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Cars as Sensory Deprivation Chambers

February 27, 2016

I both drive cars and ride bikes, and for years I didn’t think much about how much driving a car impairs all your senses, as well as your ability to communicate. To hear how other people talk about traffic and safety, I think I’m not the only person to miss this.

Where this usually comes up is in discussions of rolling stops, and stop-then-go at red lights. The claim from cyclists (and this claim is absolutely true, which is why I’m writing this) is that they generally can see and hear better than people in cars, and thus are in a better position to judge if it is safe to go or not. This is one of the several justifications for the Idaho Stop Law.

So, vision. Someone riding a bike is as tall as they are standing up, if not taller. To stop, most people must hop off the saddle because they sit too high to reach the ground with their feet. Modern sedans tend to be about 4-and-a-half-feet tall (I just measured a Civic and a Camry), so whoever is sitting in them is shorter than that. On a bicycle, seated, your head is about 3 feet back from the front edge of the bicycle, but it’s easy to lean forward to within about a foot of the front. In a car, leaning forward gets you to the windshield, which is five feet back from the front of the car. Add to that whatever fog or dirt happens to be on the windshield and the windows, plus the various pillars and mirrors and fuzzy dice, and I hope it’s clear that the cyclist has a far better view of what’s around.

Next, hearing. Luxury cars are actually marketed for their ability to make you deaf to the world. That ought to be enough right there, but I’ve actually mentioned this to a degreed+prestigious colleague whose snap reaction was “no, I can hear okay in a car”. No, really, you can’t. Even without luxury soundproofing, cars have noisy engines, ventilation fans, tire noise, often a stereo, and quite often their windows are up. All these things act to block exterior sound. On a bicycle, the default is that you hear everything. There’s wind noise when you’re moving, but stopped at an intersection there’s nothing between you and the world and the bike is silent.

And you might like to think that maybe hearing doesn’t matter–after all, we let people who are deaf drive and ride bikes–but it certainly does. When I approach intersections, I can hear cross traffic coming before I can see it; that’s redundant safety information, which is a good thing. I can hear cars approaching from behind, and tell if they’re slowing or swinging out into traffic to pass, and I can judge the size of the car or truck as well (big trucks without sideguards are very dangerous). For pedestrian safety being able to hear matters, because I can carry on a conversation with the people around me. “I see you”, “go ahead, it’s a crosswalk, I’m stopping”, and of course “oops, sorry”. I can communicate with other cyclists, “there’s a blind woman walking ahead of you” (in the dark). All the sound signals that we’re supposed to legally make when approaching pedestrians are useless when approaching cars because drivers are effectively deaf. All the communication that’s easy with people around us is impossible with people in cars.

People on bikes also see more because of their ability to always position themselves near an intersection before stopping. That means we always get to see the light cycles and light timings, and even if we haven’t learned them all yet ourselves, we can see how other cyclists react to them. We don’t need to catch sight of landmarks as we drive through the intersection, because we always have plenty of time to look around at the front. Once you know the usual timing for a light (easily derived from countdown pedestrian timers on the street and cross street – which you can see because you are stopped at the intersection) you can also judge from quite a distance the appropriate speed to make the next light, which allows you to moderate your speed to only what is adequate to catch the green. Lower speeds make for easier pedalling, and are also safer.

I had meant to make a much longer rant about “windshield vision”, but I think this is good enough for a start. You might ask yourself, if you could drive and fool yourself into thinking that you weren’t half-blind and mostly-deaf, and not realize what you were missing stuck back in a line of traffic, if you might not be self-fooled about some other things. If your reaction to the facts stated here is that they’re the crazy opinions of one of “those cyclists” – don’t forget, I am a licensed driver, I drive often enough, I own a car, and this is true of most adults riding bicycles (knowing this stuff makes driving a lot less fun. Don’t expect any auto advertising to mention this ever).

Bonus sensory deprivation video, in case you still don’t believe me: watch the second driver in this video roll right over a bicycle and a bicyclist’s foot, and not be able to believe she did it. Said bicyclist has right of way, in clear daylight, riding straight on a straight road, wearing a dayglo-yellow jacket, with a front flashing light. The second driver did not see, did not hear the crash, did not hear the crunch of the bike as she drove over it, did not hear the guy she was running over yelling at her.

It occurred to me a few days after posting this that “people on bikes behave unpredictably” is consistent with “people on bikes make decisions based on information I don’t have”. Probably not the only explanation, but worth thinking about before jumping to pejorative conclusions.

One Response to “Cars as Sensory Deprivation Chambers”

  1. midtoad Says:

    After a few years of using my bike daily for commutes (limiting my car use to out-of-town trips on the weekends), I began to notice how unsafe I felt in my neighbourhood when I got in my car. I really missed being able to hear what was happening at the intersection before I arrived at it. I realized that when riding my bike, I could actually tell at least half a block away what was likely to be happening at the intersection, and thus better prepare for it. When driving the car, I actually had to be right at the intersection before I could tell what was happening. And that was because, as you say, when you are in a car you are deaf.

    To increase your awareness even further when riding a bicycle, use a glasses mounted rear view mirror. It basically adds another set of eyes, in the back of your head, so you can anticipate what drivers will do when they get close to you by observing what they are doing when they are still some distance off.


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