Pilots use the international phonetic alphabet, and therefore understand immediately the meaning of the term “Sierra Alpha.” It is code for “SA”, which is the acronym for “Situational Awareness.” Motorcyclists with more than about five thousand miles understand the concept, but not necessarily the terminology. The individuals most acutely sensitive to situational awareness are fighter pilots. Fighter pilots have a saying “Speed is life… altitude is insurance!” This is certainly accurate to some extent, but if you have so little “Sierra Alpha” that you don’t even know your enemy is approaching, neither speed nor altitude will help!
One way to gain some perspective on this is to visualize that you are operating your motorcycle in an environment where just about everyone around you is trying to kill you. Sounds like a fighter pilot’s environment, doesn’t it?! Flying a fighter and riding a motorcycle both require constant situational awareness for survival. Perhaps we should settle on a definition of situational awareness before we proceed.
The description of situational awareness in Wikipedia can be characterized as follows: 1) perception of elements, 2) understanding the significance of each element, and 3) using that understanding to predict a future situation.
“Googling” the term “definition of situational awareness” on the internet also results in a page from the Naval Aviation Schools Command that can be paraphrased as follows:
What is Situational Awareness:
Situational awareness refers to the degree of accuracy by which one’s perception of his current environment mirrors reality.
Perception Versus Reality:
View of Situation
Expectation and Biases
Incoming Information verses Expectations
Factors that Reduce Situational Awareness
“Press on Regardless” Philosophy
Degraded Operating Conditions
As you can see, the two are very similar, with the Naval Aviation description being a little more technical and more oriented toward military aviation. Clearly, the parallels between operating an aircraft and riding a motorcycle are considerable! Since the first description is somewhat more concise and generic, let’s explore it in more depth to see what we can learn.
Perception of Elements
Our “perception” of the elements is more than just what we see. It is a mental photograph of what is going on all around us, mostly derived from what we perceive visually. However it also includes our ears, skin, and even our nose provide input as to elements of our situation. Our visual perception is dependent upon the way we scan for visual cues. Although everyone does this, few really understand how they do it, and even fewer have a conscious, methodical process for accomplishing a good visual scan. Again, we relate this to flying, and again the parallel is clear. Aviators are taught to “scan” the instruments and the sky around them. It begins as a set pattern during training, but as the pilot gains experience, he or she modifies the scan pattern to incorporate new instruments, equipment, or situations into the pattern.
Here is an example of a scan pattern for flying an aircraft. (For those unfamiliar with aircraft instruments, the nose attitude indicates the airplane’s orientation relative to the ground, i.e., nose up or down, and bank angle.) The pattern usually goes like this: nose attitude – airspeed – nose attitude – altimeter – nose attitude – turn needle/ball – nose attitude – compass – nose attitude – navaid – nose attitude – VSI (vertical speed indicator) – nose attitude - airspeed – nose attitude – altimeter – nose attitude – turn needle/ball, and so on, repeating itself over and over, with only enough time spent on each item to quickly grasp what it is telling us. A glance is usually enough. As you can see, nose attitude is the primary source of information and the scan constantly returns to it for reference. The frequency with which each item comes up indicates its importance to the pilot. Since even minor changes in attitude, airspeed or altitude can change the readout on virtually every instrument in the cockpit, each one has to be scanned every few seconds. If you add to this the necessity to scan the sky in all directions, you can easily see why fighter pilots have strong necks!
This type of scan is almost exactly how successful motorcycle riders obtain their “perception of elements”. Depending on the rider, it probably boils down to something like this when on a multi-lane highway in traffic: road ahead – zone right – road ahead –zone left – road ahead – speedometer – road ahead - right mirror – road ahead – left mirror – road ahead, and so on. Clearly the “road ahead” is the primary source of information for the motorcyclist. This is one reason we are taught to keep our head up and eyes down the road. As taught in basic riding courses, you will travel in the direction your eyes are looking. For this reason, your primary scan item should always be that portion of the road ahead where you expect to be in two to four seconds. This requires looking well ahead in a curve, although it does not mean that other parts of the scan can be ignored. Photograph A provides a general idea of the primary scan items for a motorcyclist on a city street. The two boxes represent “zone right” and “zone left”.
Photograph A: Scan zone right and scan zone left
The zone portion of the scan will vary in size depending on speed, visibility to the side, how fast an object is expected to approach from the side, and what peripheral vision tells the rider. As you can see in photograph B, on a four-lane highway, the zones would include those portions of the lanes on either side of the motorcycle and ahead of the motorcycle. Zone left might include oncoming traffic if there is no barrier. However on a multi-lane highway it would also include any traffic moving the same direction as the motorcycle in the left lane ahead. Zone right would include the shoulder and any traffic moving the same direction as the motorcycle in the lanes to the right.
On a two-lane road such as shown in photograph C, “zone left” would include the oncoming lane and traffic in it, plus the left shoulder, and any roads coming from the left. “Zone right” would include the shoulder, and roads on the right, etc., etc. In this case, with a fence on the right shoulder, there is relatively little that can present a danger, therefore that area wouldn’t be scanned as frequently until the fence is no longer there. However as we reach the curve or the end of the fence, our scan again includes zone right scan increases in order to see any hazards well before they cause us serious problems.
Photograph B: Four lane undivided highway
Part of the rider’s “perception of elements” should be knowledge of what vehicles are behind and nearby, and particularly any vehicle with an overlap that would prevent a lane change. This requires checking the mirrors frequently. A normal lane change would dictate a head-check prior to executing the maneuver. However an emergency lane change or stop would not allow the time to do a check. The rider’s mirror scan should provide continual knowledge of what vehicles are in the zone from four o-clock to eight o’clock. If she knows from a previous mirror scan that a vehicle is there, there may be no option to change lanes. However if he has not seen a vehicle there in the last several mirror checks, the slim possibility of contacting a vehicle going the same direction might be preferred to the option of hitting one head-on!
Needless to say, every few minutes the rider adds to her scan the fuel state, oil pressure, oil temperature, GPS, or any other instruments that rarely change every few seconds. High mileage riders have subconsciously developed a scan that incorporates all the necessary items into a semi-rigid pattern that repeats often enough to give them an excellent “perception of elements.”
Comprehension of the Elements:
To paraphrase Keith Code in his book “A Twist of the Wrist”, “You only have so much concentration.” “You will spend most of your concentration on that which you know the least about” (or that which you perceive as presenting the most danger, author) That being the case, not only is it easy to fixate on something that is a danger, but in doing so ignore information warning of other potential dangers. A disciplined scan will avoid this trap by forcing us to continually look at new information from other sources while at the same time monitoring the information we are most concerned about. Referring back to photograph B, we would clearly want to make the primary focus of our scan the oncoming car, as a sudden change in direction of the car could quickly put us in serious danger. However we still need to check zone right and zone left for changes, if for no other reason than to know what our options are in case we have to take avoiding action.
We also obtain quite a bit of information by using our peripheral vision. It is not a specific part of our scan, because our eye can only distinguish detail near the center of our vision. However it can still warn us of large, bright, or movement-specific potential dangers well before we have to look directly at them. As photograph B shows, our peripheral vision indicates there is a large field to the right with nothing in it. This reduces the number of items we have to specifically scan. It has been shown that successful motorcycle racers and pilots have excellent peripheral vision, which is a big help in minimizing the number of specific items required in a disciplined scan.
For the motorcyclist, instead of the phrase: “Speed is life… altitude is insurance,” I would use the phrase “Situational awareness is life, riding proficiency is insurance, good riding equipment is premium life insurance” or some variation.
Photograph C: Country Road with Limited Visibility
Being able to anticipate likely conditions well before we need to act on them allows us to take action that either eliminates or minimizes any danger, or perhaps maximizes the pleasure. Sometimes our knowledge database helps us to “see” conditions before they are actually visible, whether by knowing where to look or knowing what to look for. For instance, seeing a trail of antifreeze in our lane may provide warning of a vehicle stopped in the road around a blind corner.
If our knowledge database is blank, as with a new rider, we are constantly reacting to something new. Once we have ridden sufficient miles to have a decent-sized databank, we have some idea of what to expect. This helps us to be ahead of the game most of the time. Unfortunately this can also lead to a bias, in which case being prepared for what we expect may actually precipitate an accident if something else occurs. We can’t afford to let our biases and expectations overrule the information we get from our scan. If we are specifically looking for a stalled vehicle we could easily miss a patch of sand hidden in the shade right in our path of travel.
Predicting a future situation:
One of the benefits of high mileage is knowledge of conditions and what to expect. This can also be a disadvantage at times. Our knowledge is really a database of information telling us what is the most likely thing to expect under certain circumstances. For instance, in photograph C, we might expect that the fence continues on around the curve onto the next straightaway, when in fact it stops halfway through the curve at the intersection of a side road. In reality, with a given set of circumstances, there are any number of things that can occur, the probability of each being shown by the familiar bell-shaped curve from statistics. If we are so biased in our expectations as to think only one thing can occur, we are setting ourselves up for a failure if one of the other options actually does occur. In other words, “always expect the unexpected”.
In order to minimize the risk of mis-perception, pilots use a “system” to cross-reference and corroborate or refute individual pieces of information. This is sometimes called “triangulation.” In general this means that there need to be three indications of a condition before one acts on it, (except in an emergency). A good example is in navigation. If you see a sign that says “Ellensburg” and an arrow pointing to the right, you don’t automatically turn right based on the sign alone. You only turn right if you see there is a road there, the road goes to the right, and it goes generally in the direction of Ellensburg. If any of these are missing, you continue scanning until you have corroborated or refuted the initial indication. However, it would seem obvious that if you see a truck coming across the centerline and heading for you, it is not necessary to find three corroborating pieces of information before you take avoiding action!
Personally, I divide all situations I perceive of into four levels of urgency: Besides normal riding with no hazards, there are essentially three levels of emergencies.
Level 1: I expected it to happen, and the scan confirmed my suspicions. Very little, if any, avoiding action was required. I might even mentally pat myself on the back for being so alert.
Level 2: My scan may have caught the hazard a little bit late, or perhaps another vehicle made a sudden unpredictable move requiring specific avoiding action, but not so late that I didn’t have time to utter a few expletives or even display the Universal Gesture of Ill Will (Not recommended!).
Level 3: Caught me so much by surprise that I was totally focused on survival: brakes, clutch, throttle, shift, and where do I go to be the safest. When this happens, it is invariably because I really wasn’t paying enough attention.
I don’t recognize a Level 4, as I wouldn’t likely be around afterward to discuss it anyway!
That completes the basics of Situational Awareness. We’ll discuss the second list in another article. As each of us looks back on our last year of riding, if there were more than three or four Level 2 emergencies or one Level 3 emergency, I would suggest there needs to be more knowledge in the databank or better situational awareness, or both! Slowing down also helps! Regardless, improving our scanning process will go a long ways toward improving our “Sierra Alpha.”
Remember, Safety Begins with Your Attitude, and Attitude is Everything!