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Vision and Visualization

Safety Corner logoby John S. Allen
from the January 2007 WheelPeople

Advice to scan and keep your eyes moving while riding your bicycle is common. I hope to give some advice that goes beyond this.

I am reminded of the classic Japanese movie Seven Samurai. In one scene, a young samurai warrior sits inside an open doorway, and strikes out at an intruder who is not yet visible either to him or to the movie audience. Then it turns out that the intruder is a friend, an older samurai testing the young one’s skill. The young one reacted when he saw the older one’s shadow.

Riding safely in traffic is about cooperation, not combat. But to ride well, it helps to develop good visual skills, including the ability, like that of the samurai, to visualize things you can’t even see yet. Developing these skills takes time but is well worth the effort.

Develop widescreen vision
Cyclists must use central (foveal) vision to scan the road surface—but it helps also to learn to process peripheral vision consciously. Even if you jumpstarted this learning with active, multi-participant sports or video games, there are useful exercises to train your vision better for bicycling.

As you ride on a quiet road, notice the entire field of vision expanding in front of you and going out of sight at the edges. Follow objects out to the edge of your vision while also scanning ahead with your foveal vision.

You do not need to focus your attention where your vision is sharpest. Practice looking in one direction while focusing your attention on an object in another—though not while in conversation, need I say! Work on this skill until you are paying attention to several objects at once, and then to everything at once.

See—but also be seen
Now, moving from vision to visualization: learn to pay attention to your relation to the scene around you. Think about positioning yourself so motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians can see you in time to react. Imagine yourself in the place of the other people around you—including the ones who just might be there. Can they see you in time to avoid a collision?

People about to pull out or cross in front of you will look where they expect to see a motor vehicle. This is reason #1 to ride according to the rules of the road, but my advice goes further. A driver stopped at the edge of the road will almost always scan before merging into the traffic stream, but maybe only far enough to see the far side of a motor vehicle approaching from behind. So, don’t pass too closely to the side of a stopped vehicle. Move left so you pass at a position where the driver will look for you. The faster you are going and the longer the vehicle you are passing, the farther away you should be. This tactic also puts you within sight of pedestrians crossing in front of a stopped vehicle, and out of range of opening car doors.

Also use visualization with drivers behind you—for example, if you are negotiating a blind right curve on a narrow road. There is no safety in hugging the right edge of a narrow lane if a motorist would see you around the curve too late to react. Merge to the middle or left of the lane so the motorist sees you sooner, and has time to slow and follow. When it is safe for the motorist to pass, then you merge right.

Before you turn your head to look back or check your bicycle computer, make sure that you have seen everything ahead that you need to—like taking a deep breath before diving underwater. If you find that you aren’t keeping track, please get some rest.

Learning to use a helmet-mounted mirror, as described in a previous Safety Corner article,, is a fascinating and useful mental exercise.

Be aware of blind spots
You don’t have X-ray vision, so, like the samurai, you must develop awareness of hazards that might be there—such as the pedestrian who might walk out past the front of a tall SUV, the car that could be about to turn across your lane, hidden behind another car ahead of you. On curvy descents, expect that there is a big pothole or a stopped car hidden around every curve. Regard the potential hazards as real—sometimes they will be. Slow down or change your lane position as necessary to avoid them. Continually evaluate as you ride.

If you are farsighted, consider wearing contact lenses, or undergoing a laser vision correction. Eyeglass lenses for farsightedness magnify, so you have a ring-shaped blind spot and must tilt your head back farther to see ahead when riding in an aerodynamic crouch. If you are nearsighted and wear eyeglasses, you’ll adjust quickly to the ring-shaped area where you see double, and you don’t have to tilt your head back as far.

In summary
Improving your visual skills will make cycling safer and more enjoyable. Please let the CRW Safety Committee know how these suggestions work out for you—contact .

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