not paying attention

Here’s an interesting report about a legal case. A teenage snowboarder in Canada collided with a 5-year-old boy, breaking his leg. The snowboarder (James Lee) was fined $30k for being 75% responsible for the collision (the boy’s father was found to be 25% responsible for leading his son onto a steep slope). According to this report, “Lee testified that he had been travelling [sic] down the run relatively slowly, taking wide turns, and he saw nobody before the collision.” That’s entirely possible. He might have been negligent for hitting the boy, but it’s also possible he wasn’t looking for a small boy to be on a steep slope. In that context, the boy might have been unexpected. His experience sounds a lot like a “looked but failed to see” automobile accident.

I have no idea whether Lee was actually negligent for hitting the boy — I haven’t seen the slope and don’t know the context. That said, the judge’s statements suggest that an illusion of attention might have been at play in the legal decision. According to the article, “the judge ruled that because Lee testified he did not see the child or the father before the crash, he was either going too fast or not paying proper attention.” As we know from studies of inattentional blindness, people can pay close attention and still not see something right in front of them. For example, when drivers are looking for cars, they can miss a motorcycle or bicycle even if they look right at it. The judge’s conclusion that Lee was going too fast or not paying attention might be wrong even if Lee never saw the boy. Does that excuse Lee for hitting the boy? Perhaps not—assuming the boy was visible, perhaps Lee should have been devoting some attention to looking for small skiers. But the collision could well have resulted from the limits of attention rather than recklessness.

Comments are closed.