The Startle Effect – expect the unexpected

Holism is the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and that a full understanding is only achievable in the context of the entire system. Ecology is a classic example, being a science which is based on the principle that the systems in which organisms exist are created by the interaction of those organisms with each other and their environment.

The opposite of the holistic approach is reductionism, aiming at achieving understanding by breaking things down into their smallest parts. It’s an approach that has been followed by experimental psychology which often assumes that human behaviour can be studied effectively in relatively simple experiments, where complex behaviour is reduced to isolated variables.

The examination of motorcycle crashes is often reductionist. For example, we look at riding errors and seek to pigeonhole them – I do it myself when I explain that the three main crash types are at junctions, in bends and when overtaking.

And when we study a single crash, we try to determine – via a forensic analysis – the individual steps that were taken, and specifically identify the failures believed to have led to the crash. “The rider should / shouldn’t have…”, “the driver should / shouldn’t have…”.

The trouble is that whilst we can often identify an error in the specific place things went wrong (“the rider entered the corner too fast, and ended up offline and on the wrong side of the centre line”, “the driver failed to see the motorcycle and emerged into its path”), finding the error itself doesn’t tell us just WHY the rider or the driver made the mistake JUST THERE and nowhere else.

As I often point out, the rider MUST have made it round plenty of other corners to crash where he or she did, and the driver MUST have emerged safely from many other junctions when there were bikes around.

The reality is that seemingly unique events are entwined within a much more complex matrix – faulty decisions that rider or driver took in the moments before a crash were not taken in isolation, but influenced by training, aptitude, attitude, the circumstances as they appeared to be and the assumptions made about what would happen, as well as being based on prior experience. “It worked last time.”

Personally, I’ve always thought we need a much more holistic approach to rider safety and that the mistakes and errors riders and drivers make are greater then merely the sum of parts.

Over the last two Fridays I’ve looked at what seemed to me a very unusual outcome of a police prosecution. The case was withdrew from the jury by the judge when he allowed that a rider involved in a fatal collision would have been unable to react in time when a pedestrian crossing the road spotted the bike and stopped unexpectedly.

The prosecution applied a reductionist approach, pinpointing the single error that led to the fatal collision – the rider should have reacted faster when the pedestrian stopped moving – whilst making the assumption that an ‘alert’ rider would have been able to react in such a short time.

But the judge took a more holistic approach and allowed that the rider had seen and reacted to the pedestrian crossing the road ahead of him, and that the rider’s prior experience would have been such that he wouldn’t have expected the pedestrian to stop in front of him, and that the steps taken to that point would have prevented a collision. Only when the pedestrian suddenly stopped unexpectedly did everything go wrong. Thanks to the ‘Startle Effect’ delaying an immediate reaction, it would have taken the rider more distance to stop than he had available.

This is not to say we should ignore rider error. We can certainly work to improve skills.

But it’s only by understanding the context in which a collision like this happened that we can train riders to be better prepared for similar events. Hindsight often makes a sequence of events quite obvious. The trick is to learn from incidents like this to give us the foresight to be prepared when the same situation happens to us.

Expecting the unexpected we’re far more likely to overcome the Startle Effect. Then we’ve a better chance of dealing with an emergency as it develops.

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