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Are our brains to blame for motorcycle accidents?

The scenes of an accident involving a car and a motorcycle in Chicago can be disturbingly similar. Often, the car has some damage and the driver may be a bit shaken, but the motorcyclist has typically taken the majority of the impact and the rider and bike have often suffered irreparable damage. Motorcyclists have the same rights and responsibilities on the roads as other motorists, but sadly, they are often the ones who are hurt the most in a motorcycle accident.

A recent column in The Huffington Post discusses this frighteningly common occurrence. The fact that car drivers so often misjudge a bikers speed and distance seems to be a recurring statement after an accident. Drivers often say they thought the biker was further away or was traveling slower when they decided to pull out in front of a motorcycle. Could there be some science behind this story?

According to the research presented in the column, the answer could be yes. People may be misjudging the speed and distance of a motorcycle simply because it is smaller than a car. Reportedly, our brains take two kinds of information into account when we look at something approaching us. One piece of information comes from an objective calculation based on the size and rate of expansion of the object. The other piece of information is more commonly used, but it comes in the form of a so-called mental shortcut. By quickly taking into account visual cues, a brain often decides that a bigger object is closer. Therefore, we may misjudge the distance of a smaller motorcycle.

Psychological scientists are putting this theory to the test to figure out why so many people may be relying on the second piece of information which can be less reliable. This could be the reason that so many drivers pull out in front a motorcycle without having the proper space and time to do so.

This type of research can be very interesting. It does not, however, relieve drivers of their responsibility to operate their vehicles safely around motorcycles. Instead of rushing out in front of a biker, driver should be taking a few extra seconds to properly acknowledge the other vehicle and proceed safely. Those few seconds can make the difference between saving a biker's life and potentially losing one.

Source: The Huffington Post, "Crash! Collisions in the Mind's Eye," Wray Herbert, Nov. 28, 2012

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