How Can Human Perception Affect A Motorcycle Accident Case?

Michael GrossmanJanuary 13, 2017 7 minutes

Perception is tricky. Two people can parse an image or a situation differently even when receiving identical input. Take this classic example:

Vase or faces Illusion
Vase or Face?

Or try this:

Rabbit or Duck illusion
Do you see a duck or a rabbit?

Visual tricks like these have been around for years and illustrate a crucial point known to cognitive scientists and illusionists alike: In some instances, our senses lie to us. This can pose problems in our justice system, because one of the strongest types of evidence is eyewitness testimony. In many injury cases, whether someone receives compensation can often hinge on what a disinterested outside party says they saw at the time of the accident.

It's not just eyewitnesses who can sometimes see things inaccurately. Incorrect information, repeated often enough, can be taken for the truth. Nowhere is this problem of perception more clear than when we consider how we perceive motorcycles, and how these incorrect perceptions can form the basis for jury bias against motorcyclists.

Waxahachie and the Death of Steve Rodriguez

The contest between perception and reality came up recently when we learned of Steve Rodriguez, a motorcyclist in Waxahachie who was unfortunately killed in a collision with a UPS truck on Thursday, January 5. At approximately 2:30 p.m. on Farm-to-Market Road 813 near Windham Road, the westbound truck allegedly turned into the path of the eastbound motorcycle.

The facts have not been fully assembled as of yet, but based on the information currently obtained, we can speculate a bit. It would appear from what we know that the UPS truck's unnamed driver may have misjudged the amount of time he had to make a turn before there was any danger of collision with Rodriguez' oncoming motorcycle.

Judging from the aerial view on Google Maps, it doesn't appear that FM 813 presents a lot of visual obstructions from end to end; it is a pretty straightforward road without a lot of twists or hills, like many in Texas. It would be difficult for the UPS driver to suggest he was unable to see the motorcycle approaching.

When a truck turns into the lane of an oncoming motorist, the most common defense argued by the truck's insurance company to deny the claim is that the other vehicle was speeding. This defense usually falls flat, but it has an unlikely ally when the victim was driving a motorcycle. Due to how we perceive motorcycles going down the road, there can be a significant jury bias against motorcycle riders. The root of this bias is how we perceive smaller vehicles like motorcycles, as compared to the way we process how cars travel on a highway.

Perception Problem 1: Motorcycles and Their Riders

Because they are something of a minority of vehicles on the road, motorcycles are often viewed with trepidation by people who greatly prefer the comforts of airbags and climate control. Car and truck drivers may never know the joys of two-wheeled transit. However, their unfamiliarity with the vehicles often lead them to make certain assumptions about them. Unchecked, those assumptions gradually develop into ersatz "facts" which are then used to make value judgments about both the vehicles and the people who choose to ride them.

Stories abound of motorcycle riders popping wheelies on roadways, dodging between cars in standstill traffic (a technique known as "lane-splitting"), or otherwise acting recklessly aboard their vehicles. In reality, though, the majority of motorcycle riders are no more reckless than any other vehicle operator. In fact, drivers of cars are more likely to take chances than drivers of motorcycles, in part due to the securities provided by the steel and fiberglass surrounding them. Motorcyclists can't set cruise control. They can't play with their smartphones while driving. They don't have airbags and seatbelts for redundant safety layers. They remain vigilant, because they know that motorcycles are less visible than four-wheeled vehicles. Experienced motorcycle riders tend to be highly cautious drivers because their lives may very well depend upon it.

Thanks to certain inherent biases of car and truck drivers, "reckless motorcyclists" are often considered the source of the majority of crashes that they're involved in. According to a study conducted by the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research, 60 percent of collisions between cars and motorcycles are caused by the driver of the car. Those results are in keeping with the comprehensive Hurt Report of 1981, which found that two-thirds of collisions involving a motorcycle and another vehicle were not the motorcyclist's fault. In most of those cases, a car failed to yield the right of way to a motorcycle. These findings are reflected by the incident in Waxahachie; a motorist interrupting the flow of traffic with a left turn must yield to oncoming traffic unless protected by a signal, which the UPS driver did not do.

In sum, while it is often the public's response to a motorcycle/car collision to blame the motorcyclist without examining the relevant details too closely, this approach doesn't stand up to scrutiny. No party is "always at fault" simply by virtue of what they drive.

Perception Problem 2: Size and Sounds

One of the other major elements that can cause some difficulty when evaluating one of these accidents is that people perceive size and speed to be directly correlated with respect to vehicles. This assumption combines somewhat with Problem Number 1, in that motorcycles are often believed to be going significantly faster than they actually are. A rider can carefully obey the speed limit and still be thought to exceed it by as much as 20 miles per hour. The cycle's size and maneuverability, especially when perceived from a moving car or truck, can give the illusion that it's speeding, because its motion is less restricted than that of a larger passenger vehicle.

Beyond that, the size-to-weight ratios of the vehicles are also entirely incongruent, and it takes significantly less torque to gain noticeable, almost-instantaneous acceleration on a motorcycle. Because of this observable change, it is often believed that bikers are speeding at every opportunity, when that is statistically untrue.

There is furthermore a curious mental correlation drawn by many people that the louder a vehicle is, the faster it is going (or at least can go). Louder vehicles are associate with power and performance in part because racing vehicles often make a great deal of noise as they navigate a track. This idea has been tenuously linked to street vehicles by the driving populace, which is why auto teams make use of design language--influences on perception of a product through non-tactile observations--to make sure that cars sound *just* right when you rev their engines. It must be quite a career seeking the prefect kind of "loud."

By virtue of their exhaust construction, motorcycles can be fairly noisy as they accelerate, from racing-style sport bikes to heavy chrome-and-leather choppers. While their factory builds are actually fairly quiet, many riders alter their bikes' exhaust profiles to lower engine temperature and improve performance. The trade-off is that a modified exhaust is significantly louder, which thanks to the impressions mentioned before, the driving public associates with high speeds.

Additionally, the human brain doesn't perceive an object's speed separately from its size. Small things appear to be moving faster than they are, while larger objects appear to be moving more slowly. If I were to ask you, "Which is faster--a mouse or a man?", a fair number of people would say the mouse. The truth is that the fastest a mouse has been observed running is 8.1 mph, while the fastest speed recorded by a person is 28 mph. This illustrates just how powerful the difference can be between the actual speed of something small and how fast we perceive it to be.

On the road, motorcycles are the mice, passenger cars the people, and commercial vehicles are the elephants. That's why many driver's education classes teach aspiring motorists that when gauging the speed of turning vehicles they have to be aware that smaller vehicles appear to be moving faster than they are, while larger ones are moving faster than they appear.

With size and sound working together inside the brain to make motorcycles appear to be going faster than they actually are, human perception conspires to provide a sensory basis for people to be skeptical of the accounts told by motorcyclists involved in accidents. Where this crosses over into bias against motorcyclists is that as people, we are hard-wired to believe our senses. It's understandable that we behave this way; these perceptions have been allowing us to survive for hundreds of thousands of years. This isn't a criticism of the folks who make up juries, but something that those who are injured while riding a motorcycle, and their attorneys, have to be aware of.

The Law Operates on Facts, Not Feelings.

At its heart, perception is a matter of subjective evaluation--making decisions based primarily on one's own experience, instead of on provided facts. In some situations, that's totally acceptable; declaring something one's "favorite," for example, relies on personal inclinations to make a judgment, and seldom is factually-based. In others, though--such as a lawsuit against UPS brought by the family of a motorcyclist who died when a truck turned into his path--it is important to differentiate bias brought by perception from the facts of the case.

In such a circumstance, it is important for all involved parties to remain conscious of the difference between reality and perception. I'm in no position to argue about the metaphysical elements of that division. Reality in this instance relies on objective data collected about the facts of the case--speed, direction, information about each motorist's health and history. These are the realities of the crash, and they are the pieces of information needed for an informed decision to be reached about who is most at fault. The law is not based on feelings or opinions; it is designed around reaching conclusions after evaluating the facts of a case.

Of course, while acknowledging this fact, juries are made up of regular folks, who aren't robots, but people with emotions and biases. While popular perception is that it is victim's attorneys who stir up emotions in order to get larger jury verdicts, in motorcycle accidents it is usually the insurance companies and their attorneys who do their best to stoke the inherent bias that many have against motorcyclists. Experienced truck accident attorneys have seen tactics like these many times and know how to gather evidence to let the facts of a case speak for themselves.

Bias is a fact of life and attorneys know that the way to overcome bias is with objective, measurable observation. While it is our perceptions and sense that allowed us to leave the savannah behind, it was the realization that reality is not always as it appears that got us to the stars. When people, including jurors, see that what they feel couldn't actually have happened, they listen to the logical, fact-based explanation for how an accident occurred.

In the end, perception governs a lot of how we deal with reality, but it is not in my opinion reality itself, only the observation and interpretation of it. Those interpretations become entrenched, and in time become our habits and our biases. It is those same biases we must seek to leave behind if we are to mete out true justice to those in need of it.

At least, that's how I see it.