From eating or drinking to texting or talking on a handheld device, the risk to self and others can be serious when a motorist takes eyes off the road.
However, in some cases, drivers may cause a collision even when they are looking in the right direction thanks to a quirk of the human brain called “inattentional blindness.”
What is inattentional blindness?
Psychologists use the term inattentional blindness to describe a mental phenomenon that causes people to miss objects or people in plain sight. Researchers believe that, because humans can only process so much visual information at once, the brain filters out unexpected or irrelevant data before a person becomes conscious of it.
How can inattentional blindness impact cyclist safety?
Bicyclists (as well as motorcyclists and pedestrians) may be especially at risk from instances of inattentional blindness because they are much smaller and less conspicuous than motor vehicles and because drivers are often not looking out for them.
A recent study at Australian National University highlights the danger. Participants in the study examined a series of driver’s-view traffic photographs and reported whether there were any signs of hazardous conditions. In the final image, researchers inserted a new object, either a motorcycle or a taxi. 48% of study members failed to notice any new object, 31% did not notice the taxi and 65% did not notice the motorcycle.
What can drivers do to prevent an inattentional collision?
Another term for inattentional blindness is selective attention. This is because the brain “selects” which objects a person perceives. Drivers may be able to avoid inattentional crashes by making a habit of looking out specifically for non-auto traffic, like bikes, motorcycles and pedestrians, who may be sharing the road.