On Visual Attention, Inattentional Blindness and Assertive Safety Practices

VisualAtentionZoneA couple years ago, I was riding to the local “Homeless Depot” on a Sunday around noon. I had to pass a local mega church that had a police officer directing traffic out of a parking lot to my left. The officer was standing in the center turn lane. As I approached, I could see the end of the line of exiting cars, so I slowed in order to avoid stopping. I timed it well — as I drew up to the officer, he signaled me to proceed.

As I accelerated, I was started to suddenly notice a police woman standing on the curb just across from her colleague. It was a clear, sunny day and she was wearing an orange reflective vest. She had been there all along and certainly was visible but I had not noticed her because I’d been concentrating elsewhere.

No harm was done; she had obviously seen me and would not walk into my path. But it was a lesson in “inattentional blindness.” She was not in my path, thus she was not relevant so I had not seen her.

There have been interesting discussions of the hazard from distracted drivers on some of the “vehicular cycling” lists. One concept is that all but the worst of such drivers (the worst being drunk or asleep) must look at the road every few seconds to “course correct” else they will run off the road.

Our job as cyclists is to grab distracted motorists’ attention during one of these brief looks and get them to delay attending to their distraction until they have safely passed us. An assertive position, near the middle of the lane, is much more likely to grab attention than the “gutter bunny” position at the edge, on a shoulder or in a bike lane.

John Schubert wrote: Drivers, including bicycle drivers, HAVE TO disregard 99 percent of the stuff in their visual field. There’s too much stuff to absorb. The brain constantly goes through a “perceive-categorize-disregard” function with all sorts of items — billboards, route signs you don’t care about, non-motorists in the gutter…..
Oh. It’s that last one that’ll get you. They’re non-motorists and they’re irrelevant, correct?.

A while ago, I developed a visual aid to show what portion of a motorist’s field of view the motorist typically pays attention to. It’s here: [Schubert’s graphic is reproduced above.] I had a professor of cognitive psychology review it. His one comment: “You made the green arc too wide.”

There are many other reasons to ride assertively but this one may be the most counter-intuitive unless one carefully thinks about the situation. It is just one more reason to resist the mindless push to install bike lanes everywhere. These bike lanes discourage assertive safety practices and therefore make cycling less safe.

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2 Responses to On Visual Attention, Inattentional Blindness and Assertive Safety Practices

  1. Well, I’m biased because you stroked my ego by quoting me. . . . but I think this is a very clear presentation of something that every road user should understand. Your example with the police officers is an excellent one. I’ve had many such events myself. Most examples like this are over in a fraction of a second, and if you don’t have the framing to understand what just happened, you are likely to disregard it or forget it.

  2. A very good essay on this topic is here:
    http://www.visualexpert.com/Resources/inattentionalblindness.html
    The same author, Marc Green, has posted a wealth of information. Scroll to the bottom of this page for a directory of his essays:
    http://www.visualexpert.com/why.html

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