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Common Tread

Spring riding tip: Keep your eyes up

Mar 14, 2016

I should have known better. I should have seen it coming. The tell-tale signs were all there and present.

The driver in the car parked at the side of the road. The brake lights on as he shifted to park. Luckily, when he threw open his door just feet in front of me, I was able to swerve into the next lane. If there had been a car next to me, the situation could have been much more dire. All because I wasn’t keeping my eyes up and I wasn’t looking far enough down the road.

Spring can be a dangerous time of year. As motorcyclists, many of us are pulling bikes out of garages after a few months off the road. Other road users have gotten used to not seeing those motorcycles on the road, and are not yet actively scanning for them. On top of this, those of us who don’t ride all winter are rejoining the roads a little bit rusty, or used to driving a car these past few months. As any riding coach or track day instructor will repeat ad nauseum, the faster your vehicle can change speed or direction, the further up the road your eyes need to go.

U-turn demonstration
Stayin' Safe instructor Eric Trow demonstrates a tight U-turn. He doesn't look in front of the wheel, but all the way through the turn to where he wants to go. Photo by Lance Oliver.
Our eyes, however, are imperfect tools and can actively work against us. Humans are far from having the best eyesight in the world. If you could see an unfiltered image of what your eyes pick up, you would see an upside-down, mostly blurry image with a blind spot right in the middle. Luckily, there are two things making our eyes more effective: the fact they are constantly moving, and our brains. Our eyes are constantly scanning and tracking movement, even at the peripheries of our vision range. In this sense, they are sort of like an old-fashioned radar, and our brain makes sense of these signals to form a coherent picture.

Now, the issue is the vast amount of information coming in, and our brain has to sort out what is a priority so we don’t get overwhelmed. Because of these two factors, there are some things that move fast enough that we can’t register them until it is too late. Picture the driver who pulls out of a side street and joins traffic inches in front of your front wheel — the classic “Oh S@#$!” example for most motorcyclists.

That driver could have done everything right and still not seen you. He could have looked right, at which point your bike was far enough away that even though his eyes registered your bike, that information was filed away in the “not immediately important” category. Then the driver looked left, and since that side was clear, he continued pulling out, working off the assumption that since there was no immediate danger on the right a few seconds ago, that side was still clear. Meanwhile, your bike covered that distance and is now exactly where that car wants to be.

If something were to happen, the car driver would swear he “Didn’t see you,” which may very well be the case — just like I didn’t see the person sitting in the parked car, about to get out. Our eyes register the movement, but our brain filters that signal out as interference.

Star Motorcycle School
Professional instructors and racers will tell you that looking further ahead effectively slows down the action by giving you more time to react. If you're looking at what's a second or two ahead of your front wheel, you're essentially looking at the past, because it's too late to do anything about what's there. Star Riding School photo.

This is where we need to make a conscious effort. Knowing the biological limitations of our eyesight, and knowing full well that other road users are likely to be distracted, negligent or inexperienced, we need to actively think about what visual signals our brain is filtering out. The best way to do that is to buy ourselves some time by forcing our eyes up the road, well past where the bike will be in a few seconds, and instead looking at the horizon (on open roads and highways, where possible) or as far forward as conditions allow. The more time we can provide for our eyes to scan what is in front of us, the more recurring details our brain will have to interpret, and that will eventually move a detail from the “not immediately important” category, and into the “danger now” category. We will see that driver sitting in a parked car, or the car merging from the side road. We give our brains time to process this information before the door opens in front of us or the car merges into us.

The temptation is always strong to look one or two seconds ahead of your front wheel, and forcing your eyes up as far as they can see will feel very alien at first. However, with practice and conscious effort, this will become second nature, and as any track instructor will say, the first step to going fast is looking far enough up the road to see where you’re going. In this case, looking as far forward as possible will make you safer on the road, and may even save your life.

Keep those eyes up!