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An analysis of 'looked but failed to see' accidents involving parked police vehicles

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Drivers who collide with a vehicle that is parked on the hard shoulder of a motorway or dual-carriageway sometimes claim not to have seen it before the collision. Previous research into vehicle conspicuity has taken such 'looked but failed to see' claims at face value, and concentrated on attempting to remedy the problem by making vehicles more conspicuous in sensory terms. However, the present study describes investigations into accidents of this kind which have involved stationary police cars, vehicles which are objectively highly conspicuous. Two laboratory studies showed that experienced drivers viewing a film of dual-carriageway driving were slower to respond to a parked police car as a 'hazard' if it was parked directly in the direction of travel than if it was parked at an angle; this effect was more pronounced when the driver's attention was distracted with a secondary reasoning task. Taken together with the accident reports, these results suggest that 'looked but failed to see' accidents may arise not because the parked vehicle is difficult to see, but for more cognitive reasons, such as vigilance failure, or possession by the driver of a 'false hypothesis' about the road conditions ahead. An emergency vehicle parked in the direction of travel, with only its blue lights flashing, may encourage drivers to believe that the vehicle is moving rather than stationary. Parking at an angle in the road, and avoiding the use of blue lights alone while parked, are two steps that drivers of parked emergency vehicles should consider taking in order to alert approaching drivers to the fact that a stationary vehicle is ahead.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH, UK 2: Sussex Police Traffic Division, Police Headquarters, Malling House, Lewes, East Sussex, UK

Publication date: February 20, 2002

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