PAGE SUMMARY – for decades, riders have been told that motorcycle crashes at junctions are the result of drivers ‘failing to look’ or ‘not looking properly’… but official crash reports are largely subjective as they reflect the opinion of the reporting officer… there are more reasons for LBFTS collisions than ‘the driver didn’t look’ or ‘look properly’… the crash rate involving motorcycles and drivers using a phone is almost certainly much lower than most of us would believe… in terms of OPPORTUNITY to commit a ROWV, very few of the opportunities result in the error… the vast majority of drivers must ‘look properly’ for bikes.
BECAUSE the SMIDSY collision between a motorcycle and another vehicle involves a ‘Right-Of-Way Violation’ (ROWV) committed by the other road driver, and because the driver often confesses “I didn’t see the motorcycle”, police forces throughout the world usually report ‘Looked But Failed To See’ (LBFTS) collisions as being the result of poor observation skills and negligence on the part of the driver. For example, in Great Britain in 2013, in accidents involving at least one motorcyclist and other vehicles (with no pedestrian casualties), the official report on statistics said:
“The most common contributory factor allocated to vehicles involved in accidents with motorcyclists is failed to look properly. Between 2009 and 2013, 46 per cent of cars and 47 per cent of light vans involved in an accident with a motorcyclist failed to look properly.”
As road safety organisations are heavily influenced by police practice, the result has been several decades of ‘Think Bike’ style campaigns which in essence tell drivers to ‘look properly’ or ‘look harder’ for motorcycles. Not surprisingly, the broader motorcycling population has largely come to believe that the SMIDSY results from poor driving skills and “not looking properly”. In fact, the ‘Looked But Failed To See’ problem can result from a breakdown at several places in a chain of events (see Crundall et al (2012) and Helman et al (2012)):
- the driver has to look – if he / she doesn’t look, the driver will not see the motorcycle
- if the driver looks, the driver has to look and perceive the motorcycle – if the motorcycle is not perceived, the driver will not see the motorcycle
- if the driver perceives the motorcycle, the driver has to assess speed and distance correctly – if the driver misjudges either, the result is likely to be an unsafe manoeuvre
There’s actually another step in the chain – once the driver has actually looked but before the driver can perceive the PTW, the motorcycle has to be where the driver can actually see it. So a corrected chain of events is:
does the driver look? > can the driver see? > does the driver perceive? > does the driver judge correctly?
A breakdown at any point in the chain could result in a collision.
Let’s start with the most obvious possibility – that the driver “failed to look”. It’s a popular theory. For example, an accident claims company states on their website:
“Careless car drivers, not reckless bikers, are the number one cause of motorbike accidents in the UK.”
And the article produces some some statistics to back up the claim:
“In 70% of reported incidents the driver simply didn’t see the motorbike, those that saw the bike misjudged its speed, or distance, or both. It’s a finding consistent with the official government figures compiled by the Department for Transport, which revealed of the 19,534 motorbike accidents recorded in 2010, no fewer than 13,051 occurred at junctions.”
With articles like this, it’s hardly surprising that every generation of motorcyclists grows up with the idea that motorcycle crashes at junctions are the result of drivers ‘failing to look’ or ‘not looking properly’. It’s reinforced by frequently-repeated statements that ‘dual drivers’ (ie, those with both a car and motorcycle licence) are better at spotting other motorcycles when behind the wheel of the car, the implication being that “bikers look properly for bikes”. Motorcyclists come to think that when a driver says that he or she “looked but failed to see” the bike, it’s simply an attempt to cover up the true reason – that the driver was either ‘careless’ and didn’t look, or was distracted – the current popular belief is that drivers involved in collisions are being distracted by mobile phones.
So is it true? Are motorcyclists are being put at risk by car drivers? Some authors seem to think so. A 2012 TRL report entitled “Literature review of interventions to improve the conspicuity of motorcyclists and help avoid ‘looked but failed to see’ accidents” stated:
“Sometimes drivers simply do not look at all when pulling out of a junction – this is not a conspicuity issue.”
Unfortunately, having read the paper I can see no hard evidence for that statement, and certainly no indication of how often a driver might “not look at all”. The lack of numbers is explained by suggesting that it may be that a driver’s memory of the incident that is at fault so using the witness statement given by the offending driver to disentangle actual ‘failed to look’ collisions from ‘looked but failed to see’ incidents is difficult:
“…for actions preceding an accident is so distorted, that drivers genuinely believe that they looked but failed to see, despite this belief being based on an inaccurate reconstruction of events.”
Whilst the driver’s recollections may be unreliable, that hardly supports the statement about ‘drivers not looking at all’. If drivers really did fail to look with any regularity, they wouldn’t get very far before colliding with anything that was moving, not just motorcycles. In fact, in terms of distance travelled, ALL collisions are rare events.
The 2015 report “Facts on Motorcyclist Casualties” gives an explanation of how the “driver did not look properly” assessment comes about. Whilst “contributory factors provide an insight into how and why accidents occur”, the report also provides a caution:
“The factors are largely subjective as they reflect the opinion of the reporting officer, therefore they should be interpreted with caution… [they are] assigned quickly at the occurrence of the accident and often without extensive investigations. These differences may therefore be in part due to preconceptions of certain vehicle user groups.”
In other words, that’s a fairly clear warning about relying on the contributory factors column in police accident reports when looking at collisions involving motorcycles. The warning is reinforced by explaining that failing to look properly…
“…is commonly referred to as the ‘looked but failed to see’ problem in road safety literature. This is particularly common where motorcyclists are hard to see and for
motorists to fail to notice them when looking around the road.”
But now we’re starting to talk about a completely different issue – ‘did not look’, ‘did not look properly’ and ‘looked but failed to see’ are not interchangeable as explanations for ‘failing to notice’ a motorcycle, yet the ‘failed to look’ issue is frequently confused with ‘looked but failed to see’ collisions. For example in Chapter Four of a major report, ‘Improving Safety for Motorcycle, Scooter and Moped Riders’, the authors argue that ‘failing to look’ can be defined as:
“inadequate visual screening: failing to look at the correct location at the correct moment.”
I would argue that this is NOT ‘failing to look’ but a completely separate error arising from different causes, and so should be considered separately treated – later on, I’ve used the heading ‘looked but in the wrong place’. It is important to be absolutely precise when we define ‘failed to look’ because it directly affects the way we motorcyclists perceive the problem of junction collisions. Conflate ‘failed to look’ and ‘looked but failed to see’ errors, and it’s easy to arrive at the kind of conclusion that the insurance company made on the website I mentioned earlier.
It’s likely that an absolute ‘failure to look’ would only arise in a very limited number of circumstances. For example, perhaps:
- if the driver was confused by the road layout. Perhaps a foreign driver in an unfamiliar country where vehicles drive on the opposite side of the road looks the ‘wrong’ way down the road at a T junction – I dare say most of us have done that in Europe.
- if the driver was paying attention to the road but failed to detect a junction and / or its priority. As an example, not too many years ago, I rode straight ahead and onto a priority road which merged with the side road on a bend. The priority warnings weren’t visible – the warning sign had been knocked down and the road markings were under a large puddle. Because I didn’t realise I was exiting onto a priority road, I didn’t look for traffic – I was lucky no vehicles were approaching.
- if the driver was distracted and failed to failed to detect a junction and / or its priority. Perhaps by talking to a passenger or the phone or by some in-car gadget like a GPS or even by something outside the car like advertising – there is an increasing trend to put brightly illuminated, moving and distracting advertising at the roadside, on over-bridges and even on other vehicles.
- if the driver was impaired, perhaps by alcohol and recreational drugs, medicinal drugs, illness, fatigue, or age.
Many motorcyclists are concerned about driver distraction, particularly the number of drivers using a phone whilst driving. It’s a common belief their widespread use contributes significantly to collisions with motorcycles. However, an IAM report entitled “Licensed to skill: contributory factors in road accidents: Great Britain 2005 – 2009” looked at over 700,000 items of official crash data from the UK and found that ‘driver using mobile phone’ was the cause of 0.8% of fatal crashes, and just 0.2% of all injury crashes. I should point out that these are crashes involving ALL vehicle types, but the implication is that the crash rate involving motorcycles and drivers using a phone is thus almost certainly much lower than most of us would believe. By contrast drivers found to be ‘impaired by alcohol’ accounted for 10% of fatal and 7% of serious accidents. The IAM data did not record driver fatigue as a cause, but there is some evidence it causes more crashes than alcohol impairment.
Beanland et al (2013) believed that inattention and distraction represent a major problem in road safety and that they are believed to contribute to increased crash risk but point out that there is currently limited reliable information on their role in crashes. Looking at data from the Australian National Crash In-depth Study, they investigated 856 crashes from 2000 to 2011, in which at least one party was admitted to hospital with crash-related injuries. 60% of the crashes had insufficient information to attribute them to distraction and/or inattention. Of the remaining 40%, just over half showed evidence of driver inattention. Intoxication and/or fatigue were commonly implicated in reduced attention, whilst distraction most commonly involved voluntary, non-driving related activities originating within the vehicle, such as passenger interactions. Of course, we have to be careful assuming that the same results apply in the UK – it’s known that Australia has a more serious drink-drive problem than the UK.
However, many crashes involve fit and healthy drivers. According to Pammer and her fellow researchers (2017), ‘looked but failed to see’ crashes are particularly troublesome because, despite clear conditions and the lack of other hazards or distractions, drivers will look in the direction of the oncoming motorcycle – and in some cases appear to look directly at the motorcycle – but still pull out into its path.
How can we look at something and not see it? One theory was advanced by Helman et al in a 2012 TRL review. The authors noted that our conscious attention can wander to another pattern of thoughts and be disconnected from visual input. The first researchers using eye tracking to attempt to identify where drivers were looking started by assuming that whatever the eye is pointed at (a ‘fixation’) is what the driver’s conscious mind is currently processing. This is known as the ‘eye-mind assumption’ and is, as the authors point out, a fallacy. As they put it:
“…not every commuter who stares out of a moving train window is interested in railway embankments”.
Do we have any actual evidence for how often the ROWV occurs? Back in 1980, the TRRL sent a motorcycle lapping a big roundabout behind a car, with the rider controlling the following distance to see how other drivers responded by either staying put or pulling out (gap acceptance). The results might surprise you. The motorcycle passed four roads (the two being surveyed by the camera plus two others) making a total of 3708 passes for the 927 circuits:
“…during this time there were no conflicts between the motorcycle and other vehicles.”
In other words, in over 3700 ‘affordances’ (ie, opportunities for a driver to turn into the motorcycle’s path) there was not one single driver who committed a ROWV because of a ‘failure to look’ or even ‘looked but failed to see’ error. The motorcycle was seen each time it needed to be seen.
The TRRL study is limited and dated but there is other, more recent work we can look at, and they show that the car driver is not the ‘incompetent idiot’ that popular myth suggests.
Aware that the ‘Looked But Failed To See’ collision was being blamed on poor observation skills, Crundall and his team (2012) set up an experiment which compared the way in which inexperienced drivers, experienced drivers and dual drivers (those with both a car and a motorcycle license) arrived at T junctions and decided if it was safe to pull out. What they found was that (my bolding):
“When compared to dual drivers, all other drivers do indeed look appropriately. Visual search is similar across all our groups until after a conflicting vehicle is spotted, while time taken to first fixate a motorcycle does not appear to differ either.”
They concluded (and again, I’ve highlighted an interesting observation):
“The most immediate finding from the analyses was the greater caution given to conflicting motorcycles than to conflicting cars [reflecting] a greater safety margin in responding to motorcycles. While one might argue that this is driven by the fact that the participants are taking part in a laboratory experiment in which they presumably want to appear as competent drivers (and thus make more cautious responses to more vulnerable road users), it would be unfair to the vast majority of drivers to suggest that such safe behaviour toward motorcyclists does not reflect decisions made during actual driving.”
It’s fair to say that the Crundall report inserts a cautionary statement that the participants are taking part in a laboratory experiment “in which they presumably want to appear as competent drivers” but the results of these and other studies indicate that ‘not looking’ isn’t a major factor in collisions between motorcycles and other vehicles.
In another study, Prijs (2014) looked at how drivers responded to approaching motorcycles at junctions and found that although car drivers pulled out from a side turning into a smaller gap ahead of the motorcycles, they also gave way to oncoming motorcycles significantly earlier than to other cars.
The conclusions of a 2011 Netherlands study by de Craen et al make for particularly interesting reading (once again, my bolding):
“The majority of motorcycle crashes are crashes with a car. In these crashes, the police register the car driver as first offender more often than the motorcyclist. So in absolute numbers, many motorcycle crashes seem to be caused by car drivers. However, when adjusted for exposure, car drivers do not crash with motorcycles more often than motorcyclists with other motorcyclists. An analysis of different crash causes at intersections indicates that, relatively speaking, car drivers fail to give priority to a motorcycle as often as to a car.“
That statement comes from a paper entitled “The roles of motorcyclists and car drivers in conspicuity-related motorcycle crashes”. The authors went on to point out that motorcyclists are at greater risk ONLY in one scenario; when an oncoming car turns across a motorcycle’s path into a side road:
“In one situation motorcycles seem to be at a disadvantage compared to cars. This is when a car makes a left turn, and fails to give priority to an oncoming motorcycle. This specific type of crash occurs more often when the oncoming vehicle is a motorcycle than when it is a car.”
Their explanation was that the head-on view of the motorcycle which is “narrower than a car and has only one front light instead of two… gives less information about speed”.
So let’s look at those insurance company figures again. Whilst the insurance company states “no fewer than 13,051 [out of 19,500] occurred at junctions”, that doesn’t mean all 13,000 were the result of an error on the part of the other road user. As it happens, a significant number of car – motorcycle collisions at junctions happen when the rider runs into the back of the vehicle ahead. In the UK, around 40% of junction collisions involving a motorcycles are actually the result of a ROWV by another driver.
So if we take 40% of that total, we can estimate there were 5200 collisions that resulted from a ROWV. For strict accuracy, we would need to verify that from another source, but if we take that as a ballpark figure, let’s now put it into context with all the times that motorcycles pass junctions in a year. Even considering the relatively scarcity of powered two wheelers on the roads compared with other vehicles, there are untold numbers of ‘affordances’ where a vehicle could turn into a motorcycle’s path. Each and every one of us riders pass dozens, if not hundreds of other vehicles at junctions, even on a relatively short ride.
So the truth is that although we can point a finger of blame at drivers when they commit a ROWV, when we think in terms of OPPORTUNITY to commit a ROWV, it’s clear that very few of the opportunities result in the error. Even in countries with a much higher rate of collisions between motorcycles and other vehicles, such as Singapore and Thailand, the successes outweigh the failures by a huge margin. That means that the vast majority of drivers must ‘look properly’ for bikes.
What I hope to make very clear over the next series of pages is that ‘did not look’, ‘did not look properly’ and ‘looked but failed to see’ are not the same issue. The first is a complete observation breakdown. The second might be a failure to look in the right place at the right time (or even to look at all) but the third is much more about perception failure.
We could – and I believe should – conclude that ‘looked but failed to see’ errors are actually remarkably rare. And if that is the case, then genuine ‘did not look’ errors must be even rarer. And it therefore follows that the widespread belief that drivers ‘don’t look properly’ is almost – if not quite – a myth.
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Last update: Weds 1 April 2019 – edited and text reordered for clarity
Last update: Thur 11 Oct 2018 – added information from SWOV study “The roles of motorcyclists and car drivers in conspicuity-related motorcycle crashes” (2011) concerning the relative error rates of drivers and motorcyclists at junctions
Last update: Weds 10 Oct 2018 – added statistics from Department for Transport report “Facts on Motorcyclist Casualties” (2015) and observations about the limited use of ‘contributory factors’ when attempting to understand motorcycle collisions
Beanland, V., Fitzharris, M., Young, K. L., Lenné, M. G. (2013) “Driver inattention and driver distraction in serious casualty crashes: Data from the Australian National Crash In-depth Study” Accident Analysis & Prevention Volume 54, May 2013, Pages 99-107
Crundall, D., Crundall. E.,, Clarke, D., Shahar, A. (2012) “Why do car drivers fail to give way to motorcycles at t-junctions?”, Accident Research Unit, School of Psychology, University of Nottingham, Nottingham NG7 2RD, United Kingdom
de Craen, S., Doumen, M., Bos, N. & van Norden, Y. (2011) “The roles of motorcyclists and car drivers in conspicuity-related motorcycle crashes”, Stichting Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek Verkeersveiligheid SWOV, Leiden, Netherlands
Department for Transport (2015) “Facts on Motorcyclist Casualties”, Office for National Statistics
Fulton, E., J. Kirkby, C. and Stroud P. G. (1980) “Daytime motorcycle conspicuity” Supplementary Report 625 Transport and Road Research Laboratory. Institute for Consumer Ergonomics Loughborough University of Technology
Helman, S., Weare, A., Palmer, M., Fernandez-Medina, K. (2012). “Literature review of interventions to improve the conspicuity of motorcyclists and help avoid ‘looked but failed to see’ accidents”, Published Project Report PPR638, Transport Research Laboratory Road Safety Group.
Prijs, K. (2014) “Problems of sensory- and cognitive conspicuity of motorcyclists at junctions: A car to motorcycle comparison of visual search and give-way intentions by car drivers, from two angles of approach” Thesis for Master Applied Cognitive Psychology, Utrecht University
‘Improving Safety for Motorcycle, Scooter and Moped Riders – Factors contributing to powered two-wheeler crashes and their severity’ DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789282107942-5-en OECD Publishing
‘Licensed to skill: contributory factors in road accidents: Great Britain 2005 – 2009’ Institute of Advanced Motorists Limited. retrieved from:
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