Situation Awareness In A High-Threat Environment - RIDE CRAFT

When to look. And when to not... padlocking your focus.

Vision illustration
Look now. Don't look now.Illustration by Ryan Inzana

Years ago I read an inter­view with a veteran Air Force fighter pilot who said that veteran fighter pilots beat rookie pilots in mock air battles because the rookies “look away at the wrong time.” This comment stuck with me as I observed motorcyclists’ eye usage.

Recently retired three-star Marine Corps Gen. Robert Schmidle flies jets and teaches others to fly jets, and I asked him about the above quote. “Flying fighters requires many different scan patterns, but when you spot the enemy aircraft, you ‘padlock’ your focus so as not to lose sight of it. You learn to look with purpose but without prejudice,” he said.

Many times riders and drivers I know have looked away at the wrong time. When they should have “padlocked” onto the highest-priority danger, they looked away. Here are some examples and situations to think about:

1) On a two-lane road, the driver looked over to make a conversational point when oncoming traffic was within a quarter mile. Our vehicle and the oncoming vehicle were both traveling at 60 mph, covering about 88 feet per second each, due to pass each other in seconds. My internal alarms blared.

The sooner you see an oncoming car bleeding into your lane, the more time and options you have to react. Oncoming traffic due to pass within feet of you must remain your priority, bike or car.

2) As my friend stopped for a red light, she sat comfortably in neutral and waited patiently for the green light. Wrong. As a rider comes to a stop, that rider must be focused on his/her mirrors to monitor the approach of the next vehicle. This rider must stay in gear, flash the brake light, and have their bike on the side of the lane so that they can move to a spot between the cars ahead, in the case that the approaching car isn't stopping quickly enough. After a car stops safely behind you, it's generally okay to flick into neutral and relax.

3) I was driving in heavy city traffic and my wife said, "Wow, look at that golf store. It looks like it has a four-deck driving range!" As impressive as that might be, I couldn't look because my focus was on the two blinds spots I was trying to get through. A blind spot is the point where your vehicle is invisible to the drivers you're behind and next to, unless they turn their heads, which is difficult while texting.

If your concentration strays while in a blind spot, you could be the victim of a bad lane change. It will be their fault, but your vehicle and/or body will be hurt—all because you weren't focused on the surrounding cars.

4) The rider was 20 feet away from a busy intersection with oncoming traffic waiting to turn left, and he glanced in his mirror. In that half second, his bike covered 22 feet at 30 mph. The mirror check should've come sooner, well before he arrived at the intersection. As he glanced in the mirror, the waiting car attempted to dart across the intersection. The rider refocused off the mirror, but it was too late.

Yes, riders must scan and jump their eyes and take in all surroundings, but at some point the most dangerous priority requires the vast majority of our attention. “Padlock on” to the priority and give it your attention until safely past.