Backmarker: Situational Awareness for Riders

September 18, 2014
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Avoiding the Worst-Case Scenario: Situational Awareness for Street Survival

As a serious motorcyclist – and typical Backmarker reader – you already wear proper protective gear, and have honed your riding skills. You’ve taken courses, and done your homework. You know all the safe-riding tips. But over the last few weeks I’ve been reminded a few times – both in my own riding, and in stuff I’ve seen online – that the single most important street survival skill is situational awareness.

The framework that I use to help people understand situational awareness, and to be aware of their own level of awareness, is one I was taught decades ago by Jeff Cooper.


Most people scan from side to side, in near, middle, and distant arcs. I prefer to scan in rays (green lines) flicking my attention between near, middle distance, and distant traffic.

The conditions in this photo – light traffic and good visibility, with no immediate threats visible – make this a good time to play, “What if?..” The red car just ahead could change lanes into the gap ahead of us, but it’s not likely, as there’s no exit visible. But is that truck safely loaded? If a ladder suddenly fell off, would the Saturn swerve and brake into our lane? Now’s the time to notice that nice wide shoulder.

When I first learned about this stuff, it was in the context of a different kind of threat – not the actions of other vehicles on the road. But one good way to survive as a street rider is, in fact, to ride as if cage drivers actively mean you harm. The techniques I learned at Gunsite Ranch have been very useful to me as a motorcyclist.

It’s easy to think, “you’re either paying attention or you’re not,” and that’s the end of it. I disagree; the best way to improve situational awareness is, first, to become aware of your level of awareness.

By that, I mean, it’s not good enough to just try and be aware of what’s going on around you. You need to take responsibility for your awareness, and constantly monitor the degree to which you are present and 100% devoted to the task of riding properly.

Let’s assign Dept. of Homeland Security-style color codes to levels of situational awareness:
• White – you are unaware of your surroundings; daydreaming, or distracted
• Yellow – a state of relaxed awareness
• Orange – a heightened state of alert in response to a specific potential threat
• Red – immediate action is required

Condition White

You shouldn’t drive your car in Condition White, and you really shouldn’t ride a motorcycle in this state. But, you almost certainly have done so.

If you’ve ever left your office and then found yourself pulling into your driveway, and thought, “Holy crap, I don’t remember getting here,” you’ve traveled home in Condition White. That’s less likely to happen on a bike, because the act of riding is more physically involving than driving a car, but even on a bike where you’re feeling the wind and the visceral sense of leaning into turns, you can find yourself rolling blithely along in Condition White for minutes at a time.

The two kinds of riders most likely to ride around this way – completely oblivious to traffic threats – are newbies and (ironically) very skilled riders. Newbs do it because they are preoccupied with basic machine control. Just remembering where the clutch and gears are and which button you press to cancel the turn signals, wondering whether they turned on the fuel petcock… That stuff takes all their available concentration; there’s no mental bandwidth left for them to realize that there’s a delivery truck backing out of the alley half a block ahead.

Very skilled riders are also vulnerable for two reasons: First, they’ve completely internalized basic riding, so they can get on their bike, start it, and operate it while their conscious mind is preoccupied with other things. Second, skilled riders also have a tendency to think they can ride their way out of any situation, which can lead to complacency.

Countless psychological experiments have proved that no one can multitask. People who think they can multitask are really just switching between tasks quickly. The terrifying video I posted last week drives home the point that Very Bad Things can happen in the time it takes you to react.

The best way to not ride around in Condition White is to give yourself $#!+ when you catch yourself doing it.

Earlier this week, I was traveling on a three lanes (each way) roadway in Kansas City. I was getting ready to exit to the right, so I was in the right lane, but I caught and passed a convertible with a hot blonde at the wheel. I flicked my attention her way.

My admiring glance just took a second or two, but when I shifted my attention back to riding, I realized that I was passing through the last intersection before my exit. There was a car stopped at the intersection and I passed by without incident. No big deal, right? That kind of thing happens all the time.

The thing was, if I’m traveling in the right-hand lane, I should always be watching that car for the first clue that he’s going to turn right on red. He might not have seen me; he might’ve executed a right turn into my lane. If he had done so, he would’ve been at fault, but I’d blame myself. As it was, I was mad at myself for allowing even a one-second distraction.

Any time you find yourself thinking, “That was lucky” you should be angry at yourself for being in Condition White. Really, anytime you ever find yourself surprised by anything, you should probably give yourself a talking-to. Virtually anytime you get a speeding ticket, you weren’t paying good enough attention. Consider traffic fines punishment for your poor situational awareness.

Condition Yellow

This is a state of relaxed awareness. It should be your normal state while riding. As a motorcyclist, your mind should never wander; you should devote 100% of your attention to riding.

You’re looking ahead, of course, but the street’s not a race track; you need 360-degree awareness. Pay attention to what’s going on behind you and off to the sides, as well as occasionally checking your instruments.

Street survival is mostly about processing visual cues, but you should use all of your senses to process information from your environment. I remember approaching a traffic circle one rainy evening on the Isle of Man and getting a strong whiff of diesel fuel. Taking that as a cue to slow down may have prevented an embarrassing single-vehicle accident.

Riding in Condition Yellow doesn’t mean you’re paranoid; it’s not less fun than “just going out for a quick blast.” If anything, it’s more satisfying. There are tons of people who practice yoga or meditate with the goal of “being in the moment.” That’s what you achieve every time you ride this way.

That’s great, but you should clear your head to ride, not ride to clear your head. If you have an argument with your boss as you’re leaving work, don’t hop on your Gixxer and wick it up to vent your frustration. Better to ride slowly to the nearest coffee shop, chill for 15 minutes, and get your head straight.

If you’re a skilled rider on normal roads, in normal traffic, and you’re traveling at a reasonable speed, you should have a little extra mental bandwidth. This is not the time to let your mind wander. It’s the time to play “What if… ?”

Good street riders occupy these moments by asking themselves, What will I do if… as I round this canyon corner, I see a big rock in my lane? Or, …that guy in the turn lane ahead of me pulls across my path? Or, …that woman to my left decides to make a desperate dash for that highway exit on my right?

When an emergency does arise – and eventually, one will – your job is not to figure out what you should do. You should already know what to do. You figure that out playing, “What if… ?”

Condition Orange

Imagine that you’re riding a canyon road and see a car pull into a scenic overlook; is he really going to get out and take a photo? Or is he actually trying to make a U-turn? Maybe you’re approaching a green light, but see a car traveling a little too fast on the cross-street. Any of those scenarios calls for a transition from Condition Yellow to Condition Orange.

Those situations call for focused attention on a potential threat. In Condition Orange, you devote an appropriate amount of attention to the primary threat. What’s an appropriate amount? Enough that you’ll see right away if that threat develops from ‘potential’ to actual.

Take that car in the scenic overlook: Are his front wheels turned, so that if he starts moving he’ll pull back into or across your lane? Look at the top of the tire; is it moving relative to the wheel arch?

If you’ve been paying attention and have picked up the primary threat early, now’s the time to check for secondaries. Look in your mirrors; is anyone right behind you? Can you safely execute a panic stop without being rear-ended? Can you see potential oncoming traffic? What are the shoulders of this road like? Safe for evasive action? If that guy pulls out of the scenic overlook into your path, is the overlook itself a good escape route?


When you’re lane splitting, you should basically be in Condition Orange all the time. This is a perfect example of identifying primary threats, while keeping some bandwidth available for secondary, less immediate, threats. Everyone who safely lane splits knows that you have to pay special attention to a gap in one lane, because it’s an invitation for cagers to change lanes. So as you approach a gap, you watch the adjacent driver like a hawk. But you should still flick your attention up ahead to look for brake lights, too.

If you’ve been playing “What if… ?” all these years, you don’t have to figure out what to do; you’ve already mentally rehearsed a plan. You probably won’t have to execute it, but you’re going to stay in Condition Orange until this particular threat has been resolved. That means, until you pass the overlook, or perhaps until you see the driver open his door to get out.

Note that while a lot of your attention is devoted to the primary threat, you should still reserve a little bandwidth for secondary threats. It won’t do you much good to be so focused on that car in the scenic overlook that you fail to realize the reason he pulled off is that there’s been a major rockfall just ahead.

There are traffic laws, and then there’s a safe pace. There’s no connection between the two. The safe pace is a pace at which you can process all the information you need to process. When a lot of your attention is devoted to a specific potential threat, you have less available bandwidth, by definition.

That’s why if the situation calls for you to enter Condition Orange, you should almost always be slowing slightly, covering your brake, increasing following distances and choosing a lane position that gives you options – even if the threat never materializes.

Condition Red

OK, the worst-case scenario has materialized. In Condition Red, you need to take specific action to avoid a specific threat. If it’s a completely hairball situation, now is when you’re glad you checked tire pressures this morning, bled your brakes last week, took that track school last month, and have been working out on your dirt bike for years.

Now is not the time to devise a plan. Now’s the time to execute a plan that you last mentally rehearsed days ago, while you were in Condition Yellow, and selected a moment ago, in Condition Orange.

With proper situational awareness, the vast majority of accidents are avoidable. Don’t get me wrong… You can do everything right and still get taken out. Motorcycle riding will never be completely safe – and maybe that’s a good thing. But by riding in Condition Yellow, you can make it as safe as possible.

 

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