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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

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 - 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.


Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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