Many traffic safety agencies focus on giving motorcyclists very sound advice like wearing bright clothing, slowing down and riding sober. While advocates for bikers also underscore these suggestions, they reliably add another strong message for car drivers: start seeing motorcycles.

Recently published research from a team of psychologists in the UK confirms that drivers are part of the problem. It also offers a closer look at drivers’ failure to “see” motorcycles. The research suggests car drivers often see motorcycles but fail to absorb or register the reality and seriousness of the bikes and the danger their cars pose for the riders.

When drivers pull in front of a biker they “didn’t see”

For each of the past 15 years, the number of motorcyclists dying on America’s roadways remains at approximately 5,000. Worldwide, the number of motorcycle fatalities stands at something like 100,000 people every year. Order-of-magnitude estimates suggest 25,000 of these involve cars pulling into traffic despite an oncoming motorcycle.

The reason is strangely familiar. To the car driver who “didn’t see” the motorcyclist, the biker seemed to “come out of nowhere.” Researchers in the UK used carefully researched concepts and well-understood tools from the science of psychology to try to explain how this could be so common.

A very observant driving simulator

The researchers placed volunteer car drivers into a BMW Mini (often called a Mini Cooper). The car was not on a real road, but in a high-tech road simulator, with realistic landscapes and virtual fellow motorists to deal with. The equipment recorded very slight adjustments the “drivers” made to the car’s controls and special eyeglasses recorded their eye movements.

It might help to take bikers seriously as real people

The study showed that even when drivers say and believe that they never saw the motorcyclist, often the driver did see the biker and even fixed their eyes on the bike’s movement.

So-called LBFTS (“Look But Fail To See”) crashes are often actually SBF (“Saw But Forgot”) crashes. The details involve the complex workings of memory. Indeed, the researchers designed the study partly to uncover more about how memory works, in addition to saving motorcyclists’ lives.

It is clear that there are several types of memory. The brain completely forgets many things it sees, while it passes other visions to parts of the brain that store images longer and can use those images to make decisions. The problem with drivers is that they often see motorcycles but fail to use enough of their brains to turn those visions into information they can use to make decisions.

The researchers suggest, among other simple things, that drivers talk to themselves, saying “Bike!” when they see a motorcycle. This can help a driver’s brain grasp the reality of the biker and the fact that a human being is riding it, hoping to stay alive.