Friday, March 19, 2010

Seeing vs. observing.

"I'm a trained observer."

That's my stock reply to somebody who has just expressed amazement that I had observed and remembered something in particular. There are a lot of people who look but don't really see. Even seeing something doesn't mean our eyes are telling us what's really there. The input from our eyes is processed by our brains. Therein lies the rub. Weirdly enough, our brains will lie to us. After all the filtering of the initial information is finished we often end up seeing what we expect to see, not what's really there.

The reasons for that are too many to discuss in this post. I'm sure you can think of examples in your own life. One quick example is in reading words. Have you ever found yourself reading the wrong word because the actual word looked a lot like what you were already familiar with? In this case our own personal vocabulary tainted what we saw and kept us from seeing the correct word at first glance.

Most of the time it doesn't matter in the long run. Other times it makes a huge difference. Like when we're betting our physical safety on that filtered information. Riding a motorcycle is one of those times. I don't know for sure sure as I've only been riding for 43 years, but it sure seems to me like it would be critical to make sure we know the truth behind what our eyes are looking at. That's the difference between seeing and observing. Seeing can produce fiction. Observing is getting the actual facts.

Here's an example of a trained observer on a motorcycle.

Of course, I always seem to have the wrong lense or vantage point when wandering about. The officer looks to be just sitting there looking around. Actually, he's observing something going on down the street a bit. Here's a closer look.

The officer is observing the proceedings. He has to be quick to spot critical events that will suddenly cause the situation to become ugly. Whether from the demonstrators or from those with opposing viewpoints. What looks like casually looking on is in reality vigilant observation.

Riders need to do the same thing.

Later on I parked Elvira and took some photos of one area. It looks like a fun place to ride on a rural road with plenty of corners. Which it actually is. Using our powers of observation, however, let's see what it really represents to a rider.

Please note that the bike is well off the roadway and out of danger! The following photos were taken within fifty feet of the bike. The point is that there is much more to any situation than initially meets the eye. Our job is to observe everything that's really present. Especially critical situations.

It doesn't show in the photo, but we've traveled several miles on a twisty road that follows a river. It's been a fun ride. Between the scenery and the curves, it's easy to get lulled into just looking around and enjoying the ride. Okay, those two things are important, but there's much more to it than that.

Here's an intersection right across the road from the bike, as you can see. Depending on the direction of travel, this is the beginning or the end of another great motorcycle road. The other end is in South Salem, several miles away. It's amazing how many drivers use this road in both directions. Which means a surprising amount of traffic. Here's a shot of the intersection from the other direction.

Seeing means noting that there is an intersection. Observing, on the other hand, reveals some actual critical information about the situation. For instance, note the unique angles involved. Drivers are going to have to compensate for this weird configuration both when entering and exiting the intersection. Note the next two photos.

Drivers exiting have limited visibility in both directions. If you look behind Elvira in the earlier photo, you can see that anyone approaching from that direction has limited visibility as well. Our "observing" should have started much sooner and made us realize that blind corners should be negotiated with the worse case scenario in mind. Better to be pleasantly surprised, as they say.

Once we can actually see the intersection, we should have observed the weird angle and realized another dangerous aspect.

Drivers entering the intersection from the direction this blue car came from can't make the curve easily while remaining in their lane. This small car is doing pretty good, but most rigs either have to swing wide on the side road or do so on the approach road. Which means that a rider could round a blind curve only to find a vehicle partly in their lane.

If a rider has been observing the situation as they approach it and riding accordingly, there will be enough time to react. On the other hand, a rider merely seeing a curvy road and not observing the true implications is likely to suffer a nasty surprise. The total opposite of the aforementioned pleasant surprise!

This side road is tough enough as it is. We haven't turned around and looked in the other direction, yet. Remember, Elvira is still parked. I merely turned around and pointed the camera the other way. Take a look.

The road passes underneath a railroad trestle. The posted speed for the curves is 15 mph. I will probably be riding a bit faster. Following another vehicle isn't going to be any fun. Which means I'll look for the curves to be clear or will hang back and let this van clear, then go for it. Prudently, of course, as it's still a blind corner until I get halfway through. Check out this sequence.

The van is almost through the curves.

All clear, right? That's what we "see", after all. Ready to commit to a throttle roll and go for it?

How the heck did the van manage to be hidden in that last photo? This was an actual photo sequence. The van was there when it looked like no vehicles were present.

What if we had just rolled up and hadn't seen the van in the first place? What if we had come off the side road, for instance? Our eyes "saw" a clear road. Our brain told us that no vehicle could be hiding in that small blind spot, let alone a big van. Be honest. How many of us would have guessed that there was a van hidden in the curve if all we had seen was the photo of what looked like an empty road? So, based on what we "saw" and our brain "told" us, imagine the nasty shock awaiting us as we started to roll merrily through what looked like a fun corner combination?

True powers of observation would also reveal the narrow roadway under the trestle. This is farm country. Big trucks as well as passenger vehicles frequent this road. We should have gotten a clue about how well traveled this road is by the frustration we felt by having such a great motorcycle road clogged up by everybody. Traffic approaching us faces a blind curve and a narrow lane. Wonder how many are going to stay totally within their own lanes?

I admit this is a somewhat unique situation. There's a lot of critical stuff crammed into a small area. On the other hand, will that uniqueness make it hurt any less if we miss something? Come to think of it, this isn't so unusual after all. I can think of plenty of places I ride where there's a lot going on.

So do me a favor. I care about all of you. Tomorrow the forecast here is for sunshine and 66 degrees ( f ). Spring starts within days for us. More and more bikes will be out. Work on observing the actual facts of each situation so we know what's really there. Don't trust what we "see".

Become trained observers. Ride well and prosper.

Miles and smiles,



Orin said...

I first heard the term in an episode of "Miami Vice"--Tubbs was saying it to Crockett, in a conversation about how detectives should be able to spot things the layperson can't.

But I like it because it sums up my experience as an art student, a photographer and a journalist. It came in handy while I was racing, and it comes in handy when I ride.

Excellent post. Words to live by...

Scootin' Old Skool

Mike said...

You forgot to mention what a fine bike that police officer has! :)

Good post Dan. Thank you for taking the time to stop and nicely lay this out for people like me who are visual. That's a unique spot but still it requires careful observation and planning. You're posting on great subjects that are timely to the up-coming riding season.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Sir:

I haven't ridden in four months, and I am leading 20 riders on a 100-mile jaunt to New Jersey tomorrow.

I worked on the bike yesterday, and took it out today. Then I ran the first 25-miles of the ride (which has the most confusing traffic patters) in the truck, noting the blind corners, the bad intersections, the parts under construction, the pot holes, and the gravel.

It doesn't hurt to look to see where you might expect the unexpected... Especially in the beginning of the season.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad
Twisted Roads

Unknown said...

Mr Irondad:

Sherlock Holmes (to Watson) "Some people look but don't see" <> The Power of Observation.

bobskoot: wet coast scootin

Chuck Pefley said...

Another great post with good information. All true ... I'd also like to add the importance of auditory awareness. Our ears often alert us to things that cannot yet be seen. Especially in lovely rural settings such as you've shown us.

Stacy said...

That intersection always gives me a bad feeling, though I didn't know it led to another good motorcycle road.

I have extra hate for those railroad overpasses because it's hard for me to keep from target fixating on all the concrete.

Chris said...

Good post and reminder.

Dru_ said...

As always, a well timed and thought provoking post.

Here the weather has found it's way into the 60's as well, and the bikes have emerged from storage. Unfortunately, that also means a rash of crashes and injuries among the riders that have suddenly gotten back on the roads after months away from two wheels.

Two among my acquaintances have met with the unintended touch of the pavement in the last week. Both incidents should have been avoidable, though one was certainly difficult to do so.

In both cases, simply seeing was not both. Both riders are good riders. They simply were out of practice with the observation skills.

That is the only thing that I can add to what you have so eloquently discussed is that it is a constant task to maintain the skills of observation. You cannot allow these skills to atrophy through neglect.

irondad said...


You are so right about observation being a part of our entire life. Mostly it's a matter of tuning in. Which is where most people go wrong!

Thank you for the kind words.


So why would you be particularly drawn to the police bike? :)

That was sort of the plan. To write about things as the upcoming season warrants. Glad somebody noticed.

Take care,


irondad said...


First and foremost, good luck on the trip. May all the surprises be pleasant ones.

Remember a key to success. Even if in a truck, think like a motorcyclist when checking things out.


Exactly. By the way, I made sure the Friday post had motorcycles in it. In your honor, Sir!

Take care,


irondad said...


You are so right about listening as well as seeing. While the majority of our information comes visually, hearing plays a big part.

Interestingly, Katie and I were just talking about something similar. We were remembering when we were teaching the kids to drive. The standard warning was to keep the radio down low enough to be able to hear important things. Like emergency vehicles, and so on.

Several times I was warned about another vehicle near me by the sound first.

Take care,


irondad said...


It's okay to target fixate on concrete, just make sure it's the right patch! :)

That road goes up over the hill and hooks up with Skyline. The other end is at Skyline and Kuebler. I believe Keiser Permanente is up there,too.

P.S. Saw your post about what makes a good blog. Great things to think about. Although I mostly worry about just being me, good or bad. Andy Goldfine sent me an e-mail about a post and asked me how many regular readers I thought I have. Truthfully, I didn't really know since it's not a numbers game for me. I have to admit, though, that I checked my RSS feed to make sure it was allowing full access. Until then, I didn't even know there was a difference. Takes the pressure off of having to write a fantastically captivating first sentence.

In light of your post, I'm honored you are reading. Sincerely. You are certainly a guru in your field worthy of being looked up to.

Take care,


irondad said...


Thank you. It will have to suffice until the day I learn how to do video from watching your blog!


Thank you so much for stopping by! I check your blog and leave a comment now and then.

Sorry for the problems your acquaintances have had to deal with.

As you so accurately say, our skill level is a dynamic process, demanding constant attention. Great reminder!

Take care,


Bluekat said...

Hey! I saw the motor cop pulling someone over on Kuebler the other day...or one of his fellow officers. No, it wasn't me. I just got to observe until the light turned green. :)

That's a pretty nasty intersection on that rural road. Bad angle, bushes blocking some of the view. I had a driver pull out in front of me at an intersection on my commute this week. I think he thought he could make it into the roadway if he didn't bother to stop at the stop sign. That intersection isn't quite so blind or badly angled as the one in your photo, but I think it's a somewhat similar situation.

As for the curvy road...It's a little scary how that van completely disappears in the corner. It's not a small vehicle either. Basically there is room for any number of nasty surprises to hide there. Narrow road, no shoulder. Yeah, I'd be looking for someone coming around in the middle the road.

Thanks for another great read & photos to go along with it! I think the photos with the van is especially effective.

Hope you got a ride in today...or something equally nice. We didn't ride today...too much sunshine and all. :)

Anonymous said...

Hat's off to a very good post. Love that cop on a bike, but even from the picture, you can TELL he's alert.

The only other thing i can add, is that the strange intersection for me would be a bad roadway ... we have a major problem with debris on our roads, and while i can see that intersection has been nicely swept, i can also see where there would be a patch of sand and stones. Bang in the middle of that intersection, in the triangle shape.

We're headed into winter here, cold and dry ... but you northern folk have an excellent summer :)