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
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
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...