Awareness of Risk and Risk Management

It's a funny thing risk... it's always there in our lives, whatever we do, to a greater or lesser extent. The odd thing is that whilst sometimes we are very aware of risk and at other times we tend to forget all about it, very often we have a skewed perception of what is actually dangerous and what isn't. Take flying as an example - a lot of people are frightened of flying, but statistically it is very safe. On the other hand driving or riding on the roads is inherently much more dangerous but few of us actually feel particularly nervous about it.

Why is this? Clearly familiarity has a lot to do with it. Most people don't fly very often, so never really get used to it. There is also the feeling that you are in someone else's hands and out of control.

Driving or riding by contrast is something most people do every day, and usually in situations with which they are familiar and feel that they are in control of. Unfortunately, this very familiarity and sensation of being in control often disguises a lack of awareness of risk.

Thinking about it, it seems to me you go through several stages in your development as a road user:

Stage 1) You aren't even aware danger exists
Stage 2) You see the hazard but don't consider it as dangerous
Stage 3) You see it, know it's dangerous but don't know how to deal with it
Stage 4) You see it, and take correct defensive action
Stage 5) You anticipate the hazard and act before you see it
Stage 6) You anticipate the hazard and actively manage risk

Let's try and describe those stages in a bit more detail, and suggest how a rider might respond in a typical scenario - imagine we are riding into a small town with cars parked on the side of the main road.

1) You aren't even aware danger exists
We've all probably sat in the passenger seat of a car, rigid with fear and unable to look, as the driver ploughs cheerfully through traffic without a care in the world, leaving a trail of skid marks and hooting vehicles in his/her wake. This is the sort of driver or rider that makes us decline an offer of a lift and take the bus instead.

    How will this rider respond as a car suddenly starts to pull out from a side road half-hidden by the parked cars? The answer is simple - he/she won't have seen the side road or even noticed the fact they have just grazed the front of the other car!

2) You see the hazard but don't consider it to be dangerous
We probably know this one too! Typically this sort of rider/driver follows too close but blames the other bloke for braking too hard when they run into the back of the car in front. Unfortunately most car drivers seem to regress to this stage within a few months of taking their test.

    This time our rider will spot the emerging car but will assume the other driver will wait for him/her to pass, swerving wildly at the last minute as the car starts to pull out having not seen the bike.

3) You see it, know it is dangerous but don't know what to do about it
This rider has often had plenty of scary moments and developed excessive caution. They slow down excessively "just in case", or they worry to the point of distraction about the car behind that is too close. They have learned to spot dangerous scenarios developing but have neither the mental skills nor the physical driving skills to find a way out of their problem.

    The chances are this rider will see the side road and the emerging car, but will then show indecision, typically slow down excessively and thus encouraging the other driver to pull out whilst actually intending no such thing, leading to a "will he go, won't he go" stop/start situation, or will plough on regardless and hope for the best.

4) You see it, and take correct defensive action
This is the stage that the driving test aims to take you to, and in general riders/drivers at this stage deal competently with most problems on the roads. The real danger for a rider at this stage is that riding is still essentially reactive - you wait till you see the hazard and then deal with it - and your riding tends to be rather robotic. The other problem is that faced with a new situation the rider often has no immediate solution! The result is that the action taken is sometimes inappropriate - braking hard when simply steering around the hazard would work.

    Back to our side road scenario - our rider will spot the emerging car, slow down and prepare to stop, possibly move to the centre of the road for a better view and may well sound the horn to warn the other driver. What trips this rider up? Unexpected situations such as when the emerging car doesn't stop and he/she needs to stop or swerve quickly - it's likely this rider/driver has never practiced an emergency stop or quick steering and has no idea of the limits of the bike, so is unable to make the right choice!

5) You anticipate the hazard and act before you see it
Now we are really starting to look and think. The rider/driver is constantly asking him/herself "what if?" questions, is almost certainly is aware of the limits of the vehicle's performance and is scanning the road ahead for potential hazards - we are becoming proactive by thinking our way through a potential hazard before we see it. Reaching this stage is often accompanied by a complete change in the way of thinking about dodgy moments. Rather than blaming the other driver when it all goes pear shaped, our rider is now starting to think "what could I have done to avoid the situation?"

    How will our advanced rider deal with our side road problem? By using observation and forward planning. He/she will have looked ahead as we entered the town, noticed the parked cars, and assumed there will be side roads with restricted views, so that when our rider spots the emerging car, he/she will already have a plan of action - slow down, move to the centre of the road for a better view, sound the horn and be prepared for an emergency stop.

6) You actively manage risk
Not only does the rider/driver anticipate danger, but is fully proactive in the way he/she responds to the potential hazard. In other words our rider takes as much control of the situation as possible by riding in such a way as to minimise risk all round both to him/herself and to other road users. This involves being aware of other drivers' problems and factoring them into your actions, usually before they themselves are aware of them!

    How will our really advanced rider deal with our problem which differs from the previous rider? By using observation and forward planning for risk management. He/she will have looked ahead as we entered the town, noticed the parked cars, and assumed there will be side roads with restricted views and emerging vehicles and will act so as to minimise the danger, so that when our rider/driver spots the emerging car, he/she will not only have a "what if" plan to apply - he/she will have already put most of it into action!
    For instance, not only will he/she have determined the correct speed of approach to the junction but will also checked on the positions and courses of other vehicles... anticipated their likely actions, paying particular attention to the vehicle behind and deciding if it is too close if a brake light needs to be shown to the following driver.
    He/she will already have taken up a position that gives all drivers including the car in the side road the best possible view of the developing situation, whilst at the same time making his/her intentions clear and removing him/herself as far as is possible from the area of greatest danger... decided whether any other signals would give useful information to others.
    Finally he/she will have looked for possible escape routes to avoid the emerging car if it doesn't stop - for instance if there is no oncoming traffic you might be able to use the other side of the road - whilst being ready to perform for an emergency stop if necessary.

So in which groups would I place various road users?

Most complete beginners and young drivers are in category 1 - frequently the most basic dangers have to be explained in detail.

Far too many car drivers hover between 1 and 2 and unfortunately never progress any further - teaching experienced car drivers to ride has shown me that most of them don't see or consider dangers that are obvious to me as a motorcyclist. One problem is that drivers in this state can appear to be in complete control when on home turf but shift them to a different environment (country driver to London or vice versa) and they can fall apart. The vast majority of the rest fall into categories 3 and 4. There are some excellent car drivers out there, but they are in a very distinct minority

Untrained motorcyclists (ie those from pre-intensive riding course days who taught themselves to pass the test) usually passed rapidly through 1 and 2 and but have stuck around 3 and 4, usually dealing with most problems by luck (3) or judgement (4) but rarely getting much further. With sufficient riding experience (in other words the "School of Hard Knocks") they sometimes arrive at 5 or 6 - many experienced despatch riders are amongst the best riders - it's a dangerous game and if you don't learn the rules, you don't last.

Riders who have taken training school courses on 125s or Direct Access bikes have bypassed the first 3 stages and assuming a reasonable degree of common sense tend to arrive and stick somewhere around 4 - the riding test aims to place you at 4 - generally competent. A few go backwards but like self taught riders, do enough riding and some will get better still as experience shows them the dangers.

Riders trained to advanced standard aim to dodge the "School of Hard Knocks" and are somewhere around 5. If they really think about the lessons they have learned, with experience they can often arrive at 6.

Some readers may think this a bit unfair to car drivers but in general you tend to be very much more aware of the dangers on a bike (not least because errors tend to hurt a lot more), and the average rider is better at anticipating and dealing with hazards than the average car driver - if you doubt me, this is something one insurance company, who lets face it are notoriously parsimonious with their money, realised a couple of years ago when they reduced their car insurance premiums if the driver also held a motorcycle licence!

OK, so this grouping scheme is something of a broad and sweeping generalisation with plenty of overlap between each group, but you should be able to see how drivers and riders deal with a hazardous situation in very different ways. I think you would agree that riders in stages 1-3 are potentially dangerous, both to themselves and other road users, whereas riders in stages 4-6 are increasingly safe.

One thing that it is worth emphasising is that none of this planning makes you invulnerable and it's not worth a damn if you constantly underestimate the dangers of your (and others) actions. Some of this comes with experience but if anything a vivid imagination is the biggest real benefit - if you constantly ask yourself what is the worst possible situation you can  imagine just up ahead and out of sight and then prepare for it, not only should you be able to handle that worst case scenario with no drama when it eventually comes to pass, but anything less than the worst is a positive bonus.

In conclusion, having read this, be honest with yourself... none of us are perfect all the time and we all have a tendency to make excuses. But try and think about your riding objectively - which category would you put yourself in? And does it suggest that you might have room for improvement?