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Workload - the reason to Keep it Simple, Stupid
Over the years, one of my areas of fascination in researching the background for my Survival Skills advanced rider training courses has been the human brain and how it copes with riding. Our brains reached their current form with the appearance of Homo Sapiens around 200,000 years ago. But many components that make up our modern brain have their origins in the lower branches of the evolutionary tree. It's always been a bit of a puzzle to me how something that evolved when man had a top speed of something over 20 mph should be able to function rapidly enough to deal with riding at speeds well above that. I initially wrote this article with half an eye on the claims that using a hands-free mobile phone was safer than using a hand-held device, and with the other half on claims that skilled riders can safely use more complicated skills and techniques. It's been rewritten somewhat, but the essential thinking about our ability to process limited amounts of information remains unchanged, as is the conclusion that we should use the simplest technique that is effective. Eventually, all this reading around the topic produced my book 'MIND over MOTORCYCLE' which you can find on my publisher page. The book covers all this and more.
In the mid-80s a series of studies were carried out to evaluate a proposed one-man attack helicopter. The cockpit systems used a significant amount of automation. Neverthelss, it was determined that a single crew member could not adequately perform all the required tasks. As a result, the Comanche helicopter uses a two-person crew.
The term workload refers to the total demand placed on an individual as a task is performed. And even experienced and expert riders have a finite limit to the mental workload they can handle.
Now, if you want to, you can skip forward to how we cope on the road, but if you want more detail about the demands workload places on the brain, carry on reading.
The theory of competing resource channels
One explanation is that workload does not make demands on a single 'central' processing resource but instead uses several channels which compete for processing resources.
This theory was propopsed because we can easily walk and chew gum at the same time, but we cannot talk and listen at the same time - one explanation is that there must be multiple resources for information processing. These processing resources are usually described by four components; visual, auditory, cognitive and psychomotor, and any task can be broken down into the demands it places on each resource channel. The visual and auditory components refer to the external stimuli that are attended to, the cognitive component refers to the level of information processing required and the psychomotor component refers to the physical actions.
Rating scales have been developed for each component. The scales provide a relative rating of the degree to which each resource component is used. They were developed by providing surveys containing matched pairs of task descriptions to a range of human factors experts who were asked to indicate, for each pairing, which one required a higher level of effort. The higher the scale value the greater the degree of use of the resource component.
Scale - Value Description of Activity
0.0 - No Visual Activity
1.0 - Visually Register/Detect (detect occurrence of image)
3.7 - Visually Discriminate (detect visual differences)
4.0 - Visually Inspect/Check (discrete inspection/static condition)
5.0 - Visually Locate/Align (selective orientation)
5.4 - Visually Track/Follow (maintain orientation)
5.9 - Visually Read (symbol)
7.0 - Visually Scan/Search/Monitor (continuous/serial inspection, multiple conditions)
0.0 - No Auditory Activity
1.0 - Detect/Register Sound (detect occurrence of sound)
2.0 - Orient to Sound (general orientation/attention)
4.2 - Orient to Sound (selective orientation/attention)
4.3 - Verify Auditory Feedback (detect occurrence of anticipated sound)
4.9 - Interpret Semantic Content (speech)
6.6 - Discriminate Sound Characteristics (detect auditory differences)
7.0 - Interpret Sound Patterns (pulse rates, etc.)
0.0 - No Cognitive Activity
1.0 - Automatic (simple association)
1.2 - Alternative Selection
3.7 - Sign/Signal Recognition
4.6 - Evaluation/Judgment (consider single aspect)
5.3 - Encoding/Decoding, Recall
6.8 - Evaluation/Judgment (consider several aspects)
7.0 - Estimation, Calculation, Conversion
0.0 - No Psychomotor Activity
1.0 - Speech
2.2 - Discrete Actuation (button, toggle, trigger)
2.6 - Continuous Adjustive (flight control, sensor control)
4.6 - Manipulative
5.8 - Discrete Adjustive (rotary, vertical thumbwheel, lever position)
6.5 - Symbolic Production (writing)
7.0 - Serial Discrete Manipulation (keyboard entries)
Generally speaking, we have enough mental resources to carry out the most demanding tasks in any one of these categories or to carry out multiple but undemanding tasks that engage different channels.
if we're performing more than one task at the same time and those tasks make demands on similar components, the result is likely to be excess workload - we simply run out of brainpower to perform both tasks effectively. Any cumulative workload value of 8 or more was defined as an unacceptable workload level. Once we exceed the acceptable workload, the result is likely to be errors in our performance of those tasks. This includes a general slowing-down of the performance (it takes longer to process data and respond), task shedding (where we forget to do something completely), or rapid task switching (we hop back and forth ineffectually from one task to the other).
The component scale has been applied to model the tasks of driving whilst making a call on a mobile phone.
Task Vis. Aud. Cog. Psy-M.
Driving 6 1 3.7 2.6
Stopped at Light 3 1 3.7 0
Start after stop 6 1 4.6 2.6
Press Send 5 4.3 5.3 7
Wait to connect 0 4.3 3.7 2.6
Talk 0 6 6.8 2.6
The model can therefore predict the individual component and total workload of the combined driving and cell phone tasks at any point during the execution of the combined tasks.
Workload Maximum Mean
Visual 11.00 6.26
Auditory 7.00 6.62
Cognitive 10.50 10.02
Psychomotor 9.60 5.43
From these figures it's clear that the combined Cognitive tasks of driving whilst talking on the phone exceed the acceptable workload figures at all times. It's not just when dialling to make a call when the task also makes demands of our visual and psychomotor resources which exceed the acceptable workload. And so drivers attempting to hold a conversation on a hands-free phone whilst behind the wheel are prone to make mistakes that a driver focused solely on driving would be highly unlikely to make.
What about on two wheels? The resources required to ride the bike would include all four components; the visual resource of looking at the road ahead, the cognitive resource as we interprete the visual data, the psychomotor resource which refers to the movement of arms, hands and feet to control the machine and even the auditory resource which would monitor from the sound of the engine.
So, how does this impact on real riding?
There is a limit to the amount of 'mental processing power' we have to ride a motorcycle. It would sound like riding would be difficult, if not impossible, in complex riding situations because we would exceed the workload limit. So we'd expect to see errors in performance of various tasks, a slowing-down of the performance of those tasks, task-shedding where we lose track of one part of the overall task, or rapid task switching where we ineffectually hop back and forth from one part of task to the another.
And in fact, that's exactly what an instructor will see with a novice rider. A complex task such as a right turn (which involves making visual checks, a change of gear and the movement of the indicator switch, the cognitive element of judging speed and distance of the machine and other vehicles, plus the steering of the machine itself) might be performed perfectly off-road. But as soon as the novice rider attempts the same task on-road, it's often poorly performed; visual checks go missing, the bike ends up in the wrong gear or the clutch control goes out the window, and indicators get forgotten.
So how do we ever overcome the problem?
The answer is that we 'automate' routine tasks - for example, the clutch / gear / throttle manipulation soon becomes so deeply embedded we no longer think about it, it just 'happens'. And we can also learn to have a pre-planned response to specific 'cue' which also occurs below the level of consciousness. People have trouble believing this but our response to a red traffic light is a good example. Once out of the novice stage where we're still actively scanning around for traffic signals, we don't really 'see' the red light, we just drop into the routine of judging speed and distance, and slowing down effectively.
So, with experience, we become able to handle many straightforward tasks without having to process the incoming data in the real-time conscious 'thinking' brain. And that frees up attention for effective mirror checks, checking the surface ahead of us where we're going to brake, and wondering whether the light might change back to green before we have to stop.
But the more complicated the task, the less attention we have to spare. Maybe we're attempting to negotiate not just a single set of lights, but a complex road layout with multiple lanes in busy traffic, whilst trying to read road signs. Now, there's a good chance we start to task-shed and skip steps - because our eyes are scanning the scene ahead, mirror checks often go missing.
And this brings me back to the helicopter. We don't have the luxury of a second crew member. We have to get everything right alone, and that means the simpler we make riding, the less likely we are to hit the workload limit, and where something has to give.
I've written about overtaking, and gone through all the many points at which an overtake can go wrong - this article should give you a better idea why. The workload processing required to decide whether an overtake is 'on' or not takes even highly-experienced riders to the limit or even beyond their ability to mentally process all the data. So it's incredibly easy to miss something, and it's usually something obvious when we look at what went wrong retrospectively. Something as simple as the vehicle being overtaken indicating to turn right. Because of the demands on our processing resources, the flashing indicator never made it into the rider's conscious awareness. And that's why I suggest that we always keep things as simple as possible. If there are two ways to perform a task, the simplest method is nearly always the most reliable way.
And don't forget the problem of talking on a mobile phone. But what do some instructors ask trainees to do - talk into a radio whilst riding in the form of a verbal commentary. Asking even an experienced rider to make a verbal commentary on a ride isn't a good idea because it pushes the rider into 'workload overload' condition - check out the values from the first table:
Searching the road ahead: 7.0 - (Visually Scan/Search/Monitor (continuous/serial inspection, multiple conditions) )
Think what to say: 6.8 - (Evaluation/Judgment (consider several aspects) )
Say it: 1.0 - (Speech)
TOTAL WORKLOAD: 14:8
That's way over our workload limit and we've not even talked about riding the bike! So that is why I don't ask riders to perform a commentary ride.
"But the police do it all the time" I hear you say.
Indeed. Now, listen to HOW they talk. They have learned a very stilted, formalised language. They've essentially removed the need to THINK how to express what they see. And this brings workload down significantly. They also learn commentary riding and driving as part of a much longer course than a civvie rider will ever experience.
So this is why I do NOT require anyone to perform a commentary AS they ride. What I do is find places to stop, and let them perform their commentary at the side of the road. We've removed the workload connected with riding the machine and they can turn all their faculties towards identifying hazards. Even when I perform a commentary ride for the trainee, I'm aware that they have to listen, consider what I've just said, and visually search the scene to see what I'm talking about. So I only ever perform a commentary ride at a nice gentle pace that minimises the other workload demands on my trainee.
And finally, the workload overload issue is one of the reasons I use a building block approach to training, and why speeds are kept low when applying those new techniques. Covering new techniques one at a time is less-demanding and keeping speed down allows for correction when (not if!) mistakes are made.
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