Seen But Forgotten

Story by David Booth//
April 14 2021

New(ish) research out of England sheds new light on why car drivers cut us off so often. According to the study – The “Saw but Forgot” Error: A role for short-term memory failures in understanding junction crashes – the real reason that cagers drive right through us in intersections isn’t so much that they don’t see us, but that even when they do, they forget we’re there. 

According to the paper’s lead author, Pete Chapman, researcher with the University of Nottingham’s School of Psychology, the problem isn’t the LBFTS – Look but Fail to See – problem commonly blamed for car/motorcycle collisions but rather something he calls SBF: Saw but Forgot. In a series of experiments that attempted to determine why car drivers fail to see motorcyclists, Chapman and his co-authors – Chloe J. Robbins, Harriet A. Allen and Karl A. Miller – determined that the problem isn’t so much visual as it is recollection. 

Chapman et al. sat a bunch of drivers in a simulator (based on a Mini for some reason) and outfitted them with Tobii Pro Glasses that tracked eye movements down to one degree (quite literally, the width of a typical motorcycle approaching an intersection). Eye movement was tracked before and during the drivers’ attempts to cross imaginary intersections. In some cases, said traffic was comprised of other automobiles; in others, a motorcycle was thrown into the equation. Whatever the scenario, the researchers measured whether the driver in the Mini allowed enough room for a safe entrance into the intersection and, if not, the reason behind the unsafe manoeuvre.

The study’s results were both predictable and startling. No one who’s ever ridden a motorcycle will be surprised that motorcycles were vastly overrepresented – 16 to three – among the vehicles that the car driver would have hit had they pulled into a real intersection unsafely. However, what is surprising is that in the majority of those cases – 11 of 16 – the study found that “the driver had already made an eye movement on the approaching motorcycle for at least 60 milliseconds (the minimum time to consider an object “encoded” [in the brain]).”

But then, says Chapman, the driver forgot about the bike. Indeed, through all of the study’s experiments, there was no appreciable difference in “encoding” – that term seems to be university psychobabble for “seeing” – the approach of the motorcycle, either in time or in focus by both those drivers who “saw” the motorcyclist and those that didn’t. Indeed, in virtually every case, those special glasses clearly showed the Mini driver gave the motorcycle the same attention initially as the cars in their path.

According to the paper, what really matters is the order in which we are seen. According to the study, the most common scenario in which a motorcycle is seen but ignored “involves a head movement towards a motorcyclist, then one [movement] to a car coming from the other direction, and a final one on the road ahead before pulling out.” In other words, the driver saw us, but in the short time it took to turn their head the other way, they forgot that we exist – a “failure in working memory,” as the paper describes it. Occasions in which the driver looked at the car first and then the motorcycle but still pulled into the intersection unsafely were less common. In other words, as the paper concludes, being seen isn’t the problem – it’s the order in which we are seen.

The one question the paper doesn’t answer is whether the efforts many motorcyclists make to increase their conspicuity – headlight modulators, auxiliary lights, selective yellow bulbs and/or lens –makes us more memorable to cagers or are they so predisposed to “forget” us that they are immune to such efforts. In other words, do bright shiny objects such as reflective vests make us more memorable? The study did not answer this question nor, truth be told, does the paper offer any advice to a motorcyclist looking to make themselves more worthy of note. 

Oh, there’s some advice in there about teaching car drivers to say “See bike, say ‘bike’” to themselves as “phonological pathway” to superior memory, but methinks the chance of that catching on is only slightly better than Meghan Markle being invited to Buckingham Palace for tea. 

Nonetheless, the study is truly the first research that posits an alternative theory to the “but he was looking right at me” accidents that are far too common in car/motorcycle interactions. That we do not yet have a solution should not be cause for despair. One needs to define a problem before one can solve it and, at the very least, Chapman et al. have moved the question beyond “Why didn’t he see me?”

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