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SURPRISE! The key to understanding - and avoiding - riding errors

There are only two things we can do on a bike - change speed or change direction. To do that, we use the same inputs - accelerating, steering or braking - every moment we ride. Accident investigators around the world find the same things when they look at bike accidents. Nearly always, the bike wasn’t at its limits; if the rider had applied the correct inputs into the machine, they’d have got out of trouble. The traditional view has been that riders make errors because they either lack skills or they make the wrong decisions. It's easy to say "don't make errors", and the conventional view of road safety has always been that 'all' we have to do is avoid errors, then everyone would be safe on the roads. So training has always proceeded along those lines - years ago, I was told that if I "observed, anticipated and concentrated" I wouldn't crash. Guess what? I crashed. So the big questions are these: "if the machine inputs necessary are only an extension of what we do as a matter of course, and if the errors are recoverable, why do we continue to crash?" The implication is that crashing is rather more complex than we think, and it's worth asking "how do we know how to avoid an error, if we don't understand it in the first place?". But does anyone teach us about crashing? Read on...

After a crash, it's easy to 'walk backwards' along the sequence of events and to produce a timeline of events. Eventually we appear to come to the precipitating error:

we left the road in a bend...
because we were off-line...
because we turned in too early...
because we ran in too fast...
because we braked too late...

Such a crash is likely to be explained as 'too fast for the conditions'.

Is that really correct? Let's go back to the beginning and start again, this time trying to understand WHY rather than WHAT went wrong. Are we saying the corner was too fast for the bike? Or too fast for the rider? In a serious crash investigation, it nearly always turns out that the bike could have got the rider out of trouble. So it's not machine limitations, but 'rider error'. If we stop there, the finger is usually pointed in the direction of the rider's level of skill and judgement and the assumption is that if the rider had better skills, the crash wouldn't happen.

Now, let's take another step backwards beyond where the rider left the road, to consider something nearly always overlooked. How did the rider get to the corner where he or she crashed? They had to ride there. And that means the rider successfully negotiated every PREVIOUS corner, to reach the one that he or she crashed on.

So if the problem really was riding "too fast" or "lacking skill and judgement", how did they get as far as they did? Wouldn't they have crashed sooner? We know that statistically a crash is a relatively rare event, even for relative novices. So whilst it IS possible it was blind luck that the rider got this far, it's far more likely that there were some unique circumstances about this particular corner that caused the crash HERE rather than somewhere else. In short, the corner somehow set a trap that the unsuspecting rider fell into.

Whilst we can point to a lack of skill or a poor attitude to riding as loading the dice towards crashing, it's not just new or badly-behaved riders who crash. Those groups might be at higher risk, but crashes don't happen exclusively to the high risk groups. The majority of crashes actually happen to 'ordinary' riders doing 'ordinary' things. Moreover, even expert riders crash, and they often have the same 'standard' crashes that the higher risk groups do - at junctions, when overtaking and on corners.

So if experience, skill and even a controlled approach to riding only reduces risk but doesn't eliminate it, it should be pretty clear that something rather more complicated is going on. And here's where we can turn to the work of US rider coach Keith Code. He realised that even good track riders crashed and noticed that in many of these crashes, the rider COULD have got out of trouble. But when things started going wrong, these riders didn't respond as expected. Instead, Code identified a string of inappropriate reactions including ineffective and frozen steering, over- and under-braking errors, and target fixation. He concluded that it was these errors that caused most track crashes. He called them 'Survival Reactions'.

You should be able to see the parallel with accident investigations on the road. The bike COULD have got the rider out of trouble, but like the track rider, the road rider also froze, over-reacted and target fixated into the crash.

Next backwards step. If it's these 'Survival Reactions' that dump us on our backside, why DO we react inappropriately in some places and not others? What triggers the 'Survival Reactions'? Code put it down to the threat of personal harm, because the moment we're afraid of something we're likely to revert to instinct. Instinct, being based on the most primitive part of the brain, rarely provides the right response when riding a bike and our trained responses, everything we've learned, goes straight out of the window.

So far, so good, but there's another pace backwards we can take, by asking "what triggers that fear of personal harm?" Factors acting a 'stressors' - that is, making us tense and anxious - such as riding on a road that technically trickier than we're used to or riding with buddies quicker than us - appear to make us more prone to making a mistake, but don't seem to explictly trigger Code's 'Survival Reactions'.

The trigger appears to be SURPRISE! It's SURPRISE! that overwhelms our learned behaviour and kicks in the in-built instinctual responses to a threat. The bend tightens. We're suddenly aware we could run off the road. 'Survival Reactions' kick in. We freeze and run off the road. We grab a big handful of brake and lock the front wheel. We target-fixate on where we'll crash rather than look to see where the road goes.

Let's take one final backward step. What triggers SURPRISE? The answer is remarkably straightforward. By definition, it's when something happened that we didn't expect. It's a straightforward anticipation failure.

Now, I can already hear people saying "but if you'd observed, ANTICIPATED and concentrated..."

But when was the last time you crashed on a corner? As I mentioned earlier, crashes are remarkably rare events.

As I mentioned, a lack of experience and a lack of skill means we're at higher risk of a crash, but the longer we ride without a crash, the simple truth is it becomes more difficult for us to mentally view a bend as a high risk area. It would be a mistake to call this complacency - it's a function of the way our brains see the world outside. We're biased towards looking on the bright side - for more on this, have a read of a book called 'The Optimism Bias' by neuroscientist Tali Sharot. The more we do something, and EVEN THOUGH THE RISKS ARE UNCHANGED, the less aware of the risks we become. Ask any builder who's fallen off a ladder.

If there IS a risk of complacency, paradoxically it's likely to come after more training. Think about it. The language of riding, driving and road safety generally is about "getting better" and the better we get (in this case, the fewer scares we have mid-corner), the more likely we are to assume everything will go right. The combination of training (which tells us that skilled riders have fewer crashes) AND a crash-free history leads us to believe it's our training keeping us safe, rather than the laws of chance. Just like tossing dice, each bend comes with a level of risk, and we just haven't met that unique set of circumstances that could trip us up...


Don't believe me? Roadcraft talks about being prepared for what we can "reasonably expect to happen". If we don't get caught out in a corner, that becomes the 'reasonable' option. We may not realise it but that's what our repeated experience is teaching us. But what it doesn't take away is the risk that the very next corner could be the one that's laid a trap just for us.

Once we understand this, 'inexplicable' crashes start to explain themselves.

Hopefully, now we are aware of how repeated experience and optimism can warp our assessment of risk, we'll see how to defeat SURPRISE! Instead of planning for "what we can reasonably expect to happen" and thinking that "I've done everything I can to ensure the corner goes right", we MUST reverse our thinking 180 degrees and prepare for UNREASONABLE events. We need to plan for the 'Worst Case Scenario' to see a bend might go wrong, rather than planning the 'right way' to ride around it. As I explain on my Survival Skills advanced rider training courses, predicting the 'Worst Case Scenario' isn't difficult, but really is a very different mindset to the standard 'right way' approach to riding.

Achieving this pragmatic "I've taken all the precautions I can but anything could still go wrong " mindset is known as developing 'insight' and has been used successfully in risk management training in other fields. What's very interesting is that the latest research is suggesting that with just a modest level of machine control ability, developing the insight that engages a "what could go wrong" mindset has significant benefits. I suggest this is because if we're expecting something to go wrong, when the 'Worst Case Scenario' turns up mid-corner, we're far less likely to suffer SURPRISE! for the simple reason we had predicted it. That would seem to be the way to defeat Code's inappropriate 'Survival Reactions'.

So how can we plan for what might go wrong? It's simple enough - we just need to look at where other riders got it wrong! That's where we are most likely to caught out ourselves. The three 'standard' crashes are at junctions, on corners and during overtakes and they happen to novice and expert riders alike. Once we realise that, it's easier to be on red alert.

There's one final step. Even if we correctly anticipate an emergency and avoid freezing, over-reacting or target-fixating, we really need a pre-planned response to beat SURPRISE! If we have to figure out a solution on the fly is about as likely as pulling a rabbit out of our crash hat. We need to know whether we're going to need to change speed, change position, sound the horn, swerve or hit the anchors BEFORE the emergency starts to develop, or those 'Survival Reactions' will still kick in. That's why even highly trained and highly experienced riders still fall victim to age-old crashes.

So yes, by all means observe, anticipate and concentrate. But learn about crashing, understand 'Survival Reactions' and then use that knowledge to anticipate where things will go wrong, rather than how they might go right. That's the best way to deal with SURPRISE! For more on this topic, check out the 'No Surprise? No Accident! website.

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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