Seeing Things

I was waiting for an appointment the other day when I struck up a conversation with another woman in the lobby. She noticed my bike helmet and the conversation quickly turned to a discussion of cars versus cyclists.

It was just on of those casual conversations you have with a stranger in passing. After voicing the usual complaint about cyclists never stopping for red lights she added that she just “was not looking for cyclists.”

I started thinking about the word “looking.” Do drivers only see what they are looking for? And are they only looking for other cars? Which would mean, to a driver, a city intersection looks like this:

Seeing Things: Driver's POV

But when I bike through an intersection I am not looking for anything. I am seeing everything. If I were to travel through same intersection at the same moment I might see something like this:

Seeing Things: Cyclist's POV

But I probably see every street like this because I have to compensate for what the drivers are not looking for.

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52 Responses to “Seeing Things”

  • ¡Hola!
    Existen muchos componentes, que intervienen en la atención de un conductor, entre ellos, los habitos propios de cada conductor, su cultura, su strees…
    No esta demás pensar que, como tu bien ilustras con tu ovni, “no estamos solos”.
    Gracias por tu post.
    – – – – –
    There are many components involved in the care of a driver, including the habits of each driver, their culture, strees …
    Others think not, as you well you illustrate with your UFO, “we are not alone.”
    Thanks for your post.

  • Vocus Dwabe

    Military camouflage works on the principle that human beings are great generalisers and tend to edit out of their brain-map anything they aren’t actually looking for. So if you paint something anomalous so that it doesn’t positively advertise its presence, the chances are that they won’t see it.

    It’s much the same with cyclists: if they’re so rare that drivers don’t expect to see them, then the likelihood is that they won’t until it’s too late. I consider myself to be a pretty cautious and alert driver; not least because I cycle most of the time and that makes you very aware of likely hazards. But I still suspect that if I encountered someone rollerskating along the outside lane on a motorway I might run into them, simply because I wouldn’t expect to meet someone rollerskating there and wouldn’t be able to react in time.

    One of the main reasons for the (for a Brit) quite unnerving courtesy that Dutch motorists display towards cyclists is not just the fact that if they hit one they’re assumed to be liable at law, it’s the fact that the Netherlands swarms with cyclists, and anyone driving a motor vehicle there will be looking out for them the whole time.

    Safety in numbers: the more people cycle the safer it gets. I took part in a mass cycle ride around central London yesterday evening, preparatory to today’s debate in Parliament, and you’ve no idea how much more secure I felt inside a great Amsterdam-at-rush-hour phalanx of cyclists than on my own trying to thread my way through a mass of motor traffic.

    It speaks volumes that the sight of your cycle helmet caused someone to start a conversation with you. In Holland “I see that you ride a bike” would be akin to observing “I see that you breathe oxygen and drink liquids.”

    • Thank you for the wonderful insight. Yes, I also think it’s true that as only a driver you do not look for cyclists or even motorcycles, but rather the cars around you and parking spaces, or traffic lights. But as a cyclist I am a more cautious driver (I recently psoted about this). And isn’t it interesting that as a cyclist we are more aware of our surroundings like birds, trees, what people are wearing, the sky, etc.

    • zoe morosini

      Loved your post! I’m still laughing about that last sentence. Wouldn’t it be nice to get to that point in our countries???

    • Quincyclist

      I’m with VD (but bike in Boston from next town south where bicyclists aren’t plentiful). We have a right to be seen by motorists but we are idiots when we assume that we are in any given motorist’s consciousness. I guess it has a lot to do with conditioning. The more bicyclists there are, the more it will become part of the normal condition to motorists. Until that day comes to wherever it is that we ride, we have individually to take responsibility for our safety.

      I feel a dweeb at times but as I commute in heavy traffic I wear reflective day-glo. There is a reason utility workers and detail/traffic cops wear it. I want to be thought of like them: “Oh, there’s a person in the road whom I must go around safely.” I think any bright color is a big help but believe that the same color as utility workers/cops sinks in more to the motorist’s – or jaywalking pedestrian’s – consciousness because of the association with street workers (in a literal sense of the term). Likewise, there is a reason cat burglars, special ops and ninjas wear black, and I cringe every time I (barely) make out a bicyclist all in black.

      When a car honks at me, I judge whether it is meant to be a friendly (albeit unnecessary) warning or aggressive imprecation – but mainly I reflect “that means they’ve seen me.”

    • runmoar

      That is a great insight. If we could convince more people to use bikes, then riding a bike would be safer.

      1. Want to convince people to bike
      2. ?????
      3. Safer bike rides.

  • More years ago than I care to remember motorbike safety was highlighted in the UK with a public advertising campaign because, as above, we see what we expect to see. Short, sharp and to the point, it still lingers in my mind.

  • Melissa

    There’s so much you miss when you’re in a car. Not only do you see all kinds of things on a bike (the river, the fog up around the top of a building), but you smell (exhaust, fresh baked bread), hear (nobody’s coming, clear!), and feel (the cold air against your face). You never get this from a ride in a closed car. Thanks, Bikeyface!

    • Vocus Dwabe

      …And the stars; and the phases of the moon if (like me) you bicycle to work at 5:30 every morning. A couple of weeks ago I even saw a meteor flash through the sky. And the song of the birds now more noticeable every day: one particular blackbird starting up in the same roadside thicket at the same time each morning for the past fortnight, but with others now joining in. And coming into the car park one morning just before dawn to meet a tawny owl perched on top of a traffic bollard, regarding me with its baleful yellow eyes.

      Riding a bicycle you live: driving a car you merely exist.

  • Having one of those feeling-like-you’ve-read-my-mind moments … I have *so* often thought the same thing. The second drawing is perfect!!! (Altho I’m still looking for a flying saucer). ;)

    • Try looking in the upper right corner. When I ride I have to remember to not watch aircraft flying overhead, because I used to be a pilot and still want to be one.

  • Ron

    It’s difficult for most drivers to process everything going on around them, so they tend to focus only on what they have decided is important: other cars. This is especially true of those people who are holding an iPhone with both hands on top of the steering wheel and only occasionally peering around it while they drive. Your illustrations have summed things up perfectly, very nicely done! And you’ve reminded me of one of the many reasons I prefer riding to driving: I like seeing the world around me. Thank you!

  • Nicole

    A while back a friend posted a video link that’s an awareness test, it was reallly surprising to me what I missed! :)

  • Yep, that’s called “inattentional blindness” – you tend to filter out what you’re not looking for.

    From the Wikipedia page: “Inattentional blindness, also known as perceptual blindness, is when a person fails to notice some stimulus that is in plain sight. This stimulus is usually unexpected but fully visible. This typically happens because humans are overloaded with inputs. It is impossible to pay attention to every single input that is presented. A person’s attention cannot be focused on everything, and therefore, everyone experiences inattentional blindness. People can falsely believe that they do not experience inattentional blindness. This is due to the fact that they are unaware that they are missing things. Inattentional blindness also has an effect on people’s perception. There have been multiple experiments performed that demonstrate this phenomenon.”

    This is actually a good argument for integrating with other traffic at intersections. Motorists are not looking for someone traveling 8-20 MPH coming into an intersection from the side of the road, and certainly not on the sidewalk, and especially not the wrong way! You may be afraid motorists will get annoyed at you if take an intersection out in the lane like any other driver, but you are much MUCH more likely to be noticed there.

    Commute Orlando just posted a useful article about being seen in intersections:

  • Jean Smith

    Yes, cyclists and pedestrians need to accept that people see what they are looking for. This is strongly influenced by the time they expect to have to react in. This isn’t because drivers don’t care about other people, this is an example of “change blindness”, a universal weakness of humans; nicely illustrated in the video.

    Cyclists need to get off our high horses about this problem of perception. Of course, drivers need to be more aware of this problem. It should be taught in all drivers ed program to drive home the point that public roads are shared spaces with more than cars and truck. Googling on change blindness will take you to lots of dramatic changes. Cyclists and Drivers both need to stop blaming each other and concentrate on their own task at hand.

    • dr2chase

      Don’t see why I (or any other cyclist) should get off my high horse. *We* made a choice that will make our screwups much less dangerous to others. I’d like to see every car driven in a way that makes it as safe for other people as a bicycle is.

  • Marianna

    Human nature aside, I think, at this point, in Boston, people SHOULD be looking for bikes, cause they’re friggin everywhere.

  • This makes me shit my scardey pants a little bit. We’re screwed!

  • Jon Banks

    I don’t think it’s completely fair to say that drivers only see what they are expecting and that cyclists see everything. Drivers are certainly at a disadvantage for seeing things, being inside a vehicle. But a good driver is a defensive driver who does look for everything. In driver’s ed, I was taught to expect everyone to possibly act differently than I’d expect. So if you are a good driver, I really think you see a lot more than just other cars and trucks. And there are quite a few good drivers out there. And some bad ones who really only do see other cars.

    As a cyclist, I am forced to be a defensive rider because of the increased danger of riding a bike on a road. I’m constantly concerned about cars pulling out in front of me or pedestrians not paying attention. And I’m forced to think about these things because of the risk of being the smallest thing on the road.

  • It’s funny, but I was just discussing this with my brother, who has recently joined me in the ranks of bicycle commuters. We live in South Central Texas in small towns that aren’t known as “bicycle towns.” Fortunately, because the sight of a middle age woman on a bike is so outside the norm for drivers in my town, people SEE me… and are completely at a loss as to what to do when they encounter me on the road. I get some of the strangest (and sometimes dangerous) reactions to my presence on the road.

    Two days ago a woman was at an intersection I was approaching and I could see the puzzlement on her face: “Do I wait for her to pass or do I just go?” The woman watched me progress for more than a block and decided at the last minute to gun it and speed into the intersection before I could get past her. Unfortunately, she made the decision just as I was approaching the cross street and came too close for comfort.

    With the exception of the young lady in the monster Suburban who is always on her cell phone and the distracted parents dropping kids off at the day care on my route, people see me and I am thankful. I’m considered an oddity and I know how good I have it. (I used to live in a big Texas town and had a good friend who was hit by a distracted motorist. Thankfully, she came through the experience without any major injuries.)

  • Joe

    Reminds me of this ad:

  • zoe morosini

    Very well done! I agree with your interpretations and, by the way, they’re lovely drawings. I don’t see as much as you do even when on my bike–although I try, but I believe I notice more than most drivers do. When I do drive, I don’t notice as much as when I’m on a bike. When cycling, the immediacy of my surroundings makes me more aware of all the individual people and things inhabiting the area. Inside a car I’m physically and emotionally separated from my surroundings, which gives me a sense of invincibility as well as separateness. After I’ve cycled several days in a row being in a car feels weird and confining.

  • Bikey,
    May I call you by your first name?
    I’m very impressed by this because I’ve not long ago started a blog about cycling called the Invisible Visible Man which starts from the premise that, although I’m nearly 6′ 5″ and weigh 240 pounds, when I put on high-visibility clothing and get on a bicycle people seem to see me less. The original post explaining the conceit is here:
    Given that I’m a writer rather than an artist, however, I’m much more impressed by how you can draw the phenomenon, rather than I can write about it.
    My wife (the Invisible Visible Woman) was also very impressed with your blog when I showed it to her.
    My general mixture of alternately rantings about cycling/ reflections on beauty on a bike can be found here:
    Keep up the good work. You’re great at capturing the sheer fun and excitement of being out and about on a bike.

  • steve

    Part of the problem is that bikes are hard to see. Not because of visibility, but because of the blind spots created by car design. The size of the pillars and the almost useless side mirrors make if difficult to spot smaller objects that are not right in front of you.

  • My Groundhog Day conversation:

    Them (acquaintance who drove by me last week as I was cycling out of town): “I can’t believe you ride out there, every day, in all that speeding traffic. Aren’t you afraid?”

    Me: “Not really. Did you have any trouble seeing me?” (I have very effective lights and flashers, fore and aft–cost more than my bicycle.)

    Them: “No, not at all, in fact I was going to mention how bright your lights are. I saw you a mile away.”

    Me: “OK, good. Have a nice weekend!”

    I mention this because this sort of conversation always ends that yes, I am highly visible and “seeable”, but many people who never cycle sometimes believe that motorists might see me but still plow into me. While I can imagine a drunk or someone dozing off doing that, I am bemused that it’s not uncommon thought that someone driving a car would suddenly lose control or coordination and plow into me from behind.

    I just don’t fear that eventuality. While I know cycling with cars can be risky, these are calculated risks.

    (Bikeyface is great!)

  • I got knocked off my bike in London three years ago by a motorist who came from behind me in the lane outside, on a clear road on a sunny day, turned left across my path and knocked me into the road. As I mentioned above, I’m six foot five and weigh 240 pounds. I cycle a big touring bike, with panniers with reflective patches and a silver helmet. I should be fairly unmissable.

    Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to check out my number one theory about how the driver missed me because the charming Metropolitan Police told me they could check his ‘phone records only in cases of “life-changing injuries”. In other words, he didn’t hit me hard enough.

    When I got up off the road and told him I was calling the police, he got upset with me because he said he’d lose his job. I pointed out that, given he’d just knocked me off my bike into the road, my sympathy was limited.

    Motorists really do seem blind to cyclists except when they’re sitting ahead of them in traffic – in which case they take on the proportions of a lumbering, impossible-to-pass elephant that needs to be treated with regular horn-hoots and abuse.

    More on this at


  • I honestly think that if you really see everything on the road… there’s no way you can drive. Because when I’m in a car I see everything too (even more so after I started cycling), except for the stuff that’s in my blind spots, and let me tell you, I have major anxiety about the stuff that might be in my blind spots. Also I can never, ever forget that I’m basically piloting a giant weapon (again, this hit home even more after cycling). Of course, people say similar things about cycling, but at least there’s no blind spots and I can be reasonably sure I won’t kill anyone. I think as I’ve become a better cyclist I’ve become a worse driver because I’m a billion times more cautious now (over-caution can be almost as bad as under-caution), good thing I only drive like every two months.

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