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Things You Should Learn About Road Safety from a Royal Air Force Pilot

By Monica Buck

John Sullivan is a Royal Air Force pilot with over 4000 flight hours, and an avid cyclist. This ‘simple fighter pilot’, as he refers to himself, was kind enough to share what he’s learned as a plane crash investigator and explained to us how we can all use his knowledge to make the roads a safer place.

The big, and bad, news is that for short but significant periods of time, drivers and riders alike are completely incapable of seeing anything at all. It’s not a problem most of the time, as we will explain later on, but sometimes another road user may be just about to use the same piece of road you are using. And in that case, it is, of course, a huge problem.

The devil is in the detail

Our bodies have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. We are highly adaptable, which is why we have prevailed while other species became extinct. Evolution, however, takes time. And while our eyes are excellent at detecting an antelope or a crawling sabre-toothed tiger, a fast road user is an entirely different matter.

“Clinically, you are blind in your peripheral vision.”

“Our peripheral vision is not good with detail – in fact, just 20° away from your sightline your visual acuity is about one tenth of what it is at the centre,” John Sullivan explains. “Not convinced? Well, the standard eyesight requirement for driving in the UK is to read a car number plate at 20m. Go outside, now, and stand just 10m from a car, look just one car’s width to one side, and try and read the number plate – without moving where your eyes are looking! Try again from 5m. Clinically, you are blind in your peripheral vision.”

You can still see SOME THINGS with your peripheral vision, though. The bigger the object, the better. You will most likely see a big lorry on the roundabout which you’re approaching. But a bicycle? A motorbike? To have a chance of seeing an object on a collision course, you need to move your eyes or even your head. To use high-resolution foveal vision. But when you do move your eyes or head, your brain is blocking the image that is being received while your eyes are moving.

“Definitely not convinced? Okay, go to a mirror, now, and look repeatedly from your right eye to your left eye. Can you see your eyes moving? You cannot. You couldn’t see your own eyes move because your brain shuts down the image for the instant that your eyes are moving. Experiments have shown that it is impossible to see even a flash of light if it occurs within a saccade.”

Fighter pilots have to cope with closing speeds of over 1000 mph and, unfortunately, even they don’t always get it right. However, crashes are always carefully analysed to teach us lessons that might prevent future accidents.

Research has also shown that people tend not to look near the edges of a framed scene, which translates to drivers not looking at the edges of a windscreen. As a result, not only are there blindspots in the form of door pillars, there’s an even bigger jump, or saccade, around each door pillar because our eyes tend not to fixate near it. This is called windscreen zoning.

“So, consider this scenario – you approach a big roundabout or junction, looking ahead at the junction of course, and the road seems to be empty. As you get closer, you look right and left as a prudent, final check. You see no other vehicles and proceed through the junction. Suddenly, and it’s your lucky day, there is an indignant blast of horn and a car flashes across in front of you, missing you by inches and leaving you thoroughly shocked, and confused. Sounds familiar?”

“So what happened? On the approach you did not see that another car was on a perfect collision course, with no relative movement for your peripheral vision to detect – possibly compounded by being behind the door pillar. Lulled into a false sense of security you looked quickly right and left, to avoid holding up the traffic behind you, and your eyes jumped cleanly over the approaching vehicle, especially as it was still close to the door pillar in the windscreen. The rest of the road was empty, and this was the scene that your brain used to fill in the gaps! Scary, huh?”

Not only are there blindspots in the form of door pillars, there’s an even bigger jump, or saccade, around each door pillar because our eyes tend not to fixate near it. © Profimedia, Stock Budget

As John Sullivan explains, this is partly due to the phenomenon of ‘expectation’. If you don’t expect to see something, your brain is simply less likely to notice it. Properly scary.

How to do it right in a car?

As for drivers, the general rule is to always slow down when approaching a junction, even if only by 20 mph. Changing your speed will generate relative movement in relation to your car and you will be more likely to see any approaching road user. And as you have just slowed down, you will have more time to react.

“Always look right and left methodically, deliberately focusing on at least 3 different spots along the road to the right and 3 to the left – search close, middle-distance and far. With practice, this can still be accomplished quickly, and each pause is only for a fraction of a second, but this means that you are now overriding the natural limitations of the eye and brain. Fighter pilots call this a ‘lookout scan’ and it is vital to their survival.

“Always look right and left at least twice. Not only does this immediately double your chance of seeing a vehicle, but if you repeat the same scan as you did the first time (which, when it becomes a well-practiced habit, you almost certainly will) then an approaching vehicle will have moved to a different part of the windscreen by the time you look the second time and is less likely to be masked by a saccade.”

Always look right and left at least twice.

Always look next to the windscreen pillars. It is of course better to lean forward and look around them. Remember what fighter pilots say: ‘Move your head – or you’re dead’. Check your mirrors and look directly at the spot you’re going to drive to. Always have the lights on, as contrast is the single most important thing for letting others see you. And be especially careful when driving into the sun. There is a reason why fighter pilots attack with the sun behind them.

How to do it right on a (motor)bike?

You now know that the narrow profile of your bike makes you harder to see. So, make it easier for others. Always wear a high-contrast clothing and use lights. Flashing LEDs are especially effective.

“The relatively slower speed of bicycles means that they will be closer to a point of collision if a vehicle begins to pull into their path. Turn this to advantage – when passing junctions, look at the head of the driver that is approaching or has stopped. The head of the driver will naturally stop and centre upon you if you have been seen. If the driver’s head sweeps through you without pausing, then the chances are that you are in a saccade – you must assume that you have not been seen and expect the driver to pull out!”

Turn on your lights even in the daytime. ©Profimedia, Alamy

And the last piece of advice? Wear a helmet. Every fighter pilot wears one. Even though it won’t make a difference if they hit the ground at 700 miles per hour.

“It’s about reducing the chances of less dramatic incidents causing fatal cranial injuries, unnecessarily.”