A couple of months back we started some thoughts that were bandied about in early July via email between Fighter Pilot Tim “Wedge” O’Toole, Motorcycle Safety Maven David Hough, and publisher Brian Rathjen.
We will let David have the last comments, and we hope your takeaway from all this is to talk amongst your fellow riders and friends about what is good, what is bad, what you want, and want you need to avoid while riding these machines we love so much…
I suspect that there are ways to teach Situational Awareness, but certainly, it's not done in state rider training. One of the reasons for my pocketbook, Street Rider's Guide is that it's just one hazard after another. I came to realize that SA starts with just believing that you can spot hazards out there.
When the late Keith Patchett was in the USAF in Japan, his CO called him in one day and asked if he rode a motorcycle. "Yes? Great. We’re losing way too many people to motorcycle crashes. I’m assigning you to do whatever it takes to get the numbers down. Dismissed.”
Keith just called ongoing meetings of anyone on base who owned a motorcycle. I was eager to learn what curricula Keith used. No planned lessons, he responded. I just start talking about hazards and situations, and they start realizing that they CAN spot situations in advance. As Keith put it, "These aren't dummies, it's just that no one ever told them they could learn to spot hazards. Once they started looking, our crash numbers dropped."
I once read of a curriculum in one of the northern European countries, Finland perhaps, where the instructor gave each student a Polaroid camera and sent them out into the nearby town to find and record all the motorcycle hazards they could find. I chuckled when I hear of this, because back then I believed in the value of teaching control skills such as cornering, braking, swerving, etc.
Looking back, I think they had a good idea there.
So, yes, it's necessary to have at least rudimentary control skills, but few crashes seem to happen as a result of lacking skills. The majority of crashes in the USA are with the bike slamming into something, often at a high velocity. I realize that it cuts against the grain to suggest that our macho riding and ignorance of common hazards is the primary contributing factor in crashes, but the science seems to support that theory. The morbidity of a motorcycle crash seems to be a function of impact speed, regardless of gear. Crashes occur less often when the rider was exceeding the speed limit. And once a crash is set in motion at speed, physics makes it very difficult to take evasive action.
Another part of this equation is that our control of the bike is automatic, which is to say “subconsciously.”
As newbies, we have to focus hard to learn how to clutch and shift, and ten years later we just think "shift up" and it happens like an automatic transmission. I suggest that motorcycles are no different from flying, music, sports, or other rapid-action skills. We just don't have time to think through every little action in real-time, so the subconscious has to take over. I suppose we could opine that what it means to become skilled is to train the subconscious to be highly proficient at the action so that the decisions about what needs to happen can become the focus of the conscious.
I also subscribe to the theory that people have different skill sets that make them OK, good, or great at whatever tasks are given to them. One former AF pilot/flight crew training instructor described a mission in Vietnam that scared the shit out of him. It was the proverbial dark stormy night, and he was doing his best to hold a position at the far end. Suddenly he realized the boss had initiated a sharp left turn, and he was being left behind in the clouds. He released his bombs and hit the afterburner to catch up.
By comparison, I was once in the simulator with another instructor. To obtain photos or video of cockpit situations I needed to schedule a simulator, which typically would be a third shift, and in addition to the talent and shooter, I would need a sim-certified instructor. To get someone to come out in the middle of the night, my payback was allowing extra time to give the instructor seat time. This guy was in the navy reserve and a weekend warrior. So, to give him something extra to deal with, I sat back at the sim instructor console and started dialing in faults. Fuel imbalance, excessive crosswind, engine one turbine failure, etc. He handled them all, heading south into Boeing Field. About a mile out I failed the right engine, too. He dropped the ram air turbine to get navigation back, put that thing in a crab, dropped the gear, and kissed the runway right on center. In other words, he had the right stuff to make a great pilot.
Comparing that to motorcycling, I think we make the mistake of believing that the quality of a motorcyclist is measured by his speed on the racetrack, and many times that is not enough to get you home.