Effective Observation – ‘Looked But Failed To See’?

Tom Harrington LL B (Hons) F Inst. MTD

An important prerequisite to safe driving is general good health and good eyesight. Good eyesight is essential if one is to detect other traffic especially when emerging at junctions. Junctions are where traffic meet and cross each other. ‘Looking but failing to see’ is now established as one of the main causes of traffic collisions. Carful observation –looking and seeing-allows you to spot hazards and gives you extra time to think, anticipate and react. You can then deal with unfolding hazards before they become dangerous situations. However, many crashes still occur at junctions with motorcyclists because the emerging driver ‘looked but failed to see’. There is also evidence that some drivers fail to judge speed and distance and as a consequence become involved in crashes.

Good standards of health and vision, clean and clear vehicle windows and the ability to concentrate are the factors needed to obtain and maintain good road observation. These many factors when combined will enable the driver to see the detailed information required to assess a situation and formulate and execute a driving plan. Concentration and observation are linked, for without the former the latter will not be accomplished. It is a fact that many drivers are unable to concentrate with complete mastery for any period of time – attention wanders and concentration fails. With this lack of self-discipline the driver puts his own and others road users at risk. The professional driver, looking well ahead and making proper use of mirrors, is well aware of the constantly changing conditions around him at all times (situational awareness). Driving plans are essential and decisions are based on three deciding factors (1) What can be seen (2) What cannot be seen and (3) Circumstances which may reasonably be expected to develop. Most of your observations while driving will be visual (about 85pc) but you should also make use of your other senses. Carful observation – looking and seeing – allows you to spot hazards and gives you extra time to think, anticipate and react. You can then deal with unfolding hazards before they become dangerous situations.  This article deals with the phenomenon of drivers who ‘looked but failed to see’ other traffic when emerging at junctions, especially motorcyclists. These accidents are called LBFS accidents.

Effective Observation

According to Roadcraft ‘effective observation’ means using sight, hearing, touch and even smell to gain as much information about driving conditions as possible. [1]Effective observation is the basis of all good driving. If you’re not aware of something around you, you cannot react to it. Effective observation gives you that vital ingredient called ‘time’ so you can think and react therefore, gives you more control over your driving plan. Drivers who scan the whole environment looking for different types of hazards – moving or stationary – will have a lower risk of incidents or accidents as opposed to drivers who focus on one area only. So, keep your eyes moving (loose vision) by scanning the driving environment regularly and repeatedly.

Emerging at Junctions

On the approach you will need to assess if you are approaching a closed or open ‘T’ junction. If a closed junction you may have to stop and select first gear. At every junction, a driver leaves one road and turns into, crosses or joins another one. This is what is meant by emerging and junctions take many forms. Most require some change of direction, if only for proper positioning. The more complex the junction, the more changes of course or direction you will have to consider and, if necessary, make. For example, turning left at a junction will almost certainly be simpler than turning right; and the difference between turning right from a main road into a side road and turning left into a main road at the same junction can be tremendous. As with any traffic situation, the good driver finds out as much as he can about the junction before he actually reaches it. Approaching a junction comme il faut, try to ‘weigh it up’ or assess the type of junction it is. Is it obvious that you ought to stop anyway, or do you go forward until you can see whether or not to stop? Note any road signs, road markings or ATS as they will give you early advance information about the junction, what sort it is, and how to negotiate it. When emerging – apart from pedestrians – the most obvious thing to look for is the approach of traffic–particularly from the right, which is the immediate and greatest danger. The decision is sometimes made for you by stop signs of traffic signals or even a policeman. At other places it may be obvious that you will have to wait for a gap in the traffic before you can join or cross. Needless to say, you must let vehicles on the major road go first, and not proceed into the junction unless and until you can do so without getting in their way. In all cases you need to have a full and proper view in both directions before emerging. [2]

Sightline – ‘Zones of Vision’

When emerging from a junction, a driver’s field of view enables him to a stretch of road both right and left and his vision is normally limited by other vehicles, buildings, walls, hedges pedestrians etc.  Some junctions are open and some closed. The closed junction will normally require a stop to be made to enable the driver to inch forward to gain a proper view, whereas an open junction with good visibility may allow a driver to proceed at a speed commensurate with vision. However, an  open junction with good visibility can be dangerous too because you may be tempted not to slow enough before emerging, as you may have been lulled into a ‘false sense of security’ by what appears to be a good view.

Another issue is the driver who makes a ‘false start’ believing he has taken effective observation, moves out only to slam on the brakes suddenly because he sees an approaching vehicle at the ‘last minute’. This sudden action can cause serious inconvenience to a following driver. (Many driver trainers use the expression ‘Creep and Peep’ when emerging at closed or blind junctions. Even though it’s use is catchy and easy to remember, the use of the word ‘Peep’ is questionable as it tends to imply that ‘peeping’ is taking effective observation before emerging Ed.)  Sometimes the driver’s view can be impaired by weather conditions, making it necessary for him to slow down or even stop. If all road traffic used appropriate lighting during adverse weather conditions, it would make them more conspicuous and less likely to be involved in an accident.  Road junctions are nearly always places where vision tends to be poor: yet a good view into the other roads which make up junctions is essential. The view into the other road or roads is called the ‘zone of vision’. Although the zone of vision gets wider as you get nearer the junction, it is surprising – especially to learner drivers – how close you must be before it widens sufficiently for you to see far enough into the other road(s). After an accident drivers often report that they failed to see the other vehicle in the crash with enough time to avoid the collision, even though they looked in that direction.

‘Looked But Failed To See’

‘Looking’ and ‘seeing’ are two totally different things. A lot of things go on in our minds each day. We often tend to overlook the meaning of the words we use and say which makes it quite easy to mix them up. This is especially true with terms that have similar meanings like ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’. Both involve using the eyes and sense of sight but on closer examination it will reveal what makes one different from the other. Looking is derived from the word ‘look’ which is defined in dictionaries as turning one’s eyes toward any object. ‘Seeing’ is taken from the word ‘see’ which dictionaries describe to perceive something. Perception is the process of recognition or relating what the eyes see with previous knowledge. This is the part that makes it easy to confuse ‘seeing’ with ‘looking’. In order to see an object e.g. motorcyclist, car, bus etc. we need to look at it first and then perceive it with our mind. Why does a car emerge from a junction and hit a motorist, who was there to be seen, claiming that he ‘looked but failed to see’ (He came from nowhere Ed.) The explanation up to now has been that motorcyclists present a particular problem in detection by car drivers because compared to cars, they are relatively inconspicuous. Limited alternative explanations as to why drivers ‘looked but failed to see’ suggest that motorcyclists may be ‘seen’ by the car driver but, because of its ‘rarity’ on the road, the car driver fails to recognise it as a motorised vehicle.

Is it possible that the car driver didn’t include motorcyclists (and bicycles?) in his overall looking or scanning process?  If an emerging driver doesn’t expect to see a particular road user, that road user can then become ‘invisible’. Drivers may develop through experience visual scanning patterns that is well suited to detect commonly occurring vehicle type i.e. cars, trucks, busses, but inappropriate for the effective detection of relatively smaller vehicles such as motorcyclists or cyclists. Many drivers only look in one direction at junctions before emerging e.g. when turning left, they only look to the right as they expect the left to be free from traffic. Poor observation at junctions is one of the top ten reasons that pupils fail their driving test in GB.


Many years ago, this writer was conducting a half-day assessment/training with a young truck driver. Before moving off, I advised him that I would ask him to remember a number of road signs after we’d passed them. Each time I asked the driver what sign we had passed, he failed to remember it. During de-briefing, I asked him “what was the most important thing you got out of today’s assessment”. He simply replied “I now see things that I never seen before”. In other words, not only did he now look at road signs, but actually perceived them with his ‘mind’ as well.


The UK Department for Transport (DfT) recently commissioned a review of the ‘looked but failed to see’ accident causation factors. (Brown 2005) [3] The review covered all types of crashes and was not limited to those involving motorcyclists and cyclists. The author considered that the ‘looked but failed to see’ error was a genuine error of attention/perception/cognition in that the object collided with was visible – but did not enter consciousness as a relevant hazard. He considered that the best estimate of the prevalence of the error was available from in-depth crash investigation carried out by the UK Transport and Road Research Laboratory (TRRL) between 1970 and 1974 and concluded that the error compromised about 10pc of all drivers. Brown (2005) used a police crash data base to explore some of the causations of crashes that apparently involved the ‘looked but failed to see’ errors and concluded that the error was:

  • The third most prevalent “perceptual” error after “inattention” and misjudgement was the path of speed.
  • 62pc more frequent for the 65+ age group than 4pc under 21s.
  • 17pc higher for females than male drivers.

It concluded that the LBFS error involves a genuine but mysterious phenomenon and that LBFS error contributed to the causation of about 10pc of all errors and up to 25pc of motorcyclists involved crashes.

Speed & Distance

Because a motorcycle is smaller than a car, the driver may detect it, but may underestimate its speed and distance away from the junction. It’s possible the motorcyclist was seen by the driver but ‘looked but failed to judge’ even though many drivers ‘look but fail to see’. This author contends that in many instances drivers do see other vehicles such as motorcyclists but are unable to judge speed and distance therefore, putting themselves in the ‘firing line’ of fast approaching traffic. These drivers who pull out fail to understand that they must have sufficient time to build up their speed comparable to the speed of the approaching vehicle and still maintain a safe gap. Emerging vehicles must not cause any inconvenience to other road users and must be able to emerge safely into a gap in traffic without causing other traffic to slow down, swerve, stop or take some other avoiding action.


Losing one’s driving license means a major limitation of one’s independence and especially for older persons, a marked restriction in social contacts. Depending on the development and accessibility of public transport, the consequences may vary tremendously from country to country, but in every case the decision to deny any person the right to drive must not be taken lightly. Vision is the most important source of information during driving and many driving related injuries have been associated with visual problems. Visual problems can include diplopia, monocular vision, cataracts, colour blindness etc. It’s estimated the 23pc of drivers have uncorrected vision on a global scale. Visual assessment for driving is thus a major health issue. Drivers must see obstacles or hazards, straight ahead or in the peripheral visual field (e.g. a person crossing the road or an approaching vehicle) and consider the possible reactions of this person or estimate vehicle speed and distance and decide how to react i.e. whether to slow down or stop. [4]

In view of the myriad of eye deficiencies, one has to question whether the eyesight test undertaken before the UK driving test is adequate and perhaps the time is now well overdue to have potential driver’s eyesight tested by an optician, ophthalmologist or other eye care specialist prior to acquiring their provisional driving license.

Early Vision – Early Decision

Previous research on motorcycle crashes has shown the frequency and severity of accidents in which a non-priority road user failed to give way to an approaching motorcyclist without seeing him/her, even though the road user had been looking in the appropriate motorcyclist’s direction and it (motorcycle) was visible. Motorcyclists’ accidents occur at ‘T’ junctions more often than other junction types. The question to ask is, do drivers search from the earliest opportunity or do they wait until they arrive at the intersection? If drivers search at one stage only, at the yield or give way line, then the driver may have missed early information by searching early on the approach. Despite the potential risks of an incomplete visual search and failure to detect a junction, it is estimated that drivers spend less than 0.5 seconds searching for hazards. Also, many drivers tend to search in one direction only. Has experience taught the majority of drivers that at an intersection a glimpse or a ‘peep’ to the right is not enough? The statement ‘I did not see it’ may mean the driver was simply not conducting a thorough enough search. Also, another issue that may compound the problem of not seeing other traffic at junctions is the driver may be distracted but mobile phone use or other distractions. Finally, is there a scientific case to claim the following?

  • Do drivers truly ‘look by fail to see?’
  • Are vulnerable vehicles such as motorcyclists particularly difficult to detect?
  • Are motorcyclists difficult to detect because they are more inconspicuous?
  • Are drivers unable to judge speed and distance accurately and then are unable to ‘time’ their emerge correctly?
  • Is poor vision the cause of a high proportion of crashes at intersections?


If motorists wish to continue the joie de vivre and safe driving then, they must not only take effective observation before emerging at junctions but also be able to judge the speed and distance of oncoming vehicles, otherwise their safety and that of other road users will be put at risk. ‘Looking’ and ‘seeing’ are two totally different things. Many drivers look at moving traffic but fail to see it. Drivers must consciously not only look but perceive what they are looking at.

In other words, they should see with their ‘minds’ and make a conscious note of what they see. Because motorcycles are smaller than most other vehicles, they are easily blocked from a driver’s view by other vehicles in the traffic stream, road related furniture and even things associated with the vehicle such as roof-support pillars. Also, because a motorcyclist’s outline is smaller than a car, the driver may detect it, but may underestimate its speed and distance away from the junction. It’s possible the motorcyclist was seen but the driver ‘looked but failed to judge’ even though many drivers ‘look but fail to see’. This author contends that in many instances drivers do see other vehicles such as motorcyclists but are unable to judge their speed and distance they are away therefore, putting themselves in the ‘firing line’ of fast traffic. These drivers who pull out need to understand they must have sufficient time to build up their speed comparable to the speed of the approaching vehicle and ‘fit in’ with the existing flow of traffic. Finally, the ability to concentrate, a good standard of health and good eyesight are essential factors for safe driving. And if drivers are to emerge safely at junctions, they must not only look but perceive other traffic. Also, judgement of speed, distance and timing is critical because poor judgement will put many drivers at risk therefore resulting in potential KSI crashes. The eyes are the most important of our senses when driving ergo, regular checks are important to ensure there are no eye deficiencies. Taking effective observation at junctions before emerging is looking and seeing potential danger and making an informed decision whether to stop or go.

[1] Roadcraft – The Police Driver’s handbook. The Police Foundation 2013.

[2] Driving – The Ministry of Driving Manual. Prepared by the MOT and the Central Office of Information 1969.

[3] Brown, I.D. (2005) Review of the LBFS accident causation factor. (Road Safety Research Report No. 60) London: UK Department for Transport

[4] Vision for Driving Safety. Report: International Council of Ophthalmology at the 30th World Ophthalmology Congress. San Paulo, Brazil, February 2006.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply