Riding a motorbike is all about acquiring and learning motor skills, but there is always the fundamental problem that we can’t learn motor skills from a book. Good advice and descriptions of process and technique can be learnt and stored as memories in the neo-cortex thanks to the Hippocampus, but motor skills can only be learnt through acting, doing and feedback which is the role of the Basal Ganglia and the Cerebellum. When we recall things from memory to describe an action process we tend to recall that which has been stored via the Hippocampus rather than recalling the vastly more complex motor actions we actually do use when riding.

Our Basal Ganglia and Cerebellum don’t much like giving up the secrets of motor actions because they have not been stored in nice linear sequences like the language that we used to memorise advice. Instead they are stored as a vastly complex and interconnected sequence of patterns that have been formed via the input of every sense simultaneously. A good example of this is trying to describe the sequence and combinations of actions required to walk from one side of the room to the other. Most of us are lucky enough to be able to walk, but precious few of us could describe the process in anything other than the most basic and simplistic terms. Analysing complex motor actions and then breaking them down into linear sequences that can be written down or spoken so that they can be learnt by somebody else is a really difficult job and not one to be taken lightly.

Luckily we humans don’t need all that book larnin’ in order to become very good at learning motor functions. What we do need however is a very powerful goal/feedback system that tells us whether the actions we have carried out are the right ones needed to reach a goal. The more precise the goal and the more overt the feedback system then the quicker we can learn the correct motor actions and the quicker we can store them away ready for automatic use the next time we need them. In the world of motorcycling decent goal/feedback systems are noticeable by their absence due in the main to a lack of ‘secondary goals’. A secondary goal is obvious in the game of Golf for example where the primary goal of the game is to get the little ball into the hole, but the secondary goal is to get the ball into the hole in as few a strokes as possible. All sports have secondary goals of one kind or another and it is these secondary goals that are used by sports coaches and psychologists to help people become master’s of the sport.

When you have precise secondary goals and plenty of overt feedback the rate of skill acquisition starts to go off the chart, but when these secondary goals are missing, progress if any is always going to be painfully slow.

In my own sport of Moto Gymkhana we have an exercise called GP8 which is five times round a figure of eight course. This is a doddle for most people, but as soon as a secondary goal is introduced, which in this case is doing it against the clock, the entire task takes on an entirely different complexion. Thanks to this addition we know that the fastest time for doing the exercise is 26 seconds, so a rider that takes 50 seconds to do it has some idea of how much more they have yet to learn. What road riders really need then is some form of goal/feedback system that they can use to improve their motor skills, because without one they really aren’t going to become as good as they need to be.

Safety II – Things go right and things go wrong in basically the same way.

The study and practice of safety tacitly assumes that we know how things are done or should be done. Since humans are supposed to follow procedures, rules, and guidelines, accident investigation and risk assessment alike assume that compliance will always lead to successful outcomes. The purpose of safety analyses is consequently to understand why the outcome of an action or a series of actions (such as riding a motorcycle) was unacceptable (adverse) rather than acceptable (successful) – as in event investigation – or how that could possibly happen in the future – as in risk assessment.

In reality riding a motorcycle is never completely regular or orderly, except in very special cases. It is therefore inadvisable to assume that the riding task is as we imagine and that compliance guarantees success. Work-as-done will always be different from work-as-imagined because it is impossible to know in advance what the actual conditions experienced by a rider will be, not least what the demands and the resources will be, which means that it is impossible to provide instructions that are detailed enough to be followed ‘mechanically.’ A safety analysis must therefore begin by establishing how riding is actually done, how everyday performance takes place, and how things go right, as a prerequisite for understanding what has or could go wrong.

The reason why everyday performance nevertheless in most cases goes right is that people know or have learned to adjust what they do to match the actual conditions, resources, and constraints – for instance by trading off efficiency and thoroughness. The adjustments are ubiquitous and generally useful. But the very reasons that make them necessary also means that they will be approximate rather than precise. Approximate adjustments are the reason why things usually go right, but by the same token also the reason why things occasionally go wrong. Things do not generally go wrong because of outright failures, mistakes, or violations. They rather go wrong because the variability of everyday performance aggregates in an unexpected manner.

Whenever something is done, the intention is always to do something right and never to do something wrong. For each action, the choice of what to do is determined by many different things, including competence, understanding of the situation, experience, habit, demands, available resources, and expectations about how the situation may develop – not least about what others may do. If the expected outcome is obtained, the next action is taken, and so on. But if the outcome is unexpected, then the preceding action is re-evaluated and classified as wrong rather than right, as an error or as a mistake, using the common but fallacious post hoc ergo propter hoc argument (since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X). With hindsight, it is pointed out what should have been done, if only people had made the necessary effort at the time. The whole argument is, however, unreasonable because the action was chosen based on the expected rather than the actual outcome. Failures and successes are equivalent in the sense that we can only say whether the preceding action was right or wrong after the outcome is known. That changes the judgement of the action, but not the action itself.

It’s surprises that count so count your surprises!

Counter 2

It’s surprises that count so count your surprises (you’ll be surprised how many surprises you count)!

As we all should be aware by now, the surprise tells us that we have failed to correctly predict the future state of the system and as that is the only job we actually do understanding what surprises can tell us is going to be critically important. It’s also important to know that not all surprises lead to accidents but all riders involved in accidents will have been surprised at one point or another during the process. Armed with this information it’s then possible to turn surprise to our advantage as part of an effective self-training/learning strategy.

All surprises represent an accident that would have happened were the circumstances prevailing at the time been only a tiny bit different.

In cases such as that we have clearly made a prediction error, been surprised by the resulting system state, but have then been able to make sufficient adjustments and adaptations to avoid any accident actually happening. It doesn’t always follow though that we can make sufficient post-surprise adjustments and adaptations because that’s how accidents finally happen. That doesn’t concern us at the moment though as it’s those surprises that we successfully manage that can help us to avoid having surprises we can’t manage.

A good question to regularly ask ourselves is “If I was to ride through the same section again and under the same circumstances would I do exactly the same things?” If the answer is “yes I would” then we would have learnt nothing from our first experience, but if we would have done things differently, then the original experience has taught us a valuable lesson. We would only do things differently the second time around because one or two events happened the first time that we didn’t predict and so we would change what we did in the light of the new knowledge. This is the essence of learning by experience and if we can accelerate this ability then we will start to rapidly acquire new expertise. Of course the problem we have as road riders is that once we have passed through a section we don’t often go back and have another go at it and even if we did the circumstances would usually be quite different to the first time we rode it. Rather than go back and have another go what we can do is to count the number of surprises that we actually had during a ride and that would give us a very good indication of any shortcoming in our ability to make accurate predictions of future states. More surprises indicates that our predictions need work and fewer surprises indicates that we are getting the hang of things.

In his book ‘The Upper Half of the Motorcycle’ (see reading list) Professor Bernt Spiegel dedicates a couple of pages to the use of what he calls an ‘error counter’ as a really beneficial learning aid and as errors also generate surprises then it’s perhaps something we can use. What he suggests we do is to mount a cheap tally counter somewhere near the left handlebar and click it every time we get surprised for any reason. At the end of the ride we can see at a glance how many surprises we had during the ride and that will give us an indication of how many potential accident situations we got ourselves into, but were able to manage our way out of. The idea is that the fewer surprises a rider has the better the rider is and that’s something all of us aspire to.

Professor Spiegel has made an extensive study of how the error/surprise counter works and he found that after a short period of using the counter the number of errors/surprises recorded actually increased! What he realised was that the number of registered events increased not because the user’s riding was getting worse, but that they had become more aware of the number of errors they were actually making. Before the use of the counter he found that most errors and surprises seemed to slip by almost un-noticed, but once a rider started to actively hunt for them even the tiniest error or surprise couldn’t slip through the net. Eventually of course the number of registered errors and surprises started to decrease as the rider stated to learn what it was in the system that precipitated the errors and surprises in the first place. The increased sensitivity to error and surprise resulted in a commensurate increase in the rider’s predictive capabilities and a noticeable decrease in the number of prediction failures they made.

Considering that the whole point of the Nosurprise campaign is to help riders to become better predictors then a simple device like the error/surprise counter is something that we would thoroughly recommend.


What the motorcycle manufacturing industry can tell us about why motorcycles crash.

Considering mechanical failure accounts for so few accidents nowadays you would have thought that the way bikes are built and the way they are ridden wouldn’t have much of a connection. You would be wrong in this assumption however because bikes are built and bikes are ridden in what are commonly known as ‘systems’ and how systems work and sometimes fail to work is critical to our understanding of accident causation. Continue reading

Why do riders crash in corners?

Why do riders crash in corners? After all, had they not successfully negotiated a lot of other corners before they reached the one that got them? Was there something about certain corners that made them more likely to be accident sites? Why did these riders select a particular corner entry speed that proved to be so spectacularly incorrect? What is the process that we use for judging the severity of a corner and selecting a suitable entry speed? Do we all use the same method, or are there a number of ways in which we can analyse a corner before we reach it? Continue reading

Cango? Willgo!


Collisions involve two road users attempting to occupy the same space on the road at the same time. Many accidents involving motorcycles are collisions with other road users, where the rider was taken by surprise but the collision was otherwise both commonplace and avoidable. The Cango?-Willgo! concept explains collisions in terms of prediction failure rather than the commonly-accepted explanation of rule-breaking or judgment failure. Cango?-Willgo! further extends the basic principle of No Surprise: No Accident. Continue reading

IPSGA II – A new paradigm for the use of information in ‘The System’

ipsga II jpeg

For those of you not familiar with I.P.S.G.A or “The System” as it is popularly known it’s the favourite acronym of the advanced riding industry and stands for Information Position Speed Gear Accelerate. It was first devised at the Police College at Hendon over 60 years ago and has formed the core of the Police Rider’s Handbook or Roadcraft since then.

Taking the description of IPSGA straight from Wikipedia;
1. Information received from the outside world by observation, and given by use of signals such as direction indicators, headlamp flashes, and horn; is a general theme running continuously throughout the application of the system by taking, using and giving information;
2. Position on the road optimised for safety, visibility and correct routing, followed by best progress;
3. Speed appropriate to the hazard being approached, attained via explicit braking or throttle control (engine braking), always being able to stop in the distance you can see to be clear on your side of the road;
4. Gear appropriate for maximum vehicle control through the hazard, selected in one shift; and
5. Acceleration for clearing the hazard safely.
The taking, using and giving of Information is, arguably, most important and surrounds (and drives) the five phases IPSGA. It may, and often should, be re-applied at any phase in the System.
The System is used whenever a hazard requires a manoeuvre. A hazard is something which requires a change in speed, direction or both. The benefit of applying a systematic approach to driving is to reduce the simultaneous demands on the vehicle, the driver mentally and the driver physically. That is, the System seeks to separate out the phases of a manoeuvre into a logical sequence so that the vehicle and the driver avoid being overwhelmed by having to do too much at the same time. For example, braking and steering at the same time place greater demands on the vehicle’s available grip and in the worst case can lead to a skid. Continue reading

Complexity made simple.

Multivariate systems only appear to be complex if you don’t understand them. The weather for example seems to be massively complex, but once people understood the heat cycle then how the weather actually worked was no longer a mystery. Same goes for continental drift, germ theory, evolution and a whole raft of other scientific enquiries. The road transport system looks at first glance to be very complex, but once you start to pare it down to its fundamentals it’s not as scary as it first appears.

What the road safety industry has been lacking up ‘til now is a simple theory of road accident causation. Without such a theory or framework all solutions to the accident problem may appear to be valid even though a lot of them are probably without merit. We have stacks of data about the problem, but no theory to determine which bits of data are valid and which are not worth bothering with. Continue reading