Getting a Clue

The lesson for cyclists in new awareness test videos is: if you behave in unexpected ways, you probably won’t be seen.

Several new videos have been released by the creators of the Dancing Bear video. I suspect you remember that one, I think every cyclist in the world saw it.

I wrote a post about it on the BOBbies website. And John Allen made some excellent points on his blog, saying:

The dancing bear is slipped in as an unexpected element into the midst of an orderly and societally understood pattern, the passing of the soccer ball among several players. The experiment cleverly misleads the viewer, concealing the bear, but the experiment also is misleading on another level, in suggesting that such concealment is the norm.

Riding a bicycle on the road according to the orderly and societally understood rules of the road is like passing the soccer ball. Riding as a “road sneak” is like being the dancing bear.

The other videos in the series operate on the same principle of inattentional blindness. While they are interesting studies in human perception, they take the point about seeing cyclists beyond the realities of safe cycling. In the videos, the viewer’s attention is diverted from the thing that the viewer then doesn’t notice. But the whole point of safe cycling is to ride in a visible, predictable manner, following the rules and patterns of other drivers so that you will be noticed.

Oddly, one test shows two photos with a prominent image of a cyclist and a bus and asks the viewer to pick out the difference between the photos. The difference turns out to be an unimportant background element. I think I’d rather you notice the cyclist and the bus and I don’t really care if you see the statue. But what if that statue was a sidewalk cyclist? Watch the video segment on this slide.

The aforementioned test stresses the importance of looking for bicyclists in your rear view mirror, another states how easy it would be to miss a cyclist in your blind spot. There are times and places to look in the rear view mirror and times to ignore it, and no one should think that a motorist needs to maintain a constant scan of that mirror or blind spots.

While it is important for a motorist to look before merging into a bike lane to prepare for a right turn, the rules of the road are clear that the onus of overtaking is always on the overtaking driver. The primary rule of the road is first come first served and the primary rule of safety is to not hit what is ahead of you. In a rear-end collision, 100% of fault is always on the driver in the rear. This makes the road system function because it keeps driver attention focused forward to protect drivers from the very thing they have no control over — being hit from behind.

To further increase predictability,  we expect that faster traffic passes on the left. While it is not illegal for a cyclist to pass on the right, it does defy the rules of the road (which establish predictability and expectations). If a cyclist is going to pass a queue of traffic on the right, he/she assumes the risk of being in an invisible and unexpected place. The onus is not on the motorist to be looking for this. (Like most cyclists, I used to think it was and behaved accordingly. As a result, I experienced a lot of close calls and frustration.) It is the responsibility of ALL vehicle drivers to pay attention to what is ahead… especially at intersections where 95% of crashes occur. When drivers are forced to turn attention to the rear, what might they miss in front of them… other motorists, cyclists, pedestrians? It is unreasonable and unsafe to expect any driver to divert attention to blind spots, except for the purpose of merging to change lanes. There are solid lines approaching intersections, indicating that lane-changes are not permitted, because it is dangerous to merge when driver attention most needs to be focused forward.

The bike lane paradigm has attempted to reorder the rules of the road. In so-doing, it has created new conflicts and new stresses on both cyclists and motorists. When I abandoned bike-lane thinking and edge-of-the-road behavior and simply focused on riding according to the rules of predictability and expectation, the majority of the inattentional blindness conflicts I had once experienced went away. That is not to say I don’t pass a queue of traffic on the right, but when I do, I take responsibility for the fact that I am putting myself in an unexpected place and I proceed with appropriate caution.

Inattentional blindness is a problem for minority vehicle-types — a category into which both bicycles and motorcycles fall. And that is why both motorcycle and bicycle safety classes teach techniques for dealing with it. But it is important to realized the value of the human mind’s ability to edit out extraneous information. Driving is a complex task. Even the most attentive motorists make conscious and unconscious decisions about what is relevant and requires attention. They HAVE TO! Think about it. Do you want motorists to be paying attention to the road ahead, or the new landscaping on the periphery? And as a cyclist, are you better off acting as a predictable vehicle in the road ahead, where a motorist’s primary attention is focused, or blending into the landscaping on the periphery?

The message they are inadvertently communicating is, “look out for incompetent cyclists… they’re likely to be where you wouldn’t notice because they are not behaving like drivers of vehicles.” I think there is a valuable message in that, and it’s equally valuable to cyclists. Presenting it as if the norm is for cyclists to be invisible or unpredictable sends the wrong message to both cyclists and motorists.

It’s necessary for cyclists to move beyond maginalization and passive victimhood on the road. It is very, very easy for us to control our environment and be crash- and conflict-free.