Saw but Forgot: Drivers’ Short-Term Memories May Kill Motorcyclists

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A car crashes into a motorcycle at a junction. It may not be because the driver did not notice the motorcyclist; it may be because the driver saw him but forgot him after just a few seconds, study shows.


“Drivers looked at, but seconds later failed to recall.” This happens up to 15% of the time when a driver is driving. More than that, drivers are around 5 times more likely to forget a motorcycle compared with a car.




“Saw but forgot”, instead of “Look but fail to see”


Previous thoughts tended to classify the reason of traffic accidents of drivers pulling out into the path of an oncoming motorcycle as “Look but fail to see” (LBFTS). However, a recent study shows the real reason may be “Saw but forgot” (SBF) errors.



Short term memory failure


The concept of “short term memory failure” is different from “short term memory loss” which means you can’t remember things happened recently, and may be an indicator of age development, brain damage or dementia.



To understand what is going on when errors occur at junction crossings, researchers explored where drivers looked and what they remembered while crossing junctions in a driving simulator.


The result was surprising: some drivers had absolutely no recollection of seeing an oncoming vehicle at all, even as they are about to pull out at a junction.


This proves that short term memory failure is what really lies between seeing an approaching vehicle and pulling out that leads to an accident. It is particularly true for motorcycles.



“The most striking finding was not subtle biases in vision or memory, but the fact that in some cases there was a complete absence of memory, particularly for approaching motorcycles." Said Dr. Chapman, an expert in the psychology of driving.



Study 1: stopping at a junction


60 drivers’ eye movements were recorded when crossing junctions in a driving simulator. Although drivers seemed to look in the right places as they approached the junction, there were 20 occasions where a driver couldn’t remember one of the oncoming vehicles.  


The forgotten vehicle was a LGV on 2 occasions, a car on 4 occasions and a motorcycle on 14 occasions.





Study 2: pulling out of the junction


Still focusing on tracking the drivers’ eye movements, this time the drivers were asked to drive approaching different junctions and go straight on when they think it’s safe.


In the simulation, the oncoming vehicles were 2 cars, or 1 car and 1 motorcycle. If the driver drove forward when there were oncoming vehicles, the researchers would also finish the memory tests on them.


Out of the 120 times memory was tested, drivers failed to report a car on one occasion and a motorcycle on 8 occasions.




Study 3: tracking head and eye movements


This study was similar to the second one, only this time the 45 drivers wore lightweight eye-tracking glasses to offer the researchers a more accurate measurement.


Out of 180 memory tests, drivers failed to report a car on 3 occasions and a motorcycle on 16 occasions. In these 16 occasions, drivers did not look directly at the motorcyclist in 5 occasions, suggesting the situation belongs to LBFTS (Look but fail to see); drivers looked at the motorcyclist direction in 11 occasions, suggesting the situating belongs to SBF (Saw but forgot) errors.



The study also showed SBF errors were associated with more head movements and a longer gap between fixating on the motorcycle and pulling out. This is when the researchers said the forgetting is occurring.



How to avoid: "See bike say bike"


Researchers suggest that to help you remember the motorcyclist you saw just now, you can say it loud.


Dr. Chapman said: "If relevant visual information is encoded phonologically it has been shown that it is no longer subject to visuospatial interference. Clearly any research that improves our understanding of these crashes and the kind of countermeasures that can be used to prevent them, has the potential to be a major contribution to world health."

1 Answer

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Of course, when seeing a car I'm alarmed because the car may be a threat to ME. I never feel any danger or threat when seeing a motorcycle, that's why it just doesn't go into my brain.
You don't see killing a motorcycle operator when you pull in front of themas a threat?
I like to think he was talking about,"no threat" on a sub-conscious level. But I could be wrong. As an ex-motorcyclist, I am extra careful to see motorcyclists as they can be hard to see coupled with the fact that SOME motorcyclists give bikers a bad name by acting like the law does not apply to them. (Weaving in & out traffic, speeding, no turn signals, etc.