The Dangerous “Right Turner”: Inattentional Blindness

Without a doubt the “right turner” is the most dangerous situation a motorcyclist faces while riding. Statistics show that more motorcyclists get hurt and killed at intersections by a right turning driver than any other cause. Why do car drivers exclaim “I did not see him/her” when the weather was clear and there were no other cars in the intersection? It is not just motorcyclists in danger, as bicyclists, pedestrians and other vehicles also bear the pain of inattentive drivers. Is it true that these drivers are so lacking in skill, so blatant in their disregard for their fellow humans that they are grasping for any plausible explanation, or is it something else? There is a theory that humans filters out objects that are deemed not dangerous, which leads to the subject of “inattentional blindness”. Maybe these lame explanations from drivers point to a visual impairment that is innate with all human beings.

Inattentional blindness, also known as perceptual blindness, is the phenomenon of not being able to perceive things that are in plain sight. This can be a result of having no internal frame of reference to perceive the unseen objects, or it can be the result of the mental focus or attention which cause mental distractions. The phenomenon is due to how our minds see and process information. Wikipedia

Motorcyclists are very in tuned to other drivers, because when anyone makes a mistake often the motorcyclists, whether right or wrong, pays the price with a trip to the hospital or the morgue. This leads riders, naturally, to curse the inattention of drivers. When the stakes for bodily harm are higher, people pay more attention. This is also true for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Others have noticed the apparent problem of of drivers not noticing motorcyclists.

…automobile accident reports frequently report driver claims that they “looked but failed to see” the other vehicle. Many collisions between cars and motorcycles involve cars turning in front of an oncoming motorcycle, with the car driver not seeing the motorcyclist. Given that in many contexts, motorcycles are less common that cars, inattentional blindness is more likely. Critically, the difficulty of the primary task in an inattentional blindness task increases the probability that people will miss the unexpected object. In practical terms, the more people focus on aspects of their visual world other than the detection of unexpected objects, the less likely they are to detect such objects. Recent evidence suggests that talking on a cell phone, for example, dramatically increases the probability of missing an unexpected object (Scholl et al, 2003).

Driving is an example. “Many accident reports include claims like, ‘I looked right there and never saw them,'” Simons notes. “Motorcyclists and bicyclists are often the victims in such cases. One explanation is that car drivers expect other cars but not bikes, so even if they look right at the bike, they sometimes might not see it.” Simons recounts a study by NASA research scientist Richard F. Haines of pilots who were attempting to land a plane in a simulator with the critical flight information superimposed on the windshield. “Under these conditions, some pilots failed to notice that a plane on the ground was blocking their path.” source

Magicians have exploited the principal of inattentional blindness in order to perform illusions. Clearly this is not a new phenomenon. The magician distracts the audience in some way so that they do not see what he is doing in another part of the stage, even if in plain view. This deception is then exposed, to the amazement of the audience. Other perplexing examples of innatentional blindness include lifeguards that fail to see a body at the bottom of a clear water pool.

The general theory is that if a person is distracted and concentrating on doing one task, he will not see other unexpected objects, even if blatant and in plain view. The use of cell phones while driving is given as a common distraction. Such studies have been used as evidence in favour of banning cell phone use while driving in Ontario and most other Canadian provinces, as well as many US states. Car drivers drive on “auto pilot” and do not see extraordinary objects on the roadway.

While it is clear that inattentional blindness does happen to all humans, why this happens is not well understood. In understanding this phenonemonon, riders might develop strategies that might break through a driver’s “auto pilot” and save themselves the pain of a crash.

One theory is that the brain is distracted from its main purpose and, due to inattentional blindness, does not see objects that are within plain view. The distraction could be a personal crisis at work or home, technological (cell phone, radio, GPS), or some other. Drivers then go into “auto pilot” and somehow get to their destinations without incident. It is certainly not a safe method of travel.

If a driver is too tired, sleepy, not awake, is inebriated or has a hangover, could this add to or further impair the brain, taking extra processing power or reducing the brain’s processing capacity?

Another theory is that the brain is exposed to an excess of stimulus from senses, which includes our eyes, ears, nose and skin. This stimulus, if individually processed, would indeed be overwhelming, hiding the most important information amongst the information that is benign. It would be like scanning a large yard of grass and processing the poisonous snake the same as each and every rock and blade of grass. A simple coping mechanism is to filter all stimulus, concentrating on only stimulus that is potentially dangerous or unusual. A simple scan of the large yard would filter out the grass, but find the snake and large rocks (danger to the lawn mower). If this theory is true, a car driver may filter out a motorcycle, bicyclists and pedestrians, and not notice them until they get run over.

Further theories postulate that as cars and other equipment become more automated, operators do not need to concentrate as hard, get bored and increasingly are inattentionally blinded. Repetition of an event (a daily event such as commuting) breeds experience, expectation and therefore inattentional blindness. Rare events (motorcycles, bicyclists, pedestrians) are rare because they are uncommonly experienced and are thus not built into our expectation, leading to inattentional blindness and therefore running them over. As well, while an inexperienced operator is forced to pay attention, the experienced operator has done the task so often that he is more prone to inattentional blindness. The experienced operator is more prone to a “violated expectation”, an event that is outside the norm. This is when bad events occur, such as the “right turner” into a motorcycle, or running over a pedestrian. It seems the more experienced and capable an operator the increased prevalence of inattentional blindness.

Striking is the conclusion of this Human Factors researcher:

It is difficult to reduce errors due to inattentional blindness. One reason is that people are unaware of the blindness. Training mainly affects conscious, voluntary behavior, so it helps little. You can tell a driver to be sure to check the oncoming lane before turning, but the advice will do little good if the driver is looking for a specific address, is in a hurry and in an unfamiliar part of town.

So let’s get some of the theory straight. Inattentional blindness results when your brain adapts and filters out routine events. The more you do a routine the more your brain adapts to the routine. The more experienced and skilled the operator, the more prevalence for inattentional blindness. The less experienced the operator the less possibility of inattentional blindness. This human filter does its job before your conscious mind gets the information, so extra training and other logical conditioning does not help reduce inattentional blindness. Is there something proactive one can do to reduce inattentional blindness? Someone help me out here? If we cannot prevent inattentional blindness through a change of skill set, which relies on the conscious mind, a solution may point to a systemic change of environment. Change the routine enough and on a regular basis so as to retard inattentional blindness.

Yet another theory that does not specifically relate to inattention blindness, but still may be of importance to motorcyclists, is called motion camouflage.

Motion camouflage is a dynamic type of camouflage by which an object can approach a target while appearing to remain stationary from the perspective of the target. The attacking object simply remains on the line between the target and some landmark point, so it seems to stay near the landmark point from the target’s perspective. The only visible evidence that the attacker is moving would be its angle and its looming, the change in size as the attacker approaches.

The theory goes that a car at an intersection wants to turn left. A motorcyclist is riding in the opposite direction of the car. The motorcyclist’s headlight, approaching the car, does not seem to grow larger, giving the perception that the motorcycle is stationary. The car makes the left hand turn and hits the motorcyclist. Riders in Britain have written about the “Sorry Mate I didn’t See You” (Bike Magazine 2005) or SMIDSY phenomenon.

Motion is difficult to perceive when it is directly along the line of sight. Because the object is stationary relative to the background, an observer doesn’t see a change in the overall image and thus isn’t cued to the presence of a moving object. Though the object increases in apparent size as it nears, the change goes unnoticed at first–moving from 1000ft distant to 900ft may not affect the image enough trigger a response. A motorcycle is particularly susceptible to motion camouflage because its cross-section area as seen by an observer is much less than that of a larger vehicle.

But as the object gets closer, apparent size increases more rapidly. At constant speed, an approaching object takes the same time to move from 200ft to 100ft as it did from 1000ft to 900ft, but the apparent size increase is greater. Eventually the object seems to grow suddenly in size, and the motion camouflage is broken. This is called the looming effect. According to the Bike article, when an observer is startled by the looming effect, he may freeze in his tracks. If the observer is an oncoming left-turner, he may stop in the middle of the intersection, making a bad situation even worse.

Indeed either of these theories point to a visual impairment that all humans possess. It is not an impairment of physicality but one of brain processing. How to overcome these visual impairments has not been well studied. The answers to these questions could lead to a marked reduction in traffic crashes and fatalities. Motorcyclists can only hope for advances in the understanding of human brain function.

Other reading: Inattention Blindness, conspicuous safety professional, Stop Signs are Dangerous
Visual and Stereoscopic Acuity

2 thoughts on “The Dangerous “Right Turner”: Inattentional Blindness

  1. Rob Leziate

    I don’t not think it is a blindness at all:
    – I mean the brain does not process see everything it sees – if I am focussing say on a deck of cards – why would I be interested in what someone is wearing?
    my understanding it that distraction therefore works well, if say you are a magician or a pick pocket. And these guys have it right – the issue is more – how can I make sure people focus their attention most fully I what I need them to focus on…..

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