A common cause of deaths and catastrophic injuries among motorcyclists is car drivers simply pulling out into traffic in front of them. Typically, the drivers say they “just didn’t see” the biker who “came out of nowhere.”

Recently, four research psychologists studied what might be going through the minds of these drivers, and how drivers could change their thinking to try to save the lives of bikers. The results were disturbingly simple.

Watching for motorcycles and wearing bright clothing

Drivers tend to look both ways, feel it is safe and then pull into traffic. They say they are surprised, stunned and shocked when they cause a tragic motorcycle crash. So, what happened?

Until now, researchers have sometimes called these tragedies “Look But Fail To See” (LBFTS) crashes.

When psychologists and other experts offer advice for saving lives, they usually focus on getting drivers to carefully look around their blind spots and learn to judge the speed of approaching motorcycles. Experts also warn bikers to wear brighter colors.

What do drivers see when they watch the road?

To understand what drivers are really doing, the researchers put them in a high-tech driving simulator.

It featured high-resolution street scenes, eyeglasses that monitor drivers’ eye movements, and data recorders for their slightest actions and reactions to the view outside the simulator’s real BMW Mini.

The results revealed drivers commonly did see the motorcyclists. Still, they pulled out into the bikers’ paths anyway.

Bikers not permitted in the long-term memory lane

The psychologists, all from the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham in the UK, concluded that so-called LBFTS crashes were actually SBF (Saw But Forgot) crashes.

Humans store short-term memories and long-term memories in separate regions of their brains. We regularly and permanently wipe most short-term memories clean while we forward others to our long-term memory for permanent storage.

Many bar and restaurant servers can remember amazingly large and complex orders, but an hour later they cannot remember anything about them. They simply do not bother to store that data for later use.

The researchers concluded that drivers do not stop to grasp the reality and meaning of motorcycles. The biker instead appears as a momentary moving shape in no need of remembering after the blink of an eye.

Making bikers real

Speaking (“verbalizing”) is one mechanism that can keep information available to a person’s mind for a longer stretch of time. So, for example, among the researchers’ suggestions is that car drivers who see a motorcycle might simply say the word “BIKE!” Talking to yourself can help save a life.

They hope this and their other suggestions could help send the vision of a biker to another part of the driver’s brain where they can use that information to make decisions about what to do and what not to do.