*** COMMENT *** Is training working?

Ever since bicycles were invented, riders have been crashing two-wheelers. It might seem obvious that making a hole in a hedge is a lack of skill, and that if riders crash because they aren’t riding well enough, then we should train them to ride better and keep our hedges intact.

As I’ve been writing about the challenge of reducing casualties in the forthcoming book ‘Survival Skills’, I’ve been doing a lot of research on the topic, so I was interested to see an article written by Graham Hay last week for the BMF, entitled: “Motorcycle road safety: Have we been missing out?” in which he promotes the role of further training.

As I have explained in ‘Survival Skills’, the leap of logic that infers that training is a short-cut allowing us to learn from someone else’s experience dates back millennia. Ancient Greek and Roman soldiers drilled to learn skills that had been found effective in battle.

So it’s perhaps no great surprise that the earliest rider training I have found involved the military. Motorcycles went to war in the Great War and a training camp for despatch riders was established in Buxton.

The police driver training school at Hendon opened between the wars. The official motorcycle test was introduced in the 1930s. Motorcycle despatch riders again played an important role in the Second World War and post-war, police training followed the military pattern. The first step to introduce civilian training to reduce the motorcycle accident rate was taken with the original voluntary RAC-ACU scheme back in the 1950s.

And so on, to the current situation where training is compulsory, led by commercial training schools and approved by the DVSA, with instruction undertaken mostly delivered by qualified instructors, whilst testing is a complex affair of the two-part test and stepped, age-related licenses.

Graham concludes that: “…motorcycling has achieved all that it has through rider-skills. The evidence shows that there has been precious little else.”

If I understand correctly, what underpins Graham’s argument is his conclusion that the car test hasn’t significantly changed but cars have got safer, while in the same time frame the bike test has changed a lot but the bikes we ride haven’t improved.

He says:

“The reduction in deaths and serious injuries for car occupants has, in the greater part, been achieved through safety engineering in the design of cars and the design of the roads they drive on. There is no evidence to suggest that fewer collisions take place; the cars are just safer to be in when they are crashed… so much has been added to modern cars to make collisions less likely and the consequences much less, motorcycles of a similar type have not really changed.”

To make his point that nothing much has changed in bike technology, Hay goes on to compare a vintage bike with a heritage replica, whilst showing just how much more technologically sophisticated cars have become.

Does the argument stand up to examination? I don’t think so. At best it’s a strained piece of logic.

He flags up the fact both bikes ride on the same Dunlop tyre, but a ‘heritage replica’ tyre in 2016 isn’t the same piece of rock-hard rubber as existed in 1971. The brakes may not be sophisticated but they work predictably and effectively, particularly in comparison with the earliest disc brakes that were just starting to appear on bikes in the early 1970s; who remembers wet lag? He fails to mention the heritage replica has a halogen headlight and a generally superior electrical system.

Fundamentally, though, the A65 Lightning was a relatively high-performance sports model in its day, albeit one at the terminal end of a long development cycle. A more honest comparison might have been with a machine like the Honda VFR800, another relatively high-performance model at the end of a long development cycle. Maybe modern machines perform no better IN a crash, but they certainly help riders stay out some of the crashes the old machines couldn’t prevent.

Nor do I agree with him when he says: “PPE has become better; of that there is no doubt but it is no comparison to multiple airbags etc.” PPE cannot replicate a safety cage, of that there is no doubt. Nor are there airbags or collapsible handlebars* on motorcycles to prevent the same sort of injuries that airbags and collapsible steering columns prevent in cars.

But we also have to remember that a serious injury that appears in the KSI statistics is just about anything requiring medical intervention. For a rider, the most important pieces of safety technology are abrasion-resistant clothing (which prevents a lot of soft-tissue injury) and the helmet (which is instrumental in preventing head injury).

Back then, riding kit was likely to be a leather or waxed cotton jacket, gloves and boots, and a pair of denims. I’ve a road rash scar myself caused by disintegrating jeans. Now, the average biker chooses to wear more protective clothing, and mostly the kit is much better quality. That will undoubtedly have impacted on the numbers of riders who walk away from the sort of crash that formerly required a hospital visit. A pair of modern gloves that prevented a broken finger means one less entry in the KSI stats.

In 1971, helmet technology was still in its relative infancy. Even in the early 1980s, if a lid stayed in one piece and on your head in a crash, that was an achievement. In a clear case where racing has improved the breed, modern helmets have undoubtedly reduced fatalities. You only have to look at the comparative death rates in US states with no helmet law to see that.

So has training had positive effects? I’d say the jury is out. I’ve previously reported research studies which fail to show training has long-term benefits.

One of the interesting observations I made when looking at the incomplete KSI figures I was able to obtain, was that the big dips in fatality rates did not match up with training. One dip did follow the introduction of the old Part 1 / Part 2 test that came in in the early 80s, but actually corresponded far better with the immediate slump in motorcycle registrations that resulted.

CBT, dating from 1990, didn’t produce obvious results in terms of a dip in the KSI rates either, nor has research suggested any link. Nor has the latest split test or tiered license system. In fact, the latest figures appear to show an up-turn in motorcycle casualties.

But rather than talk casualties, let’s look at where the accidents happen. And here’s the really interesting observation. In 2016, we’re still having the same crashes in the same places our great-grandparents crashed in the 1950s.

Drill back through the data, through the years covered by the RAC/ACU scheme of the 50 and 60s, the BMF training of the 70s, Star Rider of the 80s, compulsory training of the 90s, Direct Access, off-road Module One and on-road Module Two, or the latest EU-mandated tired licenses.

Ask: “what’s the most common crash?”

The answer? The ‘right of way violation’ resulting from the ‘looked but did not see’ error.

I can’t see any evidence training is achieving any improvement in terms of ‘standard accidents’ at junctions, nor in corners or when overtaking. They remain the same source of numbers for the KSI figures as they always have.

It’s actually quite illuminating that Hay made almost exactly the same factual statement as I have in the book – that rider KSIs have been falling since the 1920s – yet we have come to such very different conclusions as to why.

He concludes with a very valid observation, that it will take a while for the next level of technological innovation, compulsory ABS, to filter its way through the KSI numbers to see what the impact is. Even though ABS has been around for thirty years, there are still large numbers of non-ABS equipped machines in the circulating pool and it will be some time before the majority of machines are ABS-fitted.

He also makes a very valid criticism of the EU legislation: “It is a sad fact that the learner riders’ bikes, where price is a key concern, are most likely to have the linked [brakes] system as opposed to the ABS. So the riders who need [ABS] most, will be denied it.”

This observation – though valid in itself – reveals the paradox that Graham seems to have failed to spot when arguing that what’s been achieved has been achieved through training. If training – specifically CBT in the case of the L plate riders on 125s – is doing such a good job, why is that that they are “the riders who need it most”?

We think we know the answer. ‘No Surprise? No Accident!’ It’s not more of the same that’s needed, it’s a realignment of our thinking.


[*I seem to remember a recent model has collapsible handlebars – BMW?]


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


Gaps = TrapsGAPS = TRAPS

It’s the prediction that wherever there is space & time for something hazardous to occur, then there is a potential that it will actually happen. Knowing this and being prepared minimises the likelihood of being surprised in the event of it actually happening.

Whether it is a vehicle waiting at a junction, vehicles in moving or stationary traffic or vehicles moving towards you or away from you on straight roads or bends…knowing there is a gap means that gap can possibly be filled by something else. If you are aiming to occupy the same space at the same time then there has been a prediction failure and the result will be a collision. Continue reading

No Surprise makes the Road Safety GB front page!

What’s No Surprise? No Accident! all about?

Motorcycle crashes are frequently blamed on human error and often linked to ‘attitude’ and ‘behaviour’. However, most crashes do not involve ‘bad apples’ with an extensive history of law-breaking and driving violations. Most crashes happen to ‘ordinary’ riders doing what they thought was an everyday thing. Continue reading

Going To The Polls!

As part of the ongoing engagement process I have developed an initial poll of six questions to gauge rider opinions on some riding rights & safety issues. The polls have been designed to reflect the possible opinion variance and offer balanced options to choose from.

The poll shall be ongoing for the foreseeable future with the current results being easily viewable and you will be able to measure your own responses with the rest of the response pool. Continue reading