Friday, 6 April 2012

The gorilla in the room

It’s that time of the year where, up here in Canada and the more northern states, riders are dusting off their motorcycles and hitting the road for another riding season. Some will take refresher riding courses, others will rely on skills learned long ago, and still others will count on luck to get them through the season safely. Most (unfortunately not all) will certainly be aware of rusty skills and will ride accordingly until a level of comfort behind the bars is again attained.
At the same time car drivers are beginning to encounter more and more motorcycles on the road than they’ve seen for many months. Their driving environment too is changing but they won’t realize it and will give no consideration whatsoever to the need to adapt to safely share those ribbons of tar with two-wheelers.
And so the annual carnage begins anew.
Statistics are all over the map on this issue but some studies have put the number as high as 80% of car-motorcycle collisions being the fault of the car driver. In a perfect, random world one would expect 50-50, so clearly something is out of whack here. And the “something” that is out of whack generally includes some combination of car drivers texting, talking on the phone, distracted by kids in the car, blinded by the sunlight, or that old canard “I just didn’t see him”. And the latter claim is subject to the most derision by us motorcyclists with most being of the opinion that it’s just a lame excuse for inattention and bad driving, with some riders going so far as to wear bright coloured t-shirts emblazoned with a large-print “CAN YOU SEE ME NOW ASSHOLE?” to enhance visibility and make a point.
Not to give bad drivers an excuse, but it seems there is an explanation as to why they really did not see you. And it boils down to the fact that we humans actually suck at multi-tasking.
gorilla_costumeChristopher Chabris, a psychology professor at Union College performed an experiment in which he had a number of people passing a basketball back and forth on stage. He then asked the audience to count the number of passes. While the ball was being passed back and forth, and the audience was focussed on counting the number of passes, a person wearing a gorilla suit stepped out on stage among the basketball passers and stood there for 9 seconds before exiting. 50% of the audience did not see the gorilla because they were so focussed on the task at hand – counting the passes. (There’s a great video on this experiment here.)
So apply that to the real world and a driver mentally replaying the fight she had with her husband that morning, or taking direction from his boss via cell phone while driving, or yelling at the squabbling kids in the back seat to shut the f*** up! Your presence just doesn’t register, and probably wouldn’t even if you were driving a Mack truck.
Of course this applies to motorcycle riders as well. Just  think back on how many times you were preoccupied with something and overcooked that exit onto an off-ramp, or completely missed a turn, or forgot to put the side stand down before getting off the bike. It’s happened to all of us at one time or another, but usually with less painful results than trying to tango with a cage.
It’s not clear to me how understanding what’s really going on can make me any less invisible to some drivers, but it does help me understand my own riding (and driving) habits and make me much more aware of the impact of distractions on my situational knowledge while on the road. And that’s a good thing.


  1. great post canajun! riding home busy with near misses i was thinking of how i would write something similar, and i dont have too because you nailed it.

  2. Thanks Ms. M. As I thought about it it sure gave me a different perspective on the issue.

  3. The first time I ever saw that video, I didn't see the gorilla. It's a set-up, of sorts, because you are told to be preoccupied with something else.

    I had a wreck in a car once where someone pulled out in front of me, making a right on red at a light. It's was very minor, but part of the reason it happened is that something in the lane to my left distracted me. I got the feeling, from some sort of movement, that I needed to pay extra attention to the car next to me. I had already seen the car at the intersection, completely stopped, and there was a legitimate reason for my distraction, but it resulted in a failure on my part to avoid a wreck.

    When a car driver says they didn't see a motorcycle, it is probably true. We truly do not multitask well. Although they need to learn to look for motorcycles, it is still up to us to try our best not to surprise them. We can make ourselves less invisible by moving around a bit in the lane before overtaking, or before entering an intersection. Motion not in the direction of traffic is more likely to be noticed. I don't know for sure how effective this is, but when I see the guy at the intersection look at me, I at least know I'm safe. (As long as my looking his direction doesn't cause me to miss the guy changing lanes!)

  4. Dear Canajun:

    I had the equivalent of five headlights pointing forward, and cages still pulled out in front of me like I wasn't there. I, on the other hand, never pulled out in front of anyone, knowing how that would have ended.

    Fondest regards,

  5. Jack - When some idiots pull out in front of freight trains with signals flashing, light pulsing, and horns blaring what chance do we mere mortals on 2 wheels have?

  6. I try to look at the driver as well as the cage. Those glass things above the waistline allow you to view the monkeys at play inside, as well as allowing them to (fail to) look out. If I can't see that the head has moved in my direction, I assume that I have not been seen and go defensive - including the horn if I can't see an easy escape route.

    The only time I assume safety is when I've made eye-contact. You don't have much time to do it, but it's the only way to be sure that the "quick glance" was genuine. I started doing this as a kid on a bicycle - just as vulnerable, only at lower speeds that do give you time to confirm you've been seen.

    The flip side is that if I'm in a car waiting to leave a turning, when (if) I see a bike that I could pull out in front of, I'll look directly at the slot in the visor. Perhaps that rider is as paranoid as I've learnt to be....

  7. Mick - all good points, and a routine I follow as well. But even that's not foolproof as I have had, on more than one occasion, drivers still pull out even after I think I have made eye contact. One other thing I do when approaching an intersection with a driver waiting is to waggle the handlebars a bit. That way the motion of the headlight might be enough to trigger recognition.


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