Q: I recently had a close call with a pedestrian. I looked both ways before pulling into the intersection, but he seemed to appear out of nowhere, right in front of my car. How is that possible?
A: Back when I went through driver’s ed . . . I know this sounds like a setup for a story where I teach the next generation about life by telling them about walking to school up hill both ways barefoot in the snow, but its’ not; stay with me. Back when I went through driver’s ed we were taught about blind spots. We know blind spots are the areas just behind the driver, on either side of the car, where a car, bike or pedestrian could be invisible due to a poorly adjusted mirror and a failure of a driver to turn and look.
With modern cars, there is another blind spot that I didn’t learn about in driver’s ed. We don’t often talk about, mainly because most people don’t even know it exists. It’s the A-pillar blind spot. We’ll get into the details, but first some car anatomy. On a car, pillars are the parts that connect to the roof to the body. The A-pillars are on either side of the windshield, the B-pillars are behind the front doors, and the C-pillars are on either side of the rear window.
As engineers have designed cars to better protect occupants, the A-pillars have grown wider, and as they have designed cars to be more aerodynamic, windshields have become more sloped. On the plus side, drivers get a car that has improved crash protection, room for an airbag in the A-pillar, and improved gas mileage. On the downside, it can result in a serious reduction in visibility. The problem usually manifests itself on the driver’s side of the car, often when making a left turn, but even the A-pillar on the passenger side can affect the driver’s view.
The A-pillar blind spot can block a driver’s view of a pedestrian, a cyclist, and even a small car. The severity of the blind spot is dependent on the car’s design and how the driver fits in the car. It can be particularly challenging for shorter drivers. To understand why, try this experiment. Hold your thumb out at arm’s length in front of you and close one eye. Notice how much of your view is obstructed by your thumb. Not much, right? Now bring your thumb closer to your face. The closer your thumb gets, the more it blocks out your view. It’s the same with drivers. The further forward your move the driver’s seat, the closer you are to the A-pillar, blocking more of your view.
Most likely, the instantly appearing pedestrian in the question is a result of the A-pillar blind spot. Fortunately, just knowing that the blind spot exists is a big help in reaching a solution to the problem. And the solution is simple – move your head. Hopefully, you already look each way twice before pulling into an intersection. If that’s your habit, just modify it a bit. On your second look, bob your head forward a little – like Bert on Sesame Street doing the pigeon dance. Or like a pigeon, if you’re not familiar with the Sesame Street reference. That changes the angle of your view, revealing anyone that might have been hidden by the pillar.
You don’t even have to look like a pigeon to solve the A-pillar problem. Just shift your position in your car while you’re looking for pedestrians and traffic so you can see around the pillar. Simple changes to our driving behavior can have a profound impact on our safety and the safety of others on the road, especially vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists. By being actively observant drivers we make our roads a better place to travel.