One of the most common causes of multi-vehicle motorcycle accidents is the SMIDSY. Sorry Mate, I Didn’t See You. A lot has been written about the SMIDSY and many studies regarding this subject have been conducted.
So do drivers really not see us? We are not invisible, we use the road like many others, and some of our bikes have loud exhausts which can be heard even before we are seen. So why don’t drivers see us? Why do we hear the SMIDSY so often?
In this article I would like to discuss some of the reasons drivers fail to see motorcycles, thus increasing the risk of an accident. These are only some of the reasons (there are many) and not necessarily the most common reasons. Yet many of us have had either an accident or a near-miss involving some of these.
SMIDSY is Not a New Phenomenon
The SMIDSY is not a new phenomenon. As early as the 1970’s The SMIDSY has been identified as a major concern in accidents involving motorcycles, and studies into the causes of the SMIDSY have been conducted ever since.
It is important to note that a large number of collisions between motorcycles and other vehicles happen at intersections and are often the result of the other road users’ actions.
Various reasons have been identified over the years as major causes for the SMIDSY. Among these reasons were motorcycle visibility (or lack thereof) and driver awareness (or lack thereof). However, advertising campaigns launched in the UK, for example, did very little to reduce SMIDSY. One campaign encouraged riders to be more visible by wearing yellow vests and bright colour helmets, as well as riding with low beam headlight on. The assumption was that increasing motorcycle visibility will reduce SMIDSY.
Another campaign in the UK encouraged drivers to “think bike”. The aim of this campaign was to raise awareness, with the assumption that drivers will collide less with motorcycles if they are more aware of them.
The truth is that the statistics for the percentage of SMIDSY accidents around the world remained largely unchanged over the years. This is despite the various campaigns and various measures taken in different countries to reduce the numbers.
Numbers remain unchanged because there isn’t just one single reason for the SMIDSY. Not all SMIDSY drivers collided with motorcycles because they didn’t look. Not all drivers got distracted. Not all drivers looked but failed to see. There were different reasons for the SMIDSY, and here are some of them.
Sorry Mate, I Didn’t Look So I Didn’t See You
When a driver does not look they cannot see an approaching vehicle, including motorcycles.
Although this is not the most common reason for a SMIDSY I felt it necessary to include it here because of personal experience. In a space of 3 weeks I had two near-incidents on the Warringah Freeway in Sydney, both involved a Mercedes changing lanes without looking (what is it with white Mercs on the freeway???). In both cases I was close enough to the vehicle before they jumped into my lane to clearly see the driver (one male, one female) was not looking. In both incidents I slowed down and avoided a crash.
Driver training and ongoing campaigns are some of the ways to deal with these kind of drivers. These reckless drivers will cause accidents with both cars and motorcycles.
Sorry Mate, I Looked But Didn’t See You
In this type of the SMIDSY the driver DID look. Looked but failed to see the motorcycle. The reasons for this can vary: reduced concentration due to fatigue/intoxication, distraction inside the vehicle (passengers, mobile phone, etc), perhaps the driver did not look properly, or the motorcycle was not visible enough.
Motorcycles can blend with the background scene, which can make them hard to see. In addition, the narrow frontal shape of the bike makes it harder to spot than a car.
Have a look at this brilliant awareness video published by the UK’s Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency. It really illustrates the issue. What did you see?
Another fantastic safety demonstration video was released by the police in Canada. It demonstrates the problem of the narrow frontal shape of motorcycles:
So it is possible that a driver looked but failed to see a motorcycle, thus causing a SMIDSY.
One way us riders can reduce this kind of SMIDSY is by changing our lane position when riding. This needs to be done with care and caution while maintaining a buffer. The side-to-side movement in the lane will make us more noticeable, increase our visibility and help drivers see us from a larger distance.
Sorry Mate, I Looked, I Saw You, But Ignored You
Some SMIDSY’s are a result of a driver making a deliberate choice to turn in front of a motorcycle. I personally had a recent near-miss in a roundabout when a female driver jumped in front of me from a side street while I was already in the roundabout. When I approached her in the next set of lights and asked her why she did that, she screamed “I saw you!…”. Yes, she saw me but still decided to jump in front of me.
So why do drivers do that? Is it the law of the jungle? (ie. the strongest wins?). Is it because car drivers see motorcycles as a low-threat object, as opposed to trucks and buses which are high-threat objects?
It appears some car drivers (not all!) have a negative attitude towards motorcyclists and some don’t care about motorcycles. It is evident when we lane filter, when we change lanes and when drivers don’t give way. This should be addressed by education and positive campaigns to help improve our image. For example:
- Campaigns showing that motorcycles are not the problem but rather part of the solution
- Improving our image by spreading the word about the phenomenal number of charity rides motorcycle riders are involved in
- Better social behaviour to show that not all bike riders are members of criminal gangs
Sorry Mate, I Looked, I Saw You, But Forgot
In September 2019 a team of psychologists at the University of Birmingham published a research into the cause of “Look but Fail to See” crashes. The research was called “The ‘Saw But Forgot’ error: A role for short-term memory failures in understanding junction crashes?” and its results were surprising and unexpected.
The researchers found that in busy junctions with a lot happening around the driver, some drivers suffered a short term memory failure and simply forgot seeing the approaching motorcycle! According to the research up to 15% of “Look but Fail to See” crashes should be classified as “Saw but Forgot”. Those drivers looked at critically approaching vehicles but seconds later forgot they had seen them and had no recollection of seeing them. Drivers were around 5 times more likely to forget a motorcycle compared with a car.
The research team suggested teaching drivers to say out loud ‘See Bike, Say Bike’ when they see a motorcycle approaching.
How Can We Avoid the SMIDSY?
Avoiding the SMIDSY is not an easy task as it’s not up to us. Or should I say not only up to us?
For each junction crash there are hundreds of thousands of safe, successful, junction crossings. The proportion of near-misses and collisions is tiny compared with situations in which drivers who do the right thing and don’t pull out. However, when crashes do occur they can have fatal consequences for riders.
There are some measures we, the riders, can take in order to reduce the risk. We need to make sure drivers DO see us. We need to ensure drivers DO respect us as road users, DO give us right of way when necessary and DO remember we are there, sharing the road with them.
We need to be aware of how well we stand out against the background. Changing our lane position while maintaining a safe buffer may help increase our visibility.
We must not assume that drivers see us. Even if we see the approaching car we must not make the false assumption that the driver has seen us too. We could be invisible to the driver despite being able to see the car quite clearly ourselves. Or the driver may simply forget he/she saw us.
We must expect the unexpected and not let anyone surprise us on the road. We must, at all times, ride at a speed that allows us to respond to any unexpected situation. We must have the mindset of always allowing room for mistakes.
Remember, we ride on public roads and share the roads with many road users. A neat riding strategy that relies on a clear set of survival rules will secure our safety and ensure we continue to enjoy riding.
Be safe. Enjoy the ride.
* * *
The Ability to Take Responsibility
Look Out For Motorcycles
2019 Was Not a Good Year for Rider Fatality
Stumbled across this blog on the SMIDSY topic. A pretty fair treatment I thought. I personally don’t think the “look but forgot” is all that common.
Cognitive issues are more likely eg., “time to arrival” illusion, cognitive blindness, change blindness, lack of awareness of motorcycles and others.
I think we are genuinely invisible to drivers in SMIDSYs or near miss SMIDYS’s as a result. No amount of conspicuity will jag an unaware or otherwise cognitively engaged or distracted driver’s mind – those photons may enter the eye but ultimately get filtered out by the brain as not important, so the safest bet is as you say, assume you haven’t been seen. Ride like you’re invisible.
F9’s Youtube vid “invisibility training for motorcyclists”, anything related to the “invisible gorilla experiment” and the “Science of being seen” website covers many of the causes and related issues to SMIDSY in extensive detail. All worth a deep dive.