Invisible cyclists: Eye-tracking experiment finds drivers don't see more than 1 in 5 riders (+ video)

Younger drivers, women and sat-nav users most likely not to see cyclists

by Simon_MacMichael   April 25, 2013  

Direct Line Invisible Cyclists infographic

More than one in five cyclists go unseen by motorists on the road, according to an experiment using eye tracking technology conducted for the insurance company Direct Line, confirming the extent of the ‘SMIDSY’ – ‘Sorry mate, I didn’t see you. Younger drivers missed spotting nearly one in three riders, and female motorists one in four. By contrast, just 4 per cent of what Direct Line terms "jaywalking" pedestrians were not seen, and 15 per cent of motorcyclists.

Motorists who took part in the experiment wore “specialist glasses that pinpoint the exact focus of the eye by tracking microscopic movements in the cornea,” said the company, adding that film footage “enabled researchers to establish exactly where drivers focus their vision, which was often at clouds, buildings and passers-by.” Here’s a short video of it in operation.

The experiment was conducted in three cities – London, Oxford, and Sheffield – and according to Direct Line the issue is most prevalent in the capital, where motorists fail to see three in ten cyclists.

That’s despite the growth in cycling in the city in recent years, that suggests we’re some way from seeing a ‘Safety in numbers’ effect kick in there, whereby the more people there are on bikes, the more motorists are likely to register their presence and drive accordingly.

In Oxford, which has the second highest levels of cycling in England after Cambridge, 20 per cent of riders went unseen, and in Sheffield, 15 per cent.

Researchers found examples of motorists taking their eyes of the road to adjust sat-nav devices and in one case navigate using a hand-held smartphone, and Direct Line says that 24 per cent of riders are “invisible” to drivers using a sat-nav device, compared to 19 per cent where the motorist does not use one.

The biggest difference in the proportion of drivers registering the presence of cyclists was by age.  Some 21 per cent of cyclists were unnoticed by those aged 50 or over, but 31 per cent among motorists aged between 20 and 29 years. Again, that’s a cause for concern given that younger people have better eyesight on the whole.

Vicky Bristow, spokesperson for Direct Line car insurance said “For the first time we know exactly where people focus their eyes when driving and the results are frightening.

“UK roads are busy and congested and as a result millions of cyclists are going unseen.

“Blaming motorists seems like an easy option, but this issue can only be really addressed if both motorists and cyclists accept responsibility.

“Encouraging all road users to be extra vigilant will certainly improve road safety but tackling an issue of this scale really requires top-down change.

“Successive governments have encouraged local authorities to adopt policies to make cycling safer in the past but our research highlights that this issue is still widespread.”

Drivers                 % that failed to spot cyclists

Sat nav drivers 23.7
Non-sat nav drivers 19.0
Female drivers 25.6
Male drivers 17.1
Drivers aged 20-29 31.1
Drivers aged 30-39 20.7
Drivers aged 40-49 21.6
Drivers aged 50-59 20.9
All drivers 22.0

Source: Direct Line Motor Insurance


One thing we wondered was whether the cyclist wearing hi-viz clothing had any impact on their visibility to motorists – a subject of some debate in comments to stories here on road.cc - so we asked Direct Line whether the clothing cyclists sported had any impact.


The company told us that the study considered a lot of data, including speed cameras, pedestrians, road signs etc, and the lack of vigilance motorists display towards cyclists was what it chose to focus on.


It added that had the survey been commissioned specifically into cyclists, then that would have been one of the areas it would have looked at, and that it is likely to undertake such research in the future.


As for that comment in the first paragraph about "jaywalking" pedestrians, the term of course is widely used in the United States where there are much more severe restrictions on where pedestrians can legally cross a road compared to England, Wales and Scotland; here, pedestrians are not allowed on motorways, but other than that can cross the road except where a specific 'no pedestrians' sign is in place, although official advice is for them to wait until it is safe to do so. Jaywalking is an offence in Northern Ireland, but one that is rarely enforced.


 


44 user comments

Latest 30 commentsNewest firstBest ratedAll

Hey Crazy-Legs, thanks for posting the pilot article...well worth a read.

Makes me much more inclined to have flashing lights during the day as well as night.

I'm a human being, God damn it! My life has value. I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.

posted by Carl [136 posts]
25th April 2013 - 10:04

0 Likes

Well they can't very well blame the people who pay them their wages can they so the two wheeled demons, who apparently don't even pay for the roads, can take some responsibility for their own injuries. I do despair Angry

cidermart's picture

posted by cidermart [470 posts]
25th April 2013 - 10:12

6 Likes

That film footage is bloody terrifying

Sudor

posted by Sudor [183 posts]
25th April 2013 - 10:24

5 Likes

It seems like allowing sat navs into the car has normalised the use of gadgets at the wheel, I think a lot of people think it is perfectly ok to use a smartphone while driving. after all its just a box with a screen on

Also astonished to see promotion for 'in car wifi' or 'google send to car' features in new cars and a whopping great touchscreen in the centre console - it's just insane putting those kind of distractions in front of a driver. Surely there must be some legislation about what can and can't be placed there?

joemmo's picture

posted by joemmo [900 posts]
25th April 2013 - 10:34

6 Likes

So who wants to brainstorm ways of making drivers look at cyclists instead of clouds, buildings or what was likely lovely lassies? Its obviously my responsibility to make sure drivers pay attention to their driving.

posted by euanlindsay [80 posts]
25th April 2013 - 10:40

5 Likes

Its also worth noting that drivers are almost equally not noticing motorcyclists. I've always thought that drivers only look for big boxes of metal.

They will happily see a 'cyclist but just not register their existence.

posted by euanlindsay [80 posts]
25th April 2013 - 10:42

4 Likes

jackh wrote:

Another point is that the use of the term jaywalker, meaning a person crossing illegally (not possible in the UK AFAIK) or irresponsibly (of course, possible anywhere) is in my view pushes responsibility from the car driver onto the pedestrian crossing. What constitutes a jaywalker? Anyone crossing the road?

Would guess a pedestrian crossing where there is no crossing, or crossing against the lights. Which is more of a mouthful.

But yes, not really relevant terminology in UK.

posted by HKCambridge [168 posts]
25th April 2013 - 10:46

6 Likes

bohrhead wrote:
Surely you don't need to look directly at a cyclist or even completely focus on them to know that they are there. I focus on things other than the road when I'm driving (e.g. spring lambs) but my field of vision is quite enough to passively take in the road and what's on it too.

But human peripheral vision is not good, and we have a tendency to make up things which we expect to see (see pilot link above). You cannot, and should not rely on peripheral vision while driving. It only take a moment to move your eyes or head.

In any case, it doesn't explain the discrepancy with pedestrians.

posted by HKCambridge [168 posts]
25th April 2013 - 10:51

3 Likes

it's clear that we are often not seen. However, I would question the test based on peripheral visison. If I am looking at the car as the user was doing - I see the cyclist in my peripheral vision - that doesn't mean I don't register that they are there [just because I don't look directly at them]. Best advice is to ride with purpose and make your self seen - also don't ride very close to the curb as this will lead to motorists coming way too close (attemting to stay in lane whilst passing you).

Bigcog's picture

posted by Bigcog [20 posts]
25th April 2013 - 10:55

5 Likes

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of oh bloody hell where did those nuns on bikes come from?

Clouds? I mean, seriously, clouds?

posted by Argos74 [301 posts]
25th April 2013 - 10:55

6 Likes

I would like to the see the make/model of vehicle involved in an accident with a cyclist. I would wager a fecking great big 4x4;s are right up there as the owners are incapable of driving safely

'It's the closest you can get to flying'
Robin Williams response when asked why he enjoyed riding so much

posted by Simmo72 [391 posts]
25th April 2013 - 11:22

4 Likes

Agree. I tested some new cars recently and was shocked at the new touch screen functionality. firsty its distracting as there is a vast amount of functionality and secondly its positioned so badly it takes your eye completely off the road. Yes VW Golf, a terrible piece of design. I refused to buy on these grounds.

'It's the closest you can get to flying'
Robin Williams response when asked why he enjoyed riding so much

posted by Simmo72 [391 posts]
25th April 2013 - 11:38

4 Likes

Simmo72 wrote:
Agree. I tested some new cars recently and was shocked at the new touch screen functionality. firsty its distracting as there is a vast amount of functionality and secondly its positioned so badly it takes your eye completely off the road. Yes VW Golf, a terrible piece of design. I refused to buy on these grounds.

I second this, i drove a new golf on hire and the touch screen was a nightmare to use. It might be intuitive once you're used to it but trying to do it while unfamiliar and driving just felt dangerous.

posted by kitkat [227 posts]
25th April 2013 - 11:42

5 Likes

Ride in the driver's eyeline rather than over to the left, and turn your head to look behind you periodically (make sure the road is clear ahead). The latter can make the driver become aware of you and pass you safely, or will give you a clue if they are on autopilot and so you might need to take action.

posted by CotterPin [64 posts]
25th April 2013 - 12:06

3 Likes

i guess one solution is to slow cars down, at least if they do hit something they will do it slowly and cause less damage.

bring back the red flag man!

mrmo's picture

posted by mrmo [1348 posts]
25th April 2013 - 12:33

3 Likes

felixcat wrote:
It would be interesting to do the experiment with cyclists. I would guess that cyclists are much less likely to fail to see motor vehicles. If so, why?

'cos they're bigger, and so less likely to fall into a 'saccade': http://www.londoncyclist.co.uk/raf-pilot-teach-cyclists/

posted by nuclear coffee [167 posts]
25th April 2013 - 12:50

9 Likes

euanlindsay wrote:
Its also worth noting that drivers are almost equally not noticing motorcyclists. I've always thought that drivers only look for big boxes of metal.

They will happily see a 'cyclist but just not register their existence.

"look for big boxes of metal"

You would think that would be the case but I know two people, one personally and the other a BBC radio presenter, who failed to notice a skip in the road and drove into it.

What chances do we cyclists have if there are drivers who cannot even see a skip!

posted by Bing Bell [8 posts]
25th April 2013 - 12:51

3 Likes

posted by Dr. Ko [109 posts]
25th April 2013 - 13:33

5 Likes

Certainly not a 'cure-all' for the problem but I make a point of trying to make eye contact with drivers at junctions - it's really incredible how much of a difference it makes in getting them to notice you!

posted by rJD [11 posts]
25th April 2013 - 13:35

6 Likes

Eye Contact & always riding, when solo, with Flashing lights are a practical option. Neither are cure all.
Slightly more outlandish options would An Obama style motorcade or a Team Badged Skoda with 2 motor bikes outriders. With Partridge Harmon on a Tannoy berating your pedalling style. With Big Maggy chipping in with “ Yeaah Its not the best” on loop.

posted by Dog72 [108 posts]
25th April 2013 - 14:41

6 Likes

nuclear coffee wrote:
felixcat wrote:
It would be interesting to do the experiment with cyclists. I would guess that cyclists are much less likely to fail to see motor vehicles. If so, why?

'cos they're bigger, and so less likely to fall into a 'saccade': http://www.londoncyclist.co.uk/raf-pilot-teach-cyclists/

The cyclist is usually travelling more slowly, expecting to give way or stop and, being more vulnerable, watching for danger.

Slowing cars allows drivers more time to look, which means they are more likely to see cyclists and peds. Forcing drivers to take longer at junctions, as described in Chris Boardman's article in The Times (and illustrative Street View link in a tweet), means they have to look more than if they just glide through. Everyone does it - it's easier if you can keep rolling and not stop completely. But it is more difficult to scan the scene effectively while the car is moving than if you stop completely.

Riding further into the road means you are more obvious to other road users, including those on side roads. It also reduces (but doesn't prevent) the chance of too-close passes by impatient, selfish idiots. I usually ride at least 18" and sometimes 2 feet from the edge of the road.

Wobbling is apparently a good way to get the attention of following traffic - your trajectory becomes unpredictable.

I have been saying it for a long time now, but there should be a restriction on in-car gizmos, touch-screens and most definitely satnav, but sadly manufacturers think these are great selling points and buyers are seduced by gadgets. Many drivers also have a false sense of just how good (i.e. safe) their driving is.

Simon E's picture

posted by Simon E [2050 posts]
25th April 2013 - 14:44

5 Likes

I had an interesting chat with the MET police yesterday, they are up here all the time on royal protection and one of their drivers put right out and almost got my in the mini bus.

For a change I was fully light up, had my flat on, was wearing light coloured clothing.

So flagged him over for a chat. It seems and I did see his point of view. He was looking, I know that, when he looked to see anything coming down the road, a car had just pasted and blocked his view of me, even with the flag at around 5.5ft from the ground. Fair enough, I am not the most visible that low down, I have quick reactions, which saved me going into the side of the van. If it had been a kid at a similar height to my recumbent, they would have been squashed, I made that point, it was taken on board and we went on our way. Really nice guys the MET Big Grin

Gkam84's picture

posted by Gkam84 [9030 posts]
25th April 2013 - 15:24

4 Likes

terrible headline, even worse comments. Bad science at its best.

posted by andyp [1059 posts]
25th April 2013 - 20:53

5 Likes

felixcat wrote:
It would be interesting to do the experiment with cyclists. I would guess that cyclists are much less likely to fail to see motor vehicles. If so, why?

I think the most interesting test would be "are drivers who cycle a lot noticeably better at picking up cyclists visually"?
i.e. can noticing/not noticing be improved with "training". If so, then obviously that training is required for all drivers.

posted by CarlosFerreiro [65 posts]
25th April 2013 - 21:41

6 Likes

I would like to see the same test done for cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians so that there is a broad view ( no pun intended) of how much or how little we all observe. As a long time cyclist in London I am always surprised how many cyclists are unaware of how traffic and pedestrians are moving around them. As someone noted above, you need to ride so that you can be seen but equally you need to ride with anticipation and focus. Putting yourself in a dangerous position because you haven't learnt to read the movement of vehicles can make you as culpable as the driver. It's all shared space and everyone needs to look out for each other.

Global Nomad

posted by Global Nomad [6 posts]
26th April 2013 - 7:10

4 Likes

So it would seem that if we cover our hi viz in cotton wool it will stop us being a danger to all those car drivers.

Vicky Bristow, spokesperson for the car insurance company said

“For the first time we know exactly where people focus their eyes when driving and the results are frightening.

“Blaming motorists seems like an easy option, but this issue can only be really addressed if both motorists and cyclists accept responsibility.

Well vicky all I can say is; it's not only an easy option but in this case with all the evidence from your study it is the ONLY option.

FATBEGGARONABIKE's picture

posted by FATBEGGARONABIKE [604 posts]
26th April 2013 - 7:18

4 Likes

and that is probably the belief of most people, which is part of the problem, are huge overestimation of the functionality of their own vision. In fact, as others have pointed out a large part of what you think you see in your peripheral vision is simply the creation of your mind. If you read a scientific description of how your vision actually works, and how limited it is, you will be shocked.

posted by imaca [46 posts]
26th April 2013 - 7:36

4 Likes

Obvious conclusions from this are that cyclists should all be wrapped in cotton wool.
This will both protect them in an accident and make them look like more visible clouds.

@rich22222

posted by rich22222 [135 posts]
27th April 2013 - 14:47

5 Likes

kitkat wrote:
Simmo72 wrote:
Agree. I tested some new cars recently and was shocked at the new touch screen functionality. firsty its distracting as there is a vast amount of functionality and secondly its positioned so badly it takes your eye completely off the road. Yes VW Golf, a terrible piece of design. I refused to buy on these grounds.

I second this, i drove a new golf on hire and the touch screen was a nightmare to use. It might be intuitive once you're used to it but trying to do it while unfamiliar and driving just felt dangerous.

I drive a VW Passat and can relate to these comments however I think that the problem is not with the technology itself but the way that it is used. I use the Sat Nav a lot but would never try to program it whilst actually driving the car and the same goes for all Sat Nav systems. The same goes for the other functionality; I wouldn't adjust the levels on the stereo or seach for a previously undicovered DAB radio station whilst driving either. The point about screen location is a fair one but I question if windscreen monuted Sat Navs are any better as they block the view of the road. Overall I think that Sat Nav is much better than the alternative: a map book open on the passenger seat. There should be much better education on how to use these systems. Points could include:
1. Program Sat Nav only when parked
2. LISTEN to the Sat Nav. Avoid visually consulting the screen where possible
3. Look at road signs! Sat Nav is only one aid to navigation and shouldn't be followed blindly.

posted by Matt eaton [473 posts]
29th April 2013 - 13:47

4 Likes

Cyclists are not invisible, drivers are not looking.

vexedveloist's picture

posted by vexedveloist [8 posts]
4th May 2013 - 11:28

7 Likes