Ghost Rider Series – Inattentional Blindness

Originally Published in – 5/2011

Recently, I was enjoying a nice warm Saturday ride toward one of my favorite northern Nevada destinations, Virginia City. For you older guys, it’s the same Virginia City of the 1950’s Bonanza TV fame.  Riding on one of the main routes out of Reno, I was scanning a few seconds ahead and noticed an SUV at a side street with its left turn signal blinking.  When I’m riding on urban streets, I routinely look at the front wheel of vehicles waiting at cross streets.  Most of the time the wheels are not rolling which is a good indicator that the driver will stay put until after I ride past.  This time though I noticed that the SUV’s front wheel were slowly rolling meaning the driver was at that moment considering his options.

When I see a car with its wheels slowly rolling at an intersection, it’s a indication that perhaps the driver hasn’t noticed my bike and by extension me. So, I keep a focused eye on that vehicle.  At this point and if time and distance permits, I will move my bike to the inside lane or at least the inside of the lane I am using.    Moving my position to the inside lane, provides more space and time between my bike and creepers like the one I was now focused.

When vehicles are stopped at cross streets, its’ human nature to search for the driver’s face and eyes to decide if they notice the motorcycle. But, I have found over the years, that more often than not, the driver’s face is not clearly seen them anyway . Another concern for me is that even when I can see the driver is looking in my direction, it doesn’t mean that he sees me.  So I focus on the front wheel of vehicles that may pose a risk for me. I follow a simple rule of the road… I am a ghost to every driver on the street and therefore I view every vehicle as a potential threat.

Whenever I have some doubt about potential conflicts at intersections, I normally cover both brakes as a precaution and prepare to respond in case of a bad driver decision. Covering your brakes can save one second in reaction time. That is the equivalent of about 50 feet when you apply your brakes moving at 35 mph.  As I neared the slowly creeping SUV, the driver did exactly what I hoped he wouldn’t do… he suddenly pull out in front of me. Fortunately, my survival instinct was in good working order and I was able to brake quick enough for him to clear my path before my VTX was turned into abstract art.  Profanity was not really optional, but it was an afterthought.

Most every rider who has more than a few miles on the asphalt has encountered this near-death experience at least once. Unfortunately for some riders, the near-death experience sadly becomes a real-death experience.

The most common statement written by drivers in police reports following a crash with a motorcyclist is “I just didn’t see him.”  In a 2000 study published by two Harvard researchers, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons demonstrated that when drivers say they didn’t see the motorcycle, they were in fact telling the truth. Not seeing what is right in front of your eyes is now known as “Inattentional Blindness.” For example, think of the last time you couldn’t find your wallet or keys and your spouse came over and pointed to them on the table right in front of you.  In other words, the brain does not always see what the eyes are looking at.  There is a reason for this. Your body and eyes receive 11,000,000 bits of information every second.  But that doesn’t mean your brain is capable of processing that much data. So, our brains filter out all but the most important information. There is a limit to what gets through the filter to the awareness part of the brain and most of this information is priority dependent. In other words, what is important at that moment. Take motorcycles for example. If a person doesn’t have an interest in motorcycles and doesn’t know someone who rides, the chances are they will not normally see an approaching motorcycle. But if you ride a motorcycle, its’ natural that you will notice every bike that goes past and in particular your model bike. So, if a driver couldn’t care less about motorcycles and doesn’t see one until too late, its’ not completely the driver’s fault.

Though the reasons for motorcycle crashes have been well known for the last 30 years, the nation’s DMV’s and driver training courses have not made a consistent and effective effort to educate drivers to become motorcycle aware. Even in today’s driver education classes, motorcycle awareness is introduced as an afterthought to student drivers.  This partially accounts for why drivers consistently write on police reports following a crash with a motorcyclist… “I just didn’t see him.”

I teach a 90 minute motorcycle awareness course to new high school student drivers in Reno because I believe this is where motorcyclists have to start. You might consider volunteering to teach new drivers at your local driver’s training classes. If you are interested in a complete motorcycle awareness course for new drivers, go to  The course includes an Instructors Manual, Student Manual and a dynamic Power Point presentation. The kids are receptive and the teachers very appreciative. As motorcyclists, you are the authority and can have a positive impact for all motorcyclists. (No pun intended) The cost for the course is very reasonable at $19.95.  Investing time introducing and educating new or experienced drivers to motorcycles now may help to keep another rider vertical in the future.

Doc’s Road Survival Rules

1)     Always ride knowing you are a ghost to every driver on the road.

2)     99% drivers will see an approaching motorcycle, but it only takes one driver to ruin their day.

3)     Don’t look at the eyes, look to see if the front wheel is rotating.

4)     Keep in the front of you mind that a driver looking at motorcycle is not the same as the driver seeing the motorcycle.

5)     When approaching an intersection, cover your brakes.

6)     Be prepared to respond to an immediate threat by a quick and practiced response.

7)     Regardless of whether you bike is equipped with ABS or air bags, the best safety device on your bike is always your brain.

There are several a factors that put riders at risk and I will be discussing another risk next week.