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Looking not the same as seeing: Why Kiwis are bicycle-blind

Looking is not the same as seeing: Why Kiwis are bicycle-blind

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 ones that are important. Critically though, we assume that we will notice- as long as we are looking in the right direction. We think that unexpected objects and events will “grab” our attention. We consider ourselves careful drivers, and that of course 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 vehicles 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 she was a separate category of the community. She isn’t. She most likely has a car too.

This is because New Zealand drivers are simply 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 visual 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, for people who are looking for you to see you. 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 or event 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 for cyclists. The only way to make cycling safer is to make it less novel to the human brain.

Serafin Dillon

Cyclist & motor vehicle driver

Source: The research described above has been adapted from the book The invisible gorilla and other ways our intuition deceives us (2011) by Professor Christopher Chabris and Professor Daniel Simons

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