Situational awareness, it is one the most important skills in a motorcyclists repertoire. It can make the difference between life and death or at the very least, save you a pair of undies after a large scare. But what is situational awareness? How do you get it and why exactly is it so important?
What is situational awareness?
It can be defined by acknowledging and assessing the information that is all around you at any given time. The more information that you can gather from your surroundings, the more aware you are and the safer that you are.
The term Situational Awareness or SA was first coined back in WW1 by the Air Force pilots who were often in Dog-fights. It was first known as the “Ace factor“. Survival in a dogfight was typically a matter of observing the opponent’s current move and anticipating his next move a fraction of a second before he could observe and anticipate his own. These days, we are assessing a lot more than just one or two pilots actions, we are assessing a whole road space and the surrounding area and judging how it all relates to our safety.
An example of some things that you would be assessing :
- Weather conditions – Wet, dry, cloudy, sunny, cold or hot?
- Road condition – Slippery, mossy, pot-holed, debris etc…
- Surrounding factors – Animals, gravel, over-hanging trees, drive-ways etc…
- Other road users – Their driving style, distance between them and yourself, who is behind you?
- Bike condition – Tyres, engine sounds, brake feel, mirror positioning.
Those are just a few of the things around us that provide information but each of those can also be broken down into a much more detailed list. The more you learn and the longer you ride, the more information you absorb and you therefore become more aware of your surroundings. Information from things such as vanishing points and driver behaviour only start to come to fruition after you have mastered the basics when you are much more comfortable riding and have more time to think about what is going on around you.
The amount of information you absorb is also largely dependent on speed, the faster that you go, the longer it takes for you to process an event and in some cases that can be critical. Which is why it is essential to only ride as fast as your brain can keep up.
“Travelling at 100Kph the objects that are immediately travelling past us, what you would see if you looked sideways, are moving at 27.8 (rounded up) Metres per second. They will have travelled past you from front to back in less than a 1/15thof a second. Would you have time to identify what the “image” was let alone decide a course of action based on that? However a distant object, although still travelling toward us at the same 27.8ms is within our view for a much longer time, in fact you should be able to work out that if it is 300Mtrs in front of us it will be slightly longer than 10secs before we are on top of it, Plenty of time to react.”
*Taken from Abbiss.co.nz , Written by Greg Abbiss.
How do I get situational awareness?
When you first start riding a motorbike, your senses are overwhelmed by the amount of changing factors around you. It is nothing like sitting in a car and you feel much more vulnerable sitting out in the open, which unfortunately also throws off your ability to read the road.
I had many near misses when I started riding, purely because I hadn’t yet learnt how to read the road and most importantly, read the drivers.
Treat other cars like they are out to kill you and observe every movement that they make. Are their tyres moving to the side at all? Are they checking their mirrors or doing head checks? What side of their lane are they on? If they are moving to either the left or right side, are they pulling into the next lane?
But whilst also doing that, you must do it to all of the other cars around you, including behind you. If you had to put on your brakes, would they be able to stop in time before hitting you?
If it helps, try speaking to yourself as you notice each new piece of information that becomes available. You should be able to keep a non-stop running tab on the changing environment around you which shows you just how much info there is out there.
If you are riding through a rural area, try noticing small things that will potentially affect your safety. If there is cattle nearby, could they run out onto the road or be around that blind bend? There is also a good chance that there is animal waste on the road, and often conveniently on the apex of corners so you can watch out for that.
Remember that the further you look ahead, the more information your brain can receive and process. Scan from far to near and continually repeat that process.
Research has shown that when you keep your eyes moving, you see a lot more and can take more information in whereas, if you keep your eyes fixed on one spot, the surrounding items or information seem to disappear. So always keep you eyes moving.
Why is it so important?
Situational Awareness is important for the fact that it is the basis for avoiding every possible accident that you could have. The ability to not only read your surroundings but to also anticipate and act before something happens is essential if you want to be a safe rider. It doesn’t matter whether you are lane splitting down the motorway, riding around busy urban streets or carving up the twisty rural roads, SA can benefit every single situation that you come upon.
The Police have the acronym IPSGA, it translates into Information, position, speed, gear and acceleration. Notice how the first word is information? Using your situational awareness, you will be collating an ever growing bank of information that is relevant to the immediate space around you.
Using that information you then position yourself on the road so that you give yourself the best line through the corner. What is the best line? You can find out in Greg’s article about which line to take through a corner.
You then adjust your speed so that you can safely make it through the corner without having to change up or down gears. Meanwhile you are still taking in new information which will determine which speed to use through the corner, perhaps something has changed and as a precaution you drop down 10km/h to give yourself more time to react.
Then we are finally at the acceleration stage which is pretty self explanatory.
The 10 to 1 rule.
Using the IPSGA method, with every “potential” threat that you notice as you are collating information, you drop your speed by 10km/h. So every time something potentially harmful is noticed, you slow down 10km/h each time. Hence the 10 to 1 reference. The 10 to 1 rule in full.
To conclude, in order to both improve our riding and stay alive long enough to improve it, SA is key. It is the best way to look out for yourself on the road and even out here on the track.
But the best way to improve is to practice, practice and practice. By the time you have reached the stage where you can anticipate every threat on the road, you will then nearly be at the stage of having an absolutely clean accident record, which is a rather good thing.