How many times do you hear the phrase "sorry mate, I didn't see you" following an accident on our roads?
This is heard over and over again when collisions happen so why are there so many accidents as a result of other people not being seen?
According to government statistics, the most common contributory factor to road accidents has consistently been a failure to look properly. In 2014 this was a feature in 55 per cent of recorded accidents  so any action to address the fundamental causes of this problem has enormous potential to reduce accident numbers.
The Alliance of British Drivers (ABD) has identified a shortcoming in driver training which if corrected has the potential to reduce the number of road accidents significantly.
When drivers and riders negotiate junctions, or pedestrians cross a road, it is essential to look for other road users before completing the manoeuvre. This requires a detailed observation of the area including potential hazards approaching from all directions. To do this requires looking from side to side by moving both your eyes and head. If this is not done properly there is a risk another road user will not be seen and an accident can occur.
When the RAF teaches pilots to fly, they learn about a shortcoming of human vision called saccadic masking. This is where you can look at something whilst scanning an area but not see it at all. It is caused by the way the brain processes information received from the eyes.
You effectively fail to see another road user, especially one with a narrow frontal aspect such as a cyclist, motorcyclist, or pedestrian.
When we move our heads, our eyes transmit a series of static images to our brain which then smoothes out the picture to give the illusion that we are seeing in a continuous sweep. However, between the static images (called ‘fixations’), there are gaps (called ‘saccades’). Any object that falls within a saccade will not be seen. The faster we move our heads or eyes, the greater the risk of failing to see another road user. The ABD has produced a groundbreaking video showing what saccadic masking is and how it can cause accidents at a typical junction .
The problem can be reduced by teaching people how to look properly; including the need to pause briefly when looking, especially at the ends of each sweep to ensure other road users can be seen. Pilots have been trained for decades in how to avoid the pitfalls of saccadic masking and it is unacceptable that tens of millions of road users have been left in ignorance of such an important issue .
However, not all 'failed to look properly' accidents can be attributed to saccadic masking. In order to estimate how many accidents might be prevented if adequate training and publicity were given, the ABD has studied a report by Gateshead Council analysing such accidents in the North East of England .
Assuming the results from the North East can be applied nationally, the ABD estimates that up to 25 per cent of all road accidents could be prevented.
In 2014 there were 115,673 reported injury accidents in the UK and according to the Department for Transport, the total value of preventing those accidents would be £11,388 million. If road accidents could be reduced by a quarter, this would mean around 29,000 fewer injury accidents per year with a saving of some £2.8 billion annually. This does not take into account savings in the much larger but unknown number of damage-only accidents.
Following a very positive meeting with the department for Transport, the ABD is encouraged the issue of saccadic masking will be addressed but we continue to push for the government to take action urgently by implementing a four-pronged approach:
1. In schools, younger pupils should be taught how to cross the road, especially the need to keep their head still for at least half a second at the end of each look to the left and to the right. As young adults approach driving age, the greater complexities of ensuring adequate visibility when negotiating junctions should be taught. This should include the blind spots created by windscreen pillars as well as saccadic masking. Young cyclists will need similar education in how to look properly, including at junctions.
2. When learning to drive, trainees should be taught about the dangers of saccadic masking and blind spots. These issues should be included in the theory test and examiners should check that drivers are acting appropriately when checking for the presence of other road users, especially at junctions.
3. For adult pedestrians and existing drivers, information campaigns need to be devised to explain the dangers of saccadic masking and how they can be overcome. Campaigns will need to be tailored to different media, e.g. television/cinema, social media, posters and newspapers.
4. Consideration could also be given to including advice on how to look properly in driver improvement courses, when offered to drivers instead of fixed penalties for driving offences.
ABD Chairman Brian Gregory comments:
"The ABD has always favoured a positive attitude towards to road safety with sensible education and training campaigns over rigid enforcement of simplistic legislation. A campaign to educate road users on how to overcome the dangers of saccadic masking is a prime example of such a positive approach which has the potential to significantly reduce the economic and human costs of road accidents at very little cost. I do hope the government will adopt the ABD's suggestions and help to improve road safety in a positive way."
1. Road Casualties Great Britain 2014, Department for Transport, 2015.
3. A Fighter Pilot’s Guide to Surviving on the Roads. John Sullivan, 2012. Download from http://www.londoncyclist.co.uk/raf-pilot-teach-cyclists/.
4. Analysis of Casualties from Collisions Involving Drivers or Riders who 'Failed to Look properly' in North East England, 2008-2012. Gateshead Council, Project Report 48, 2014.