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Paying Attention is NOT
the Same as Being Alert/Aware

It is deadly, at the wrong time

By: James R. Davis

Yesterday I saw two motorcycle incidents that, thankfully, involved no accidents - but could have. One was funny, the other was an invitation to a disaster.

In the first instance I saw a motorcycle pull up to a red light and stop. There was a police car immediately behind him. The motorcyclist decided after about ten seconds that the light was stuck (I guess) and casually took off and crossed the street. I was right next to the police car and both occupants looked at each other and shook their heads. They took off after the motorcycle, lights flashing. The rider was not trying to get away - he saw the flashing lights and pulled over to get his ticket. He obviously had not noticed the police car behind him. I suspect most people would argue that he was not paying attention.

In the second instance I was walking my dog and as we got near the end of the block there is a stop sign because there is a busy side-street crossing there. A motorcycle rode up to the stop sign and stopped. He apparently looked both ways and saw that the only traffic was a city bus approaching from the left. But that bus had its blinkers on and was slowing to a stop at the bus stop on my left. Seeing that the bus was actually stopping the motorcyclist decided it was clear to enter the intersection and took off. ONE HALF SECOND later he grabbed a handful of brake and panic stopped as the car that had been to the left of the bus (and had, thus, been invisible to him) screeched its tires and did a panic stop trying to avoid hitting the motorcycle. They were both successful in stopping in time but the motorcyclist could reach out with his left hand and touch the car's hood at that time. Close! Some would argue that the motorcyclist was not paying attention.

In both cases I would argue that the motorcyclist WAS paying attention - too much of it - and was not alert or aware of his surroundings. It is simply not true that paying attention means alert or aware. It means, because we have a limited amount of attention to 'spend', that you are focused on something, not scanning and not particularly sensitive to other potential problems.

The first rider paid attention to the red light. He completely missed the fact that a police car was behind him. He also failed the patience test as ten seconds seemed like a long time to him, again I'm guessing. That lapse of awareness cost him a ticket but it could just as easily have cost him his life. Entering an intersection on a red light is a bet your life decision.

The second rider was paying attention - to the bus. He obviously failed to do anything like a 'What if there's a car hidden by that bus?' kind of self-preservation inner dialog. Instead, with all his attention on the bus, and seeing that it was not a threat to him, he concluded that there were no other vehicles and took off from the stop sign - right into the path of that hidden car.

Paying attention is usually the wrong thing to do when you are riding. Being alert and aware of your surroundings ('situational awareness' is what pilots call it) is life saving accident avoidance mental activity.

You pay attention AFTER you recognize a threat in order to assess what you should do about it. You do NOT pay attention before that so that you can detect threats.

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(James R. Davis is a recognized expert witness in the fields of Motorcycle Safety/Dynamics.)

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