The Invisible Cyclist

You’d think that things we see infrequency would be the things that would grab our attention, wouldn’t you? You might think it – but it isn’t true. Things we see infrequently are the things we most often miss – that’s why airport baggage screeners often miss guns and doctors often miss tumours on X-rays. It’s why, on February 9th 2001, the USS Greenville surfaced directly underneath the Japanese fishing boat “Ehime Maru” slicing it in two.

Before surfacing the Captain of the Greenville did a 360 degree survey through the periscope. Despite looking directly at the fishing boat he still surfaced. “I wasn’t looking for it, nor did I expect to see it…” he said when interviewed on Dateline NBC.

The Captain expected to see an empty sea and that’s what he thought he saw.

Expectation can play strange tricks on us. Watch the video of a group of people playing with a basketball. Count the number of passes made by the players wearing white; ignore the passes made by the players in black:

Roughly half of those who viewed this video missed the black Gorilla that walks between the players!

Most people assume that, where an accident occurs because one driver failed to see the other, it is because the other vehicle was difficult to see or one driver didn’t look properly. Often, it’s not. It’s to do with the way our eyes actually work. When turning right at a junction we expect to see a car or a van or maybe a truck coming from the other direction. Motorcyclists and cyclists come along infrequently so we don’t expect to see them. Like the Captain of the USS Greenville, who looked at a fishing boat and saw empty sea, our mind creates an expectation about what our eyes will see. Our minds do this all the time, though we’re not consciously aware of it. For example, when we blink we’re not consciously aware of gaps in our vision because our mind fills in the blanks.


What drivers expect when they are driving is a critical component of safety. A report*1 produced by Peter Jacobson, a Public Health Consultant in California, examined the accident rate for pedestrians and cyclists across a range of cities in America and Europe. It found that, there’s safety in numbers. As the number of cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians increases, so the accident rate reduces because the behaviour of drivers changes. Drivers’ expect them to be at junctions and to step out and cross the road – they start looking for, and seeing, them.

There is, unfortunately, no magic formula to prevent “looked but failed to see” collisions. Creating an expectation is the best thing that you can do. Regularly remind your drivers to be aware of motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians might help to create an awareness that will make them think to look again before manoeuvring.

*1      P. L. Jacobson: “Safety in Numbers: More Walkers and Bicyclists, Safer Walking and Bicycling” Injury Prevention 9 p 205/9 (2003)

January 11, 2015

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