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A Fighter Pilot’s Guide to Surviving on the Roads (2012) [pdf] (slobc.org)
244 points by tzs on Sept 4, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 73 comments

Tldr: if a vehicle is on a collision course with you, it will always be in the same position of your field of view, so there may not be enough apparent motion to draw your attention. To combat this, slow down a bit as you approach intersections to generate relative motion between yourself and anyone on a collision course with you. Also scan left/right twice to double your chances of seeing hazards. The brain is very good at stitching together a coherent scene as your eyes dart around, but this might hide the fact that you have blind spots where your eyes have jumped over potentially important details.

To improve your chances of being seen, turn your lights on and wear bright colors to improve contrast. Be aware that if the sun is right behind you, people ahead of you will have a very difficult time seeing you.

move your head and upper body around too, especially when turning or merging or reversing. this gives you more information about depth and relative motion, especially through the mirrors. good drivers do this naturally.

we are not immobile racecar drivers strapped into harnesses and hans. we are looking out for pedestrians and vehicles going the opposite direction, something that doesn't (usually) exist on racetracks.

your entire body should be involved in driving. if it's not, you're not really driving, you're sort of just pointing the car in a direction and going for a ride to see what happens.

Funny that you should mention racecars. I learned all of this in a drag racing class. I won the class from NHRA and was expecting it to be all about driving the 8 second, 160+ MPH dragster. That was some part of it, but more time was spent on how your eyes and brain work. I was the guinea pig to show the class that there is no such thing as peripheral vision. All you have is peripheral "awareness" at your disposal. "Vision" requires looking directly at something.

Those of us who ride motorcycles, learn to watch people's heads and eyes ( sometimes in their mirrors ) and know that if you do not make eye contact, you are invisible to the others on the road.

Your last sentence sums it all up. Unfortunately it describes the majority of drivers I encounter on the road. At least in New Orleans, it seems that driving is about the 4th thing people do at the wheel of a car. Texting, eating, and dancing all rank higher on an average day. And all those people assume they will "see" things off to the side in time...

Meanwhile, I'm looking for pupils.

I'm from the UK and have just come back from staying a month in Louisiana, mainly New Orleans, and Georgia and have spent a few months in Georgia previously. American drivers, at least in the south, are scary. Like you say, things like using your phone and eating while driving, which are strongly frowned upon where I'm from and pretty rare to see are very common sights. Even drinking and driving doesn't seem to have the same stigma attached to it as it does here.

Drivers in general also seem to be more aggressive and will drive over the speed limit and cut each other off.

To anybody who hasn't seen it, Werner Herzog made a short film about texting and driving called From One Second to the Next which I recommend. It can be found on YouTube.

Also from the UK. Everyone I know who has spent a significant amount of time driving in the USA has commented on the generally poor driving.

Not that UK drivers are perfect (very far from it). But I've heard the same comments enough times to make me wonder how American drivers are so bad.

But I've heard the same comments enough times to make me wonder how American drivers are so bad.

Lack of testing, for starters. There was a time, going on 40 years ago, that someone observed my driving and decided whether I was safe to release upon the roads. Since then, I've taken a knowledge ("written", though it's computerized now) now and then. The last time was 16 years ago when I moved to WA. They check your vision at renewal by testing your ability to check a box that says "yeah, my eyes are fine".

Add to that a lack of enforcement. As long as you don't exceed the speed limit or have booze on your breath at a checkpoint, you might go your whole life having never been pulled over no matter how much texting you do.

Here in Seattle, which I maintain has the worst drivers in the country, my current working theory of the cause of horrific driving incompetence is self-absorption that seems to be particularly rampant here. Why else would I get regularly flipped off when the light turns green and I honk at Ms. Tweets McFacebook to put her phone down and drive?

I guess it's the same issue with a lot of crime in America (let's face it, when you're behind the wheel of a lethal weapon, not paying attention is murder). It's hard to police a place this is so bloody massive.

I've driven quite a few times in different parts of America and the lack of courtesy is frankly ridiculous and is almost an extension of that "I've got mine, fuck everyone else" attitude that some (not all) Americans display.

I have to say as another Brit, some of the cars I've seen on the roads of America wouldn't be allowed near a carriageway here. It's not just the standard of driving that is sketchy, but the maintenance or lack thereof too. I've driven on roads that felt way more iffy that anywhere I've been in the third world.

Our driving tests are very lax. They have to be, because most people need to be able to drive to get to work, since public transit is less widespread. Difficult tests would leave them with no effective means of transportation.

It's an unfortunate situation and not one I agree with, but that's why American drivers tend to suck.

I'm from the southern US. Driving in the UK during a visit was a revelation. The best part was that drivers actually keep left except to pass. It makes driving so much nicer. That and using signals properly.

I didn't try driving in London though.

I was surprised by this comment, because UK drivers are actually pretty bad at keeping left on the motorway.

Motorway driving is not part of our driving test, so you can qualify without ever being shown how to drive on a 3 lane road.

It's not uncommon to see people cruising along in the middle lane, completely oblivious. Drivers are noticeably better at keeping right in continental Europe.

Well it helps that undertaking is super illegal here.

It hasn't been illegal since 1972.

It's discouraged in the Highway Code and an enthusiastic traffic officer could (but almost certainly won't) charge you with careless driving.

UK drivers present a danger driving in the US (and visa-versa) because they are accustomed to driving on the opposite side of the road than in the US.

One can't generalize the driving habits of all American from those that drive in Georgia or Louisiana.

Compared with most countries, many American drivers get drivers education in high school as part of their high school education. In other countries they get it later in life which makes them more dangerous drivers.

I'm gonna call bollocks on that one.

Maybe some are a little iffy (around the airports of Florida perhaps), but I'm not sure you realise how close/cheap to reach Europe is and how many folks will hire a car out there too.

You're not the only country to drive on the opposite side of the road to us.

I have a relative that was severely injured in an auto accident by a Brit driving on the wrong side. Don't know how often this sort of things happen. It was in mountains and isolated. They guy was fatigued.

> Those of us who ride motorcycles, learn to watch people's heads and eyes ( sometimes in their mirrors ) and know that if you do not make eye contact, you are invisible to the others on the road.

Our instructor reminded us that even this is no guarantee of a driver's awareness of you. They may have shit vision or have what to make for dinner on their mind and they're spacing out while looking at you. Fact is, until that driver is behind you, they are a danger all the way up until you pass them. (And in some cases they're still a danger, especially if you come to an abrupt stop).

Motorcycling in a city is not for the faint of heart.

Those of us who ride motorcycles, learn to watch people's heads and eyes

Then shortly after those same people learn that someone can look you right in the eye while they run you over.

Watch the wheels. The wheels don't lie.

In fact, linear collisions are the same as head-on collisions. From the coordinate system of either vehicle, the other one is just getting closer and bigger. Very slowly at first, until just before impact when it gets a lot bigger a lot faster.

In the extreme angle case, suppose two vehicle are traveling on a freeway side-by-side and move together very slowly just to give each other a light tap. The forward motion relative to the ground is irrelevant; the impact is the same as, say, slowly backing into a parked car, except that it's sideways. Looking out the side window, the other car is in the same spot the whole time and just gets closer.

It works the same way from every angle, from 180 degrees (head-on collision) to near zero.

> In the extreme angle case, suppose two vehicle are traveling on a freeway side-by-side and move together very slowly just to give each other a light tap. The forward motion relative to the ground is irrelevant; the impact is the same as, say, slowly backing into a parked car, except that it's sideways. Looking out the side window, the other car is in the same spot the whole time and just gets closer.

In terms of their relative motion, sure. There are other factors though, like if you're going 70 MPH and the relatively soft hit from the side spins your car off axis.

If your car was stopped, no big deal, you're pointed in a different direction. But since your car is moving and its wheels are no longer parallel to the direction of travel, you're going to spin/slide down the highway at 65 mph.

Even if the car doesn't spin from the impact, most drivers are going to react to noticing that someone just changed lanes into their car by swerving, which is again not a great situation at highway speeds.

To improve your chances of being seen, turn your lights on and wear bright colors to improve contrast.

I guess that's why quite a lot supercars have vivid colors. Reds, yellows, greens, whatever stands out.

I always thought supercars did it for the attention, "Look at me! Vroom vroom!"

Isn't that the whole point of what it means to stand out?

Drawing attention makes a statement, but it's also a safety thing.

Look at me! Give me a speeding ticket!

The speeding tickets are just the cost of doing business when you get into luxury sports car and supercar territory.

I had a bright hazard yellow Subaru with daytime running lights and was shocked every-time someone failed to see it which was shockingly often. I'm not going to say it was an every day occurrence, but certainly once a week. Strangely, I've had far fewer incidents of people not seeing me in my silver Mercedes roadster without daytime running lights although I purposely drive it like a mad-man and hence developed my own rule for driving a sports car or motorcycle:

Accelerating at high speed, decelerating quickly, darting in and out of lanes of traffic, drifting corners, staying on the accelerator to produce lots of noise, swerving back and forth in the lane to "warm the tires" may make you look like an ass, but it also keeps you safe because people track the "idiot."

I can tell you that is doesn't work. I used to ride around on a very loud yellow motorcycle, my light on constantly.

I would still get stupid cunts pull out of junctions directly in front of me and often have people open car doors into my path while parked.

Sometimes it felt like I was being driven at, it gives you a bit of a complex and you start to ride extremely offensively at all times.

about what every motorcyclist learns in a safety course and we practice daily. hell i do it in my car but one thing I would add is you can pretty much tell if another driver near you is driving to paying attention to something else.

the lights being on is what the driving lights on cars were for, which now are getting artful in that you can easily identify makes by them.

And don't drive a white car. Those are impossible to see if the sun is shining heavily.

White is statistically the safest car color in regards to collisions

A good article. As a former pilot, I can attest that many things he speaks in that article are analysed and optimised when we are in the cockpit. Using direct vision (scanning instruments) vs peripheral vision (while landing) etc.

Another thing that I think he should extend upon with regards to saccadic eye movement is the phenomena of going around a roundabout etc. in the dark or where external references are not in high contrast - that can start your eyes involuntarily darting around as your inner ear detect an imbalance/change due to the sideways G forces, and thinks that you are turning your head.

I really believe that this article should be required reading for every student who learns to drive or ride on the roads.

Pretty neat.

Was just at a water park with my family and the guards there were doing this constant head nodding. Kind of disturbing to watch if you are not expecting it. But I looked it up and the explanation is they are "scanning" - making sure to move around their heads to observe their area better and not rely on just the peripheral vision.

Owls do that as well. Even I do it when getting to an intersection somewhat. I lean into the steering wheel and bob my head up and down a few times. I imagine it might look pretty ridiculous to someone from the side.

Driving is probably one of the most dangerous things we do here in US. Anything to make it safer is a good thing.

One of the tricks I learned from driver's ed in back in Eastern Europe is if you drive at night, and incoming traffic is blinding you, don't stare directly into the beam, but turn your head slightly to the right, such that you'd still see ahead but it would be out of the corner of your eye. Obviously not ideal as you're using your peripheral vision but if the alternative is to blinded and not see anything at all, it is still better. I've used that trick enough times since then and it seems to work pretty well.

Regarding oncoming traffic at night; my dad taught me to focus on the white line. It does what you're describing but in addition keeps you positioned in your lane and gives you something to focus on so your eyes aren't drawn to the headlights.

And avoid dangling ornaments from the rear view mirror! Otherwise you condition yourself to disregard motion in front of you.

I think it's safe to say that people that have shit dangling from their rear mirror are bad and unimaginative drivers that don't get the importance of a working peripheral vision.

And there is research that shows that they have more accidents.

(Actually people that 'personalize' their cars, which includes funny signs and other gadgets)

When overtaking another car or truck, I always:

1 - look to the other car mirrors: if I can't see his head/face, he provably can't see part of my car

2 - look at its tyres: I find that it's faster to see if he will change lanes by the position/direction of the tyres, specially trucks.

Note: yes, where I live, it's common that a truck decides to overtake another truck right in the moment you're doing it too.

Yes - looking at tyres is a great general tactic. I learned that doing motorcycle lessons.

Here's an interesting point. Very rapidly flashing lights, like dimmed LED car tail lights, show up on the human retina as dashed lines after a visual saccade.

I wonder if visibility could be helped by leaving some flashing in the tailights when they're full-bright : when the brake-light mode is activated.

(I mean LEDs that are dimmed by flashing them on and off at a rate faster than persistence of vision.)

Another visual thing. This is a pet peeve. Emergency vehicles use flashing BLUE lights. That's perceptually stupid. For one thing, human eyes, opened up (wide pupils, typical at night) do a better job of focusing longer wavelength light. This has two consequences: -- it's slightly harder to locate the source of the light because it isn't as neatly focused on the retina. -- the poorly focused blue light splatters all over the retina, desensitizing the rods of peripheral vision and spoiling dark adaption right when it's needed - entering into a zone where an emergency vehicle is active.

Secondly, red light-- deep red light -- selectively desensitizes the cones in the fovea, leaving the rods in peripheral vision sensitized.

Conclusion: orange light would be a much better choice than blue for cop car flashing lights. It would focus better, preserve dark adaptation better, and preserve nighttime peripheral vision better.

Flashing orange lights? You mean like indicators and traffic lights? I think the blue is there because nothing else on the road has that colour.

I think if the whole system was redesigned from scratch a lot of things would be different.

Why on earth do we use red and green for signalling stop/go when a statistically significant number of men (plus a few women) have difficulty seeing those colours?

It seems that once you get past a certain level of adoption, it becomes impossible to change even an obviously sub-optimal design.

Cyclist and car driver here.

Blinking lights while noticeable, especially at a distance, it can be difficult to judge closing speed. As a driver, I find it difficult to judge closing speed when the cyclist is oncoming.

The rules for brevets (long distance cycling events) is that both front and rear lamps must be steady state. Additional blinking lights are acceptable. Essentially that is my setup for cyclecommuting, even during the daytime.

In Canada emergency vehicles use flashing red and white lights. Blue are snow plows.

I think this (edit: blue lights) is intentional, at least in some cases. A highway police officer on night patrol is probably well served by this potentially disorienting effect.

I disagree. I once almost didn't see an officer who was standing in the halo of her car's flashing blue lights on a rainy road. Intentionally disorienting drivers is dangerous.

It's also worth noting that the blind spots in cars are getting bigger. Stricter rollover crash tests require large pillars to support the roof; many modern cars feature curtain airbags, further widening the pillars.

This is a particular problem with the A-pillars at the front of the car, which are often large enough to completely obscure a motorcycle or bicycle at a junction.

Alongside saccades, A-pillar blind spots are a leading cause of the accidents that British bikers call SMIDSYs - "Sorry Mate, I Didn't See You".

^ yeah this comment is what i was looking for in this thread.

the same argument about vehicles on a collision course with you being fixed on the windscreen applies equally to being fixed behind your pillar. particularly pedestrians crossing in a crosswalk. it makes sense to always look 'around' your pillar when you go past a crosswalk or when your pillar is lined up with the corner of an intersection.

I wasn't sure what to expect, but the part about missing cars near the edge of the windshield is so true. There's a particular corner close to home with very low speed traffic. Somehow, I've missed more than one vehicle coming up the road, such that I had adapted to moving my head habitually before that intersection to compensate. This gives a much more complete explanation of what's going on.

Rings true for me as well -- I remember one near miss from many years ago where I was in disbelief for a long, long time -- how the hell did I miss seeing that car? This article + probability starts to explain it.

This is why you should actually stop at stop signs and red lights, which nobody does.

It happens all the time to runners, especially when people roll up and through stop signs. The speeds often line up well. I had always attributed it to being in the pillar blindspot (and when the speeds match as described in the article, you stay in that blindspot the whole time). After reading the article, it makes more sense.

I can't count the number of drivers who have rolled up to a stop sign with no intent of actually stopping, taken one final look out their window as they go through and had a huge jump of fright to see me staring back at them through the window angrily, having stopped just in time to avoid getting run over.

I was hoping this article was going to mention about remaining calm and not getting angry on the road. He kind of alluded to it in the beginning with 'What’s wrong with you - are you blind?!!'

My wife has terrible road rage and I'm often suggesting she should be more like a fighter pilot on the road; remain calm, focused and let the stupid shit go. I was hoping I could forward this on to her as an 'I told you so' ;-)

> ... look at the head of the driver that is approaching or has stopped.

That isn't really that possible these days. Car windshields are steeply inclined for better fuel economy which better reflects light. Smoked windows are now popular so that the interior of the car is relatively dark. If you look at the windshield of an approaching car you usually just see the sky.

Interesting article with good tips.

Most of the pictures come from intersections in Portugal and that just goes to show that road building here does not take into account lighting factors, especially regarding sunlight in the morning or the afternoon.

There are some particularly tricky patches of road that everyone would benefit reading this.

I'm always on the lookout for more roadcraft tips and techniques, as a vulnerable cyclist. An excellent read and I will be using the "lookout scan" methodology on future rides.

Yup. I'm sure you're aware of it but as someone who has spent many years cycling around a big city (London), the number one thing for me is to be really careful going up the inside of long vehicles at intersections.

Tips about high contrast clothing/jacket and flashing LEDs are great for bikers on the road...

Must read for drivers, explains lot of stuff in simpler understanding way.

Tips about high contrast clothing/jacket and flashing LEDs are great for bikers on the road...

Must read for drivers, explains lot of stuff in simpler understanding way.

As an every day biking commuter I can't agree with the flashing led part. First of all it makes it very hard for others to estimate your speed, second they might actually not see the light if the eyes happen to sweep by quickly during an off-period of the light, third they blind oncoming trafficants because it's hard to adjust the eyes to something that is constantly blinking.

Bonus:If blinking lights would be a good idea wouldnt cars also have them?

>First of all it makes it very hard for others to estimate your speed

In my experience, the more harrowing near misses with cars have been where they don't seem to be aware that I'm there, rather than that I'm not moving at the speed they expect. If they know that they can't accurately assess my speed, they'll most likely be more cautious.

I've thought the same thing. Some bikers have lights which flash extremely brightly and aimed at eye-level, probably with the idea that brighter things are harder to miss, but whether I'm a driver or a biker, I hate to be behind them since they are painfully blinding.

I wonder whether the best light is two: one which is always on and one which is flashing. Flashing lights are to get drivers' attention even when it is in peripheral vision, and the steady light is for speed/position estimation.

Flashing doesn't need to be on-off. Many bike lights now pulse - e.g. constant light of 700lm with pulse of 1500lm. twice a second.

Patterns are also common e.g. strip of 5 LEDs with 2 on at a time, sequence changes a few times a second.

Anecdotal, but in my experience pulsing lights signfificantly reduce SMIDSYs over solid lights along. (I ride around 2hrs a day, in the dark in winter months)

Even more effective than pulsing lights is helmet lights. When you scan the road you're creating moving light and much more likely to be seen. A quick glance at a motorist waiting at a T-junction to pull out and you've maximised your chances of having been seen.

I second movement being the most effective. When motorcycling at night one of the biggest dangers is cars making left turns across your lane. It's really hard to judge how far away and how fast a motorcycle is moving because there's only one headlight, with cars you can extrapolate based on how far away the headlights are from one another and how much that distance is widening.

The most effective strategy I've found is to do a little waggle if you see a car ahead lining up to turn. The movement catches their attention and makes them realize you're not a car that's really far away

> The most effective strategy I've found is to do a little waggle if you see a car ahead lining up to turn. The movement catches their attention and makes them realize you're not a car that's really far away

My instructor called it the "SMIDSY weave", but cautioned that the car waiting to turn might see your light going in/out of their vision as you flashing your lights and giving them permission to turn across you.

He also talked about creating a triangle of lights (headlight + 2 aux lights either side) as it helped people judge your closing speed, vs. the standard headlight alone.

For those equally baffled over 'SMIDSY': "Sorry Mate, I Didn't See You"

As another thing to consider, my girlfriend gets really bad migraines from flashing lights, and literally has to pull over whenever when an oncoming bike has a strong flashing light.

As a driver no to the last part. Car lights have to light up the road so that we can see things, and at quite a distance too because cars moves fast.

Bicycle lights exists to be visible and draw attention so I don't kill you (last thing I want). That said, blinking lights means I can't guess your speed or whether there is more than one bike. Both matters.

If you wild-assedly guess the speed of a bike somewhere between 0-30 mph, you're probably right, unless it's a serious downhill situation.

Drivers don't need super accurate estimates of bicycle speed; the speed is generally "low, but perhaps faster than you might think, so pad your estimate".

As an extension of that thought, just for fun, the lights on boats follow the pattern for bikes of being seen, not improving your ability to see. If you go out onto a lake in a remote place without a good flashlight, this fact quickly becomes uncomfortable.

>"Bonus:If blinking lights would be a good idea wouldnt cars also have them?" //

Vehicles that need to be seen like police, fire, paramedic, road safety, all have flashing lights. Indeed cats have flashing lights to use when they're causing a hazard.

I suspect you're right WRT difficult to estimate distance/approach speed for vehicles with only a flashing light, but not sure about combinations of constant and intermittent lights.

Bonus: in UK cyclists may use flashing lights but only on clothing IIRC, at least they need separate constant lights on their bicycles.

Rules for cyclists in the UK:

At night your cycle MUST have white front and red rear lights lit. It MUST also be fitted with a red rear reflector (and amber pedal reflectors, if manufactured after 1/10/85). White front reflectors and spoke reflectors will also help you to be seen. Flashing lights are permitted but it is recommended that cyclists who are riding in areas without street lighting use a steady front lamp.


Blinking lights are certainly getting your attention, but the more recent, electronically flashing variation makes it very difficult for me to locate the position of the flashing light. The flash catches my eye, but when I try to pinpoint it, it turned completely dark, and by the time it flashes again, I am already looking into some other direction. This applies both to bicycles as well as modern police lights.

In old times, police cars would have rotating lights, and I found those much easier to track. So if one uses flashing lights, there should also be some constant level of light to make positioning of the source easier.

> Indeed cats have flashing lights to use when they're causing a hazard

Just spent a minute imagining my cat with his eyes brightly blinking on and off just before he jumps onto my cluttered desk and knocks things over, or starts rubbing up against my feet trying to trip me up; then sadly realised you meant cars...

Slight tangent - some cars do actually have flashing (break/hazard) lights now that kick in when heavy breaking is detected. These definitely catch a drivers attention when they kick in.

OMG I am now sooo glad I live rural. The biggest issue I have is waving to other drivers and watching for cows or deer.

Please, for the sake of everybody else, don't install those blue-spectrum high intensity headlights. They glare more and wreck night vision more than the old yellow incandescents.

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