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Study: motorcycles' small size confuses your eyes, so be careful

We've all seen the bumper stickers that read "Start Seeing Motorcycles," but a new study by a psychologist at Texas Tech University could mean the slogan should be modified just a bit. If we want to make progress on preventing motorcycle accidents, maybe we should change that to "Start Seeing Motorcycles and Then Slow Down"?

Here in Ohio, motorcycle accidents often happen when motorists pull out of intersections to make turns -- often right in front of oncoming bikers. The same thing happens when motorists are on a straightway and turn onto a side street. Or, they sideswipe motorcycles as they change lanes. In all of those situations, drivers typically say "I just didn't see it."

Are drivers simply inattentive? Are they unaware of the enormous number of motorcycles on the road? It has long been a mystery, but the Texas Tech researchers may have discovered the explanation, and it has to do with how the human brain processes how quickly objects are moving.

The researchers showed study computer simulations in which a large object and a smaller one were both approaching the viewer, and then tested their ability to guess which one would arrive first. It turned out that the participants routinely made the mistake of thinking the larger object would arrive first -- which may explain why people have such a hard time predicting motorcycle accidents.

The study suggests that people rely on a variety of different visual cues to judge an object’s distance and speed, and one of the most important ones is the object’s size. Just as artists paint objects that are father away as smaller than those closer in, the human brain can make the assumption that smaller objects are farther away than they actually are.

What does this mean for you? As always, when you’re behind the wheel you need to keep a close, constant look out for any moving object in the area. You need to know where any other vehicle might be, along with pedestrians, bicyclists, animals, and even children’s toys. Not seeing a motorcycle, a bike, or a person is certainly no excuse for hitting it.

As you notice those moving objects, though, you should also keep in mind that your eyes and brain could be fooling you about their relative speeds, especially if they’re smaller than cars. Give lots of extra time, and don’t take chances.

Source: Claims Journal, “Vehicle/Motorcycle Accident Link to Brain Miscalculation: Study,” Sept. 10, 2013

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