a motorcycle’s path at a junction (or an intersection as they are sometimes known) when the rider has priority. For that reason, they are formally known as ‘Right Of Way Violations’, which you’ll often find abbreviated to ROWV. As the SMIDSY explanation is the one most commonly offered by the driver, they are also called ‘Looked But Failed To See’ (LBFTS) collisions.
These collisions are a significant road safety problem. That had become obvious when the Greater London Road Safety Unit identified powered two-wheelers or PTWs as being over-represented in accidents in the mid-70s. They’d found that a major contributory factor was that other drivers failed to see the motorcycles. That news hit the motorcycle press just about the time I was taking up biking. It’s possible that the news stories focused me on the problem very early and it’s possibly why I managed to avoid all but one driver who ‘looked but failed to see’ me. Fortunately, I’d seen it coming and had nearly stopped. The resulting crash was at rather less than walking pace – I just toppled over sideways. Once I’d started work as a courier and was dodging my way through traffic for a hundred miles a day, then the frequency of these ‘looked but failed to see’ incidents was even more obvious. But what I quickly realised – often as I stopped to pick another biker off the deck – was that many riders DON’T see the SMIDSY coming and they DON’T react in time.
Just how frequent are these intersection collisions? It’s been estimated that if we could prevent them, it would reduce motorcycle casualties in the UK by no less than 25% (Clarke et al, 2007). So here’s a question for you. If we know the scale of the problem, why are they still happening?
Good question. Whilst working as a courier, I went back to university and funded myself through an MSc – and still couldn’t get a job. Eventually, in 1995 I took a training course to become a qualified instructor and being a full-time motorcycle coach has been my day job ever since. So I’ve spent the vast majority of my working life on two wheels.
One of the elements of my instructor training course – because it was part of the UK’s ‘compulsory basic training (CBT) syllabus – was about ‘the need to be clearly visible to other road users’. Looking back on my own 1995 notes from that course, I see that I wrote (because it was the figure quoted by MY trainer) that:
“Hi-vis reduces accidents by 20% – not being seen is a major contributory factor. Refer to DSA mmanual”
What did the Driving Standards Agency (DSA) ‘Motorcycling Manual’ say? In short that “many road accidents involving motorcyclists happen because another road user didn’t see them. Using some form of visibility aid will help others to see you.” The manual then went onto suggest wearing yellow or orange jackets, tabards or waistcoats, or ‘Sam Browne’ belts, white helmets and riding on dipped beam during the day. And at night reflective belts, patches or strips were recommended. The official ‘Guide to CBT’ also said that “it’s in your own interest to make yourself easy to see” and that “wearing dull clothing” and “riding a dirty bike” were to be avoided.
Having mentioned this, it was our opportunity to offer the company’s ‘Sam Browne’ belt for sale – it was not quite the same as the one in the illustration as it was fluorescent yellow cloth with a stitched-on silver reflective band.
Even back in 1995, that statement about reducing collisions by 20% made me vaguely uneasy. I’d worn an early version of the fluoresecent and and reflective yellow Sam Browne religiously for my first few years on two wheels whilst at college and it hadn’t prevented my minor bump. Then as a courier I’d switched to using a hi-vis jacket. But when it was too hot to wear in mid-summer, I quite honestly couldn’t detect any difference in the way drivers saw me or not.
In 1995, although it was still relatively early in the internet timeline, I’d already been online for a couple of years. I knew from my science background that my subjective experience wasn’t something to be relied on, so I started to see if I could find some evidence one way or the other. I started to discuss the SMIDSY with riders from around the world including quite a number of other (mostly US) instructors on Compuserve. I’d also discovered it was becoming possible to track down university research papers, so I started to look for research on the ‘looked but failed to see’ problem and the ROWV.
What I learned was immediately significant. This crash isn’t unique to the busy roads of UK. It’s not unique to Europe, nor the Western world – they happen the world over. Neither is the SMIDSY a recent phenomenon. Although research might have started relatively recently – in the 1960s and 70s – the crash dates back to the invention of the motorcycle. Nor do they seem to be prevented by training and heavily-enforced rules. These 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 they happen 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 and historical problem, and motorcyclists have the same collisions with turning vehicles wherever motorcyclists and drivers of other vehicles share the roads.
Once you realise it’s a worldwide issue, it’s not surprising that there has been world-wide research into these collisions or that the interventions designed to reduce the risk to riders from turning vehicles are also international and also stretch back decades.
But the ultimate measure of success of the 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 significant 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. At best, interventions aimed at preventing collisions between drivers and motorcyclists have had limited effectiveness.
So by 1997, I was setting up Survival Skills as my own post-test training school. What I created was a highly- structured course, which focuses on mixing a framework of theory and practical exercises specifically designed to enhance the rider’s understanding of risk by improving hazard awareness and specifically risk assessment and risk management skills. And that requires an understanding of where things go wrong on the roads, rather than more lessons in how to ride the ‘right’ way. It’s recently become known as insight training.
The 1996 edition of ‘Motorcycle Roadcraft’, a handbook originally aimed at police riders but available to the public, had a whole page on conspicuity and states:
“You should do everything you can to make yourself more conspicuous. You can do this by:
- wearing a jacket or over-vest that is fluorescent and has reflective markings
- using daylight running lights
- using a bright quart halogen headlight”
Interestingly, the police book also threw up some warnings about “taking into account your conspicuousness” and considering “how well you stand out against the background… [which] can change rapidly… do not assume that because you are conspicuous you are safe”. That advice wasn’t available to learners, but it certainly influenced me in writing my own training notes. Here’s a sample. You’ll see I’ve added some extra suggestions based more on my own experience and observations (I’ve underlined them):
“[know] the difference between retro-reflective clothing and fluorescent kit:
fluorescent shows up in daylight, yellow best… need to be seen from all sides – most visible are tops or shoulders front and rear and sleeves to side…
“…white or brightly coloured helmets best in mixed colours”
“…reflective strips on jackets and boots, Helmet halo, stickers on bike, esp if positioned low down – picked up by dipped lights”
“Use of headlights during daytime recommended in HIGHWAY CODE, if very bright day, don’t use as they can make it difficult for car drivers to pick out your speed and distance.”
As you’ll see as you read on, I didn’t get it all right – ‘yellow best’ isn’t always so and ‘mixed coloured’ helmets may not be a great idea either. But I was beginning to develop my ideas.
Over the next few years, I continued to develop my thinking on the ‘looked but failed to see’ collision, often on online forums. Increasingly I questioned the advice that told the newest, most vulnerable riders that they would be safer if they rode with hi-vis clothing and day riding lights (DRLs); I suggested that riders should instead be aware of where vehicles could turn into their path, be alert for that possibility, and ready to take evasive action rather than rely on the ‘be bright, be seen’ road safety message. I also found I was writing the same explanations again and again, so in time I assembled my ideas as a riding skills tip on my website in the mid-2000s. That original page is still up.
My position on conspicuity aids began to gain me a certain notoriety. Increasingly I found myself challenged to back up my statements, so I continued to looked for evidence in the research supporting hi-vis and DRLs. I found quite a few but in point of fact, I also began to find an increasing number papers that were less supportive of the early work on conspicuity aids. What became increasingly clear is that far from there being consensus on conspicuity issues, the most recent work is more likely to say “it depends”, something that Roadcraft pointed out in 1996!
Then in 2011, on the back of some lively debates online, I was invited by fire fighter James Sanderson to develop a presentation to fulfil the crash avoidance role for a rider safety intervention he was working on for Kent Fire and Rescue. This project, which became known as ‘Biker Down’, originally had twin goals to help a rider cope better with the scene of a crash most likely (but not necessarily) involving another rider:
- accident scene management – to protect and control the accident scene and to prevent it getting worse and to ensure the emergency services are called
- first aid – to render assistance until the arrival of the emergency services
But Jim knew that he also needed a module that had an accident reduction role – something that would help the attendee stay out of trouble in the first place and thereby not need some else to deliver emergency assistance. He’d seen my writing online, contacted me, we had a chat about what might work and I came up with the ‘Science of Being Seen’ (or SOBS for short) presentation. We trialled the presentation in a few pilot courses, then went full-time in 2012, and the Biker Down course went on to win a Prince Michael of Kent international road safety award at the end of 2012 and an insurance industry award the following year.
The SOBS presentation broke new ground by presenting the background research in a way that is accessible to the ordinary motorcyclist without a science background and gets people thinking. 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
By autumn 2018, Biker Down was being 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. Most – though not all – deliver a modified version of SOBS. I personally still deliver my SOBS presentation for Kent Fire and Rescue.
SOBS has begun to receive international recognition. In February 2018, I was invited to New Zealand as a speaker on the NZTA’s Shiny Side Up Tour 2018, delivering my ‘Science of Being Seen’ presentation to audiences of ordinary motorcyclists at no less than nine different venues on the way around the country.
I was fortunate enough to reprise my role in 2019 delivering my presentations at even more locations in front of ordinary bikers who just want to ride safely. I was interviewed by a New Zealand bike magazine before I left and had a short TV interview halfway round the four week tour.
One of the points I try to get over during the presentation is that as riders we must accept that ALL road users are human, and ALL humans make mistakes. 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, but 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, I am not casting the motorcyclist in the role of the ‘victim’ of SMIDSY crashes.
- nor by suggesting that there are proactive strategies riders could an use to avoid driver error, am I seeking to ‘blame’ the biker for failing to avoid the crash – SOBS aims to help all riders understand just how our power of invisibility works.
Until there is a complete technological solution, drivers will continue to err and riders who fail to predict driver error will continue to fail to take evasive action. Until that time, it makes sense to improve OUR understanding of the reasons for these collisions, because that in turns helps US as motorcyclists gain a far clearer vision of the effective strategies that offer the best chance of staying out of trouble on two wheels.
Since I first delivered SOBS, the role of visual perception in the ‘looked but failed to see’ collision has begun to garner far wider attention. Whether my work has precipitated that or whether it’s coincidence I don’t know but a cycling magazine covered the topic in 2012 in an article by an RAF pilot that received a lot of attention, the Association of British Drivers released a video on saccadic masking, and most recently an excellent ‘FortNine’ video on YouTube has also looked at the phenomenon of ‘motorcyclist invisibility’. I can see the results in my audiences. Where I used to see sceptical frowns and shakes of the head, now I see knowing smiles and nods. Rider awareness IS changing, and for the better.
So what’s the purpose of this website? These pages build on the work I started by creating the presentation, and have a number of functions:
- firstly, the site allows anyone who has attended Biker Down and seen a SOBS presentation to discover the science background to the SOBS presentation by referencing the research material on which the presentation itself is based
- secondly, it’s a resource for the far greater number of motorcyclists who do not have access to Biker Down and SOBS
- thirdly, it’s a resource for road safety professionals too
- and fourthly 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
Read on and 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 as much of that research as possible.
Ultimately, it’s my belief 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. Remember, everything you read here is intended to unmask our very own unintentional motorcycling magic show. So carry on to discover the fascinating human perception background to the SMIDSY. 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.
To move forward to the next page, click on the link below marked ‘Next >’.
But before you do, 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. 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.
Tuesday 30 April 2019 – rewrite for clarify timeline of development of SOBS, added information about conspicuity aids in official UK motorcycle books
Friday 23 November 2018 – edited for clarity, correcting typos
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Kevin Williams has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
Photo credit Paul Townsend https://www.flickr.com/photos/brizzlebornandbred/20001313491