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"We're invisible out there"

Summary: A motorcycle rider's ideas on why bicycle riders are Not Seen.

Date: Sat, 8 Nov 1997

From: John Moore jlmoore@san.rr.com

Subject: Visibility and Drivers

The following is quoted with permission by the author, from the July '97 issue of "Airmail" Newsletter of the Airheads Beemer Club. This is a group of motorcycle riders of the "Airhead Boxers" (BMW motorcycles with air-cooled engines). Some of the article won't pertain, directly, to bicycle riders (i.e.: the lighting systems) but the gist of the information presented should shed some light on why we don't get seen when we're biking...


"Get Horizontal"

by B. Jan Hoffman

43% of all motorcycle accidents occur as a result of an oncoming vehicle turning across the path of a rider. Drivers simply fail to recognize the motorcyclist's right of way. Their typical lament is "I just didn't see him". You might lament "How the hell is that possible, you were looking right at me, you zoned-out space cadet!"

Some motorcyclists may feel that drivers deliberately choose not to see us. They feel that drivers resent us because of our agility, acceleration, or designer leathers. Others suspect that some car drivers must be anally retentive psychopaths who compensate for their fear of flying by driving to kill.

In the urban rain forests of LA or New York, that may be true. But elsewhere, most drivers really don't see motorcycles. Well yes, their eyes see us, but the image doesn't register in the brain. Why is that?

Some intelligent doctor types have postulated that the brain is an organ which rejects, rather than gathers information. They believe that if all the information collected by the senses were to register, the brain would experience sensory overload and blow its fuses.

For example, all the billboards, signs and other visual messages along the road can't possibly register in the brains of car drivers. That would cause sensory overload. To prevent that, the brain tends to organize the world into systems; those which are important to the activity at hand, and those which aren't. The car driver's brain has learned to exclude the non-essentials, and to focus only on those objects which are a threat to survival. On the road, those objects are predominantly other cars. Because cars are much wider than they are tall, the brain systematizes threats as objects characterized by horizontal lines.

Things characterized by vertical lines are eliminated from consciousness as non-threatening, extraneous information. Trees, lamp standards, sign posts, bridge abutments, buildings; none of these vertical objects are liable to jump out in front of the driver to threaten his existence.

Along comes a motorcycle. The driver's eyes give it a quick visual scan and the brain determines that this too is a vertical object. No threat. No further focus required. Zone out. Continue replay of last nights debauchery.

The next thing you know, the driver turns left across your lane even though you can see him looking right at you!

In my early days of riding, an experienced rider hammered at me ceaselessly with the message that "You are invisible out there!" All I heard him say was "Be careful". I didn't understand at the time that he was saying "To most car drivers, you are literally invisible."

Anyone with experience on a bike knows that he was right. Many a novice rider has departed the corporal world because he rode his bike the way he drove his car; as if he could actually be seen.

My advice is, if you don't want to be horizontal, look horizontal. How do we do that? One way is to use running lights. Many Japanese bikes have orange running lights up front integrated into the signal light housing. That gives some sense of horizontal perspective to car drivers. Some Harleys have a pair of white driving lights alongside of the headlight. That's more effective due to the increased candlepower.

I've often lamented the lack of stock running lights on unfaired airheads. A single headlight does not give a sense of perspective, and therefore tends to disappear into the background. I replaced the stock signal lights on the front of my Roadster with 4" round signal/running lights. They immediately and dramatically improved the etiquette of the other users of the road. Some Airheads have disparaged the aesthetics of my "police" lights. I find the impromptu installation of a Buick grill even less attractive.

I've also converted the rear signal lights to signal/running lights. As with the additional front lights, they made an immediate improvement in the etiquette of other road users.

I realized the importance of rear running lights when I was following a friend home from Barley Therapy one dark evening. To my surprise, rather than focusing on his GS tail light and spacing myself accordingly, I soon found myself gauging my distance from the rear end of the car ahead of him.

His pathetic little taillight simply dissolved into the brighter lights of the car, and his bike effectively disappeared.

If this can happen to me, you can be sure it will happen to car drivers, who are not attuned to motorcycles.

So, get horizontal. Convert your signal lights into signal/running lights. If you are going to apply reflective tape to your bike, jacket or helmet, make horizontal or diagonal lines rather than vertical ones.

Most of all, negotiate our streets and highways as if you are invisible.


Be seeing you...
John Moore