If there is one phrase which unites motorcyclists all over the world in a mood of weary resignation, it is this one: Sorry, mate, I didn't see you. SMIDSY, always in the aftermath of a collision or a near-miss, said by the hapless driver of a car, van, motorhome, lorry or tractor, to a bemused and probably angry motorcyclist lying on the floor amid the wreckage of his or her pride and joy. Injuries are probably minor: after all, if they were serious the motorist would probably be talking to the Police; but the curious thing is how this is what drivers always say, and always in this form of words. Friendly, but self-exculpatory: I didn't see you, therefore it wasn't my fault. It was just one of those things.
I read a lot of motorcycle forums, and whenever this topic comes up there is usually a lot of anger, directed at car drivers who are variously careless, blind, senile, murderous or blessed with an IQ smaller than their shoe size. I'm not sure that anger is justified in every case, although it is in some: people who cause accidents when distracted by being on the phone or, worse, texting come to mind. But I want to be fair here. Many studies over many years have shown that when a car and a motorcycle have an accident, the blame lies with the car driver in most cases - two-thirds or three-quarters are the usual figures. That makes perfect sense to me. Having an accident on a bike hurts a lot, and it is in the interests of the rider to avoid such collisions at all costs, so it is not surprising that in most cases the fault was not the rider acting carelessly and hitting a car, it was the other way round.
I am prompted to write this because of an email sent to me by one of the blog's commenters, Zaphod. He writes this from the perspective of someone driving a van:
A variation on the SMIDSY hazard, which I haven’t previously encountered, nor anticipated.
No Bikers were physically harmed in this experiment.
A mini-roundabout in a built-up area. I slow as I approach. A car is followed by a big bike. Nothing else in view. I adjust my trajectory to slot in behind the bike.
I’m focused on the bike, now passing directly in front of me as I roll in. A quick glance left, to check that the car in front isn’t unexpectedly slowing, which would slow the bike. A quick glance right, behind the bike.
A little scooter has materialised! Right behind the bike, in the space I was about to enter!
I did look, so I didn’t hit him. (But he was clearly rather cross.) He was in the shadow of the bike when I first looked. He will have seen my van, but I didn’t see his scooter. I’d like to believe that he would have evaded my unprovoked attack.
I hope I’ve learned something new. Is there also a defensive lesson for Bikers here?
I’m not shifting blame, honest. But it being my fault would have been no consolation to him.
Be gentle with me, I confessed to you freely.
Now, Mr Beeblebrox did the right thing here: he glanced to the right before pulling out, saw the scooter, and avoided an accident. It seems to me that his concern is that he nearly didn't. And if he hadn't, he would have been the one standing over the scooter rider saying "Sorry, mate ..."
It has been established that a lot of car/bike accidents, maybe the majority, are caused by the driver of the car not seeing the rider. To be as fair as possible to car drivers, I think a lot of these come into the category of what the Police classify as 'looked but didn't see'. In other words, the driver does everything he is supposed to according to his driving lessons, but failed to spot the hazard. A failure of perception rather than method. He looked in the right direction, but 'saw' nothing. I'm no expert, still less a psychologist, but here are a couple of thoughts:
Safety car designs
Cars are now designed to be much safer for their occupants, and one of the features that I have noticed is that the A-pillar (the one between the windscreen and the door) is much heavier than it used to be. I assume this is to provide greater protection in a roll-over accident, but it has a devastating effect on the driver's ability to see other road users in that crucial sector that, on a boat, would be "off the starboard bow". When pulling out into a major road, or entering a roundabout, that pillar is exactly where you need to be looking out for other traffic. Bike magazine did some research into this a few years ago, in conjunction with (I think) the TRL, and they concluded that under certain circumstances a bike on a roundabout would be literally invisible to a car driver - the rider's position on the roundabout would be tracked exactly by the movement of the pillar as the car moved forward and leftward onto the roundabout. This would seem to be the circumstances of Zaphod's near-miss. The recommendation of the Bike article was that drivers should be trained to deliberately move their heads from side to side in these conditions, so as to see the view from both sides of the A-pillar. This is something which all car drivers could start to do from today, and which would doubtlessly save lives in the long term.
Given the general numptiness of the population, it always amazes me that a complex activity like driving a car in modern traffic can be carried out by almost any human being - by teenagers, housewives, pensioners, footballers, hairdressers, professors - with a very high dgree of competence. If you doubt that, think of how many thousands of millions of miles are driven in the UK each year, and reflect on how rare accidents really are. (In the UK, 5.7 people die in road accidents per one million vehicle-kilometers travelled. That means that for the average driver who covers 20,000 km per year, your chances of being killed on the road in any year are 1 in 8,750. Put another way, you could set 98 people driving an average mileage from today until the end of the 21st Century and statistically only one would die in a road accident. Compare that with the agriculture industry, which manages to kill 8 workers out of every 100,000 every year.)
How can motoring be so safe? My guess is that it uses skills which have been honed over millions of years of evolution - running, jumping, throwing, hunting, fleeing predators and so on - which are now hard-wired into the human brain. Moving rapidly through the landscape, estimating the speed and trajectory of other objects, strategies for reaching goals and avoiding dangers, going all-out and gently cruising; all of these are as natural to us as eating. We have pushed the envelope a little: our natural maximum speed is about 20 mph (Usain Bolt managed 100m in 9.58 sec, which equates to 23 mph), but we seem to be able to cope with speeds of around four times that before our limitations begin to show, and for such as racing drivers ten times that. The human brain is remarkably adaptable.
But the strength of those skills and abilities are their limitation, too. No-one has to learn that a car approaching at x mph will reach us in y seconds and will pass us within z feet of our right-hand side. Any child who learned to catch a ball at the age of 5 knows that. It's all processed in the unconscious part of the brain. But that is where threats are processed, too, and threats are analysed in a very selfish way: how will this thing affect me? Will it kill me, or can I ignore it?You are waiting to pull out of a side-road into a main road. You see something approaching from your right (remember this is a UK blog, US readers!). Your back brain has assessed the threat and decided on a course of action before the conscious mind has even seen it. A lorry or coach? Big, dangerous. Hold back. A car? Just like me, might or might not. A bike? Small, no threat at all. Off I go ...
That ought to be 'Sorry, mate, my unconscious mind didn't perceive you to be enough of a threat to stay out of your way'.
This is not carelessness, or wickedness, or even stupidity. It's human nature. I've driven coaches and minibuses, as well as cars and bikes, and I can tell you that this is true. In a 53-seater coach, no-one pulls out in front of you. On a motorbike, lots of people do. I was passing a petrol station on a bicycle once. A lady was waiting to pull out. She waited until I was less than 10 feet away before moving: she had her window open, and we were so close that the words we exchanged did not even require a raised voice. "What are you doing?" "Oh, sorry, I ..."
Looked, but didn't see. Or looked, saw, and reacted in a way that was about 10 million years out of date. I'm not sure I know the answer to this. Better driver training would surely help. Training that focused on the whys and wherefores, rather than on 'look right, look left, look right' (although that would be a start). But it does demonstrate the futility of all the conspicuity stuff - the high beams in the daytime, the high-viz clothing. If a driver doesn't see a 17-stone biker on a big red bike as a threat, then he won't see the same guy in a yellow vest as a threat either.
My answer to all of this, as a rider, is a common one amongst experienced bikers: ride as if you are invisible. Assume that car is going to pull out of that gateway, because he will. He hasn't seen you. Assume that car will change lanes and cut you off, because he will. He doesn't know you are there. Keep that bubble of safety between you and the other idiots. If they close in, back off and keep the bubble. Recognise that a wet surface, or a narrow road, shrink your bubble and slow down to expand it again. And be patient and forgiving with people who don't treat you with respect. They don't mean it (well, most of them don't). It's just their jungle brains.
I think that's possibly the answer to Zaphod's question: "Is there also a defensive lesson for Bikers here?" He's absolutely right on one thing: if there had been an accident, it may have been his fault, but that would have been no consolation to the scooter rider. When you ride a bike, you are responsible for your own safety. No-one else values your life and your good looks like you do. Be intelligent and prevent other people's accidents. It's a big ask, but it's your life at stake.
And props to the guy for writing what he did. Honesty and self-examination are rare qualities these days.