Why Drivers Don’t See Motorcycles

When a motorcyclist is injured in an accident by a driver, the most common reason is failure to see the motorcycle, resulting in violating the motorcyclist’s legal right-of-way.

As your motorcycle lawyer, it’s our job to prove that the driver did not see you and your motorcycle.  Insurance company claim representatives misidentify the cause when looking only at the point of impact and which vehicle was struck, neither of which has anything to do with the cause of the accident.

Studies have proved the following is true in the majority of motorcycle accidents:

  • The driver of the car, SUV or truck violated the motorcyclist’s right-of-way
  • The driver failed to see the motorcycle
  • The driver assumes the motorcycle was speeding
  • The motorcyclist was not speeding
  • The motorcyclist did not have time to avoid the collision

The Driver’s Failure to See the Motorcycle Causes the Accident by Violating the Motorcyclist’s Right-Of-Way

The HURT report found that the driver of the other vehicle caused the accident by violating the motorcyclist’s right-of-way in the majority of motorcycle accidents. The HURT report is a study conducted by researcher Harry Hurt at the University of Southern California with funds from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  See an easy-to-read summary of the HURT report.

The HURT report also found that “The most common motorcycle accident involves another vehicle
causing the collision by violating the right-of-way of the motorcycle at an intersection, usually by turning left in front of the oncoming motorcycle because the car driver did not see the motorcycle.”  (1.3 Research Findings p. 2 HURT study)

The failure of motorists to detect and recognize motorcycles in traffic is the predominating cause of motorcycle accidents.  Drivers failed to see the motorcycle either before the collision or did not see the motorcycle until it was too late to avoid the accident (12.1 Findings p. 416 HURT study), giving the motorcyclist less than two seconds to avoid the collision (7.17 Motorcycle Rider Collision Avoidance Performance p. 140 HURT study).

A more recent 2009 study known as MAIDS or the Motorcycle Accident In-Depth Study found that the primary accident cause in 70 percent of motorcycle accidents (not just left turn accidents), involving another vehicle, was that the driver failed to “perceive” the motorcyclist.

It was reported in the Sun Sentinel that the FDOT found people with motorcycle endorsements on their driver’s licenses report seeing motorcycles all the time, while those without endorsements, living in the same area, report that they only occasionally see motorcycles.  Chanyoung Lee, a senior researcher at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research Was quoted as saying, “If you’re aware of it, you see it”.

This is why we distribute signs, bumper stickers and magnetic car signs to raise awareness of motorcycles on the road with the slogan BE AWARE MOTORCYCLES ARE EVERYWHERE®.

Reasons Why Drivers Don’t See Motorcycles:

  1. The driver is not sufficiently cautious and aware of surroundings
  2. The driver is not looking in the direction of the motorcyclist
  3. The motorcycle and rider is inconspicuous among larger vehicles
  4. The driver misjudged the distance of the motorcycle
  5. The driver is distracted by a cell phone or text messaging
  6. The driver is distracted by someone else in the car or something in the car
  7. Motion Induced Blindness (MIB) (probably only rarely)

Awareness of motorcycles on the road should be taught during driver education with the use of videos. Unfortunately, it is not.  Drivers are taught to look out for other cars but are not taught the differences in looking out for motorcycles.

In driver education classes, drivers are taught when making a left turn, to look left; look right; and look left again immediately before you start going. But most drivers look left; right; and go before looking left again. As will be seen below, in a left turn accident, this can be fatal to the motorcyclist even when the motorcyclist is riding at or below the speed limit.

The HURT study found that a principal finding in motorcycle accidents is that the automobile driver failed to detect the inconspicuous motorcycle in traffic.  The report stated, “This is due to the lack of motorcycle and rider inconspicuity and lack of caution and awareness of the [automobile] driver.” (1.3.1 Research Findings, Accident and Injury Causes p. 2 HURT study)

Misjudging the distance or proximity of a motorcycle is not taught in driver education.  A driver who misjudges the distance or proximity of a motorcycle is the reason for many motorcycle accidents, especially accidents involving a motorcycle going straight when in a collision with a car making a left turn.

In motorcycle accidents where the car makes a left turn, the car is often struck on the side by the motorcycle.  Insurance company claims representatives attribute a percentage of fault based upon the location of the point of impact.

Where the point of impact is further to the rear of the car, the claims representative will try to attribute more fault to the motorcyclist.  The argument is that the motorcyclist had time to see the car and avoid the accident and either the motorcyclist wasn’t paying attention or was speeding.  This is a faulty argument.

As will be seen below, even at 35 mph, the motorcyclist does not have enough time to avoid the accident. However, the argument fails to assume other potential facts.  For instance, a motorcycle could be traveling below the speed limit and hit the right rear quarter panel of a car that quickly darts in front of the motorcycle.

The point of impact is only one of many factors to consider and cannot be used as the only factor when considering fault.

Insurance company claims representatives also sometimes point out that that you’re partially at fault because your motorcycle is the “striking vehicle”.  Don’t let an inexperienced insurance claims representative get away with this ridiculous argument.  See why it does not matter which vehicle struck which vehicle.  The cause of the accident is because the driver did not see your motorcycle.

Speed Is Not the Reason Drivers Don’t See Motorcycles and Is Not a Factor in Most Motorcycle Accidents

The median pre-crash speed of the motorcycles in the HURT study was only 29.8 mph, and the median speed at the point of crash was 21.5 mph.  86mph was a one-in-a-thousand crash speed.  “The typical motorcycle accident allows the motorcyclist just less than 2 seconds to complete all collision avoidance action.” (12.1 Findings p. 417 and 7.17 Motorcycle Rider Collision Avoidance Performance p. 140 HURT study)

Thus, contrary to the opinion of some, in most accidents the motorcyclist was not speeding.

People who don’t ride often think the motorcycle was speeding because of an occasional motorcyclist who was seen speeding at dangerous speeds, thus making this image an indelible memory.

The driver of a car, SUV or truck who was struck by a motorcycle may also assume it was speeding because the driver didn’t see the motorcycle.  The driver assumes the motorcycle must have been speeding because “it came out of nowhere”.  Another reason may be because the car was struck by the motorcycle.  But it doesn’t make it the fault of the motorcyclist because the car was struck by the motorcycle.

At 35 mph a Motorcyclist Cannot Avoid a Collision

The HURT report states, the median time available for collision avoidance for all 900 motorcycle accidents studied is less than 1.9 seconds. “It is typical that the motorcycle rider must detect, decide and react to a traffic hazard in less than two seconds.”

“Consider that typical case specified where the automobile turns left in front of the oncoming motorcycle. If the motorcycle initial speed is 35 mph, an attainable braking distance is 50’ if both front and rear brakes are used well.  If the rider requires 1 second total reaction time for detection, decision and neuromuscular and vehicle reaction, then a total of 3 seconds and 100′ are required for a safe stop.  The fundamental problem is a serious lack of time for success in collision avoidance; two seconds are available but three seconds are required.”  (7.17.1 Motorcycle Rider Collision Avoidance Performance p. 140 HURT study)

The calculation assumes that both front and rear brakes are used well.  However, it is difficult to properly balance the use of two brakes, especially in an emergency situation. Thus, it is likely that substantially more than 3 seconds are required to safely stop while only 2 seconds are available to avoid a collision.

If a Driver Is Paying Attention, Why Doesn’t the Driver See Your Motorcycle?

Since a motorcycle is substantially smaller than a car, it will appear to be further away when it really is not.  The difference in size between a motorcycle and a car may even cause drivers to subconsciously ignore the motorcycle.

Thus, drivers often say, “it came out of nowhere” and assume the motorcyclist must have been speeding.

You can easily see this illusion by looking at a basketball and a tennis ball next to each other while standing at a distance.  The basketball will appear to be closer although they are the same distance from you.  The image below shows this effect.

This illusion causes drivers making a left turn to think they have time to make the turn when in reality they do not.

Additional factors affecting a smaller object:

  1. There is less contrast between the object (motorcycle) and the background. This means that the difference in color between the object and background becomes less as the object becomes smaller.
  2. The smaller an object (motorcycle), the more the color appears to change to blue/gray which coincidentally is the same color of the sky and asphalt. Thus, a motorcycle, no matter what color it is, tends to match the color of the background.
  3. A motorcycle will have poorer resolution than larger cars, SUVs and trucks.
  4. When a driver sees a car, truck, motorcycle, pedestrian or any other object, this is because light from the sun (or at night from headlights, street lights and the moon) strikes the surface of the car, truck or motorcycle and rider. Some of the light reflects back to the driver’s eye enabling the driver to visualize the object. The amount of light falling on the surface of the object is called illumination and is measured in units of lux. The amount of light visible to the driver is called luminance. Because a motorcycle and rider has less surface area than a car, less light will be reflected to a driver when viewing a motorcycle.
  5. A motorcycle has a camouflage effect with its background because it has very small surface areas with color as compared to a car.  This occurs even when the motorcycle has red fairings and the rider wears safety green or yellow. (see the video below)

This image shows that the smaller object looks further away, has less resolution and less contrast with the background. A motorcycle will look further away and blend into the color of the road and sky.
Distance-contrast comparison shows why drivers don't see motorcycles

See Determining Visibility and Protecting Visibility an EPA Report to Congress

Motion Induced Blindness is another factor which may be a contributing factor causing drivers to be unaware of their surroundings, including motorcycles. Motion induced blindness is basically where a driver is focusing on a point down the road and becomes oblivious to surroundings because of trees and other objects passing by.

This video shows how to attempt to avoid an accident with a driver who doesn’t see you but also explains why drivers don’t see motorcyclists

We distribute signs, bumper stickers and magnetic car signs to raise awareness of motorcycles on the road with the slogan BE AWARE MOTORCYCLES ARE EVERYWHERE®. We are adding additional signs with the slogan MOTORCYCLES ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR™

We are motorcycle accident attorneys in New York and would like to represent you if you had a motorcycle accident.  Please call 1-800-487-8911 for a free consultation.

Also see left turn accidents and which struck first, the car or the motorcycle.