Gimmicks like modulating headlights provide some help, but a rider’s best bet is still behavioural awareness.
I’m not paranoid…they really are out to get me! Not intentionally, of course; but that doesn’t change the outcome. Statistically, the most likely crash scenario for a motorcyclist (apart from a single-vehicle accident) is when a car turns left across your path. In the UK and Australia, the driver’s typical response is so predictable, it even has its own acronym: “SMIDSY,” for “Sorry, mate. I didn’t see you…”
Why don’t they see us? Well, apart from the usual suspects like driver distraction and inattention, there are plenty of other factors that come into play. And if you’re doubtful of the power of distraction, next time you’re watching a news channel with the “ticker” bar rolling at the bottom, try this: read the ticker as it rolls across. Then try to remember what the presenter was talking about while you were reading the ticker. Or vice versa. I’ll bet you can’t get both. Enforcement apart, though, there isn’t much you can do about distracted drivers except look for erratic speed and direction control, and take appropriate action. Good luck!
The only factors we can control are our own actions. There’s good-old “conspicuity,” making yourself as visible as possible; and the time-honoured SIPDE process: Scan, Interpret, Predict, Decide, Execute. If you scan 12-15 seconds ahead on the road, and assume you’re in a video game where everyone else is trying to kill you, it’ll help. What about extra lights, or installing one of those headlight modulators?
The US National Highway Transportation Safety Administration concluded from its research that auxiliary lighting and/or headlight modulation did not necessarily make motorcycles any more conspicuous; but they did cause oncoming drivers to allow a greater “safety margin” before initiating a turn. In other words, they were more cautious of bikes with extra lights and/or a modulating high beam headlight.
So there are some factors within our control, but also plenty that aren’t. Pejorative allusions to age, sex and ethnicity don’t help: though there is some evidence that crash rates increase as drivers age beyond 55; and that women are typically safer drivers. But you can’t predict who’s likely to be driving the oncoming vehicle, so that doesn’t really help.
Is dashboard clutter a factor? I’ve seen plenty of cars with a six-inch GPS screen attached to the windshield, right in the middle of the driver’s line of sight. That can’t help either. But there’s another factor that is just beginning to be understood: motion-induced blindness, an “optical illusion” in which stationary images can disappear when seen against a moving background.
Imagine you’re driving a car on a straight road with a motorcycle approaching toward you. The motorcycle headlight would appear to be relatively stationary while the passing scenery is moving rapidly relative to your point of view. Some researchers suspect that the motion-induced blindness effect can cause your brain to involuntarily ignore the relatively static headlight as it monitors the rapidly moving background. The mechanism for this effect is not well understood yet, but if reproducible outside the “laboratory,” it might explain SMIDSY.
It’s also been postulated that drivers misjudge the speed of approaching motorcycles because they’re relatively smaller “targets.” A study conducted by Patricia DeLucia, a perception specialist at Texas Tech University concluded that when motorists see an object in the distance, their brains take into account two pieces of information. One is an objective calculation based on the size of the object and the rate at which it appears bigger as it gets closer. But the brain also uses depth perception to determine proximity, and in processing this data, the brain resolves that the bigger an object is the closer it is. Not surprising then that drivers sometimes assume an approaching motorcycle is further away than it is.
But there’s another factor that insurance agents and stockbrokers would recognize. It’s called “moral hazard.” In insurance analysis, moral hazard is an increase in the hazards presented by a risk arising from the indifference of the person insured to loss because they’re insured. In other words, if you’re insured against loss, you’re more likely to risk.
An interesting study from China supports this. Road traffic injuries and fatalities have been an increasing public health problem in China. Since 2006, all vehicles have had to carry third party insurance. However, “moral hazard” predicts that, because drivers feel safer with compulsory insurance, they’re less likely to drive carefully. Researchers reviewed the data and found that insured drivers were 18 per cent more likely to speed than uninsured drivers. If you equate speeding with risk-taking, then drivers are risking more because the financial consequences of a crash are not as great. There’s anecdotal evidence, too, that the introduction of seat belts and air bags has led some drivers to exhibit riskier behaviour because they feel safer in their cars.
So where does that leave the humble biker? To paraphrase the old saw: our only real choice is to recognize the things we can’t change and work on the ones we can. But a better understanding of driver behaviour can’t hurt.