Serafin Dillon: There's a reason we really do not see cyclists

New Zealand drivers don't tend to look for cyclists as there aren't big numbers of them about. Photo / Dean Purcell
New Zealand drivers don't tend to look for cyclists as there aren't big numbers of them about. Photo / Dean Purcell

Ask just about anyone. We all have a story to tell about the time we were driving, and "Just didn't see him", whether the situation involved another driver, pedestrian, cyclist, or motorcyclist. This is because looking is not the same as seeing, and no one is immune to inattentional blindness.

Drivers often fail to notice unexpected events, even important ones. Critically though, we assume we will notice - as long as we are looking in the right direction. We think unexpected objects and events will "grab" our attention. We consider ourselves careful drivers, and that we would see a cyclist because a cyclist would just "pop out" into view. However, human attention does not function in this way.

Cognitive psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the "illusion of attention". People don't see the cyclist because they aren't looking for the cyclist.

Why are Kiwis bicycle-blind? New Zealand is not a transport-by-bicycle culture, unlike many European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands where visually, bicycles outnumber cars. Most New Zealand motor vehicle drivers' brains are not intentionally malicious, or careless towards cyclists, they just don't see them.

The Transport Agency's latest advertising campaign attempts to "humanise" and "personalise" the cyclist, as if a separate category of the community. But they aren't. They most likely have a car too.

This is because New Zealand drivers are not exposed to cyclists frequently, consistently, and en masse. For example, if you are trying to make a difficult turn across traffic, most of the vehicles blocking your path are cars, not bicycles (or motorcycles). To some extent then, bicycles are unexpected.

How can we fix this? Bicycle safety advocates propose a number of solutions: Billboards and signs that implore people to "Look for bicycles!" may, in the short term, lead drivers to adjust their expectations, and become more likely to notice a bicycle appear soon after seeing the sign. Yet after several minutes of not seeing any cyclists, their expectations will reset, leading them again to expect what they see most commonly - vehicles.

Encouraging cyclists to kit themselves out in high visibility gear does not address the core problem. Motor vehicle drivers not seeing cyclists is caused by what psychologists term inattentional blindness. Wearing high visibility gear will increase your visibility. But drivers fail to see cyclists precisely because they stand out. Reflective clothing helps increase visibility for cyclists, but it doesn't override the brain's expectations for what it thinks it is going to see.

There is one proven way to eliminate inattention blindness: Make the unexpected object less unexpected. Only when people regularly look for and expect cyclists will they be more likely to notice and respond. The only way to create this expectation is to have more cyclists around which requires providing safe and designated off-road cycle paths. The only way to make cycling safer is to make it less novel to the human brain.

*The research described has been adapted from the book The Invisible Gorilla And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us by Professor Christopher Chabris and Professor Daniel Simons.

Serafin Dillon is a cyclist and car driver.

Interactive graphic: NZ cycling crashes 2008-2012

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- NZ Herald

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