Head-up display helmets may be unsafe

Head-up display

The coming tide of hi-tech motorcycle helmets featuring a head-up display (HUD) of information such as directions and speed may not be the safety device they claim.

HUD has been used for some time now in many luxury cars and is considered safer because the information is displayed on a transparent screen in front of the driver.

They say it makes them safer because they don’t have to look away from the road and traffic to check their speed and directions, for example.

However a University of Toronto study called “The commingled division of visual attention” has found HUD may actually be a threat to safety.

Volvo driver gets head-up display rider alert
Volvo driver gets head-up display rider alert

“Drivers need to divide their attention to deal with this added visual information,” says Department of Psychology professor Ian Spence, who investigated what happens when two sources of information are present in the same visual field.

“Not only will drivers have to concentrate on what’s happening on the road around them as they’ve always done, they’ll also have to attend to whatever warning pops up on the windshield in front of them.”

The study asked participants to complete a series of computer-based trials in which they reported a number of randomly arranged spots and random shapes. As the number of spots increased, it became difficult for them to identify the number and identify the shapes.

The researchers suggest that if attention is increasingly occupied by a primary task, participants will have more difficulty attending to a secondary task stimulus.Head-up display

They say that when in control of a vehicle, it is not enough to simply see something unexpected, the motorist must identify what is seen and respond appropriately.

“It would be necessary to distinguish, for example, between warnings of a collision and a recommendation to make a turn,” Ian says. “Otherwise competing warnings may be more dangerous than no warning at all.”

They also found the participants made judgements more slowly when the shape appeared among the spots by as much as 200%.Head-up display

“The two visual tasks interfered with each other and impaired both reaction speed and accuracy,” he says.

“Missed warnings and slowed reaction times present real threats to safety. Furthermore, this rivalry for the driver’s attention is most likely to occur when the driving environment is demanding.”

With more and more cars including HUD and the technology coming to helmets, further study needs to be done about the level of distraction involved.

Do you think HUD is safer or more dangerous?


  1. Interesting thoughts from all comments. A little point here. Your helmet with a hud will show. Speed, RPM, Indicators, Gear, fuel. Just like your car does infact it will be less then your car since you cant see the radio etc. The only difference is you do not have to look away from the traffic to see the same thing. I would suspect that nobody would be watching videos in the hud while riding so the level of distraction would logically be less since your eyes never leave the road. Its all pretty logical.

    This tech isnt for everybody that is for sure. If your a spritual person who rides for the feel of the road only or somebody who still loves there Nokia 6310 phone this tech will never be for you and that is fine. These arguments are kind of moot if you look at the way they are done. They have an agenda before they begin and they don’t compare real world with proposed real world.

  2. Information is power. The people that would consider a HUD a distraction is probably the ones that would have a slower reaction time. Pilots use many instruments to make critical decisions. That isnt true for some motorcyclists as they enjoy the ride without that level of informational input. A proper test should include not only reaction times when maneuvering but also reaction times from determining situational awareness such as speed, route and blindspot danger. The rider who doesnt care to have that information may be at more risk from lack of situational awareness than risk of lack of manuverability. Also, it would be nice to know what the test results would be once the rider becomes accustomed to the HUD on a regular basis.

  3. More study may be needed but not from those guys. Their whole approach was fundamentally flawed and I suspect they used monkeys toddlers or zonked out students who don’t drive very well.
    When you first learn to ride a bike or drive a car almost everything is a distraction even changing gears, as you improve those difficult distracting tasks become automatic like putting one foot in front of the other as you walk and some people can even chew gum.
    I have a hud in my car and it’s great it just shows speed but it is not in my direct line of vision, I only need glance at it to see my speed the speedo takes considerably more time to focus on. So as soon as I can get a suitable one for my helmet that doesn’t cost my weight in gold or feel like it weighs that much I’m in.

  4. Have been told HUD can only safely used by certain people, fast jet pilots would fall into that category, some people have trouble seeing a motorcycle through a windscreen so to put up more information in front of their eyes is asking for trouble

  5. Interesting. I wonder how pilots manage this. Almost all modern fighter jets have complex huds as well and considering combat is complex and in 3 dimensions if it was a detraction to good skills I’d doubt pilots would be quiet about it since their life is on the line.

    The use of shapes also seems flawed as the are not readily identifiable to a message so combining shapes is kinda random where as showing a break light and bicycle at the same time would be easily understood. I’ll wait for more realistic scenarios before judging this tech flawed.

  6. There a few basic things to remember
    Distractions kill, if you can disable the HUD that would be a priority. I commute in Sydney traffic every day, and for a while I thought the blue tooth enabled helmet would be a great idea. After monitoring my riding for 6 months using the hands free, I decided that if I wanted to live longer it would mean focus on the road not tunes or calls. Back to the basic helmet.
    On long boring trips – multi lane highways between Capitol cities fine.
    If you have ridden as long as I have you don’t look at the taco to see what the revs are, you know. You don’t look at the gear indicator , you know which gear you’re in. HUD has its merits in certain applications but it would be one of those things that when a commuter gets slaughted, will the investigator attribute the HUD as a factor?
    Me thinks keep it simple

  7. I determine how fast I am going by the wind pressure I feel against my body, the feel of the bike beneath me – and experience. Placing something in front of my eyes may cause me not to see some small object that moves into my line of vision. Sure, its nice to have these whiz bang gizmos and for the tech junkies it will be fun. But, where has the joy of “being at one with your machine” gone? Riding a motorcycle is about the feel and connection one has with the machine they are in control of. I don’t need something to feed me extra data – I have a brain that does that for me. It feeds me all the information I need – collected by all the senses that my body posesses. Because I’m not enclosed side a cage (as car drivers are) I’m more able to use these senses to aid my safety. HUD safer? Yes, I think we shouldn’t treat them as a safety aid.

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