Why Do Drivers Fail to "See" What is in Plain View?

Video Transcription:

Hi, it's Jim Dodson from the Florida Bike Guy. Why is it that drivers can't see what's plainly in front of them? I want to talk to you this morning about a thing called inattentional blindness. I'm gonna talk about really three things about what that is, about some mitigating factors like conspicuity that help us fight against this problem. And finally, how distraction and doing something repetitively actually lends itself to someone being subject to this problem of inattentional blindness, and I'll tell you what that means.

Inattentional blindness is sort of a fancy psychological term that explains why someone can fail to see something which is in plain view because it never registered on their awareness scale, okay? Let's talk about this a minute. I think a lot of us believe that when we have our eyes open, then all of that visual stimulus is coming in, and it's recorded like a videotape, and it is all available for us to see, be aware of, and be fully conscious of. But the reality is that our mind, our brain, receives all of this visual data, just to talk about vision for a minute, and we're processing 30 or 40 bits of visual information a second. Well, we can't become consciously aware of all of that. So the mind has this ability to filter out what is not relevant to it at the moment, okay?

So the mind filters through all of this visual stimulation and it focuses our attention on just a very small percentage of material that comes into the mind, okay? Through the visual stimulation, through hearing, through smell, all of these things are being received in our brains at the same time. What happens is that the question becomes what's relevant to the brain at the moment that you're looking. And this is, a lot of times, it's task oriented, there's a lot of things that create relevance.

The thing is that you can, we, this is something that affects everyone. It doesn't affect every person all of the time, but it affects a lot of people a lot of the time. It is involuntary, it's unconscious, it isn't something that indicates the person has a problem. It is just the way our brains have developed the ability to filter information so that we don't operate on overload all of the time. But it has a real bearing on you and I as cyclists because it's affecting the drivers that we're riding by and approaching and who are making turns in the area we're riding our bikes, okay? So what's the first thing that a driver says after a collision? I never saw them. It's always, it happens in every collision. If they'd seen us they would have avoided us in most cases.

This principle that I want to talk about this morning, I want you to understanding I'm not suggesting that it gives a driver a pass. What I want us to focus on is we need to be aware that this principle exists. It's a phenomena of the brain. It's a phenomena of perception. It's the phenomena of what we actually see consciously and are alert about, okay? And there's a difference between what we visually see in our field of vision, but what we become consciously aware of.

Someone who, I'll give you a good example. It sort of explains why drivers so many times don't see what's in plain view. A driver who is sitting at an intersection or sitting, let's say, in a median break. Traffic is coming towards that driver in the opposite direction. The driver wants to make a left turn into a parking lot or a shopping center or maybe into a side street. What's relevant to the driver at that moment? Oncoming traffic. What's the danger to the driver at that moment? Oncoming traffic. The driver's focused on oncoming traffic. A cyclist coming along in the bike lane next to oncoming traffic is in plain view, but it's not relevant to what the driver's mind is thinking about. The driver's watching the traffic. A break occurs, the driver makes a decision to make a left turn, they go and it's like, oh my god, where'd the bike come from? The interesting thing about this phenomena is when it happens to people they can't explain why they didn't see something in plain view. They can't explain why it happened.

There was a story, actually, up in Boston of a police officer who was giving a foot chase to a criminal. He's focused on running down this criminal, and he ran right by an assault taking place in which someone was badly, badly hurt. He never stopped, he never rendered assistance, and he came under a great deal of criticism. I think they were either gonna discharge him or they were gonna charge him with a crime. And it wasn't until they hired an expert on this whole thing about inattentional blindness that the explanation given was he was so focused on the person that he was chasing that it never entered his field of awareness, this person that was being assaulted in plain view, in his sight, never registered with him on his consciousness level. It's kind of an interesting thing.

I've got some notes here this morning 'cause some of this is rather technical. This is a natural process. There are things that we can do to mitigate it. I think the message for us as cyclists is that we need to be aware of how it operates. You'll never hear me kind of justify in any way when a motorist pulls, you know, hits one of us, you'll never hear me justify it on this doctrine because, you know, what happens in real life is, we had a case just this week. The motorist admitted they were looking to the right at a truck and its label at the time that the motorist went into the intersection, never looked at our client on the bicycle. That's not inattentional blindness. That's negligence, and that's just not looking. Traffic crashes occur and bicycle collisions because people don't look, they speed, they're distracted, there's a number of reasons why they happen, but they can also be caused by this issue with a driver.

There are some mitigating factors that you and I need to be aware of. The first is this issue about the doctrine of conspicuity. Conspicuity is the ability of something to capture our attention, okay? If you heard me talk in the last year or so you've heard me talk about conspicuity, and we talk about, usually we talk about visual conspicuity. That is the ability to create contrast between you and the surrounding visual field. Take our driver who's waiting to make a left turn. If you're wearing bright neon color and you're moving and you have colors on your feet, on your ankles, on your knees, so that that bright color is standing out against the contrast of the surrounding material, you have a much higher likelihood that even a driver solely focused on oncoming traffic's gonna notice you 'cause you're creating conspicuity for them, separating you from the surrounding visual clutter, okay? It helps to be larger. It helps to have something moving. And it helps to have blinking, fluttering motion or lights. That's why police, ambulances, who else, school buses, they have flashing lights. Police use flashing lights, multiple flashing lights, front and rear. It all creates conspicuity because many times, they found before they started doing that, police cars were being run into all the time parked on the side of the road.

There's also this issue of cognitive conspicuity. It's our ability to create what is relevant to us. Creating relevance, making us relevant to the viewer. I think one of the greatest examples of this is you and I are in a large, we're in a meeting, we're in a bike club meeting. You're engaged one on one with talking to your friend. A lot of us think that we can multitask. When you come to these kinds of conversations, you hear all of the conversation around you, but you're not listening to the words. You hear the drone of the conversation. You're listening, focusing on the words of the person you're talking to. But if someone next to you mentions your name, suddenly, it comes to your cognitive attention, and you quickly shift your focus to that conversation. This is an example of this.

The other thing is task relevance. Many times when we fall into a routine of driving a car, flying an airplane, doing something that is repetitive, the question becomes whether the task we're doing is, are we conscious of things that are happening. I'll give you an example. They cite in some of the studies that I read examples of two pilots in a commercial airliner, a light is flashing on the dash, on the cockpit panel, because of some warning light related to the occupation of the flight. These two pilots were so focused on that warning light, focus, focus, focus, focus, focus, plane is descending, they don't realize it. Another signal goes off that, you know, they're going too low. They're filtering out this signal. Both pilots, they're focused on what the task is, the plane crashes and a hundred people die. There's a number of examples of that. So things that we do routinely, things that focus our attention on a particular task, all kind of limit the relevance of data that's coming in unrelated to that task.

This is a, you know, this whole thing is an explanation. So two of us are together, we're sitting at an intersection on our bicycles. There's a motor vehicle crash right in front of us. It doesn't affect us, we don't get hit. We're both watching the same crash, okay? The police ask me what happened, and I tell them a set of facts. The police ask you what happened, and you tell them a totally different set of facts because what was relevant to you at that moment and what was relevant to me at that moment weren't necessarily the same, and we both processed that information differently. There's some interesting studies that talk about the fact that like on, two people, you know, giving divergent views of an intersection, it's very frustrating to me as a lawyer to hear that because sometimes this stuff is inconsistent, it makes the case more difficult to deal with. It's another example of why, and you know, we have one person standing over here watching a crash occur, and I've had this in situations, they give a version of the crash that's just totally different than anybody else that was there. And so, how do you unwrangle that?

So the other things that can affect this issue of inattentional blindness is mental workload and task interference. Mental workload is like what are you doing at the time? We always believe that we're really great multitaskers, but the reality is, we're not. Sometimes we can multitask something that has, requires a great deal of our attention with something that requires very little attention. We can drive an automobile and listen to music in the background. But we have a difficult time driving an automobile and thinking about something detailed or driving an automobile and talk to someone about something detailed or look at our phone. Now we've directly taken our attention away. So when you start looking at a phone, worrying about a particular project that's consuming a great deal of your attention, all this stuff interferes with the ability of the mind to pick up information that's coming in from the eyes that's relevant to them that they should pick up. They used the example in some of the studies about, you know, it's one thing to drive down a country road with no traffic, no signs, your low speed limit, and do another task at the same time. Another thing when you're in a city or you're in bad weather. Your ability to do that is really almost impossible. You can't do it because you don't have the ability to process those two things. They require too much focus on the part of the driver.

So I hope you're enjoying our program. I just want to remind you that we represent cyclists throughout Florida, whether you're involved in a bike crash, you know, a dog takes you down while you're riding, you have construction debris or some problem, you know, some debris on the road that causes a crash or maybe even a component failure. If you need our help, I have a commitment to helping cyclists, and it doesn't matter whether you are injured in a cycling crash or in a motor vehicle crash or something that's unrelated to cycling 'cause I'm a personal injury lawyer, that's what we do. So if I can help you, please let me know.

There's another interesting aspect to this whole issue about inattentional blindness and that's something called expectation. Expectation is something that you do routinely, and you always see and do and experience the same things when you do it. Good example. You live in a situation where you drive your car down the same street everyday. You come home everyday for two years, three years, four years. You turn left into your driveway. It happens, you never see anything unusual. There's never anything that you need to avoid. You do that routinely, so your mind has now put this on automatic pilot. You pull in one day and there's somebody on the sidewalk. Your mind doesn't see it, and you can run into them because it wasn't relevant to you when you were doing the routine. It shows up a lot in the medical field, unfortunately, and this is really scary. We get so routine, the medical personnel gets so routine to doing the same thing, filling a syringe, giving an injection, walking into the medicine supply room and grabbing a medicine bottle to relieve and get information or get a pill or get a, you know, liquid from it to put into the syringe. They're used to seeing the bottle in the same shape with the same color of the same size. So it has warning and information on the label, but you're so accustomed to walking in and picking up that bottle, picking up that bottle, that one day there's a new bottle there. It's a different medication. It's a different dosage. They pick up the bottle, they don't look at the label, they don't look at the warning, administer it, and the patient dies. How does that happen? They were routinely used to doing the same thing. They were so accustomed to it that the data about the warning never entered into their consciousness. It was just a routine action. Happens like if a pharmacist is on the phone, filling out a prescription at the same time. You make errors doing that stuff. The medical history is replete with these type of errors. Dosage errors, administering a shot intramuscularly versus intravenously. All these things are based on repetitive nature of what they do and not paying attention, not having that problem, that new data enter their field of consciousness.

And finally, one of the things that we have to deal with is the capacity of the driver, using our situation with cars. Some people are infirm mentally. Some people are on medication. They're exhausted. They have alcohol or drugs in their system. Or they just have a low cognitive ability. All of those things can affect the ability of that driver to pick up information that's being fed to their brain that's not being seen as relevant to them, therefore, they never see and recognize the cyclist coming and the pedestrian walking, whatever it might be.

This is a very fascinating, to me, topic. I've talked about conspicuity, it's talked about on the Trek website and some other places about how we get seen. This is really kind of a background to understand exactly why it's so critical and why wearing the bright neon colors, putting those colors on your knees and on your ankles and on your shoes, on your hat, on your helmet, rather, all this is creating motion. Why we have flashing lights on our bike front and rear, bright flashing lights front and rear. It's because we want to raise the opportunity, want to raise the likelihood or increase the likelihood that this driver whose visual task is to make a safe left turn to recognize you as a bicyclist as you enter their field of vision.

There was an interesting observation that even when we had a driver who looks at us and we are confident they've seen us, they may be looking directly through us. We may be in their field of vision, we're looking directly where they're looking, but they don't see us. Kati stuck her head in the door here. I've seen that happen in bike cases before. The rider kind of assumes the driver was looking their way, they must see me, and you know, they go, and boom, something bad happens.

Generally, I have found in my experience that crashes occur because of a number of factors. Clearly, negligence on behalf of the driver affected sometimes by lack of conspicuity by the cyclist, divided attention by the driver, and doing a task that has a high expectation of being routine to them. So you never, the information's coming in, never raises their level of awareness, they never become consciously aware of us, therefore, they never see us. Now, the fact that we're in plain view, negligence lies with them. They're going to be at fault, but I think we need to understand how we take action, what we do, to increase the likelihood that we're going to be seen and recognized as a cyclist and avoided.

You know, our brains handle this data, this process of inattentional blindness, serves us well in most of our life. It's just that when an important piece of data enters our field of vision or field of hearing, we don't recognize it, that bad things happen. And we want to raise the opportunity or the likelihood that we are that data and that we are going to be seen, we're gonna be recognized, we're gonna be seen as a cyclist and avoided, and that's the whole point of why I'm talking to you today.

We have a offer for you today. I'm making our Florida accident handbook available for you. Actually, looking at and listening to my talk today, I think I need to update my handbook and include this information in here, which I think I'm gonna make my project over the next few weeks. I'd love to get this out to you. If I can ever help you, let me know. I'm Jim Dodson, Florida Bike Guy. Hope you found this interesting. Look for you next time, thank you, bye.

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Jim Dodson
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A Florida injury lawyer, family man and avid cyclist who clients have trusted for over 25 years.