By: James R. Davis

When everything is going right, riding a motorcycle is effortless and completely enjoyable. By ‘right’ I mean that the weather is perfect, traffic is light, the bike is familiar and well maintained, and you are rested and healthy. Given these conditions you have the potential to focus entirely on those things that demand your attention – or to be lulled into believing that you can afford to be distracted for a few minutes, and die in a heartbeat.

On the other hand, there is never a better time to see the fields you are driving past, or smell the aroma of freshly cut grass, or to enjoy the sight of a couple of hot air balloons in the distance than when everything is going right. Is this not a safety conflict however?

Permit me to suggest that ‘paying attention’ is not only not the same as ‘being alert’, it is almost the opposite – these are mutually exclusive concepts except as regards to whatever you happen to be focused on. Indeed, letting your attention ‘wander’ is very much the same as being ‘alert.’ There is a lesson to be learned with the distinction.

Assume that you have a limit to how much your mind can pay attention to at any single moment. You can be aware, for example, of traffic conditions all around you, of how fast you are going, of the sounds your engine is making, of the approximate time of day it is, of the words to the music you hear in your headset from your radio or tape or CD, of the surrounding countryside unfolding around you as you drive by, of the temperature, of how long it’s been since you last ate or made a potty stop, and of the general location and status of the motorcycles both in front and behind you. It would seem to most people that there is no limit to how many different things you can be aware of at any one time. This, because you scan these things quickly and PAY very little attention to them, so long as each appears to you to conform to what you expect of them.

The ability to notice that something is wrong is called being ‘alert.’ When, during your attention scanning effort (i.e., while your attention is wandering) something happens out of the ordinary, is unexpected, then a wondrous thing happens within your mind – you FOCUS on the discrepancy. You PAY substantially more of your attention to it. And now you find that your ability to be
attentive to many things at once has reached a limit!

For example, if you are driving down a freeway at 70 MPH and happen to notice that a truck some distance ahead of you has just blown a tire, then you will be so completely focused on that truck and what is around it as well as your reactions to that event that you will almost certainly no longer be able to notice the scenery to the side of the road, nor are those hot air balloons able to get your attention any longer, even if one of them were to fall out of the sky.

What we have discovered is that not only is there a limit to our ability to pay attention, but when our attention is focused our ability to be alert to other things is diminished. THAT is dangerous!

When we have to focus on some aspect of our riding we are forced to diminish the wandering of our attention. For example, if it is raining and after dark we tend to narrow our visual focus and concentrate on what we see ahead of us. At this time we do not have the ability to let our attention wander very far for we have very little attention left. Indeed, if we then discover that we are lost the very first thing we will all do is to slow down so that speed is no longer consuming any of our attention – we have already exceeded our limits.

This is no time for us to have a radio on or be listening to a tape!

That is the message here:

In any situation in which you must focus your attention you must at the same time reduce as many distractions as possible.

  • If you are riding an unfamiliar bike, make sure the radio/tape is off and that you do not test any other limits (such as high speed or steep lean angles.)
  • If traffic suddenly increases or becomes ‘weird’, hit your mute button and reduce speed if possible.
  • If the weather suddenly turns bad, hit your mute button and reduce speed if possible.

Clearly your radio can become one distraction too many.

Copyright © 1992 – 2014 by The Master Strategy Group, all rights reserved.

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