Sunday, April 25

Eyes of a Motorist

Even Standing on the Corner, I Couldn't See Those Eyes!
I frequently see cyclists advised to “make eye contact” with motorists. I also see cyclists relate stories of a collision that occurs immediately after “the motorist looked straight at me.” Personally, I think “eye contact” advice is in the pretty useless category. Collisions occur because two objects have a course that intersects a given point at the same instant. Should such a situation occur, whether the two parties are making eye contact is irrelevant.

Considered carefully, this would seem to be pretty obvious. All good road users look at LOTS of different things as they proceed down any road. We look at the car ahead, we do head checks and mirror checks. We scan the side streets and the occupancy status of parked cars. There is a lot going on, and it behooves us to be aware to be safe. When I took driver’s ed, I was taught to keep my eyes MOVING.

Because there is a lot going on, IMHO, one should not depend on the results of an apparent “eye contact” as a primary indication of what a motorist intends to do next, and especially not if you are moving along the road when this “eye contact” occurs. Certainly, I try to pay attention to what the eyes and heads of motorists that may affect me are doing, but I find it is usually only one indicator, among many, of what the motorist is going to do. When it’s dark, or I’m moving quickly, it is not usually even that. If I were to come up with my own oversimplified advice, I’d say “watch the wheels.” It’s much easier to tell if a car’s wheels are turning and moving, than to glean similarly useful information from a motorist’s glance. Best, of course, is to look at the total situation, and adjust your actions to protect against possible choices that can put you or your motorist at risk.

PS: Had I actually been riding, instead of standing and taking photos, this might have been a situation in which a "Quick Turn" might have come in handy. "Quick Turns" are a skill which can be acquired in Traffic 101, but which isn't used in daily riding. You might never need to make one on the road, but it is a skill that might save your life. I periodically practice "Quick Turns" in an empty parking lot.


Sabinna said...

In some parts of the world, eye contact can be provocative. I guess it depends on the situation, but you'd have to be careful. But just practically, watching the wheels is definitely very valuable.

Rantwick said...

+1. I totally agree. Eye contact, when made, doesn't tell you much about what any given driver may then do. It may assure you that they see you, but it may also assure them that you see them and will slow down so they can cut you off!


ChipSeal said...

I was thinking about this lately. I think that "eye contact" is a useless endeavor, but riding in a primarily rural area made me suppose it must have some value in an urban environment.

Spending the last week traveling some 200 miles in and around Dallas has confirmed that it has no value anywhere.

Look at the photo posted here:

I was standing in front of that car for more than a while, even looking carefully for ID markings on the car, and I still did not notice the passenger in the front seat, let alone make eye contact.

Steve is right, watch the wheels of a car that may be pulling out on you- it will be your first clue!

MamaVee said...

I agree. I watch the wheels when I'm driving too esp passing a big truck. And don't forget tinted glass.

I am rarely able to make real eye contact.

cafiend said...

Yeah, forget eye contact. I often avoid looking at the drivers of cars near me because I don't want to invite them to express their opinion. I watch for other cues mostly without consciously thinking about them. If you distract yourself trying to remember The Most Important Thing in a situation where there is no single most important thing you may more easily overlook something useful.

Keep your eyes moving. Watch the big picture. Think about where you might go if other vehicles do what you hope they won't.

Ed W said...

I think that we simply do not register with some motorists. Sure, they look directly at us, but since vision is an active process involving the brain as well as the eyes, the images on their retinas just do not rise above the 'noise level' in cognition. They're actively looking for large, fast-moving vehicles while a small, slow-moving cyclist just doesn't rise above that threshold.

cafiend said...

When possible, use Pilot Fish Technique to take advantage of the visibility of larger vehicles. Try to travel through intersections within the envelope of a larger vehicle. Motorists never need to see and defer to you in that case. They avoid collision with the bigger vehicle and avoid you in the bargain.

As a pilot fish it's up to you to avoid being bitten by your shark. Stay clear enough to dodge quick maneuvers by your shark, but close enough to get through the same gaps.

Ham said...

Sorry but I think eye contact has a valuable place in the mix. I don't depend on it, but it can make people realise that you are there, especially pulling out from side roads and going around roundabouts.

My maxim - never be where an accident is going to be - falls down as you ride past turnings. So. Be aware of what is behind you. Look at them - are they looking back? Now, are they moving forward, revving up? all that sort of stuff.

Steve A said...

Ham, I don't think we seriously disagree. What I find sad is the focus on eye contact rather than continually putting ALL the pieces together. Eye contact is really tough to achieve at night or with the sun in one's eyes. It is just one little piece of the story. Google "eye contact" "bicycle" if you doubt it. Some of the most egregious in this regard are government entities that ought to know better.

Velouria said...

I agree with this, especially after having a couple of close calls as a result of "direct eye contact". My theory regarding situations where the driver "looked right at me" yet continued to almost drive into me, is that it can take a bit for our brains to catch up with motor movements that have been put into auto-mode. Yes, she sees me - but it takes some time to physically force herself to brake/turn.

Anonymous said...

They look at you buy they don't see you. At stop signs I let them read my lip..."Do you see me"...not the other phrase I often use at moving cars. When I read their lips "yes" I go, otherwise I just steer behind them and use their stop sign.

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