Why We Can’t See What’s Right in Front of Us

In the traffic safety world, speeding, distraction, and impairment are often cited as the leading causes of crashes.

But, in both the US and the UK, police report that about 40% of crashes have driver recognition errors — that is, drivers not looking where they should be - as a contributory factor.


But, exactly what does “not looking properly” mean? We’ve all seen, heard about, or maybe ourselves been in near-misses or collisions where a pedestrian, motorcyclist, or car “just came out of nowhere.” It turns out we miss what’s right in front of us for many valid reasons—and it’s not just because of the character flaw of inattention.

Biologically as a species, we evolved to watch out for predators and prey, so we’re exceptionally good at spotting movement, but not at registering things while going 80 mph (or 800 in a fighter jet). Pilots undergo special training to become aware of and compensate for their natural vision deficiencies, but not drivers, and that’s a huge disservice.

Here are some of the vision pitfalls that you and your employees experience every day:

  • Did you know that we correctly register only things that lie in our direct line of sight? When we scan a scene, our eyes move in jerky jumps called saccades. Our eyes physically can’t see anything within these gaps; it’s only after they’ve stopped moving and stay focused at a fixed point (even momentarily) that our brains can actually interpret what we’re seeing. Smaller objects are far more likely to fall within a saccade—that’s how motorcycles, people, and entire vehicles get lost when we do quick visual sweeps. Try it for yourself.
  • We often don’t see what we don’t expect to see because our brains tend to fill in the gaps with whatever they assume to be there. If we zoom up to make a turn and don’t expect a pedestrian to be crossing the street, we may not actually see that person until we’re nearly upon them.
  • Our peripheral vision helps us spot hazards related to movement, but we usually can’t register meaningful detail with it. To do that, we have to turn our heads and look.
  • We have a hard time spotting movement in certain situations, such as oncoming vehicles from a distance. Also, a vehicle that stays in the same position and speed relative to you (especially at an angle) can appear perfectly stationary in your windshield as you both approach the point of collision. Because we detect movement only if it changes relative to us, that’s why you may not see vehicles merging onto freeway onramps until they’re practically right on top of you.
  • We tend to overlook the edges of “framed” images. The areas around door pillars, rearview mirrors, windows, and even dashboards are often missed in even bigger saccade jumps in a phenomenon called “windscreen zoning.” That means you might actively see out of only two-thirds of your windshield, or even less.

The good news is that you and your employees can overcome these issues if you just know what to look for - so to speak!

  1. When you approach roundabouts or intersections, slow down, even if the road seems empty. This changes relative speeds, so you’re more likely to see others, and they you. It also gives you more time to look—and actually process what you see.
  2. Before turning or crossing, look right and left methodically, then deliberately focus on three different points: close, mid-range, and far. You can do this quickly but do it with your full attention. This “lookout scan” forces your eyes to move and your brain to accurately capture visual information.
  3. Before you turn, deliberately look left and right at least twice. This doubles your chance to catch anything. It also gives time for an approaching vehicle to change its position in your windshield and therefore less likely to be caught in a saccade.
  4. Before you turn, look next to, below, and beyond your windshield pillars and both your rearview and exterior mirrors. These structures can hide pedestrians, bicyclists, even whole vehicles. Better yet, lean forward slightly, so you look around them. Actively scan for the presence of legs and feet, especially under your rearview mirror or near the bottom of your windshield.
  5. Get in the habit of expecting to see the unexpected. Remember that our brains like to assume what we’re going to see; if you approach a situation expecting a hazard, you’ll be more likely to be mentally ready for it.
  6. Never dangle anything from your rearview mirror. The swinging movement of even the smallest object—not to mention an entire mask these days—can distract your eyes from detecting real road hazards and obscure them.
  7. Before you change lanes, always check your mirrors and then look specifically at the spot into which you want to move. This means turning your head to double-check that a motorbike, cyclist, or a vehicle didn’t slip into your peripheral vision or a saccade. Even if you don’t think it’s necessary, do it to establish the habit consistently.
  8. On higher-speed roads like motorways or highways, always turn your head and look sideways at on-ramp merge points as early as possible. It’ll save unpleasant surprises if vehicles need to merge into your lane, especially if the onramps are short!

You may notice that I keep mentioning the word deliberately. When we’re running late or in a hurry to make a meeting or delivery, or we’re distracted by the events of the day, we often rely on quick, passing glances. But, all the looking in the world isn’t going to work unless your mind’s actually focused on seeing and registering. You need to take your time when you’re checking, even if others are pressuring or even honking at you. The risk is never worth it.

For more fascinating information about vision issues, check out A Fighter Pilot’s Guide To Surviving On The Roads by John Sullivan, a former Royal Air Force pilot.

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