Motorcycle Tips & Techniques

Motorcycle Safety/Dynamics

Skip Repetitive Navigational Links
Safety TipsTips:217-252   Tip238   Print article Print

Mental Models
The 'Close To Home' one needs to be built

By: James R. Davis

In virtually all of the other safety articles I have written you will note that I have focused on some aspect of controlling the motorcycle or its dynamics. Though this article may seem not fit that mold, I invite you to reconsider, because when I talk of control, I include controlling yourself.

Putting your mind into the right 'safety set' is a fundamentally important part of safe riding.

When you are riding local streets, you must scan for potential threats coming at you from your side. You must consider the possibility that someone will run a stop light or sign at an intersection. You must allow for the possibility of a pedestrian or domestic animal entering the roadway ahead of you, or from in front of the parked car you are about to pass. You need to consider such things as cars backing out of driveways, how long a light ahead of you has been green (is it 'stale'?), whether or not it is a school day, and what time of day it is, in order to recognize whether or not you are traveling too fast for a school zone. And you need to evaluate each and every left and right turn you are going to make for road surface quality and obstructions, proper speed, traffic signs, proper sight lines, and the often unpredictable driving behavior of others as you 'negotiate' right-of-way. You can also expect to have to make an occasional start or stop on a steep hill. In other words, you must adopt a mental model of your environment that is specifically designed to let you best deal with situational awareness issues. Call that your 'local streets model'.

An obviously contrasting model needs to be activated the moment you enter a freeway and begin riding at highway speeds. Now you need to consider erratic lane-changing behavior, on- and off-ramp merging threats, the possibility of having to make an emergency stop or rapid slowdown from high speed, tailgating drivers talking on cell-phones, and lane selection strategies to position yourself properly for upcoming road changes or exits. But you need not spend much effort or attention looking for pedestrians or domestic animals, or people pulling out of driveways, and you do not have to deal with 90-degree right or left turns, or stop lights, or oncoming traffic with left turn signals. In other words, you need to adopt a very different mental model in order to deal with the realities you will be confronted with on those freeways. Call this model your 'freeway model'.

My guess is that you can see where this is going. When you are riding on country roads you will need to switch mental maps to one that includes an awareness of the need to watch out for deer, or slow moving tractors, or poor pavement, or cars that have pulled off the road ahead of you who decide to make a U-turn just as you approach them. You need to have adopted the 'country road model' in your mind or those threats are not anticipated properly.

Riding in the dark requires a variation of each of those mental models just as riding in the rain requires yet other variations.

What is common to all of the models is that they are selected based on known threat potentials. That is, you use them to increase your odds in dealing with the threats that tend to be unique to the situation you place yourself into. And with experience you don't even have to decide which model to use - when your engine speed changes from one pattern to another, your subconscious switches those models for you appropriately. That is one reason you seek experience - call it practice.

But my riding partner, Cash, alerted me to one mental model that I had not realized we both have and which I had not thought of until she did so. Call it the 'close to home model'. This one is not automatically activated unless you are aware of it.

You see, statistics are very clear about this - most motorcycle accidents occur relatively close to home. And whether you go out on a hundred mile ride, or a two thousand mile tour, or a fifty mile day ride, before you get home you must get 'close to home' first.

And when you do you are more tired, more fatigued, than when you left. You probably have encountered and dealt with half a dozen 'close calls', or instances of crazy driver behavior, or any of the other threats mentioned above, and survived them. Now that the road is familiar, you have a tendency to unwind and settle into the familiar. And that leads to making mistakes when the unexpected happens.

Cash tells me that whenever she gets within five miles of home she switches her mental gears and perspectives. She convinces herself that she has "only FIFTY MILES to go" instead of "only FIVE MILES to go" in order to remind herself and enable the right mental model to remain vigilant, because like all of us, she knows that she cannot enjoy tomorrow's ride if she doesn't survive today's ride.

Build your mental models with experience, shift them as often as your situation changes, and create and use a "Close to home model".

Copyright © 1992 - 2022 by The Master Strategy Group, all rights reserved.

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

A plea for your help