Split Second Decisions

I just finished reading Blink – The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. It is a fascinating book about rapid cognition. Our brain is a super computer and although you make thousands of decisions a day that you are aware of, you also make thousands of decisions everyday that you are not aware of. Within the blink of an eye, or about half a second, you might be able to decide if you like a new model motorcycle you see on the showroom floor. You don’t know why you like it or don’t like it. But your super computer has taken in the data, computed it and made a decision. Some people call that a gut feeling, instinct or prejudging.

Interestingly enough, the more you think about something like this motorcycle and try to think of what you like about it and what you don’t like, your mind can change. You can over think the situation as you take in more information. If you take that same person who on a half second impression likes a certain motorcycle but instead give him a whole bunch more information and more time and ask him what he likes about the motorcycle and why, he might decide to buy something else. But guess what? That first impression was correct and we dismiss it because we don’t trust our brain’s rapid cognition abilities! The psychologists and scientists that have studied this phenomenon have found that when it comes to minor decisions like buying a toaster, we get better results taking in all the data and making an educated decision. On the other hand, they find that when it comes to important decisions where the stakes are high, like buying a new Harley-Davidson, we make better snap decisions than if we over think it. That explains all the Honda sales! Too many people over thinking. Just kidding. Like I said, the book is fascinating!

Our brains rapid cognition isn’t always correct. In fact there are many instances where we can be led astray. I’m sure that many police officers see a leather clad biker and immediately think “this is a criminal”. This is a perfect example of where rapid cognition can be misleading. Understanding good rapid cognition and bad rapid cognition is the key to harnessing The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

We have the ability to read people’s faces. Since we are not trained in it we probably use this skill at a very limited level, but you could call this skill mind reading. There are experts in the field that study facial expressions that can pick up things and tell what peoples intentions are without hearing a thing about what is going on. Like the fictional character Gibbs on NCIS. He can pick up on things on a person’s face that tell him when someone is innocent, guilty, lying or being truthful. There are situations where people lose their mind reading ability. When we are in a state of arousal (not sexual arousal) our heart rates soar and our adrenaline flows. This is how humans deal with extreme stress, the kind you experience in life or death situations. In these cases our brains shut down a lot of unnecessary functions to increase performance in order to survive. Some situations get so extreme that the brain can shut down muscle control and you mess your pants!

Lets say you haven’t taken your meds today and you go crazy and lead some cops on a wild high speed chase. You’re doing 100mph on your Honda (because in this example you are a nice person) through a residential neighborhood and the cops are on your tail! All of of sudden you come to your senses and stop for the police. You put your hands up and surrender. Guess what might happen! Think of the Rodney King incident and others like it. Those police officers have entered into that state of high arousal. The excitement of a high speed chase has put them in a state where their mind reading ability doesn’t work anymore. They don’t recognize that your intentions are now peaceful. They very well might shoot you! So don’t ride a Honda, take your meds, and if you lead the police on a high speed chase… don’t get caught!

The optimal state of arousal is when our hearts are at 115 to 145 beats per minute. I can think of a few examples of when I have experienced this heightened state of awareness. When I was a teenager I raced in one motocross on my 1980 Yamaha YZ80. I was fourteen or fifteen. I remember entering the first turn after the holeshot. Everything was in slow motion like in a movie where the fireman enters a burning building to save a kid. There was dust everywhere, all the racers were jammed together elbow to elbow. It was bumper to bumper or tire to tire. Other kids were crashing and falling down all over the place. Some right in front of me! Somehow I was able to steer in and out of the chaos and I remember it all in slow motion although we are talking about a period of thirty seconds. Until reading about this state of arousal I didn’t understand that memory or how I was able to do that. Some star athletes are able to function in this state during the key moments in a sporting event. They see everything around them in vivid detail, their senses are keen and they see the action in slow motion. They score!!!

I have another memory like this involving my YZ80. A not so pleasant memory. It was shortly after the above mentioned race when my father told me that was the end of my racing career. He thought if he took me to one race I would get it out of my system. That was my dream! I wanted to be a motocross racer with every once of teenage angst in my fourteen year old body! I lost my mind and I actually did lead some police on a high speed chase through a residential neighborhood and into the local motocross park. No, I did not get shot, but I did get arrested and my parents wanted to shoot me.

From the time the police car turned on the lights and I made the stupid decision to hit the throttle adrenaline coursed through my veins and took over my body.  I got tunnel vision and even though I had crossed into the motocross park where a car could not follow me, I felt like a fox being chased by hunters with dogs. My brain and body reacted to the extreme stress of being chased by police.  I was running for my life! My field of vision narrowed to what was directly in front of me. I couldn’t slow down or stop even though there was no reason to. The police really weren’t going to chase me into the off road park. They couldn’t. I crossed an impossible creek crossing at high speed that involved going straight down five foot ditch into the muddy creek and immediately back up the opposite side. Then I raced through another residential area before coming to my senses and stopping. I started to walk my motorcycle home because if you didn’t know it, riding an unregistered motor vehicle that is meant for offroad use only is illegal on a residential street or any other kind of public road. Especially when you aren’t old enough to have a driver’s license! Of course the same police car that initiated a 5 second chase ten minutes earlier came cruising by, saw me walking and stopped to make the arrest of yours truly. Having racing numbers on my jersey, motorcycle, and helmet didn’t make it too hard to identify me. I didn’t understand from a scientific stand point what had happened until now!

After 145 heart beats per minute bad things happen! Motor skills breakdown and we can’t do simple things like dial 911 successfully. At 175 our ability to think breaks down. Our forebrain shuts down and our mid brain takes over. This is the same part of the brain that all mammals have. Basically we become the equivalent of a frightened animal like a dog. In the above story I didn’t lose my motor skills but I do feel like a primal part of my brain took over. I felt like an animal being chased and my only thought was to flee!

There was another time where I did experience a full breakdown momentarily. I thought it was shock. Maybe it was. I was at the crash scene of a motorcycle accident where my friend was killed by a driver under the influence of drugs. Two other friends were injured in the same horrific incident, one with a broken leg and the other with a broken foot. There were police cars, fire trucks and a medevac helicopter. Motorcycles, parts and luggage were scattered across the highway. Firemen were instructing me on what hospital to go to and all I could hear was “wa wa wa wa” like when the teacher speaks to Charlie Brown. My brain and my hearing could not function at that moment. Another friend was standing with me and remembers the same exact thing. We stared at each other blankly and asked each if the other got that. We both shook our heads “no” and walked away in opposite directions.

What I was really trying to blog about in regards to this book was how it relates to split second decisions on the road. Motorcyclists often encounter situations where a split second decision is the difference between going home or going to the Shock Trauma Center and having a leg amputated or taking a dirt nap at the local cemetery. All the training and practice you do on your motorcycle is data for your super computer. All the reading you do about motorcycle safety goes into your super computer. When your riding and all of a sudden a car illegally enters your path of travel cutting you off you are going to activate your powers of rapid cognition! Some rider’s brains will crunch the data, calculate their options and come up with “lay her down”. Others will subconsciously access the routine for a quick stop. Others might “instinctively” swerve. Worse yet, but not uncommon, are those who come up with nothing! They just freeze and ride straight into the oncoming vehicle because they never learned how to execute a quick stop. This is why it is so important to visualize what you would do ahead of time, to practice ahead of time and to get training and books on how to handle these situations. You’re brain will have a fraction of a second to rapidly access the information in your head and react. It will happen too fast for you to be cognizant of what is going down! In an emergency situation like this your super computer will take over and make a split second decision that will either save your butt or not. I think understanding and harnessing the powers of thinking without thinking are worth reading about.

Read Blink! It’s fascinating!

Finding Those Backroads

One of the benefits of of our H.O.G. Chapter and its Road Captain program is that the Road Captains introduce our members to roads that they never would have rode on had they not ventured out on a chapter ride. Most people including myself just don’t randomly go riding down strange backroads. Some people who own motorcycles, myself included, wake up on a nice sunny day with no plans and the road is an empty slate. Without a plan, a destination or an idea these people just stay home. Others are spontaneous and throw a leg over and just hit the road without a clue following nothing but their nose. And then there are others who can dream up a route on the spot and hit the road. I imagine there is a huge group who heads to the local biker destination bars thinking they are the quintessential biker.

For those of us in the first category belonging to a good H.O.G. chapter is awesome! We check the calendar to see what’s going on, show up at the meeting site and then a Road Captain will take us somewhere fun! We may be newbies or rubs but we put hundreds if not thousands of miles on those motorcycles thanks to the H.O.G. Road Captains and the online chapter calendar. Regardless of what you call us, we ride em! This is the very process that opened my eyes to the fact that going to Hooters on bike night isn’t what riding is all about.

I did not plan on becoming a Road Captain and I don’t know a million backroads. I’m not even from this area and I only got into riding a few years ago and even then the concept of “backroads” was new to me. I do go out of my way to locate, learn and put together ride routes that will please the members of my H.O.G. chapter. Usually a “thank you” or any show of appreciation from riders who go on one of my rides is all that it takes to make it all worthwhile. But yesterday I was given one of the best compliments by at least two riders and it was said a few times which made me really happy: “I don’t know how you do it. How do you find all those backroads?!”

It’s hard for me to keep a secret and that makes sense because I come to my trusty computer all the time and type everything into it for the good of the Internet audiance. Here is how my process usually goes:

1) I check Moto-Maps to see if there are any recomended ride routes in the area I am looking to go riding.

2) I use Microsoft Streets & Trips to connect the roads and find other roads.

3) Somehow I manage to schedule several rides to the same area so that we can check the routes out, change them up and fine tune them before the actual chapter ride takes place.

Moto-Maps Delaware

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Microsoft Streets & Trips mapping software

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Ride Your Own Ride?!

A phrase that motorcyclists hear quite often in reference to group riding: “Ride Your Own Ride”. What does it mean? How do you do it when you are riding in a group?

Obviously the group dynamic prohibits a rider from completely riding his own ride.  If each member of a group were to ride his own pace in his chosen lane position and for that matter to his own destination, there wouldn’t be much of a group involved in the ride at all!  They’d be scattered all over, some on back roads and some on highways, some cruising merrily along while others attempt to break salt flat records, and they’d probably never even come into contact at all over the course of the day.

OK, let’s suppose that a group has decided on a common route and destination… we still have a disorganized, inconsistent, and I daresay dangerous combination of riding styles, all attempting to share the same roads at the same time.  Riders pass each other haphazardly, ride up next to each other in the same lane (whether the person ahead is comfortable with that or not), leave giant gaps in the formation, and even perform stunts (a la “Look ma, no hands!”) in close proximity to other riders.  This is the exact scenario I have found at many “open” events.  That is not to say that the typical rider lacks riding skills or has reckless disregard for others, but more likely that they’re not experienced in safe group riding practices.

As a new rider I was reminded to ride my own ride during the safety instructions at the beginning of practically every chapter ride. I often wondered what exactly it was supposed to mean.  After all, each rider must hold his own position in the pack, follow the pace and directions of the road captain and all other riders in front of him, and pass back signals as directed.  While riding sweep and near the back of the group, I have witnessed the beauty of a group of twenty plus bikes cruising along the asphalt in a perfectly harmonious formation… like a symphony of rolling thunder.  However, holding the good of the group in high priority certainly does not seem to facilitate any of the individual riders doing their own thing.  And yet the near constant reminder to “ride your own ride”.

After nearly 25,000 miles in the saddle, the vast majority of it ridden in groups ranging from four to thirty and more motorcycles, I have deduced my own meaning for this seemingly incomprehensible phrase.  Even when following strictly regimented practices of group riding, motorcyclists must remember that they are not sheep obliviously following a shepherd; they are ultimately responsible for their own individual bikes.  Do not run a red light for fear that the forward part of the group will leave you behind.  Stop at intersections and check traffic for yourself instead of just rolling blindly right on through.  Watch for pot holes, road kill, and other hazards for yourself instead of relying on a signal to be passed back.  If you need more space or perceive it appropriate to go single-file when it has not been designated by the group leader, feel free to signal your intentions to the other riders in the pack and then do it.  Do not out-ride your skill level just to keep up with the rest of the group.  Trust that the ride leaders and road captains will do their job and make sure that your needs are met by pulling over at a safe location to allow you to catch up, adjusting the group pace to compensate for lesser skill level of newer riders, and so on.  Do not assign responsibility to them for your carelessness and naive indifference to your own riding safety.

So does ride your own ride mean you are free to do whatever you feel like? Definitely not!  Does it mean to take responsibility for yourself as well as deferring to the safety of the rest of the group? Absolutely!  When each rider pays diligent attention to the latter you have the makings of a successful group ride!  On the contrary, the former creates nothing but a bunch of individuals riding in a cluster.

Shaving Seconds

When riding a motorcycle, every second counts.  Motorcycle safety courses and departments of motor vehicles tell riders to keep a minimum two-second following distance behind the vehicle in front of you.  But motorcyclists should constantly scan and anticipate what is coming at them much farther down the road.  Cagers often don’t see us, so we need to take the responsibility to see them…the sooner the better.

Besides being aware of approaching vehicles, intersections, obstacles in the roadway, and poor road conditions as you approach them, a good rider will also take actions so as to prepare for these things should they suddenly become hazards.  Cruising down the highway with your legs stretched out on the cruise pegs is a welcome relief for stiff or cramping legs, and it’s super cool…but needing to relocate your feet back to the controls to be able to break or shift in an emergency situation adds valuable seconds to your response time.

Whenever approaching an intersection, blind curve, or any other situation where there is an increased likelihood of encountering trouble, it is a good idea to take your feet back off those highway pegs and put them in position where they are ready to brake or shift.  Feet are not the only thing that needs to prepare.  Cover both brake and clutch levers with your hands so as to eliminate the time needed to reach and grab them, leaving only the time it takes for the actual squeeze. 

Besides preparing yourself physically, you can also shave seconds through mental preparation.  Having an “escape” pre-planned can cut down on your reaction time because there is no hesitation while you evaluate the situation and decide what to do…you already have!  Practice emergency braking and swerve techniques in an empty parking lot on a regular basis, or take rider safety course.  These skills keep you in tip-top shape for when you need to use them. 

Keeping your motorcycle in good shape will help too.  Properly inflated tires and maintained brakes allow your bike to come to a stop more quickly.  All of these little things add up.  Shaving a few tenths of a second by covering your brakes & clutch, a few more by having your feet in ready position, even more for proper brakes and tires, and more still for mental & skill preparation all combined together can literally shave up to three seconds off of your response time.

Three seconds?  Big deal, right?  Well actually, yeah it is a big deal!  Many of us tend to overlook the obvious.  Riding at 30 mph actually means that you are moving a distance of approximately 50 feet in a second.  A typical intersection is only 50 feet wide.  That means that if you even saved just one second off your response time, it could make the difference between your bike stopping before you reach that car suddenly pulling out in front of you or not stopping until you’ve actually slammed into, skidded under, or flown over it…and that’s only one second at 30 mph!  Just think of the distance you could save over 3 seconds at 60 mph!

Those 3 seconds very well might save you – and your Harley – from a bad scrape!

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I Did My Job Today – Road Captain

I’m getting renewed enthusiasm for being a Road Captain and trying to get back to just the basics of what our HOG Chapter is about. It’s about riding our motorcycles together and having fun. If we don’t organize rides, people might stay home and their bikes might collect dust. We don’t want that! We need to give our members a reason to get out on their motorcycles. Of course most of the year they don’t always need prompting. A month ago you couldn’t keep people home on a sunny day. But now it’s November and it isn’t quite as warm as we like so we need a tiny nudge. I organized a short easy lunch ride during the warmest part of the day from Mike’s Famous in New Castle, DE to Mike’s Famous in Smyrna, DE. Thirteen members on twelve bikes came out to bond over lunch, ride and enjoy the sunshine despite the cool temperatures. We had a good time! I feel really good that I gave my friends a reason to get out and ride today. Each ride doesn’t have to be a mind blower or an all day excursion. A brief lunch ride to get everyone out on their bikes is better than sitting home waiting for the next great adventure. At least when the next great adventure presents itself, we won’t be all dusty.

Chrome vs Skill

After having spent the majority of my weekend helping park bikes for a large dealership event at Mike’s Famous Harley-Davidson I have come to the following conclusion: Hundreds of motorcyclists own amazing machines but they don’t know how to ride worth a damn! They should have their motorcycles taken away! I am amazed at the lack of riding skill demonstrated by the motorcycle riding public. The majority of bikers need to learn how to maneuver their motorcycles at slow speed. Any novice can ride a motorcycle in a straight line at highway speed. Unfortunately many so called seasoned riders haven’t developed the skill to do much more than that.

My HOG Chapter provided the volunteers who directed riders into a grass field where they were to park their motorcycles for Mike’s Famous Biker Weekend on July 16th -18th in New Castle, DE. There were a variety of bikes including some sport bikes. Most motorcycles were Harley-Davidsons. Riders of every denomination on every type of motorcycle demonstrated poor parking lot skills! I would say less than ten percent knew how to handle their bikes properly! Young ladies on powerful sport bikes seemed to be the least able to control the friction zone. The old guys were just plain scarey. I don’t know how they have been riding for so long. One old timer told me indignently that his Sportster wasn’t a dirt bike! If you can’t make a tight hairpin turn, swerve or stop your motorcycle in an emergency you should stay home and practice until you can. Your life depends on it! Furthermore you should be able to ride on a variety of terrain such as wet pavement, gravel and soft grass.

The fastest way for you to gain the skills I speak of is to order the Ride Like A Pro V training DVD and practice the skills demonstrated on this fantastic learning tool. You can order the Ride Like A Pro DVD’s and the new book at www.Shop.RoadCaptainUSA.com

I hope that someday we stop seeing riders wobble in and out of parking lots with their legs and feet all spread out like airplane landing gear. Please take some of that money you plan on using for chrome this year and put it aside for a MSF Rider course or other training tools such as the above mentioned DVD. The Ride Like A Pro DVD costs $29.95 plus $2.95 S&H. Click the below button to purchase using PayPal.