South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership
News
02 Nov 2021
BLOG: THE SCIENCE OF BEING SEEN

I confess to never being fond of the sciences at school, so I get slightly nervous when it comes to the “science bits” of road safety; for example the physics of forces and acceleration which affect things like stopping distances and crash impact.
 
And now there’s the science of being seen which looks at the way humans process visual information, which is vitally important to us all as road users if we are to avoid a collision.
 
This topic was researched and created by Kevin Williams of Survival Skills Rider Training and is something that the Safer Roads Partnership covers as part of the Biker Down! sessions we offer for motorcycle riders. However, the findings and resulting advice are important for all road users to understand.
 
Kevin’s work identified that as road users, when we stop at a junction to check for traffic, we don’t always see everything that is going on due to how our brain processes the visual information. So, for example, while our peripheral vision is essential for how we ‘see’, very little is actually in focus and our brains fill in the rest with what we expect to see. Our brain is also filtering the information when we turn our heads to scan for traffic at a junction, partially shutting down the visual feeds to the brain to stop us from getting dizzy.

The way our brain deals with information means that we’re much better at identifying shapes like cars (short and wide) than shapes like motorcycles or pedal cycles (narrow and tall).  The brain can ignore smaller motorcycles and cycles for a bigger hazard, so a driver could look past a rider and ‘see’ the bus, van or HGV, even though they may appear to be looking straight at the rider. It’s also more difficult for us to detect something moving straight towards us that doesn’t have any sideways movement. 

And to top it all, research shows that our brains quickly become overloaded, such that there’s often too much going on for us to take in and retain all the information.
 
All this means it could be easy for us to miss an approaching vehicle and why we’re always encouraging road users to take an extra look when turning at a junction, to make sure they have seen everything that is going on.

Give your brain more time, slow down your scan when you’re checking both ways before pulling out of a junction. It will open up your vision and could identify something that you had previously missed.
 
There are also things that riders can do to try to make themselves more visible to that driver waiting to turn at the junction up ahead. Change position and open up lines of sight so you can be seen, the driver’s view of you might be blocked by other vehicles or the pillar in their own car. Create some sideways movement to draw the driver’s attention and slow down to give yourself more time to react if a driver does pull across your path.
 
There’s also science behind what riders can wear to make themselves more visible to other road users. It’s easier for other road users to see a rider if their bike and riding kit are the same colour, creating one solid shape of colour. So now I see that my husband really does have a point when he says he has to buy a whole new set of kit to match the colour of his new bike!
 
As part of our Be Bright Be Seen campaign we promote the benefits of wearing something bright in the daytime and something reflective at night to increase your visibility to other road users. But some colours are better than others for daytime visibility. There needs to be a contrast with the background, otherwise road users become camouflaged. And in rural areas during autumn, as the leaves are changing colour, the standard hi vis colour of yellow won’t always provide the best contrast. The research suggests that the best colour is pink for daytime riding in all environments, followed by orange, as both stand out across a wider range of backgrounds.
 
And to help enhance your human profile, make sure your hi vis has arms, which is particularly important for cyclists who will be signalling to let other traffic know their intentions.
 
Remember that reflective materials are designed to “light up” when illuminated by headlights from other vehicles, so to work effectively any reflective strips or accessories need to be positioned within the range that a vehicle’s headlights will pick up. Don’t rely on reflective strips on your riding kit that are positioned high up.
 
Thanks to Kevin we can now be more aware of our own failings and, whilst we can’t rewire our brains to work differently, we can employ some simple techniques both as drivers and riders to reduce the risk of collisions.
 
Until next time, stay safe.
 
Joanne