Not Looking at Nothing: The Motorcycle Lifesaver

I read a funny comment on a forum the other day. I was googling to find out if and when I should do hand signals on my module 2 (the on-road part of the motorcycle test), and somebody said the most important one to remember is extending the middle finger straight up when you fail. Thankfully, I didn’t need it. I passed with three minor faults.

I’ll share some of my insights and personal advice about biking in this post, but with a couple of warnings: 1) I am not in any way qualified to teach road craft, just to ride a sub-33-brake-horsepower motorcycle; 2) I didn’t get any training myself beyond CBT, so my advice is gleaned from the web or learned from personal experience. Nevertheless, I think I can offer some helpful tips, perhaps in particular for others who choose not to get professional training and are rooting around the web trying to make sense of the often conflicting information.

There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of information, in fact. As I did my searches and went out practising, the thought emerged that I would like to write about the subject of motorcycle safety. It almost became a promise to influence the fates: “Just let me pass first time and I’ll help others in this mess!”.

Only the day before my test it felt like a terrible mess. One of the commonest problems with information on the net is that the date is often missing – blogs obviously being a welcome exception. People write things like “The new regulations have only been in place a few months and already…”, but there’s no date.

This seems to have led to my panic: I went out for my last driving practice (other than on the way to the test) trying to follow what I took to be good guidance, not realising that some of it was out of date, in particular advice about the shoulder check. Test requirements and the consensus advice of trainers change over time, so you have to be careful about what you’re reading.

And then there are regional differences. There’s a dearth of video help on module two, but one I found is at learn2rideVIDEOS on youtube. Now, while there may be some things to be gained from studying these videos, they apply to the test in Northern Ireland and invoke a look-signal-look manoeuvre that is taxing and, to my mind, counter-productive. The “look” part seems to involve a shoulder check, rather than a glance in the mirror, which is unnecessary in many conditions anyway, but the bizarre thing is that this precedes merely indicating and is then followed by yet another shoulder check! That seems to be what is implied, anyway.

Since it takes virtually no time at all to switch the indicator on, this means simply repeating the shoulder check twice in quick succession, during which time you may have ploughed into a bus. There are absolutely vital times do a shoulder check – before changing position on the road, changing lane or turning and setting off – and it’s just adding distracting complications to do such extensive rear obs before and after indicating, it seems to me.

Road Position
The other thing that was relatively new to me in that set of videos was the emphasis put on three precise road positions. Position 1 is one-and-a-half feet from the kerb and is used for turning left. Position 2 is in the centre of the lane, for normal riding and going straight on at junctions. Position 3 is one-and-a-half feet from the centre of the road, used for turning right and overtaking parked vehicles. Position 1 and 3 have exceptions: you should remain in Position 2 even when turning left or right if you’re in a lane dedicated to that manoeuvre.

This scheme doesn’t seem that helpful to me either from the point of view of best practice (although at the time I was mostly interested in getting rid of my L-plates!). As a very rough guide to a complete novice, perhaps it has some value: it at least draws attention to the availability of different road positions and making sensible use of them. But even so, it’s arguably not that useful to introduce the idea of three lane positions for the novice and then have to add a lot of qualifiers, and I’d have to add a lot of qualifiers. This is a general complaint I have about many training schemes, and particularly driving training, that they approach a complex task by devising a simple dogma (often underlined with an acronym) and drill it into people’s heads, instead of helping the student analyse the reality of the situation. Maybe I overestimate people’s ability to think about such matters, but I often find that the ordinary student will raise the same objections and qualifiers as are on my mind, while the poor brainwashed trainer tries to defend the creed. I did a fair amount of training to become a driving instructor at one time, and gave it up partly due to this frustration with being trained to treat people like programmable cyber-rats in a maze.

Here, for example, are a few vital “qualifiers” that immediately overturn the system above. Firstly, during normal riding I would probably choose a position somewhere near the middle of the lane, but I tend to avoid the very centre, especially on country roads. This often collects debris, from mud and gravel up to larger objects, while the areas either side are constantly swept by the passage of car tyres. The centre is also the place where most of the liquid spills take place, like oil and diesel. Certainly this is one of the worst bits of road to be on at a corner, but even with the bike upright you could regret being in the centre if there arises any sudden need for maximum grip. Town roads might have less debris down the middle, as a general rule, but beware of general rules. Where there is more traffic there are more discarded plastic (or glass) bottles and other bits of jetsam. Of course, keeping a safe distance avoids some of this danger, and where you can see a nice clean lane in multi-lane highways with a lot of traffic flow, the centre of your lane has the advantages of clarity of intention and maximizing the empty space around you.

Secondly, I often find that a position to the right or left of centre is a good one. The outer one is often good for maintaining an assertive manner, which communicates itself to other road users (particularly giving the message “no, you can’t just squeeze past, actually” to following traffic and “no, I’m not a small enough target for you to miss if you overtake now” to oncoming morons with heavy boots) and also keeps you feeling the ever-present need to focus, where chosing the least dynamic line along the middle of the lane can give you a false sense of security. It increases your view round left-handers, of course, too. But again here’s the danger of simple rules: how much space will you need to find out that this more exposed position isn’t any good anymore? If that dipstick does decide to overtake coming towards you, can you switch to a more defensive inside position? What about crossing the line of crap along the middle to get there?

So indeed, another very useful position to take can be to the left of centre, off the gravel but out of the way of oncoming traffic, including lorries dragging buffeting bow waves of air and numpties pulling out to overtake them. As I encounter road ends on the left or right I would favour the opposite side of my lane.

Finally, one-and-a-half feet from the centre line or the kerb should be considered just another rough guide. There may be better positions due to reasons of road surface or angles of view at junctions, giving subtle messages to other road users, etc.

The good news is that driving examiners are generally more impressed by the rider who shows good judgement, assessing the road ahead flexibly and intelligently, than one who blindly follows formulae, and this seems to be increasingly so, although there are still serious or dangerous errors that they have to fail you on.

Unfortunately, on that last practice run I tried to put my new-found knowledge into practice and nearly fell off the bike at a junction, not directly because of applying any particular technique, but because I was so busy trying to put them all together that I was distracted from basic bike control. I tried to set off from an almost-stop and had accidentally put the bike into neutral instead of first, so toppled and had to put a foot down. If I’d been on test at that point it would have probably been a serious fault, but I was convinced I’d have failed about 20 times by then anyway. I came home dejected and expecting to fail the next day.

But I kept searching and found this excellent article by Kevin Williams, who didn’t just nearly topple over on a 125, but “demolished [his] 400-Four” due to over-zealous rear observation, he said, going on to present an altogether better and more up-to-date approach. I’ve now read several of the Riding Skills articles there and have to say they’re extremely well crafted, encouraging and down to earth. It was just what I needed the evening before my test day, summed up in the sentence “The riding test seems to have finally accepted that mirrors are there for a purpose and that they are an easy way of finding out what is behind you” and this paragraph:

Mirrors should be checked regularly, even when riding in a straight line on a road which appears to present no hazards. On the open road, you will probably be checking mirrors every ten seconds or so. You need this information to update the 360 degree mental map that you should be keeping in your head. If you ignore the view to the rear, sooner or later something will take you by surprise, when you least need it.

The shoulder check or “lifesaver” is vitally important, but at the right times and for the right reasons, as that article and this clearly describe. Done at the wrong time, or too much, the lifesaver could be a life taker.

On the day of the test I set off early to get some last-minute practice in, but with a new approach to the whole thing, based on the principles of:

  1. trying to remain physically and mentally relaxed, and
  2. scanning, planning and acting within that 360-degree mental map

Now, I must not give the impression that this is a simple formula that anyone can put into practice and immediately be ready to pass the driving test! I have about 15 years of motorcycling under my belt, besides the driving instructor training and an overall 40 years of experience of honing my road craft, including as a cyclist and car driver. This made a massive difference to me partly – and perhaps mainly – because it allowed me to return to something much closer to my usual riding system, which took a lot of pressure off me. Things would be somewhat different for a younger or less experienced rider.

Nevertheless, I think these are excellent principles to put at the centre of anyone’s approach to road sense, and should help with the incorporation and application of new techniques at any stage.

Relaxation is an underestimated quality. Most of us know from personal experience that anxiety can impair performance, and it’s pretty common knowledge that we can only deal with so much information at one time. As we concentrate on getting it right for a test, there is a tendency for us to tighten up physically and become less capable mentally. The conditions of mental and physical relaxation are intimately connected, so it’s very easy to get into a negative spiral: more anxiety leads to gripping the bike harder, and that interferes with your control, which makes you feel more anxious. The trick is to recognise this tendency and interrupt it, making yourself relax physically and mentally, until your natural riding style is relaxed. Obviously there is a happy medium – if you relax too much you fall off!

In particular, unnecessary tension tends to creep in to the upper body and arms. The bars should be held reasonably firmly, but with some looseness in the elbow, not with body weight pushing down on straight arms. It can help a lot to move the muscular action down to the legs and squeeze the tank between them, feeling the upper body becoming looser.

Relaxing seems to make everything easier almost instantly. Tension makes your 3D world close in around you and time seems to rush past. Relaxation opens you up to observe where you are better and everything seems to slow down, giving you more time to think. I found regular mention of this in relation to module 1 on bike forums. It was almost a mantra: “Relax and you’ll be alright mate” – and in practising my u-turns and figure eights in an empty carpark I was amazed to discover just how much truth there was in that. Keep getting rid of the tension. You become much more aware of your sense of balance and you feel the operation of the bike better, the revs, the speed, the biting point, everything.

On the carpark or out on the road, you react much better, too, if you’re relaxed. There’s a whole deeper level of this I could go into to do with meditation, but I’ll save it for another time.

It’s not easy keeping calm. My examiner, following in a car for some unknown reason, told me on the intercom to pull over at the side of the road in the layby coming up. We were on a narrow country lane, probably only six foot wide and actually one-way, unusually. I was approaching a wide house entrance with lots of room and began to pull over there. He started saying (almost irritably, I thought) “No, not there; go round the corner and stop in the layby”. I moved on, round the corner, which had a wider portion on the outside of the bend. Since this was quite a tight bend, and I was thinking of it as a passing place (stupidly: it’s one-way), I thought he meant there was a layby further on “round the corner”, as he’d said. He raised his voice again as I was virtually past it altogether, telling me “There, that’ll do just in there!”. I obviously wasn’t as calm as I thought (and maybe it’s not very easy doing his job either), because as I jammed on the brakes and wobbled into the last few inches of space, looking round to check for possible traffic, I ranted, “That’s not a fucking layby, for fuck’s sake!” or similar. I thought there was a strong possibility he would fail me, but I planned to have something to say about it if he did. It’s not fair to tell someone to do something so counterintuitive as stop on a tight bend. It’s one of the places they tell you specifically not to stop. Just because it’s one-way doesn’t make it ok..probably. It was also quite a steep hill (down – he wasn’t doing this for a hill-start but to begin the independent driving section). See that’s the time you have to take a deep breath, not shout too loud or use the middle finger hand signal.

The Mental Map
So there you are traveling along the road at the centre of a 360-degree sweep of activity. You keep track of this as a kind of mental map, which you update all the time. Danger could arise from anywhere, although of course the potential for it is concentrated in certain places. Traveling forward, your main concern most of the time should be assessing what lies ahead, while stopped in traffic you might need to monitor things more evenly, or with some other emphasis, perhaps to the side or even rearward. Of course, you don’t sweep round like a radar, but you should have that sense of knowing (or getting to know) what’s happening everywhere around you.

At one point on my module two I was waiting at a junction that was just beyond a bus station. On approach I clocked the bus trying to cross the traffic to enter my lane. The driver waited, but as I pulled up he was in my blind spot, so I kept a keen eye on the bus, the traffic passing in front of it and the queue of traffic behind me with a regular right shoulder check, as this was a significant potential hazard. If someone flashed him to come out, or he decided to barge across the lane to stake his claim to the road, I wanted to know about it in good time. Of course, I also wanted to make it clear to my examiner, sitting on my tail, that I had noticed this danger and was monitoring the situation.

The Shoulder Check in More Detail
The good news is that if you regularly update your mental map with mirror checks, the Driving Standards Agency has twigged, you don’t have to act like a nodding dog on a parcel shelf anymore. There are times when the shoulder check is absolutely essential, but if you’re not doing too many you’re more likely to remember them, and you don’t give other motorists confusing messages.

I’m still a novice in this particular technique, I must admit, and one of my biggest lessons has been the importance of doing more shoulder checks. Only a week ago I would ride for hours and not do a single lifesaver, relying on my regular mirror checking alone.

By the time of the test I wasn’t at all clear how far my head turning round would be taken as a shoulder check by the examiner. Clearly he thought they were fine, because none of my three minor faults were on observation. I tried to make the required ones fairly clear, but once or twice I thought that wasn’t enough. It was often not clear where the crossover was between a mirror check (which, as all the advice seemed to suggest I should, I was emphasising so he’d not miss me doing them) and a shoulder check (which I didn’t emphasise, partly because I’m not used to them and partly because I know you’re not supposed to crane your head round too much). Typical of me – I was beginning to get to grips with all this on the freaking day.

But I think I’ve realised that, for someone following, it’s probably difficult to tell the difference anway. One thing that seems not to be mentioned in any of the materials I’ve read is precisely how you perceive what may be in your blind spot. The better articles do at least explain where it is – it extends from where your peripheral vision ends when looking ahead to what you can see at the outer edge of your mirror, but the missing piece of information I’m referring to is that when you perform a shoulder check, you assess the contents of the blind spot in your peripheral vision, while you turn your head to the side. This is important information for understanding the technique, I believe. With my head turned only 45 degrees to the side, I can see almost to 180 degrees behind me (as I sit here – I haven’t tried with a helmet on, which might limit it a bit more).

That would explain why some of my less obvious checks were considered good (and did seem functional to me), even though I hardly seemed to turn my head. The other great thing about this fact is that the peripheral vision in the other direction – towards the direction of travel – still covers a fair amount of what’s in front of me while I’m “looking behind”.

In fact, I’m not really looking behind. The way the purpose of a shoulder check is often described is to “look into the blind spot”, but you don’t look directly at the blind spot. Your line of sight isn’t in that direction – it is more to the side of you, and your eyes turn in their sockets, so your head isn’t even turned that far. What happens is that your peripheral vision confirms the emptiness of the blind spot, or picks up the possible hazard there. You do it early enough to abandon the manoeuvre if you have to.

This is another thing that makes the shoulder check weird, that most of the time it’s not about looking at anything. 99.9% of the time, there’s nothing there to see. You could say the shoulder check is a “not looking at nothing” (before it hits you): if you’re looking directly at it, you’ve turned too far and could adversely affect your steering and balance; if it’s a something, you abandon the manoeuvre it precedes.

Well, that completes my backward glance at passing my module 2! I don’t know how much more I’ll write about road safety, but hopefully I’ll return to the subject in coming months. One thing that came out of watching the videos mentioned above is how useful biker videos are for discussing and demonstrating road safety. I’ve done a few test videos myself that I’ve put on youtube, and I might explore this aspect further. I wonder what the picture quality would be like through that plastic screen now I’ve taken the L-plate off. I might write a bit more about the mod 1 later, too.

If you’re about to take either test, good luck and remember: relax and be at the control-centre of your 360 degrees. Show your examiner that you do the required things, but you’re making responsible decisions for yourself all the time. That’s what makes a safe driver, not having to be told everything. Your attitude will be very influential, affecting all the examiner’s subjective judgements right from the start. And even if you think you’ve failed, try to ignore it and carry on. The worst thing would be to find you hadn’t then, but did later because you stopped caring.

This entry was posted in Hobbies, Motorcycling and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Not Looking at Nothing: The Motorcycle Lifesaver

  1. Pingback: Rao vặt nhà đất

  2. Bob says:

    I am hoping to do the test in the next couple of months, and find your intelligent articles really useful! Thanks from Bob

  3. Paul says:

    as somebody who visited East Germany in the halcyon pro EU enlargement days I have always been interested in MZ’s They are a bit of an icon for a certain breed of barbour coated duffer. I would like to buy one but i guess they are expensive now

  4. lettersquash says:

    Ah yes, the MZ – I hope to blog a bit about my ETZ 251 Saxon Tour soon, and I’m going to get back into doing helmet cam videos before long. I haven’t checked the price since I got mine, but it was only £660 and I got carried away on eBay. If it holds its value fairly well I’ll be happy enough, but they are about the right age to become classics. But how dare you, Sir? – I’m a Weise coated duffer, not Barbour.

  5. Seta Soso says:

    In Spain motorbike riders do not perform the lifesaver / shoulder check simply because this is an immediate fail on the riding test since it’s considered dangerous to take your eyes off the direction of travel even for an instant. I strongly disagree and always do a shoulder check even when it’s pretty obvious there’s no one around just to keep the habit up. It’s saved me from quite a few disasters, especially on motorways when a vehicle moves in to occupy the free space I was planning to move into.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s