Why Drivers Don’t See Motorcycles

Why Drivers Don’t See Motorcycles Is The Most Important Part of a Motorcycle Accident Case

The reasons why drivers don’t see motorcycles are what motorcycle accident lawyers need to know to prove the driver was at fault for causing the motorcycle accident. The driver’s failure to see a motorcycle results in violating the motorcyclist’s legal right-of-way.

As your motorcycle accident lawyers, it’s our job to prove the driver did not see you and your motorcycle and present our proof in a summary judgment motion submitted to the court. When we win a summary judgment motion asking the court to rule that the driver did not see your motorcycle, we just won the case, and you become entitled to 9% interest!

Why didn't the driver see the motorcycle? This bus driver caused a motorcycle accident with the motorcycle under the bus and the 1-800-HURT-911 sign hanging over the motorcycle

We know why the bus driver didn’t see the motorcycle. The motorcyclist knows who to call!

When a motorcyclist is injured in an accident by a driver, the most common reason is failure to see the motorcycle. But insurance company claim representatives look at other and wrong factors.

Insurance company claim representatives misidentify the cause of motorcycle accidents 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.

Drivers’ Failure to See Motorcycles Is The Cause of Most Motorcycle Accidents

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 assumed the motorcycle was speeding
  • The motorcyclist was, in fact, 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 predominant 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.”

The New York State DMV recognizes the fact that drivers don’t see motorcycles. New York State Driver’s Manual, Chapter 11, Motorcyclists, states:

“…motorcyclists also share problems faced by pedestrians, bicyclists, and in-line skaters: lower visibility, less stability, and less protection.  It is often hard to judge how far away a motorcycle is or how fast it is approaching. Many motorcycle crashes that involve other vehicles occur when the driver of the other vehicle misjudges the motorcyclist’s speed or distance, or fails to see the motorcycle at all, and then stops or turns left in front of the motorcyclist.” (Emphasis added) (See http://www.dmv.ny.gov/dmanual/chapter11-manual.htm#the-mot)

But there are many more reasons why drivers don’t see motorcycles than stated in the New York DMV manual.

15 Reasons Why Drivers Don’t See Motorcycles (not in any order)

  1. The driver is not sufficiently cautious and aware of the surroundings.
  2. The driver making a left turn looks left, then looks right, and doesn’t look left again, as was taught in driver Ed.
  3. The driver is not looking in the direction of the motorcyclist.
  4. The motorcycle and rider are smaller and inconspicuous among larger vehicles.
  5. The driver misjudged the distance of the motorcycle.
  6. The driver is distracted by a cell phone or text messaging.
  7. The driver is distracted by someone else in the car or something in the car.
  8. Motion Induced Blindness (MIB).
  9. Inattentional blindness.
  10. Saccades – rapid eye movement between fixed points.
  11. Selective Attention – the brain blocks what it considers irrelevant. The brain notices things that are sexy and dangerous and less likely to notice other things. That’s why the brain will notice a car or truck but ignore a motorcycle that is not considered as dangerous.
  12. Peripheral Blindness – you lose 90% of your vision just 20° out of your line of sight. The brain compensates by using historical images of familiar places. That’s why most accidents happen close to home.
  13. Beam Blindness – your brain blocks out the A window pillars attached to the windshield. Additionally, the A window pillars block the driver’s view.
  14. Contrast blindness – when the sun is behind the motorcyclist, there is a lack of contrast causing the colors of the motorcyclist’s clothes and motorcycle to appear neutral or dark.
  15. Contrast blindness – contrast is reduced because the motorcycle is smaller than cars.

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 they 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 on 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. We proved that in a motorcycle accident case and won summary judgment.

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 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 that 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 the crash was 21.5 mph.  86 mph 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.

4 Reasons Why Drivers Think the Motorcycle Was Speeding

  1. Drivers often think the motorcycle was speeding because of an occasional motorcyclist who they see speeding at dangerous speeds, thus making this image an indelible memory. It is such a strong memory that drivers think all motorcycles speed because they never notice or remember the vast majority of motorcycles riding at or below the speed limit.
  2. The driver thinks the motorcycle was speeding because the driver didn’t see the motorcycle prior to the accident.
  3. The driver assumes the motorcycle must have been speeding because “it came out of nowhere.” This is really the same as the driver didn’t see the motorcycle prior to the accident.
  4. The driver thinks the motorcycle was speeding because the motorcycle struck the car. But that has nothing to do with speed or the cause of the motorcycle accident.

At 35 mph, a Motorcyclist Cannot Avoid a Collision

Another reason the driver of a car thinks the motorcycle was speeding is often that the motorcycle struck the car. But it is NOT the fault of the motorcyclist because the car was struck by the motorcycle.

Contrary to the belief of many people, including motorcyclists and insurance claim reps, the fact that the motorcycle struck the car does not mean the motorcycle was speeding, and it has nothing to do with fault. That is especially true with motorcycles because, with two wheels, they don’t stop as fast as cars with four wheels.

The HURT report states that 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’s 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.  While the driver might see the motorcycle, the apparent small size often gives the impression that the driver has more time than reality.

Drivers either see don’t see the motorcycle at all because of its small size or see the motorcycle as being far away because of its small size and don’t realize that the motorcycle is almost on top of the car until its size appears large.

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.

The difference in size between a motorcycle and a car may even cause drivers to subconsciously ignore the motorcycle.

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 as 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, 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 have less surface area than a car, less light will be reflected back 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 1) looks further away, 2) has less resolution, and 3) has 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 - The larger ball represents a car and the smaller ball represents a motorcycle.

See Determining Visibility and “Inattentional Blindness” & Conspicuity

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

Videos showing how to attempt to avoid an accident with a driver who doesn’t see you and why drivers don’t see motorcyclists

7 min 48 secs

Selective Attention

8 min 40 secs

1-800-HURT-911® Started a Motorcycle Awareness Campaign

Because drivers don’t see motorcycles, we created the BE AWARE MOTORCYCLES ARE EVERYWHERE® motorcycle awareness campaign.

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 wrote this article about why drivers don’t see motorcycles so motorcyclists could get information about why a driver caused their motorcycle accident and injury.

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.

Related Articles

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

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Motorcycle Lawyer Phil FranckelPhilip L. Franckel, Esq. personally authored this page and all articles on NYMotorcycleAttorneys.com.

You may have met Phil Franckel and Rob Plevy at motorcycle events. Phil and Rob created the motorcycle awareness campaign BE AWARE MOTORCYCLES ARE EVERYWHERE®. They are Founding Partners of 1-800-HURT-911® New York, well-known in New York for representing motorcyclists. Phil is an Avvo Top Motorcycle Attorney with a 10 Avvo rating, Avvo Motorcycle Client’s Choice award with all 5-star reviews, Avvo Top Motorcycle Accident Contributor, and a former Member of the Board of Directors of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association.

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Motorcycle Attorney Phil Franckel talks about how motorcycle accidents are different

Philip L. Franckel, Esq. is the author of all articles and content on this website, one of the Personal Injury Dream Team™ Founding Partners at 1-800-HURT-911® New York, well-known for representing motorcyclists. He has a 10 Avvo rating; Avvo Client’s Choice with all 5-star reviews; Avvo Top Contributor; and is a former Member of the Board of Directors of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association. Mr. Franckel created the motorcycle awareness campaign BE AWARE MOTORCYCLES ARE EVERYWHERE®.

Founding Partner Rob Plevy, Esq.

New York Motorcycle Accident Lawyer and Founding Partner Rob Plevy, Esq.

New York Motorcycle Accident Lawyer and Founding Partner Rob Plevy, Esq.

Robert Plevy, Esq. is a motorcycle accident lawyer and one of the Personal Injury Dream Team™ Founding Partners at 1-800-HURT-911® New York. Robert began his legal career in 1993 as an Assistant Corporation Counsel defending The City of New York against personal injury lawsuits.

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