Saturday, May 06, 2006

Is "good enough" really enough? ( conclusion )

Definition of an "expert" motorcyclist:

A rider who uses expert judgement to avoid using expert physical skills.

In part 2 I wrote that I think a lot more people would commute by bike if the fear factor wasn't there. Two-wheeled commuting is a great experience. It's also true that it can be a dangerous environment to ride in. Now you're probably more nervous than ever. Don't be. Have you ever heard of sitting down to "pencil out the cost" of a project? Same thing here. We need a realistic picture of what we're dealing with so we can bring the right stuff for the task.

Take a deep breath. Relax. Smile. There's good news just around the corner. It's possible to not only enjoy the commute but to actually thrive on it. Let me take you on a tour of our Tool Store. Pick out what you need and make it yours. This could be a long trip but I didn't want to break it up into another part. I wanted it to all flow as a unit. I'm putting it together as it comes to me. It takes a long time to condense everything down into something short and sweet. To quote Mark Twain: "I don't have time to write you a short letter so I'm writing you a long letter."

First, an overview. The following statement seems so simple and yet it's the most important thing you could ever do to manage risk.

Know your limits and ride within them.

Think about it. There's three things that are going to impose limits on our riding. The rider has personal limits. The bike has limits. The environment has limits. What would happen to the accident rate if everyone rode within their personal limits at any given point in time? What if they always rode within the limits of the bike? What if they always rode within the limits of the environment at the time? While there's no saying for sure, it seems reasonable to presume that the accident rate for motorcyclists would plummet. So, you ask, if it's that simple why doesn't everyone ride within the limits? Why are there still so many accidents?

Good question. One of the problems with riding within the limits is that the limits are so fluid. Not so much so with the bike as with the other two. The limits of a bike do change. Barring mechanical failures this change is more gradual over time. The other part of this picture is that the TYPE of bike we're riding will affect what we can and can't do. Sometimes the bike can fool a rider into thinking their limits are higher than what they really are. Here's an example.

In an earlier post I wrote about the young guys on liter sport bikes. I'm not putting all young guys into the same category. These are select individuals. A number of them come through my classes with very little riding experience. After graduating the class these guys go out and buy the sport bike. Here's what happens. The young man rides the bike then comes back and says

"Whoa, I'm good!"

No, the BIKE is good. His limits are the same as they were yesterday. He's still the same young man who just graduated my class two weeks ago with no riding experience. With bikes being so capable it's easy for riders to get sucked into situations where they end up in over their heads. This is just one example. Certain environmental conditions can be deceptive, as well.

The upshot is that it's critical to evaluate and recognize what these limits really are. Then we respond appropriately. The good news about rider limits is that they can always be expanded in our favor. Increasing our physical skills is a tremendous factor in improving our odds. Every rider should strive for having expert skills. It can only be accomplished by constant practice and outside training can be invaluable. In the end, though, it's up to us. The skills will only stay at whatever level we practice them to. I want to use this post to dwell on another type of skill.

Refer back to my definition of an expert rider and you will see that mental skills are even more critical. The idea is to use mental skills to deal with potential hazards before they become critical to the rider. Riding a motorcycle is more about the eyes and mind than about hands and feet. I'd say the ratio is about 80 / 20. So let's explore the aspect of attaining superior mental skills.

Start by looking at yourself in the figurative mirror. Do an assessment of what we could call "Rider Readiness". It's just a way to check on how mentally and physically ready we are to ride at any given moment. This is an ongoing process, not just something done at the beginning of a ride. How's our gear? How's our mental state? Are we distracted? Has it been a totally stressful day at work and now we're getting ready to ride home? How are we physically? Tired, hot, cold? Maybe getting over being sick? Are we taking prescription medications? Think about IMPAIRMENT.

Sometimes we tend to associate impairment with alcohol or illicit drugs. Separate impairment from intoxication. Speaking of alcohol, we're consistently seeing around half of the fatalities being related to drinking. What you might not know is that only a third of them were legally intoxicated. We're not talking drunk. We're talking impaired. Impairment can take many forms. I've seen accidents where the cause was impairment from low blood sugar in a diabetic person. I've also seen heat dehydration, people distracted by their stressed-out state of mind, people on long rides who didn't pay attention to their deteriorating skills, etc. When a person's on a long ride and sees shifts and other inputs being less smooth that's a warning sign.

So what I'm saying is that some impairments don't automatically mean we shouldn't be on the bike. It's just that we need to do an honest assessment, recognize the impairment, then take steps to compensate. Rider Readiness evaluations should be a part of our mental tool box and used regularly. Too many riders suffer from neglecting this simple measuring tool.

Let's move on to mental skills specifically related to managing risk from other road users as well the road itself.

One of the things I hear a lot is that riders don't stand a chance. There's just too many fools out there in four-wheelers. It's true that motorists fail to do things like look for bikes. After all, what's the number one thing a driver says right after they run over a bike?

"I didn't see the bike".

It's so tempting to leave it there, isn't it? We all have so much fun saying bad things about cagers. We even call them "The Enemy". Sure, it's good fun but it's also sad. You see, too many riders get so into it that they don't look at the things WE"RE not doing that we should. The only thing is, our neglect comes with a higher price tag then when the cagers are neglectful.

Riders fail to actively scan for motorists. We fail to anticipate space violations. We fail to communicate with other motorists. We fail to command attention. Sometimes we put ourselves where motorists don't expect to see a motorcyclist. So many things we can do but don't. My goal here is to show riders what we might be missing and encourage filling in the blanks, so to speak. Fill up the tool box.

Scanning for information is vital. It's not just looking around. Think of it as an aggressive and purposeful search for critical information. You'd think that would be a given and not need discussion. Yet, a study of accidents where another vehicle impacted a motorcycle shows a very interesting fact. In close to 75% of those accidents the other vehicle came from in front of the bike. Specifically, from 10 to 2 o'clock in relation to the rider. Doesn't that blow you away? You'd think the rider would have a great chance of seeing and reacting but it's not true. The classic is the "left turning car". Do riders assume the car won't turn? I think it's because there's a key ingredient missing in the mental recipe of riders. I'll come back to that in a little bit.

By the way, I have my tombstone all picked out. It will read "At least it wasn't a left-turning car!"

I don't think riders are nearly aggressive enough in their scanning. I also think that the rest of the process is missing. Scanning is just the first step of a powerful mental strategy available to us. Here's an acronym that will help. Some of you may already have heard of this.

This isn't unique to me. It's something that the MSF and TEAM OREGON have been teaching for years. It's just a way to stay organized in your search for, and processing of, information.
Scan ( aggressively and purposefully searching for information )
Identify ( possible hazards like other vehicles, pedestrians and animals, fixed objects )
Predict ( is this going to be critical to me as in "will a collision occur?" )
Decide ( I have three choices: adjust speed, adjust position, or communicate )
Execute ( actually doing the above three, like roll off / on throttle, press, etc )
The whole idea is to use the mental portions ( the first four items ) to get information early enough to react before the hazard becomes critical. Most of the time I see riders always in the "Execute" mode because they're always surprised. This means that a rider needs to look farther than three feet ahead of the front tire. ( Seriously, a lot of riders are like this, especially those who grew up on dirt bikes ) Ideally, a rider should look 20 seconds ahead with an aggressive scan going on in the area 10 seconds ahead. Get the eyes up and look further ahead!
The last major study of motorcycle accidents was the Hurt Study in the late 70's. There's finally been funding approved for a new study which will be conducted by the University of Oklahoma. In the Hurt Study it was shown that the average elapsed time between a rider's getting a visual clue and having to react or crash was 1.9 seconds. It happens very quickly. Like Bill Cosby says, first you say it, then you do it. Which accounts for why nobody has clean underwear when they get to the hospital! It reinforces the need for an aggressive scan.
Scanning is also complicated because what our eyes see and what our brains tell us can be different. Our brain interprets the visual information based upon past experiences and prejudices. In other words, we often see what we expect to see as opposed to what's really there. Becoming "superior" in our information gathering skills means training ourselves to see the actuality, not the interpretation.
If a rider were to adopt the use of SIPDE and become proficient at it, the rider would be "good enough". I don't think that "good enough" is enough. Like I wrote in Part 2, riders start at a disadvantage. It's not enough to be competent. We need to be superior to our opponents. How do we do that with mental skills? Here's a thought that may be new to you. To me, it's something that riders fail to take into account and it leads to problems. This is just my opinion but my experience has proven it to be true.
Riders fail to think like motorcyclists.
Hear me out. Most riders spend a lot more time in a car than on a bike. Most riders learned to drive in a car. If you compare the time spent behind the wheel of a car to the time spent on the bike, the hours and years in a car will comprise the vast majority. Which means that the prevelant thinking of the rider has been shaped by time spent as a driver, not a rider. This works in a car but not on a bike. The same situation can have two vastly different implications depending on the number of wheels. I think that most riders don't recognize this as much as they should. More importantly, they don't make the mental switch when they get on a bike. Here's an example. Look at this picture:

This is what we see from the seat of the bike. What things catch your attention? You probably see the car on the right and that takes up most of our attention. The space ahead looks clear so no worries, right? A car driver will leave it at that. Now, think like a motorcyclist. What do you see as the biggest hazard, now? Do you see the little truck in the refuge lane on our left? There's no signal so we don't know what the driver wants to do. If I'm on a bike, I'm looking at the space ahead of me. If that driver wants to come into traffic where do you think they're going to shoot for? I'm thinking that the space ahead of me is going to be the target. The driver probably won't see the bike both because of the smaller size and that fact that most drivers don't look for bikes in the first place. Oh, they'd probably see a car, but I'm betting that the bike will be a surprise. Or worse, that the driver of the truck thinks they can squeeze me out. The car on my right will complicate matters if I wait too long to react.

You see the difference in thinking? Most car drivers wouldn't even think twice about the truck. Thinking like a motorcyclist, I'll adjust now. Well before I find myself in a critical situation. This is just one example of how I think riders get into trouble from still thinking like car drivers.

Here's one more example. Look at this situation:

Here we have two cars, either one of which could pull out. We might be ok, we might not. I'm covering the brake and clutch to reduce my reaction time, just in case. It's entirely possible I might have to do some heavy braking. It's ok, I've practiced, so I'm ready. Now think like a motorcyclist. Did we miss a piece of the puzzle? See the crack sealant in the middle of the lane? We call them "tar snakes" out here. The stuff the road departments use to seal pavement cracks. Slippery when hot, slippery when cold and wet. Thinking like a motorcyclist makes me realize that I will have to move to one side or the other for the sake of good braking traction.

Does this make sense? We must unplug our car driving caps and plug in our motorcycle riding mindset. Things that make little difference in a car are critical to us on a bike. Thinking like a motorcyclist will help us be better than "good enough".

Go back to scanning with me. We might be proud of ourselves if a car's about to pull out and we spot it early. As well we should be. How can we be better than "good enough" when scanning? Move the process ahead a couple of steps. Here's one more picture to look at.

This is a digital rendering of an intersection near Oregon State University. Put yourself on the bike and identify the hazard. Forget the pedestrian. Most folks will zoom onto the truck and tell me the hazard is that the truck could back out in front of us. True. Look some more. What's the real hazard? What's on the other side of the truck? An intersection, you say? Good for you. Not only an intersection, but a BLIND one. How did you know there was an intersection? You might say it's the fire hydrant. Ok, but not all intersections will have those. Let me give you the clue.

The real clue is the break in the fog line. How often do we look for clues like that? Is a blind intersection a hazard? A thundering and resounding YES!! Do we want to be aware early? Of course. We might be "good enough" if we spot the front of a car nosing out. We might be a little better if we know to look under the truck. We will be positively superior if we look for the clue that alerts us to the situation as early as possible. In this case, the break in the fog line. This will also hold true on rural roads with trees blocking the view.

Do you see how we've put ourselves in a superior position to anticipate possible hazards by looking for clues? We get notice of an area where we might find a hazard before we see the hazard itself. It's like getting informed of an enemy's presence before we see the enemy himself. Thus we become technologically superior. Thus we are better able to protect ourselves. Thus we are able to have a higher enjoyment level. We're not running scared. We are more in control.

I know this has been a long post. Having superior mental strategies is the biggest key to managing risk on a bike. Being "good enough" isn't enough. It's a high stakes game out there with equally high rewards. I hope this has helped to either motivate you to develop these skills or has served as a tune-up.

As time goes on, I'll try to weave in some aspects of developing physical skills.

Miles and smiles,



Mad said...

Fantastic post Irondad.
I really enjoyed that. The second picture gives me the willys (as they say) I thought the zig-zag lines were diesel spill or oil and it all adds up to a worrying situation to ride into: two potential pull outs and a poor road surface reducing the road space for manuever. I'd be rolling right off and tip toeing if I saw that ahead.

I think I can add a cause of impairment you mentioned heat, tiredness, etc, I'd like to add cold. When I wrote of my Zed I'd been riding in the cold for an hour and I'm positive my drop in body temperature contributed to my late decision making

I also have a statistic that brings cheer to my heart and bite to my pro-bike arguments:
Last year in this country more people were injured by soap than were injured in bike accidents!

irondad said...

it's just amazing what situations we find ourselves suddenly in on a bike, isn't it?
Cold will do it. Eats up energy to stay warm. We don't want to move out of our little huddled mass.
Soap? Injured, how? Eating, slipping, or being hit by it?
In Oregon last year at this time we had 10 fatalities. This year we have only had 2 which is still 2 too many. At least it has gone down!

Steve Williams said...


I agree with mad--this is an excellent bit of writing and one post I need to digest more since I'm a bit tired. I appreciate your suggestion that safe riding is 80 percent eyes and mind.

It has been a beautiful day and the scooter spent it in the garage while I dug post holes, swung a sledgehammer and built a fence. I need to finish it tomorrow but damn I think I am going to ride first if I can still walk in the morning. I'm just not used to physical labor....


Art said...

Although I've never taking the MSF this is something I've practice all the time. Anticipate, wait and proceed is my MOTTO. Reading your post Dan feels like I've taking the MSF course itself. Thanks for the insight of riding motorcycle.


Gary said...

Dan, seriously, you need to write a book.

When I finally took the time to sit down and read this entry, the impression I got was that you write just like my friend Pat Hahn.

Pat has written two books on motorcycle safety, and gotten them published by Motorbooks. You could do this!

But I also see you exploring various forms and methods of writing, so maybe you're not quite ready yet.

Man, I can't wait to see what you come up with when you ARE ready!

Good job!

Ride well,

irondad said...

Hope you didn't get blisters that interfere with your throttle hand!

Glad to be able to offer insight. It's always fun watching a new rider gain experience and maturity.

You helped open a new world to me by the nudge to start blogging. I'd thought about writing but mostly expressed myself verbally. Over the years I've had the chance to speak to large audiences many times. And there's always my classes. I love those kind of dynamics.

This writing thing is becoming fun and I'm learning a lot about writing and myself in the process. I appreciate the association with Pat since you've mentioned him in a favorable way.

I'd be afraid I wouldn't really bring anything new to motorcycle safety books. Maybe I could find a fun, light, approach that would attract folks that wouldn't get information any other way.

Always appreciate encouragement from the Guru!