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Looked but failed to see V2

How many times have you driven somewhere and then realised you can’t recall any details of your journey?  Maybe you went from home to work, and you can remember one or two aspects of the trip, but others are a blur.  It’s a familiar phenomenon and may be a contributory factor in what has become known as ‘looked but failed to see’ incidents.

As an extreme example of this situation, there was a study in 2009 that investigated how many people were involved in crashes involving other cars and then admitted afterwards that they hadn’t seen the other car.  Motorcyclists of course will be only too familiar with the idea and the expression “Sorry mate I didn’t see you”!  However, the ‘other cars’ in the study were not just ordinary cars.  They were fully marked police cars with the blue lights flashing which were parked side on to the traffic flow.Mature Businessman in a Car

Something as obvious as this should be difficult to miss but apparently not as difficult as you might think.  The 2009 ‘looked but failed to see’ study recorded over 90 instances of drivers colliding with highly visible, fully liveried police cars with the errant drivers claiming that they had not seen them.  

So what is happening when drivers say they didn’t see something as obvious as those police cars? 

In our everyday lives we hear sounds, we see images, we touch, we smell and we are usually highly aware of everything around us.  In other words our senses are bombarded with stimuli. If we were to evaluate every piece of information all the time we would spend most of our time just processing what is going on around us.  In order to speed that process up our brains develop ‘schemas’ which are rapidly-formed, broad brush images of what is happening.  If the information is familiar, for example a routine journey home, our brains have schemas that deal with that.  That explains why we can drive from A to B without fully taking in the details of our trip – we are operating on a group of assumptions, or schemas, created in our head.

In fact that theory fits in well with the 2009 study.  The researchers found that most of the collisions happened as people were arriving home and were on familiar roads.  Some of the drivers may even have been mentally planning ahead for what they would do when they arrived home.  It’s at this point that something went wrong for the 90 or so drivers involved in those incidents. 

In theory when something new and unusual happens we should become more aware of our surroundings.  When most drivers see blue flashing lights they become very aware of their speed, even if they are already well within the limit.  The drivers in the study seemingly failed to snap out of their schema.

Of course it’s one thing to be aware of what can go wrong but what can you do to stop it happening in future?  There is one basic exercise you can carry that will give you a better chance of remaining alert. 

Pick out some key points in your journey and try to find something different about that point of the journey as you get there.  Don’t allow this exercise to distract you from reading the road as usual of course but pick a point in the journey and consider what is different on that day. 

For example, you might choose one specific junction that is usually clear and then pro-actively look for anything that is just a little unusual.  It could be that the rubbish bins are on the pavement awaiting collection or even some new skid marks on the road surface.

The presence of the bins should prompt thoughts of a big truck perhaps around a blind bend and the skid marks in particular should be flagging up a potential threat or concern at that junction. This process not only helps keep concentration up but it also adds to your risk management decision-making ability.

It’s a simple idea that can be easily adapted to your regular journey and which could reduce your chances of becoming involved in a serious incident.

Driving Risk Management Ltd

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