Black ice? A stalled truck just over that blind hill? An oncoming drunk driver? All of these, and many more, are motorcycling risks which a rider may not recognize until it’s too late. Wouldn’t it be great if we could be alerted to these hidden risks and dangers before suffering a crash? Sure! Well, perhaps here’s another hidden peril that can affect all of us:
Let’s call it “Subconscious Risk-Adjustment RISK.” What are we talking about here? Two recent studies, one dealing with the effect of anti-lock brakes, along with other built-in safety systems, on human driving behavior; the second one dealing with the self-professed risk-management behavior of motorcyclists, make this hypothesis of worth your consideration.
The first, ‘Systems Safety, Risk-Taking and Motorcyclists,’ (Bob & Mary Jane Maddocks)i applies the principle of Wilde’s ‘Risk Homeostasis’ii to motorcyclists. Risk Homeostasis theory states that if a given risk is reduced in an operational system like the vehicle itself (i.e. ABS brakes, etc), humans are then likely to make a subconscious ‘adjustment’ in their behavior to ‘consume’ the additional safety such system-improvements provide. The Maddocks cite a German study of taxi-cab drivers; some cabbies drove cabs with ABS brakes, and a control group’s hacks were not so equipped. The study found that the cabbies driving ABS-equipped autos were more inclined to speed, swerve recklessly, tail-gate and create more ‘traffic conflicts’ than the control group. We can hypothesize that the ABS-cabbies subconsciously believed that their vehicles were inherently safer with such brakes, and therefore, they could drive at faster speed and take additional traffic-risks, since the advanced braking system would be there to improve their braking performance and ability, and therefore, riskier driving behavior could be supported.
Supported? Well, one could suppose that the drivers in the study (representative of all drivers, to the extent of the accuracy and validity of the study) SUBCONSCIOUSLY adjusted their behavior so as to achieve the subconsciously-desired level of personally-desired risk. Wilde speculates that each person has an individual, inherent ‘target-level’ of risk that is constant for each individual. Further, when one part of the system changes to decrease risk (i.e. adding ABS), the person will make a subconscious behavior-change, risk-upwards, to achieve their level of risk-comfort. Now, are we aware we’re changing our behavior and engaging in riskier behavior? Consciously aware? Like, “I’d better pick up my speed a bit, ‘cause I can stop on a dime if anything happens!” Of course not! But does that change the reality that we really may be, in fact, engaging in riskier behavior? Not at all! Risk-levels are likely to go up without the rider’s conscious awareness this is occurring.
Let’s consider the second piece of this puzzle. Quoted in “Stayin’ Safe” by the late Larry Grodsky’s, in his final columniiii is an interesting study – ‘Contemporary Attitudes Toward Motorcycle Riding Safety and Riding Risk Factors’ (Robert Rowe, Irwin Broh & Associates)iii which draws a link between increased age, greater career and financial success, higher levels of education, and substantial riding experience… and links these factors with riskier behavior. Being, in this case, the self-professed estimate of the respondents’ likelihood of riding a motorcycle while impaired by alcohol; “I can handle it! Look at all that I’ve accomplished in life!” Rowe suggests, “My interpretation is that (self) confidence itself is a risk factor.”
Again, it appears that a subconscious risk adjustment-mechanism might be in play. One could suppose that, as we achieve longevity, greater career and financial success, and higher education, and as we survive and enjoy tens and hundreds of thousands of miles… we subconsciously may take on greater risks in our motorcycling behavior. Again, you are invited to consider and decide for yourself.
Now, what can we do with this theory? How can we perhaps improve our personal risk-management awareness, behavior and actual performance as we moto up and down the highways? Perhaps by doing no more than simply being AWARE of what appears to be our collective, natural, inherent and SUBconscious proclivities to adjust our risk-management behaviors in response to changing conditions, and thus camouflage these tendencies from our day-to-day conscious and cognitive awareness. In other words, if we KNEW we were quite likely to do something stupid and dangerous, as a response to some seemingly-insignificant change in our enviroment, we would likely be on our guard against doing that dangerous, stupid thing!
The Maddocks further validate this theory, as they discuss the effects on behavior when drivers encounter and recognize riskier conditions, such as weather; such drivers generally adjust their driving behavior towards less risk. for example, while riding my vintage motorcycle, equipped with ‘vintage’ brakes, I note that I subconsciously, and consciously, allow for much greater stopping distances. The key issue is that these drivers have become consciously aware of a change in their environment, and respond to achieve their desired ‘risk-comfort’ level, often without conscious thought of the actual behavior-change itself (i.e. slowing down).
Motorcycling is both a physical and mental activity. Certainly, as responsible riders, we strive to hone our physical riding skills and techniques. Of greater value, however, is the development of our mental strategies and awareness of the hazards we can expect to encounter from our perch behind the handlebars. Those aforementioned skills take years and miles to fully develop; happily, each of us can easily and quickly improve our ability to create and use good judgments – a faculty of far, far greater value than our well-honed skills – by learning from the experiences and research of others who have gone before.
So, what’s the conclusion? Perhaps a subconscious over-confidence in our motorcycle’s equipment, added to the potential for, again, a subconscious, overly-generous confidence-level in the rider’s personal motorcycling capabilities, generated by successes and accomplishments in life’s other areas, can combine to lead each of to take increased, subconscious and unnecessary risks while riding. And what’s the cure?...
“Know thyself…” said the Bard. If this pail holds water for you, if it makes sense, try to keep a regular and conscious awareness of how you go about achieving your desired and comfortable risk/reward level of driving-performance behavior. When you catch yourself, for the first time, riding a bit over what is reasonable – all things considered – and recognize that it may be due to YOUR personal proclivity to risk-adjust upwards, while being completely oblivious to the matter – remember Subconscious Risk Adjustment RISK, and apply your precious judgment to bring your moto-world back into balance. Now, you have a much better chance to deal with the black ice, the truck or the drunk driver, because you’ve recognized and dealt with another Hidden Risk – ahead of time!
i (http://bmwmoga.info/centerline/newsletter/06_01_l.pdf see page 7)
ii(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risk_homeostasis) , “Target Risk” Gerald J.S. Wilde, PDE Publications
iii ‘Contemporary Attitudes Toward Motorcycle Riding Safety and Riding Risk Factors’ (search Google to view)
iiii (Rider Magazine, July 2006, p 24-28)