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  • Writer's pictureNicholas J. Johnson

The hidden science of car crashes

"The other car just came out nowhere!"

If you ever been in a car crash, you'll know that "what-the-hell-just-happened" feeling.

How did I not see that other car?

Or how did they not see me?

It feels like magic.

In "The Illusion of Absence: How a Common Feature of Magic Shows Can Explain a Class of Road Accidents," cognitive psychologist Vebjørn Ekroll explores this fascinating and alarming phenomenon.

This visual illusion can make us believe that the space behind an occluding object, such as a vehicle or an A-pillar in our cars, is completely empty.

It’s a compelling and immediate experience, much like in magical illusions, but with potentially deadly consequences.

Why does our brain assume the desk is empty in image b when we know the objects are there in image a?

This illusion is a product of the same visual mechanisms that allows magicians to create magic on stage.

It’s driven by our brain's ability to fill in gaps and complete the picture when part of our view is obstructed.

Just as we assume a magician's hands are empty because we can't see a coin, this illusion makes us think we've seen all there is to see behind a blocked view, creating a dangerous sense of overconfidence.

Why does this matter? Because it makes blind spots on the road even more hazardous than they already are.

When a driver believes the space behind an obstructing object is empty, they might proceed without realizing there’s a hidden car or cyclist. This can lead to accidents that might have been avoided with a more accurate perception.

Ekroll suggests that this illusion could explain many road accidents, particularly those involving blind spots.

While more research is needed to fully understand this phenomenon and develop countermeasures, it's crucial for traffic authorities, accident investigators, and all of us drivers to be aware of its potential dangers.

As magicians, we thrive on deceiving the senses, but when it comes to road safety, we need to stay vigilant and ensure our perceptions are as accurate as possible.

So next time you’re behind the wheel, remember Ekroll’s findings: just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Stay safe, and keep your eyes open to the illusions of the road.


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