A veteran motorcycle safety instructor reminds us why we should never get too comfortable with our favorite routes.
By Eric Trow
As a kid, I practically had a path worn through my house from running in and out. I know that place like the back of my hand and could probably find my way around with my eyes closed. In fact, when I was in high school, I would sneak in late at night, navigate quickly through a familiar maze of furniture and find my way to my room without ever touching a light switch. I even knew where every loose, squeaky floorboard was and how to avoid it to keep from waking my parents (turns out they were fully aware). So imagine my surprise when sneaking in one night, I expertly slipped through the front door as I had done countless times before and then promptly smacked my shin solidly on a marble coffee table. After years of sameness and without warning, my mother had decided it was time to rearrange the furniture for a fresh look. (I still wonder to this day if she did it just to catch me.)
I hear riders talk about roads they ride regularly and they often ask if it’s really necessary to apply all of the visual strategies we teach when riding a very familiar road. After all, they know exactly where the road goes over each hillcrest and precisely where the apex is for each corner, right? That scares me each time I hear it. Why? Because familiarity creates what are known as “false positives.” In other words, when we repeat an activity and get the same positive result repeatedly, we begin to expect the same result the next time. So, when we’ve ridden down the same stretch of road time and again with no issues our brains pick up on that pattern of success and begin to tell us that it is “safe” to ride that stretch with less concern. It’s why I would run through the house in the dark with complete confidence. I’ve never been a good gambler but I do know that we simply can’t press our luck indefinitely. I still have the scar on my shin to prove it. As one rider recently said during a seminar, “You can get away with that most of the time… (pause for effect)…’most’ of the time.”
Things change. And they often change without warning. Think about that familiar stretch of road that you ride regularly. What guarantee do you have that the next time you ride it something won’t be different?
My mom and Mother Nature
Just as my mom changed things up on me after years of keeping them the same, Mother Nature can do the same. Trees fall. Land slides. Water drains, carrying gravel and dirt with it. One freak, isolated storm can completely change conditions around a bend, immediately turning the familiar into an all-new environment. We simply can’t count on things to be the same this time, regardless of how long they’ve been unchanged.
Change sometimes dresses in orange
Sometimes conditions change thanks to the men and women in high-viz green and orange who seemingly slip in during the night and reconfigure roadways while we’re sleeping. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ridden a stretch of road one day and then ridden it again the next only to find that there are now torn-out sections of pavement, soft patches, sections that have been freshly oiled and chipped, or a favorite series of pristine curves that has suddenly become a den of tar snakes. Anticipate road construction, even if there are no signs.
Same stage, different scene
Even if we know the road and the conditions remain the same, we simply can’t know how the scene will play out each time we ride it. Activity changes according to the day of the week, time of day or just because. Postal vehicles parked over a hillcrest, a distracted or aggressive driver crossing the double yellow on a curve, a group of bicyclists, spooked wildlife, debris dropped from an overloaded vehicle, a car losing transmission fluid. Each of these has been shared with me by other riders as examples of surprises they encountered on a familiar road, some resulting in crashes and others in near misses. Be prepared for the scene to depart from the script.
These days, my mother is no longer content to leave a room the same for long. Pictures change from one wall to another. And then back. Rugs appear and disappear. Lamps and furniture swap positions faster than a politician. Her house has gone through more facelifts than Joan Rivers. Funny thing is, as a result I no longer expect things to be the same each time I go back to the house. Next time you feel at home on that familiar stretch of road, don’t allow your history of consistent positive outcomes to cause you to be overconfident. Instead, think of what might be different this time. Better yet, think of my mom. She’ll like that. Her name is Margaret.
Eric Trow is a lifelong motorcyclist and a veteran motorcycle safety instructor. He currently operates Stayin’ Safe Advanced Rider Training.
Has familiarity with a route created a false positive on one of your rides? If so, share your story in the comments section, below.
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