A study by the University of Nottingham has found that fatal crashes involving cars and motorbikes may be caused by glitches in motorists short-term memory. And researchers reckon they could be prevented by encouraging drivers to talk to themselves at the wheel.

During their experiments, researchers analysed where drivers looked and what they remembered while crossing junctions in a driving simulator. And the big surprise from the research was the fact that some drivers have absolutely no recollection of seeing an oncoming vehicle at all, even as they are about to pull out at a junction. Results suggest that it’s what happens in the moments between seeing an approaching vehicle and pulling out that can lead to a complete absence of memory – particularly for approaching motorcycles.

Out of 180 memory tests, drivers failed to report a car on three occasions, and a motorcycle on 16 occasions of which there were five occasions when the driver had not looked directly at the oncoming motorcycle.


Nottingham University’s Dr Peter Chapman, an expert in the psychology of driving, said: “These studies compellingly demonstrate that even in safety-critical situations it is possible to observe dramatic failures of visual memory. These ‘Saw but Forgot’ (SBF) errors were remarkably frequent in the simulator and we have every reason to think that they may be equally prevalent in the real world. The surprising lack of memory may be exactly why these crashes appear so mysterious.”

“Typical interpretations of the LBFTS crash are based on the idea that the driver pulling out has failed to devote sufficient attention to the traffic on the road. Our study set out to look for systematic biases in attention towards and memory for different vehicle types. Although these effects were found, the most striking finding was not subtle biases in vision or memory, but the fact that in some cases there was a complete absence of memory, particularly for approaching motorcycles.”

To help solve the problem, the research team has created a new framework to understand dynamic decision-making with an emphasis on the role of short-term memory. More specifically, they suggest teaching drivers the “See Bike Say Bike” strategy – meaning that if they see a motorcycle approaching, they should say so out loud.


Dr Chapman said: “If relevant visual information is encoded phonologically it has been shown that it is no longer subject to visuospatial interference. Clearly any research that improves our understanding of these crashes and the kind of countermeasures that can be used to prevent them has the potential to be a major contribution to world health.”

Of course, there are always ways you can ride to mitigate the chance of being involved in a collision, including riding defensively, focusing on positioning, and being prepared to be pulled out on – but if we can help drivers be more aware of bikers, that’s only ever going be a good thing.

Ross Mowbray
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