The Startle Effect part 2 “it’s real”

On Friday last week I covered at some length what seemed to me a very unusual outcome of a police prosecution of a rider after a judge withdrew the case from the jury. I was reminded of the words of Chesley Sullenberger – the Miracle on the Hudson pilot – “the startle factor is real, and it’s huge”.

Very briefly, pensioner Ghulam Rasul, aged 74, was badly injured when he was hit by a motorcycle ridden by David Hurst, 52. The collision happened when Mr Rasul was crossing the road in Leigh, in the Wigan area, on September 10, 2019. Mr Rasul did not gain consciousness after suffering severe head injuries and died two days later in hospital. Mr Hurst spent three days in hospital after suffering neck injuries and a broken nose.

Mr Hurst was charged with causing death through careless driving, he pleaded not guilty, and the case finally came to court last week.

The prosecution alleged that the rider had only reduced his speed ‘at the point of no return’. Without a full transcript and only the paper’s report to go on, the key point seems to be that the prosecution set out to prove that

“Mr Hurst put himself in a position where the collision became unavoidable.”

To understand that, you have to put yourself into the shoes of a prudent motorcyclist and argue that such a rider would have done differently.

But – and here I have to confess my utter astonishment – having heard evidence for the defence, Judge Paul Lawton withdrew the case from the jury and gave a not guilty verdict.

His reasoning – as told to the jury – was that he had concluded it was “impossible” for them to put themselves in the defendant’s position with the evidence put before them. He cited the ‘dynamics of the accident’.

As I also mentioned on Friday, unlike most collisions where much of the evidence is based on eye witness statements or forensic evidence such as skid marks, in this case the entire incident appears to have been visible on CCTV.

And this means the rider’s responses to the pedestrian’s movements could be closely followed.

Expert witnesses said that nothing he’d done was inappropriate. The road is a 30 limit and CCTV showed that Mr Hurst saw the pedestrian and braked almost forty metres away – way beyond ’emergency stopping distance’ at 30 mph.

The prosecution’s case hinged on the rider’s inability to respond IMMEDIATELY when the pedestrian unexpectedly hesitated in his path.

Judge Lawton said “At 14.6 metres Mr Rasul froze which was an understandable response but entirely unpredictable.”

The judge continued by saying that Mr Hurst could have stopped with a 0.5 second reaction time – and that suggests to me that the rider had slowed to somewhere around 20 mph.

The crucial factor is that’s ‘best case scenario’ reaction time. It’s not just about being ‘alert’ or ‘careful’ or ‘prudent’.

We actually have to KNOW exactly what is going to happen next in order to hit the brakes to pull of that kind of reaction time.

As we do when we’ve reached the part of the car or bike test where are told that we have to perform an emergency stop.

I don’t have the full court transcript but the implication is that the prosecution’s case was that the ‘prudent rider’ should have known he would HAVE TO STOP and therefore SHOULD have reacted that fast.

Fortunately for the rider, real life intruded. The judge told the court that a normal reaction time to an unexpected event was 0.7 to 2 seconds, and to my astonishment said:

“The court is to award him the two second reaction time.”

OK, so that’s what happened in the court.

So where does this two second reaction time come from?

The answer is what’s been called ‘The Startle Effect’.

The conventional approach to motorcycle training has always been to train riders in emergency manoeuvres. Anyone who’s taken bike training in the last 30+ years knows how to perform and emergency stop, and the swerve exercise has been part of the motorcycle test here in the UK for almost a decade now.

But in an emergency, things rarely go to plan.

We’ve known for a long time that the direct cause of many motorcycle crashes is an inappropriate response to an emergency. Typically we over-react (for example, by grabbing a big handful of brake – which explains why ABS is now mandatory) or target fixate (by looking at the hazard, not the way out of trouble).

Keith Code identified these inappropriate responses years ago, and called them ‘Survival Reactions’.

Code also identified a third Survival Reaction – in a significant number of crashes, the rider simply freezes and completely fails to make any meaningful response – including braking when something or someone pulls out or steps out into the rider’s path.

I’ll call this the Startle Effect for reasons which will become obvious.

So if Code identified the ISSUES US researcher James Ouellet got his tape measure out to put some numbers on car / bike collisions at junctions. And he found that if things went wrong when the rider was three seconds or more from the collision point, there was almost always a good outcome – the rider was able to take effective evasive action.

If things went wrong with less than three seconds to the collision point, many riders who COULD have braked to a halt failed to do so.

Something derailed that rider’s response mid-emergency.

So the question we have to ask is “Why don’t we perform in the way we’ve been trained? Why do Survival Reactions kick-in and what triggers the Survival Reactions themselves? “

No Surprise? No Accident believes it’s SURPRISE! We’re surprised by unexpected events, when the situation begins to develop in a way we hadn’t anticipated.

As with so much safety research, the airline industry is well ahead of road safety.

Here’s something snipped from a study from Griffiths University in Australia:

“When a sudden upset occurs – such as icing or powerful air currents from a storm – even the best pilots can experience a “startle effect” and may struggle to recall manual flying skills for that rare situation… a person’s ability to process information is significantly impaired for 30 seconds after being startled…”

As Duncan McKillop commented on the original post:

“You will remember that Chesley Sullenberger ditched his Airbus in the Hudson because of the delay in recognising the unfolding situation for what it was and then doing something (skilfully) about it. In the simulator a primed pilot could have made Teterboro airport, but only with zero delay between event and reaction.”

It’s that ’emergency stop scenario’ again.

When pilots were told where they were (height, vector, speed, and directions and distances to the various airfields) and THEN the engines were cut, it was JUST possible to glide the plane to, and set down safely at Teterboro.

Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles didn’t have that advantage. They had to deal with the emergency developing in real time, and find an entirely novel solution. The entire flight lasted just six minutes.

Sullenberger was also called as a witness to a US Congressional hearing into the two aviation accidents involving Boeing’s 737 Max.

Not surprisingly, with the impact of the two crashes on Boeing, there was an effort to shift at least some of the blame for the crashes onto the crew, with one congressman saying that “facts in the preliminary report reveal pilot error as a factor”.

I wrote about this at the time. Sullenberger strongly disagreed and called for pilot training on the model saying that a review of the modifications to the aircraft on a computer was insufficient. He said:

“I can tell you first hand that the startle-factor is real, and it’s huge. And it absolutely and it quickly interferes with one’s ability to quickly analyse the crisis and take effective action.”

“Pilots must develop the muscle memory to be able to quickly and effectively respond to a sudden emergency. Reading about it on an iPad is not even close to sufficient; pilots must experience it physically, firsthand.”

Now, that’s a highly-trained pilot. We know full well that road users are nowhere near as well-trained.

And read Sullenberger’s thinking about the need for FIRSTHAND training – he’s talking about simulator time.

And put that in context with bike training in emergency braking and swerving.

All that training is delivered in a sterile, off-road and HAZARD-FREE environment. We may learn the technical skills to stop or swerve but there’s no context and no connection to a real emergency. We’re simply swerving round cones.

It’s so sterile many riders who pass the test never even make the connect between the swerve manoeuvre and the situations on the road where a sudden change of direction might be needed – to avoid a pothole, to dodge an emerging car, to correct for an unexpectedly tight bend.

How do we make that connection between ‘skill’ and ’emergency’? Simulators would be a huge help.

There’s a second issue. We can be told that the roads are risky places, but our experience teaches us the opposite – that as a general rule, “things don’t go wrong”…

…until they do.

Pedestrians crossing the road ahead of us keep going. They don’t suddenly stop and ‘shuffle backwards and forwards’ when we’re just fifteen metres away. We’re even TAUGHT that this is what happens in the DVSA theory test. Millions has been invested in changing the theory test to use CGI rather than video footage, but watch the videos.


You may have to mouse-click (there’s a skill we use all the time on a motorcycle) on the ‘developing hazard’ but what happens if you don’t? The hazard FAILS to turn into a life-threatening situation. The video does not stop with GAME OVER flashing on screen. Life – quite literally – carries on.

Rather than invest in simulators to train riders and drivers for things that WILL go wrong, we still want to blame the rider or driver for failing to cope with a one-off event, something they are highly unlikely to have experienced before, and will almost certainly never experience again.

With a few exceptions like this remarkable decision, it’s still broadly assumed that it’s ‘bad riders’ (and bad drivers) who have crashes, and that the solution is ‘better behaviour’ and ‘better skills’.

I make no apologies for saying this over and over because it’s crucial to understanding why it was your best riding buddy, the rider who was “such a safe rider and never in a rush” or that rider from your advanced group, “the one we never thought would have a bad crash”, who actually did come to grief.

The aviation world has known about the Startle Effect for a couple of decades at least. Road safety?

It’s ignored.

Or – if not ignored – known only to insiders, as a comment on my original Facebook post made clear. I was contacted by a retired police accident investigator. He said “I think that you are wide of the mark when claiming that the startle effect is not known in the world of road safety. We may not have called it that a quarter of a century ago, but we took it into account.”

And he went on to explain that: “the average ‘reaction’ time for a normal driver to realise what was going on when faced with an unusual problem, formulate a plan to deal with it, and initiate such a plan was taken to be in the region of at least 1.5-2 seconds”.

Now, put that in perspective with what I’ve just written. If we take that upper limit of 2 seconds to “realise, formulate and initiate” then subtract the 0.7 seconds which is the average physical ‘reaction’ time for a driver or rider who KNOWS what he or she is going to do already, then it’s allowing A MAXIMUM of 1.3 seconds to actually recognise and analyse the situation, AND to come up with a plan to deal with it.

He continued: “for a driver to considered as being careless, one would be looking for a ‘reaction time’ of between 2-4 seconds.” Or having deducted the physical reaction time, if it takes you or me between 1.3 to 3.3 seconds to “realise, formulate and initiate” the response to the situation, we’re deemed ‘careless’, despite this delay being entirely within the limits of the cognitive delay – the SURPRISE! factor – created by the Startle Effect.

The implication is that riders and drivers are not allowed to be startled by events! And you’ll notice that in the failed prosecution, the police who prepared the case clearly weren’t allowing the rider anything other than an instantaneous reaction to the pedestrian’s unexpected hesitation ahead of him.

In any case, I’d say that being ‘aware of’ of the Startle Effect at the forensic level of police accident investigation, and the failure to ‘factor in’ of the Startle Effect at any level of rider and driver training in order to create road users who are more prepared to deal with the unexpected and avoid the mental block caused by SURPRISE! are two very different things.

Currently, we still seem to want riders and drivers to be able to respond like machines, and if they do get caught out reacting like humans, the response is that they should be punished…

…as if that will help the next pedestrian who hesitates in front of a startled rider who wasn’t expecting to have to take emergency action.

…or the next rider who falls victim to a ‘Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You’ error.

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