How 'looking but not seeing' affects your driving

Motorway congestion speed limiter sign illuminated over heavy traffic, day.

Published 9 April 2021
Last updated 12 April 2021

Why do drivers miss closed road signs? This blog shows how 'inattentional blindness' affects our ability to drive safely. Includes great tips for staying focused on the road.

Heard the one about the driver who ended up in a ditch? Or the motorists who ignore the red X signs on smart motorways? And what about the unfortunate tale of drivers who ignored 'road closed' signs?

You probably thought that we were winding you up – after all, why would anybody willingly get themselves into trouble? The truth is that these stories are part and parcel of life on UK roads. If you’re not convinced, then run a quick web search – you’ll be surprised what turns up!

Satellite navigation problems

OK, let’s pause for a minute and think about why these things happen. Suppose you’re driving to a friend’s house. They’ve just moved and you have no idea where you’re going, so you break out the sat nav in the hope of a smooth journey. After faithfully following its directions, you find yourself turning into a ploughed field and come to a juddering halt by a pond. You cannot understand it … this is definitely *not* your friend's place – not unless they’ve decided to pitch a tent for the night. So, just what’s going on?

Well, even something as flash as satellite navigation technology makes the occasional mistake. If it looks wrong, then it probably is wrong, so do not divert your attention away from the road to look at your sat nav screen for longer than is necessary – keep scanning the road ahead and sense check what you’re hearing.

Ignoring the signs

All very well you might say, but what about the red X signs on the motorway (GOV.UK)*? And the rushing flood waters? Surely anyone who fails to obey a big ‘road closed’ sign is choosing to deliberately ignore it?

It’s true to say that people will do this. After all, there’s always somebody who thinks the rules do not apply to them. But, dear readers, you’ve been around this blog long enough to know that ‘attitude’ (blog post) is not the whole story. Sometimes drivers do not see the signs (looking, but not seeing) or know what they mean.

Following misdirections

To explain this, think of a magician performing a card trick. It might not be a complicated trick, but the magician still needs to use all their know-how to distract the audience’s attention. The magician uses distraction to focus the audience’s attention on what one hand is doing, leaving the other hand unnoticed as it performs the trick.

This idea that something can be ‘hidden in plain sight’ informs a lot of thinking about hazard perception. Sometimes we just keep driving because our ability to process the information we receive is limited by factors such as speed, traffic conditions, attitude, distractions and fatigue. There may not be a magician dealing cards in front of us,* but there’s plenty of other opportunities to divert our attention away from the road.

The trick to dealing with this problem is to stay aware and take sensible precautions. If you feel tired, then stop in a safe place for a break. If you find that you’re paying more attention to the radio than to the road, switch it off. In the same way, if you drive past a roadworks sign and fail to see it, then you’re unlikely to know there’s roadworks until you encounter traffic queuing ahead. Keep scanning in front of and around your vehicle, as that way you’ll get the clues you need to anticipate hazards.

Oh, and if you do see a 'road closed' sign, then do not imagine that ignoring it is going to help you. Take our advice and try and find another route!

Routes to success

If you want more expert driving advice (of course you do!), then we’ve got you covered. Head on over to the Safe Driving for Life shop and pick up a copy of Driving – the essential skills and Better Driving. They’re packed full of advice designed to make you a safer driver.

*A red X sign is used to identify when a lane is closed and indicates that drivers should move into an open lane to continue their journey. Sometimes you’ll see the red X signal on a slip road joining the motorway. This means the motorway is closed and you cannot join it here.

Back to top