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.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.