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Living with Lifesavers
For a lot of riders, the last time they make a lifesaver over-the-shoulder check is the moment they turn back into the test centre in front of the examiner. The reason for making the over-the-shoulder observation is explained early on in CBT - it's to see into the two problem areas to either side. This area is behind our peripheral vision, yet not far enough back to show up in the mirrors. The blind area is quite big enough to hide another motorcycle and even a car can go missing alongside us. The chin-to-shoulder check 'clears' this area with a direct observation. So after all the effort that basic trainers go to, from CBT right up to the moment of the test, why do riders start dropping techniques that are intended to increase their riding safety?
In my article about rear observation, I mentioned that in some cases riders have been told to "forget all that stuff you learned - it's only for passing the test". Here's the really disappointing thing. I've heard it from people training advanced riders.
I mentioned that when taking post-test training, the trainee is often introduced to the concept sometimes known as 'mirror history'. The idea is that if we look in our mirrors frequently enough, we'll know exactly what's around us and have complete situational awareness without needing the over-the-shoulder check on basic training.
So the big question is: "can we rely on mirror history?"
Let's think about what a mirror check achieves.
We take a snapshot of the situation that exists at the exact moment we look in the mirror. Two mirror checks are thus two snapshots. Just like comparing two 'before and after' photos, we don't know what happened in the gap between the two. And that means any decision we make on the basis of a sequence of snapshots is, simply put, an informed guess.
How good is our informed guess?
The answer is that it's only as good as our checks.
Hopefully, you can now see that there are three problems with relying too heavily on mirror history:
- the first is the frequency of our checks. If we leave long gaps in our rear observation, then pretty much anything can be happening behind us and we simply won't know about it.
- the second is that we can forget what we saw, particularly when traffic is moving in queues. A vehicle can slide forward into the blind spot and if it sits there long enough, we can forget that it was visible some seconds ago and now isn't where we can see it - I've made that mistake myself.
- the third is that mirror checks can fail to show a rapidly-changing situation that is about to put us at risk.
It might seem that to solve the first problem we simply need to 'up' the rate of mirror checks. Easy to say, not nearly so easy to achieve. The moment that a situation developing in front of us begins to cause us concern, what's the first thing that goes out of the window?
Yes, it's mirror checks.
It's all very well to say that a skilled rider wouldn't forget but even experts make mistakes under stress.
The answer is not to rely on memory but make a real-time sideways check.
On motorways, riders sit alongside vehicles in their blind spot then wonder why the driver starts to move into their lane. The reason may not be that the driver "didn't look" as we're so keen to assume, but in fact "looked, saw and forgot". So it shouldn't be a big surprise when we find vehicles in our blind spots that we forgot were there.
And sometimes we're just looking in the wrong mirror when a situation develops. Some years ago I was following another biker in my Nissan Serena people carrier. We were both in the middle lane of the motorway, and he was looking for a gap in the outside lane to overtake a slower vehicle we were catching. So he was making regular mirror checks to see what was coming up in the outside lane.
Meanwhile, we'd just passed an on-ramp and I noticed a car accelerating very rapidly indeed down onto the main carriageway. The Mercedes shot straight through the inside lane, and at the moment the rider made his final mirror check before moving out into a gap to his right, the Mercedes was aiming for the same gap, and crossing through the middle lane behind me.
Naturally, because it was behind me, the rider couldn't see it in his mirror. He started to move into the outside lane but the car was already in the gap and accelerating. The driver hit the horn, the rider was taken completely by surprise and barely swerved back out of the way.
Now, we can point the finger at the Merc driver but the biker needed to confirm his mirror history - he absolutely NEEDED to turn his head chin-to-shouldersee to clear his blind spot.
This is the role of the lifesaver. It's to give real-time information that updates our situational awareness.
Is it dangerous to look over the shoulder at speed? An objection often raised against blind spot checks before committing to an overtake is that it's dangerous to take our eyes off the car ahead in case it brakes suddenly. I don't think it should take anyone long to work out that if we're worried about looking away from the vehicle ahead, we'll almost certainly struggle to make decent mirror checks too, and it's unlikely our forward checks will be much better. There's a simple solution - don't follow so close and don't try to force overtakes in restricted spaces.
In any case, the quickest and most reliable way to make this final shoulder check is to combine it with a mirror check - follow the glance in the mirror with a chin-to-shoulder check. We fill in the missing information by combining the two checks, and it only takes a moment longer than looking in the mirror alone.
In the example above, following into the shoulder check AFTER the final mirror check would have taken the rider a fraction of a second but it would have given him that vital update and filled in the gap in his mirror history. His informed guess nearly killed him.
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