Riding errors - and avoiding them

The psychological effects of riding are quite fascinating, but it seems that the main trigger for most riding errors is simply fear of getting hurt. The moment you're afraid of something you're likely to respond instinctively. And instinct, based on our primitive reflexes, rarely provides the right response when riding a bike.

This is where Keith Code's Survival Reactions come from, and he identifies a bunch of "inappropriate" reactions including ineffective and frozen steering, over and under braking errors, and of course target fixation.

What triggers fear is quite complex.

   * Sometimes it's a nasty surprise. If something surprises you, it's usually because you haven't thought it through... it doesn't really matter whether it's a decreasing radius bend, a SMIDSY waiting to happen or a pheasant jumping out of a hedge. You need a pre-planned response to the potential emergency, or the fear level goes up and your chances of pulling something out of the hat drop in direct proportion.
   * Sometimes it's a lack of control over a situation. Bends don't move, what you see is what you get, and your progress round it is entirely under your control. But throw in something you can't control, like another driver cutting the white line, and our fear level can jump suddenly and dramatically.
   * Sometimes it's lack of confidence in our ability to handle the situation. Maybe we're cornering too fast, using too big a lean angle, or we're not happy about the grip offered by the patchy road surface. Might even be a new bike we're not to grips with yet.

So, let's try to deal with these ideas.

 Well there are three things you can work on.

The first thing to solve is how to get ready for something you're not expecting? You'll often be told to 'expect the unexpected' - I know some instructors hate the phrase but it's just another way of saying "anticipate what might happen, and don't just assume it's going to be the obvious". The more eventualities you anticipate, the less that will surprise you. If you aren't surprised, the more likely you are to come up with the right response.

A lot of that planning isn't rocket science, and we really should be able to anticipate where many dangers arise - the SMIDSY scenario or decreasing radius bends are obvious examples. If we're expecting the car to pull out, we're not going to be taken by surprise. But if we assume the driver will wait, it WILL be a nasty shock when it happens - and sooner or later it will.

Likewise the decreasing radius bend - if we don't have a clear idea of where a bend goes, it makes sense to treat it as a turn that will get worse before it gets better - then when it does tighten we just say "aha", tip the bike in a bit more and motor round. But if you haven't pre-planned for that, you're going to be looking at a hedge, and quite likely grab the brakes rather than add countersteer. All we're doing is looking at the developing situation and trying to have a range of possible outcomes in mind.

Sometimes you can't actually see the hazard develop. Take the pheasant I mentioned earlier. You can't predict exactly where a pheasant will jump out the hedge (although open fields with some patches of woodland is a prime area for them), but you can decide beforehand what you are going to do in the emergency when it does happen. Ask yourself, how much damage are you going to do to yourself and the bike by hitting an animal? If hitting it makes you fall off, then you probably need to plan to avoid it. So I wouldn't want to hit a full grown sheep, an Alsatian or a badger because the chances are I'll crash, but a small dog, a lamb or even a large bird I'll take on, because on balance I'm far more likely to ride through it. It may seem hard on the animal, but at the end of the day, it's my life I'm protecting.

Some situations you aren't likely to come across on the road, but there is nothing to stop you planning OFF the bike by using your imagination. Planning a "JUMP" routine as a last resort when a collision is inevitable is an example. You can't really practice driving into the side of a car, and even jumping off the bike is a bit of a non-starter. So you have to use what are known as 'visualisation' techniques where you simply sit down and run through in your mind's eye exactly what you are going to do.

Plan for the worst case scenario, and you'll likely deal with it. Plan for the best of all possible worlds and you'll find that sooner or later the reality doesn't pan out with your expectations.

The second area is lack of control over a situation. Undoubtedly you can work the odds in your favour by, for example, appropriate speed and positioning to allow you the options of swerving or braking, positioning so you can be seen, looking dominant, and making eye contact as just a few strategies. I've heard this described as "presenting yourself".

But, and it's a big but... at the end of the day, you can't MAKE other road users doing what you expect, so assuming you've actually seen the problem and anticipated something might go wrong in your planning phase, you now need to do something positive to take as much control of the situation that you can, and to minimise risk.

Here's an example of what I mean. Most people when quizzed would say that the danger on a roundabout is from your right. But it isn't the greatest danger, because you yourself choose where and when to pull onto the island, and how fast you launch yourself when you do go - you can make errors which make life difficult but essentially they are errors under YOUR control.

The bigger dangers are to your LEFT where other drivers are making the same decision to pull out in front of YOU and THEY might get it wrong. A SMIDSY accident is the same - you have no real control over where and when the driver in the side road will pull out.

I used the same rationale when having an argument with another instructor about how wide to go round tight blind left handers - his argument for keeping right was that if I didn't I might hit a pedestrian on the left. My response was partly that the grill of the Scania coming the other way is a lot harder and moving much faster in my direction than a pedestrian, but mostly that I can't control the speed or direction of the Scania. But I can control my own speed and course. So by keeping left I stay out of the way of the truck and by slowing accordingly, even if I was unlucky enough to find a pedestrian in the way, I could stop or at least do little damage to either of us.

The final area is confidence (and over-confidence). Part of the fun of riding a bike is getting closer to your limits. There's research that shows that drivers who aren't "stimulated" lose concentration, and no doubt the same happens to riders too.

But there's a very fine line between pushing yourself a bit, hooning round a bend and coming out the other side with a big grin on your face, knowing that you anticipated everything correctly, planned the bend perfectly and were under full control all the way round...

...and getting half way round and running out of confidence in your ability to get out of trouble. Which might be the moment you hit the brakes because you suddenly think you're going too fast, or you freeze on the steering, or you start staring at the truck you didn't see or fixate the hedge on the decreasing radius turn.

And why didn't you see the truck or the decreasing radius turn and remember to add extra lean? Because you were operating too close to your confidence limit. The only solution is to slow down and take things a bit easier, and practice developing the skills like tightening the line, braking in bends, relaxing if the bike slides and looking away from danger till they become automatic again

It's a complex subject but a lot of data processing as you ride is done entirely subconsciously. You don't think "I'll have to squeeze the brake lever just this hard" or "I'll snick it into gear just here" or "I'll aim for that bit of road just there for the line through this corner", you just do it.

Well you do, so long as you are comfortably within your confidence level. The tasks stay automatic, and you're free to concentrate on other things, such as where the road goes next, and what and where the other hazards lurk.

The closer you get to your confidence level (whether it's speed, lean angle, braking, throttle, extended positioning or anything else!), the LESS automatic those tasks become and the more you have to think about them. And the more you think about one area of riding, the less you can focus on the big picture or spare mental processing power for anticipation. And the more things start to surprise you... which is where we came in...