If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 19 September 2011


If there is one phrase which unites motorcyclists all over the world in a mood of weary resignation, it is this one: Sorry, mate, I didn't see you. SMIDSY, always in the aftermath of a collision or a near-miss, said by the hapless driver of a car, van, motorhome, lorry or tractor, to a bemused and probably angry motorcyclist lying on the floor amid the wreckage of his or her pride and joy. Injuries are probably minor: after all, if they were serious the motorist would probably be talking to the Police; but the curious thing is how this is what drivers always say, and always in this form of words. Friendly, but self-exculpatory: I didn't see you, therefore it wasn't my fault. It was just one of those things.

I read a lot of motorcycle forums, and whenever this topic comes up there is usually a lot of anger, directed at car drivers who are variously careless, blind, senile, murderous or blessed with an IQ smaller than their shoe size. I'm not sure that anger is justified in every case, although it is in some: people who cause accidents when distracted by being on the phone or, worse, texting come to mind. But I want to be fair here. Many studies over many years have shown that when a car and a motorcycle have an accident, the blame lies with the car driver in most cases - two-thirds or three-quarters are the usual figures. That makes perfect sense to me. Having an accident on a bike hurts a lot, and it is in the interests of the rider to avoid such collisions at all costs, so it is not surprising that in most cases the fault was not the rider acting carelessly and hitting a car, it was the other way round.

I am prompted to write this because of an email sent to me by one of the blog's commenters, Zaphod. He writes this from the perspective of someone driving a van:
A variation on the SMIDSY hazard, which I haven’t previously encountered, nor anticipated.

No Bikers were physically harmed in this experiment.

A mini-roundabout in a built-up area. I slow as I approach. A car is followed by a big bike. Nothing else in view. I adjust my trajectory to slot in behind the bike.

I’m focused on the bike, now passing directly in front of me as I roll in. A quick glance left, to check that the car in front isn’t unexpectedly slowing, which would slow the bike. A quick glance right, behind the bike.

A little scooter has materialised! Right behind the bike, in the space I was about to enter!

I did look, so I didn’t hit him. (But he was clearly rather cross.) He was in the shadow of the bike when I first looked. He will have seen my van, but I didn’t see his scooter. I’d like to believe that he would have evaded my unprovoked attack.

I hope I’ve learned something new. Is there also a defensive lesson for Bikers here?

I’m not shifting blame, honest. But it being my fault would have been no consolation to him.

Be gentle with me, I confessed to you freely.


Now, Mr Beeblebrox did the right thing here: he glanced to the right before pulling out, saw the scooter, and avoided an accident. It seems to me that his concern is that he nearly didn't. And if he hadn't, he would have been the one standing over the scooter rider saying "Sorry, mate ..."

It has been established that a lot of car/bike accidents, maybe the majority, are caused by the driver of the car not seeing the rider. To be as fair as possible to car drivers, I think a lot of these come into the category of what the Police classify as 'looked but didn't see'. In other words, the driver does everything he is supposed to according to his driving lessons, but failed to spot the hazard. A failure of perception rather than method. He looked in the right direction, but 'saw' nothing. I'm no expert, still less a psychologist, but here are a couple of thoughts:

Safety car designs

Cars are now designed to be much safer for their occupants, and one of the features that I have noticed is that the A-pillar (the one between the windscreen and the door) is much heavier than it used to be. I assume this is to provide greater protection in a roll-over accident, but it has a devastating effect on the driver's ability to see other road users in that crucial sector that, on a boat, would be "off the starboard bow". When pulling out into a major road, or entering a roundabout, that pillar is exactly where you need to be looking out for other traffic. Bike magazine did some research into this a few years ago, in conjunction with (I think) the TRL, and they concluded that under certain circumstances a bike on a roundabout would be literally invisible to a car driver - the rider's position on the roundabout would be tracked exactly by the movement of the pillar as the car moved forward and leftward onto the roundabout. This would seem to be the circumstances of Zaphod's near-miss. The recommendation of the Bike article was that drivers should be trained to deliberately move their heads from side to side in these conditions, so as to see the view from both sides of the A-pillar. This is something which all car drivers could start to do from today, and which would doubtlessly save lives in the long term.

Atavistic Strategies

Given the general numptiness of the population, it always amazes me that a complex activity like driving a car in modern traffic can be carried out by almost any human being - by teenagers, housewives, pensioners, footballers, hairdressers, professors - with a very high dgree of competence. If you doubt that, think of how many thousands of millions of miles are driven in the UK each year, and reflect on how rare accidents really are. (In the UK, 5.7 people die in road accidents per one million vehicle-kilometers travelled. That means that for the average driver who covers 20,000 km per year, your chances of being killed on the road in any year are 1 in 8,750. Put another way, you could set 98 people driving an average mileage from today until the end of the 21st Century and statistically only one would die in a road accident. Compare that with the agriculture industry, which manages to kill 8 workers out of every 100,000 every year.)

How can motoring be so safe? My guess is that it uses skills which have been honed over millions of years of evolution - running, jumping, throwing, hunting, fleeing predators and so on - which are now hard-wired into the human brain. Moving rapidly through the landscape, estimating the speed and trajectory of other objects, strategies for reaching goals and avoiding dangers, going all-out and gently cruising; all of these are as natural to us as eating. We have pushed the envelope a little: our natural maximum speed is about 20 mph (Usain Bolt managed 100m in 9.58 sec, which equates to 23 mph), but we seem to be able to cope with speeds of around four times that before our limitations begin to show, and for such as racing drivers ten times that. The human brain is remarkably adaptable.

But the strength of those skills and abilities are their limitation, too. No-one has to learn that a car approaching at x mph will reach us in y seconds and will pass us within z feet of our right-hand side. Any child who learned to catch a ball at the age of 5 knows that. It's all processed in the unconscious part of the brain. But that is where threats are processed, too, and threats are analysed in a very selfish way: how will this thing affect me? Will it kill me, or can I ignore it?You are waiting to pull out of a side-road into a main road. You see something approaching from your right (remember this is a UK blog, US readers!). Your back brain has assessed the threat and decided on a course of action before the conscious mind has even seen it. A lorry or coach? Big, dangerous. Hold back. A car? Just like me, might or might not. A bike? Small, no threat at all. Off I go ...

Another SMIDSY.

That ought to be 'Sorry, mate, my unconscious mind didn't perceive you to be enough of a threat to stay out of your way'.

This is not carelessness, or wickedness, or even stupidity. It's human nature. I've driven coaches and minibuses, as well as cars and bikes, and I can tell you that this is true. In a 53-seater coach, no-one pulls out in front of you. On a motorbike, lots of people do. I was passing a petrol station on a bicycle once. A lady was waiting to pull out. She waited until I was less than 10 feet away before moving: she had her window open, and we were so close that the words we exchanged did not even require a raised voice. "What are you doing?" "Oh, sorry, I ..."

Looked, but didn't see. Or looked, saw, and reacted in a way that was about 10 million years out of date. I'm not sure I know the answer to this. Better driver training would surely help. Training that focused on the whys and wherefores, rather than on 'look right, look left, look right' (although that would be a start). But it does demonstrate the futility of all the conspicuity stuff - the high beams in the daytime, the high-viz clothing. If a driver doesn't see a 17-stone biker on a big red bike as a threat, then he won't see the same guy in a yellow vest as a threat either.

My answer to all of this, as a rider, is a common one amongst experienced bikers: ride as if you are invisible. Assume that car is going to pull out of that gateway, because he will. He hasn't seen you. Assume that car will change lanes and cut you off, because he will. He doesn't know you are there. Keep that bubble of safety between you and the other idiots. If they close in, back off and keep the bubble. Recognise that a wet surface, or a narrow road, shrink your bubble and slow down to expand it again. And be patient and forgiving with people who don't treat you with respect. They don't mean it (well, most of them don't). It's just their jungle brains.

I think that's possibly the answer to Zaphod's question: "Is there also a defensive lesson for Bikers here?" He's absolutely right on one thing: if there had been an accident, it may have been his fault, but that would have been no consolation to the scooter rider. When you ride a bike, you are responsible for your own safety. No-one else values your life and your good looks like you do. Be intelligent and prevent other people's accidents. It's a big ask, but it's your life at stake.

And props to the guy for writing what he did. Honesty and self-examination are rare qualities these days.


  1. "In other words, the driver does everything he is supposed to according to his driving lessons..."

    Which, unless you have a really good tutor, mostly only teach you what is needed to pass the driving test.

  2. True enough - but I'm pretty sure that 'watching for other road users' comes into it somewhere, even in the basic version.

  3. Good posting, as usual, Richard.

    One safety devise bikers could use is below. Whether they'd want to, is another matter!


    On the subject of coach / bus drivers - yesterday I was driving & approached a 4-way roundabout. Two lanes; artic lorry in nearside lane, to turn left; me in offside lane to go straight across.

    The lorry turns left; I simultaneously drive across only to have to slam the anchors on - a coach just drove straight across without stopping, (mouthing SMIDSY as he passed).

    A bike with more rapid acceleration would have been taken-out.

  4. I like the flag, but I want a red one. Lucky escape with the coach - when you're that big, you don't really care.

  5. As the pushbike variety, I know this well. Every few seconds is some sort of threat.

  6. There is another factor which I have experienced. I was riding a CX500 with my gf on pillion. It was in Eire, after a long day on miles of empty roads. I came to a T-junction and looked left and right. What I "saw" was a straight empty road in both directions. I put the bike into first and started to slip the clutch and move forwards, whereupon I got a sharp elbow to the ribs which made me brake. Then WHOOSH went a big white transit van, right past the front wheel. It had been there all the time, in plain sight, and the resulting fatal accident would have gone down as a motorcylist unaccountably pulling out in front of traffic.
    I remember hearing of an aerial attack on the Bismarck when a flight of Swordfish bombed a British ship which looked nothing like the Bismarck, but the pilots had been told that there was no other vessel nearby. So they saw what they expected to see, not what was there. This phenomenon might account for some SMIDSYs rather than pure lack of observational skills, and the only answer would be to realise that it exists and do a double-take before each manoeuvre.

  7. Or FYIDSAJ used by many motorcyclists and their cousins the cyclists, it's - Fuck You I Don't Stop At Junctions.
    RLMFATM - Red Lights Mean Fuck All To Me.

  8. Anon1 - that wasn't your fault. In Ireland there is a fleet of ghostly Transits which materialise near junctions, already doing an unfeasible speed, and disappear when their work is done. I've seen a few, usually piloted by an elderly chap in a woolly hat who has never had to take a driving test. Or it might have been the Maggot Elimination Squad out on a mission. Glad you survived it, though.

    Anon2 - better if you engaged with the content of the post rather than lashing out. In general, motorcyclists will stop at junctions and red lights, because not doing so hurts quite a bit. But we do use our superior nimbleness to get to the front of queues and bugger off out of sight, which may annoy you if you are the type to begrudge other people their advantages. Cyclists, on the other hand ... don't start me off ...

  9. It's 40 years since I did my psychology so my understanding of visual perception is well past its 'use by' date but believe me it is seriously complex and requires a great deal of brain processing. The points made are good ones and there are lots more concerning the context that the perception is made in.

    Expectations are certainly important and so are other visual elements that demand decoding. For instance those irritating yellow lines that are often put before roundabouts, visual or literal 'road narrowing' before hazards that are there to 'make people slow down'. They might work but they do so by overloading the brain with demands for interpretations - a sort of DDS hack of the brain. Not surprisingly, if your eyes pick up a small ambiguous blur on 2 wheels just after seeing all this junk, it is not necessarily going to get processed well or fast.

    I have had two experiences recently that made me think a lot about this subject; the first very embarassing one ended well entirely due to someone else's good driving.

    At the end of my road is a T junction onto a main road. A neighbour often parks his white Transit pickup on the grass next to the road. One day I pulled up to the junction, looked right, left, right and pulled out into the road right under the nose of an identical white Transit pickup. I had not seen it at all. Deep red face. I think what happened is that when I looked right, my 'eyes' saw 2 pickups side by side but my 'brain' said 'don't be silly you're seeing double - that van is always there, go ahead'

    The second experience was rather like the one Zaphod describes. I was on my bike going straight across a medium sized roundabout fairly smartly. I wasn't going fast - maybe 20 mph but I was accelerating briskly (because my old 2 stroke bike needs to do that after it's been in traffic or it misses horribly and stalls) The car driver at the first exit looked at me and slowed but then pulled out. Cue emergency stop from me and red face from him.

    Thinking about it afterwards I felt that I had had some part in this last incident because I was doing something that the car driver wasn't expecting and initially couldn't make sense of because it was not what any car is likely to do. It's complicated.

  10. A thoughtful post, thanks.

    I think the reason why the driver often says SMIDSY is to try to explain that it wasn't personal, there was no intent, they weren't trying to bring the motorcyclist down... Irrelevant to the legal position, of course, but it probably helps the driver's conscience (if not the rider's broken bones/broken bike).

    Before I ever learnt to drive, I found an old (1960s...) driving manual. The opening pages explained that, as a driver, it was best to assume that every other road user was an utter incompetent and that it was your job to compensate for their idiocy by driving safely and defensively. There is some sense in this, and I haven't forgotten it some 25 years later.

    Then, of course, there are the small minority of bikers, usually on a powerful and noisy sports bike, who give you all a bad name in their apparent determination to kill themselves and splatter their remains over my bodywork. Please don't forget them, it is not always the driver at fault. If they developed a concept of defensive driving, it would probably help all of us.

    And as for people not pulling out in front of a coach, try an old Land Rover. I've seen people consciously pull back! The combination of a hard chassis and easy bodywork repairs on a cheap vehicle does makes people realise who will come off worse!

  11. I'm speaking as a lapsed biker with some 200,000 miles under his belt, and also a car/van driver with roughly double that, so hopefully see both sides of this.

    Firstly I totally agree with your concern about modern car design and thick door/windscreen pillars. I HATE driving newer cars for just this reason, but another gripe of mine (which I never see mentioned elsewhere) is the universal steeply raked windscreen and associated lengthy grey/black plastic dashboard. These give rise to terrible reflections when driving into sun, compounded with nasty flickering if a row of trees are involved.

    So in efforts to reduce drag (and save a few polar bears), primary safety takes a back seat, and aircon becomes a fuel wasting necessity due to the vast acreage of glass. Unfortunately the rest of the windows on new cars seem to be shrinking at the same time. Not only is forward vision impeded, so is rearward, and it's little wonder that most motorists can't park to save their lives.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that the eventual aim is to do away with windows entirely, and rely on a network of cameras feeding a display...

    As to bikers being treated worse than other road users - it's not just them being singled out. My 10 years driving in the old Fiat Panda I use has proven beyond doubt that if you aren't in something newish, you are regarded with derision, and I have nearly as many SMIDSY moments as I did on 2 wheels. I believe other drivers DO see me, but just assume I won't be travelling at more than 10mph, or simply don't give a ****. If only I had a magic button which would instantly convert it into an old Land Rover with 8" Steel bumpers they wouldn't do it twice!

    The way cars are now marketed as virtually crash-proof is reflected in the way people drive them. I favour a regular compulsory 1 month spell behind the wheel of a Morris Minor for ALL drivers - it might just make them realise that they aren't the only people using the roads...

  12. SMIDSY


  13. @Buildingstoat - some very interesting points, and I thank you for taking the time to comment. My only serious (= semi-serious) accident in a car was when a car stopped on the central reservation of a dual carriageway, and then pulled out right in front of me, with the driver looking me in the eye. Smack - wrote him off, and put mine off the road for 2 weeks for a new chassis. As per Microdave's Fiat Panda comments, I was in a small, unthreatening car, a 2CV.

    @patently - I would agree that the SMIDSY comment implies 'nothing personal'; indeed I hoped that was the impression I gave. Your comments about the 1960s manual are spot on, and I have lived by that mantra myself for the last 40 years. I accept that not all bikers are considerate or safe road users (although I would offer that many of the manoeuvres are safer than they look). In traffic, cars don't worry me at all - it's the other bikers who scare me! +1 on the Land Rovers. I drove a tatty 90 for a long time, and nobody pulled out on me. The whole car shouted "my owner doesn't give a flying one".

    @microdave - agree 100% about the windscreens, windows and crash-proofing. Cars are sold on their ability to insulate you from the consequences of your actions, so it is not unexpected that people drive as if they are invulnerable. And it's why real selfish, bullying and obnoxious driving is usually by 4x4 drivers, and hardly ever by drivers of old Fiat Pandas. Although there are exceptions ...

  14. @SmokingHot - hehe, brilliant.

  15. usually by 4x4 drivers, and hardly ever by drivers of old Fiat Pandas. Although there are exceptions ...

    Presumably, the exceptions are drivers of that little-known classic, the Panda 4x4? :-)

  16. Lovely cars. Back in the days when I used to compete in 4x4 trials, I saw one pitted against some pretty serious modified LRs. It had massively knobbly tyres and a roll cage, but was otherwise pretty much standard. It danced over ground that the heavy LRs ploughed through, and acquitted itself very well, only losing out in the sheer brutal shove department. I have wanted on ever since. The pale blue was nice.

  17. Interesting article, thanks.

    I agree with the technique of riding as if you have not been seen (I hardly ever drive, but it's not a bad thing to adopt then, either). The point being that you rely solely on your own machine, skill and observation rather than any assuming any other behaviours on the part of any other person. Of course, you occasionally make errors, but you are specifically working within your own defined limits.

    I'm not altogether convinced by the threat processing proposition, though: the limbic brain tends to treat small, fast-moving objects as just as much of a danger as big, slow ones, especially in the highly motion-sensitive areas of peripheral vision. It's little more than (fairly sophisticated) trajectory analysis/collision detection - object recognition and response are higher-level functions, as is the use of learned skills (such as driving). Essentially, moving into the path of something is not a default action, it's a conscious override based on situational experience that it can be done without colliding. It's quite possible to misinterpret (or simply miss) the information, but that's not because of any instinctive concept that it's fine to be hit by "just" a motorcycle but not by a truck.

    The main reason that bikes are more vulnerable to being missed, assuming that they were looked for in the first place, is simply that they conform less to expectation and therefore are harder to identify as a recognisable object. Your coach has a constant silhouette and generally takes up an entire carriageway. Your bike silhouette varies according to angle of lean, rider position, pillion etc, may be anywhere on the road and is small enough to mask, shadow or obscure. Plus, potentially, it has acceleration and speed capabilities that the average non-biker simply cannot anticipate. It's exponentially more difficult to get an accurate identification of it in the first place, or to predict what it will do after that.

    How much you try to minimise those factors depends on how considerate you want to be. The scooterist above might well have been in perfect control of his situation regardless of Zaphod's actions, but he could have been just as in control AND given Zaphod fair chance to see him just by hanging back a bit from the other bike. Better result all round, which is why I tend to advocate defensive riding tempered with a bit of courtesy for other road users.

  18. Our awareness and perception are much poorer than we imagine. There's a lot of data compression in the path from eye to consciousness, and the mind makes a lot of assumptions based on experience.

    We can only deliberately override that system to a degree. There's nothing like a few near misses, (or hits!) to update the "experience" database. The outrage of the near-victim helps to make these experiences memorable.

    I too have been SMIDSY'd. In my youth, a flat-fronted milk float suddenly crossed the road to park on my side. This was before compulsory helmets. I had one on, and it broke his windscreen. The bike was okay apart from me bending the handlebars.

    Being inexperienced, I didn't report it or get details from witnesses. Later I got a bill from his company!

    Luckily, I remembered a Jones Crane Hire lorry passing, and they traced the driver, who backed me up.

  19. "and one of the features that I have noticed is that the A-pillar (the one between the windscreen and the door) is much heavier than it used to be. ...it has a devastating effect on the driver's ability to see other road users in that crucial sector that, on a boat, would be "off the starboard bow"

    I have a new car and I agree that one of it's 'annoying' features is the restricted view. It certainly posses problems at roundabouts.

    However I have cause to be thankful for it. I was involved in an accident at relatively high speed last year in which my car was written off but the thick pillar meant I was able to open the door and walk away with nothing more than a bruise on my leg.

    You can see a picture here


  20. @Endo - thanks for contributing a greater level of detail and expertise than I was able to supply. I did say that what I wrote was 'a couple of thoughts', but clearly this is a huge area of knowledge and research, and we can only scratch the surface. FWIW, I think you are right on the button with comments about object recognition, but I still think that the size of an approaching object has an effect on our responses - maybe influential rather than determinative.

    @Zaphod - I like the idea of a two-tier crisis management system, with a basic million-year-old response mechanism over-ridden by an 'experience database'. That works for me.

    @The Boiling Frog - Ouch! That was a close one, and I am glad you both walked away from it. Safety features are great from a personal point of view, but when they impede safety (such as reducing your vision) or the safety of others (as things such as seat belts have been argued to do), we need to stand back and look at what we mean by safety. But if you walk away from a crash like that (did you roll it?) then I guess you thank your lucky stars and move on.


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