The disproportionately high number of motorcycle accidents may be tied to the inattentional blindness.

Concentration Gaps Create Invisible Road Dangers

Just when you think you’ve seen everything — it’s time to think about what you’re not seeing. Even those with the best vision are not getting the whole picture while on the road, and it’s not just because of the obvious distractions like your cell phone, the radio, or the kids in the back seat.

Psychological researchers have identified our human tendency not to see what’s in front of us. The phenomenon, called inattentional blindness, runs contrary to scholars’ previous assumption that visual perception was like a videotape that records what the eyes view, according to a resource article published by the American Psychological Association’s Siri Carpenter. Starting in the 1970s, researchers’ tests have increasingly shown the startling amount of things that test subjects do not see when they’re not paying attention.

Carpenter uses the example of a driver traveling a familiar road, scanning the lane ahead and fully in control. But the driver notices a deer standing straight ahead, too late to avoid an accident. You might want to accuse the driver of not watching the road. But in fact, the driver was watching but not seeing. A single lapse in attention of even the most important things, like a deer in the road, can escape our notice. The phenomenon leaves scientists wondering how our minds process the signals that travel from our eyes to our brains and how much of that information our brains can handle.

Problem Linked to Motorcycle Accidents

The disproportionately high number of motorcycle accidents may be tied to the inattentional blindness, according to a trio of Australian psych researchers whose work was published by and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Accidents between car and truck drivers and motorcyclists often fall into the category the researchers call “looked-but-failed-to-see crashes.” They’re particularly worrisome because they can happen in spite of clear driving conditions and a lack of other distractions and hazards. In these cases, car and truck drivers will sometimes look in the direction of an oncoming motorcyclist, appearing to look right at the motorcycle, and then turn directly into its path.

The researchers had 56 adults look at photos of driving situations shown from the driver’s point of view and asked them whether these scenarios were safe or unsafe for driving. In the last picture, the researchers Photoshopped in an unexpected image of a motorcycle or a taxi. About 48 percent of the subjects said they didn’t notice one or both of the vehicles. But taken separately, 65 percent didn’t see the motorcycle and only 31 percent missed the taxi.

Researcher Kristen Pammer of Australian National University said motorcycles seem to be low on drivers’ mental priority lists, making them more likely to be filtered out as a driver’s brain sorts through what is worth noticing and what isn’t. Making them more important to motorists may make drivers more aware of them.

“When we are driving, there is a huge amount of sensory information that our brain must deal with,” Pammer stated. “We can’t attend to everything, because this would consume enormous cognitive resources and take too much time. So our brain has to decide what information is most important.”

An Added Subtraction From Road Mindfulness

Although inattentional blindness is an important issue, there is a greater one from which it stems. Distracted driving — using cell phones, texting, changing the radio while on the road — has become a major target for state, federal, and local safety campaigns. Dialing your cell while driving keeps your eyes diverted for seconds. In that time, you might as well be driving down the road blindfolded. And once you’re connected, your thoughts are split between the road and the potential family drama you’re dealing with via phone. Juggling the tasks means you will do both poorly.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that distracted driving kills an average of nine people and injures more than 1,000 people every day.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calculated that in any given daytime hour, about 481,000 people were driving while talking on their cell phones. The agency estimated that the practice lead to the deaths of 3,450 people and the injury of 391,000 more.

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