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Trusting to Luck, Awareness of Hazards, and Risk Assessment and Risk Management

Risk is a funny concept. It's always there in our lives, whatever we do, to a greater or lesser extent. The odd thing is that whilst we are sometimes very aware of risk, at other times we tend to forget all about it. Witness the number of people who step backwards off cliffs taking selfies. We also have a skewed perception of what is actually dangerous and what isn't. Take flying as an example. Compared with driving, which is far more likely to kill us, flying is statistically safer. But most people don't fly very often, so never really get used to it and we're also in someone else's hands and the situation is almost totally out of our control. So how does risk play a part in our riding decisions? What skews our concept of risk?

More than anything else, what interferes with accurate risk assessment is familiarity. The more often we encounter a risk, yet nothing goes wrong, the less we see it AS a risk. If we drive or ride on a regular basis, in situations we are familiar with, we generate such a level of familiarity and a sensation of 'ordinariness', we begin to lose awareness of the risks. Worse, we begin to believe we are in control of the risks.

But is that actually the fact? We should be aware of another factor that could be keeping us safe.

And that's statistics. Crashing badly is rare event.

What do I mean? You'll probably have heard that the risk of being killed on a motorcycle or scooter is around 30 to 40 times higher than if we're in a car. And you probably know there are (very approximately) around 350 fatal motorcycle crashes in the UK each year, and that serious injuries (equally approximately) total around 3500.

But those numbers need context.

There are somewhere between 1 and 2 million active motorcyclists who ride several billion miles each year.

So for you and me, when we look at motorcycling on an individual basis, the chance of having a fatal accident in any one year is tiny. The UK is one of the safest places on earth to ride a motorcycle.

I originally wrote this article under the misapprehension - like most people in the advanced riding community, and in road safety generally - that it is good skills that keep us safe. I wrote about how I thought road users including motorcyclists go through a sequence of developmental stages of hazard perception, risk awareness and risk management:

  • Level 1) we aren't even aware danger exists
  • Level 2) we see a hazard but don't understand how it poses a risk
  • Level 3) we see a hazard, recognise it poses a risk but don't know how to deal with it
  • Level 4) we see a hazard, recognise it poses a risk, and react by taking appropriate avoiding action
  • Level 5) we see a hazard, recognise it poses a risk, and respond by proactively reducing the risk
  • Level 6) we anticipate a hazard, and act to eliminate the risk before it can develop

I described those levels in terms of how a rider might respond in the most common collision scenario - the SMIDSY crash involving a driver emerging from a junction on the left.

1) we aren't even aware danger exists
How would a rider at this level of development rider respond if a car started to emerge from the side turning? Simple answer - having failed to recognise the scenario as a hazard, the rider will be caught completely by SURPRISE! by the emerging car. There will be no planned response to the hazard. The outcome is entirely in the lap of the gods.

2) we see a hazard but don't understand how it poses a risk
How would this rider respond to an emerging car? The rider may have realised that cars emerge from side turnings, but assumes that as the bike has right of way, the car driver will see the bike and wait. The rider will still be caught completely by SURPRISE! by the emerging car, there will be no planned response and the outcome is still with the gods.

3) we see a hazard, recognise it poses a risk but don't know how to deal with it
Perhaps the rider has learned from some previous incidents but what missing now is any form of planned response. Maybe the rider develops excessive caution (perhaps avoiding 'dangerous' roads), slows down excessively 'just in case', or maybe crashes taking evastic action. The rider is no longer taken by SURPRISE! but there's no planned strategy to get out of trouble.

4) we see a hazard, recognise it poses a risk, and react by taking appropriate avoiding action
Now the rider is capable of basic defensive riding and collision avoidance. This is essentially the level aimed at by basic training. The rider will detect the emerging car, and go into a routine to deal with the problem - perhaps slowing down and sounding the horn, whilst being ready to make an effective emergency stop or swerve.

5) we see a hazard, recognise it poses a risk, and respond by proactively reducing the risk
This is essentially the level aimed at by advanced training. Having spotted the junction ahead, the rider will respond PRO-ACTIVELY by slowing to reduce stopping distance, changing position to open up lines-of-sight and introduce a 'safety space' before the driver even begins to create a threat by starting to emerge. The essential step is to move from being a reactive rider (who responds AFTER the threat develops) to a pro-active rider (who takes preemptive steps to reduce risk) by constantly asking the "what if...?" question and having a "then this...!" answer ready. This stage is often marked by an attitudinal change. Rather than relying on the other driver to see and respond to the bike ("I have right-of-way", "the driver should look harder for bikes") the rider now begins to understand that "it takes two to tangle" - if the driver's error sets up the POTENTIAL for a collision, the biker still has to ride into it to COMPLETE the collision. After a scary experience, this rider will probably ask "what else could I have done to avoid the situation?"

6) we anticipate a hazard, and act to eliminate the risk before it can develop
This is the next level where the rider has developed 'insight', and is the level Survival Skills advanced rider training courses aim to reach. We don't have to wait until we see a junction. We can anticipate that ANY BLIND AREA - or 'Surprise Horizon' - could be concealing a vehicle about to emerge into our path, and we anticipate we haven't been seen, and take appropriate steps - change of speed, change of line, 'setting-up' the brakes - before we even see a vehicle. Or pehaps we see a car still APPROACHING a junction and we consider strategies such as a slight increase in speed to get clear of the junction before the car gets there. And should emergency action still be needed, we are not just ready to brake hard or swerve but have already identified possible escape routes.

With my old CBT instructor hat on, novice riders on CBT are usually in Level 1, particularly if they have car experience because the lessons learned on four wheels do not apply to two.

So where does motorcycle training take us? In theory, a rider with a CBT certificate should be up at Level 4, but in reality, they're far more likely to hover between 2 (blind faith) and 3 (luck) because there's too much to cover on CBT to develop anything like proper defensive riding.

Donning my old Direct Access hat, riders at Level 2 would accumulate 'serious' faults on the bike test, and riders at Level 3 would pick up minor 'driving' faults. So my aim was to get riders to at least Level 4 where they could react reliably to most hazards and get a clean sheet. But if I had time and the trainee was receptive enough, I'd begin to introduce Level 5 thinking where they started to understand how to 'get their retaliation in first' by being pro-active in attempting to distance themselves from harm.

And with my post-test headgear in place, I'd definitely want to see Level 5 and preferably Level 6 thinking going on.

What if we don't take post-test training? Given time and some 'learning-by-experience' forced on the rider by a couple of crashes in the 'School of Hard Knocks', it is possible to climb to Level 5. There are some very competent motorcyclists out there who have never taken post-test training. We just have to be self-critical and willing to advance.

But even if we do take higher training, there's no guarantee it will stick. When I wrote the original version of this article, I noted that "unfortunately having passed beyond the sight of the trainer and examiner, many riders slip back to Level 3." I was thinking in terms of basic training, but I've seen it can apply to riders with advanced experience too.

You'll remember that I said back at the beginning that I originally wrote this article under the misapprehension that it is good skills that keep us safe, so at the time I'd thought this was just the natural erosion of skills and learning that happens as the memories of our training slip further into the distance. That has an effect, of course, but I'd actually hit on the really significant problem when I concluded:

"They stop planning ahead and trust to luck again."

Why do we do this? It's that skewing of risk that results from familiarity. The more often we encounter a risk, yet nothing goes wrong, the less we see it. Go back to the KSI stats. Out of those 350 fatal crashes every year, something under 100 happen at junctions. Let's just make that absolutely clear. With over one million riders covering several billion miles annually, and passing uncounted junctions every single day, in the course of a year just 100 fatalities happen at junctions. The vast majority of us pass junctions perfectly safely all year long. And because things so rarely go wrong it's easy to begin to believe that it's our own abilities keeping us safe when the fact is it's statistics doing the job. Without being aware of it, we are 'trusting to luck'. And the same issue arises with every other activity on a motorcycle including the two other big killers - cornering crashes and overtaking incidents.

A former police instructor once told me that:

"Done right, overtaking is perfectly safe".

Of course it's not. There's always risk. It's only when we constantly ask ourselves "what if this goes wrong?" that we are in a position to manage risk effectively. The more vivid our imagination, the more likely we are to have a realistic perception of risk. The better our technique, the less risk SHOULD be involved...

...but what if we simply use our skills to take more overtakes? What if we use them to make technically tricky passes? Haven't we just upped the risk whilst pretending that we're managing that risk effectively?

We think it's our skill preventing a crash when in fact, the dice just haven't rolled the wrong way...


Kevin Williams
Survival Skills Rider Training

...because it's a jungle out there


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What is Survival Skills all about?

How are Survival Skills Courses put together and taught?
The Making of a Good Instructor - musings on my Driver Education course

Would a National Standard for advanced training be appropriate?
Writing a riding tip - what detail is necessary?
What to do if you've had an accident
Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths

Improver or advanced, pragmatism or perfection?
Piling on the miles
Compartmentalisation & Practice -  the key to learning new skills
Countersteering - Question and Answer

Braking Rules and Tips
Over-confidence and Riding at the Limit
Practice makes Perfect
The Danger of Misunderstanding
Learning from your Mistakes
A Moment of Inattention
Staying Warm
Staying Awake
Don't just ride for yourself, ride for others
Filtering - what's legal and how to do it
Cornering Problems 1 - Lean or Brake?
Springing into Summer - polishing off the winter rust
Group Riding - Rules and Tips
Awareness of Risk and Risk Management
Cornering Problems 4 - Stability and the "Point and Squirt" technique
Cornering Problems 3 - Staying out of trouble! Pro-active Braking or Acceleration Sense?
Cornering Problems 2 - Staying out of trouble
What is Risk?
Avoiding Diesel
The Vanishing Point - is it enough?
Posture - the key to smoother riding
When the Two Second Rule is not enough
Riding in the Dark
Roundabouts - straight lines, stability and safety
Slow Speed Control
Aquaplaning - what it is and how to deal with it
Rear Observation - when to & when not to!
Staying upright on icy roads
KISS - 'Keep it simple, Stupid' or Low Effort Biking
Overtaking Safety - avoiding vehicles turning right
Proactive versus Reactive Riding
Living with  Lifesavers
Which Foot? The Hendon Shuffle - Question and Answer
Carrying a passenger - Question and Answer
Riding in the rain
Riding in strong winds
Sorry Mate, I didn't see you - an analysis of SMIDSY accidents
Ever gone into a corner too hot and had it tighten up on you?
The Point & Squirt approach to corners
A time to live...
Target Fixation - Question and Answer
The Lurker, the Drifter and the Trimmer
The five most important things I learned as a courier
Overtaking - Questions and Answers
Precision riding - or keeping it simple?
Wide lines, tight lines, right lines - the law of Diminishing Returns
Surface Attraction
Euphoria - when your riding is just too good to be true
Straight line -vs- trail braking
Sit back, close your eyes, relax... and hope for the best
Before you overtake, do you...?
Do you need to blip the throttle on a downshift?
Holiday Riding Tips 1 - Dealing with hairpins (a new occasional series)
Holiday Riding Tips 2 - The (drive on the) Right Stuff
Why SMIDSYs happen
Avoiding dehydration - riding in hot weather
Riding errors - and avoiding them
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - riding in fog
Where does Point and Squirt come from?
Overtaking - lifesavers and following distances
Offsiding - what is it, and why you should think before you do it!
Anger Management - dealing with "red mist" and "road rage"
That indefinable gloss
Overtaking on left-handers - experts only or best avoided?
Apex or Exit - what's important when cornering?

Developing 'Spidy Sense'

Armchair Riding - how to improve summer skills in winter

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 1

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 2

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IMPORTANT: The information on the Survival Skills website is for your general information and personal use and should be taken as a guide only. Survival Skills Rider Training provides no warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness, clarity, fitness or suitability of the information and materials found or offered on this website for any particular purpose and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this website meet your specific requirements and you acknowledge use of any information and materials is entirely at your own risk, and that neither Kevin Williams nor Survival Skills can accept responsibility for your interpretation or use of this information or materials. The content of these pages is subject to change without notice. 

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