Pay Attention: Dare to Be Aware

Situational awareness will keep you safe.

Prairie Dogs illustration

What do a prairie dog and a fighter pilot have in common? Situational awareness. That little rodent must be on the alert for predators, head swiveling as he pops up from his hole. And the pilot must absorb everything that’s happening in battle—the position and status of his aircraft, the location of any enemies, the sudden appearance of air-to-air missiles. “Good” just isn’t good enough, either, because for both prairie dog and pilot, one missed clue can spell doom.

Motorcyclists need the same alertness to stay safe, particularly on the street where four-wheeled (and sometimes four-legged) bogeys can appear at any time. To build a situational-awareness mind-set, practice concentrating on what is important and dismissing what isn’t. Use everything at your disposal, including vision, hearing, feel, and smell. For instance, practice attuning to your peripheral vision, an extremely valuable tool. Highly sensitive to light and motion, this sense can detect a car or animal barreling in from the side or another rider about to pass you on track. And, yes, you can simultaneously watch where you’re going while remaining alert for incoming hazards. Then, to reduce distractions, turn off your iPod or smartphone. You need situational awareness far more than you need Miley or Eminem.

• The United States Coast Guard defines situational awareness as “the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regard to the mission. More simply, it’s knowing what is going on around you.”

• One of the classic driver-training rules is to check rearview mirrors every five to 10 seconds. Street riders should include side-view checks, too. Helmets, sunglasses, goggles, and even armored jackets, can affect peripheral vision.

• Dirt riding may be the best incubator for situational awareness. That’s because it requires intense perceptiveness for mud, sand, rocks, hills, ruts, turns, and whoops, plus cliffs, jumps, and braking bumps. Demanding and fun, dirt builds situational awareness fast.

• Because of the higher speeds involved, track riding and racing demand extra situational awareness. Interestingly, the time spent at high speeds on track, closely attuned to competitors, corner workers, the bike, and surface conditions, makes noticing details on the street easier.