Changing Gears

(The Mental Kind) 

by Pat Hahn

Are you a morning person or an evening person? If you lived in Third Shift, New Jersey, would you be more cautious riding to work in the morning or riding home in the evening? If you lived in Strip Bar, Wisconsin, would you avoid riding at one in the morning? What about Factory, Illinois?

In every country, every state, and every city, there are good times to travel and bad times. Put another way, there are high-risk times and really high-risk times. To know when most crashes happen and to know why can put you at less risk.

Let’s start with some inductive reasoning. What time of year would you guess that most crashes happen? I’d say winter, when roads are more often slippery and unmanageable. But what time of year would you guess that most motorcycle crashes happen? Now I’d say summer. Good weather = more miles traveled = more crashes.

So which day of the week would you guess that most crashes happen? I’d guess Monday, or maybe Friday. But which day would you guess most motorcycle crashes happen? Now I’m leaning toward Friday or Saturday. Now factor in alcohol and ask yourself which day of the week most alcohol-related crashes occur. Now you’re definitely thinking about Saturday. Well, weekend, anyway. How about alcohol-related motorcycle crashes? Probably no different.

What about time of day? What time of day do you think most crashes occur? I’m guessing evening rush hour–say, 4 p.m. What about motorcycle crashes? I’m still thinking evening rush hour. What about alcohol-related motorcycle crashes? Now I’m thinking closing time.

These are all guesses purposefully based only on anecdote and prejudice. You may not agree with them based on your latitude, your perception of risk, or your personal experience. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that crashes are predictable to some degree. Every geographical area has it’s own trends, and knowing the trends can help you avoid being, uh, trendy.

Statistics don’t apply to anyone, but they do apply to everyone. Equally. If there are 1000 crashes in your state every year, and 100,000 motorcycles, you have about a one in one hundred chance of crashing during any given year. So does everybody else. If half of all those crashes involve alcohol, and you don’t drink, your odds just went up to one in two hundred. If half of all those crashes happened at night, and you never drink or ride in the dark, now your odds are up to one in four hundred. You see where I’m going with this? What I’m saying is: learn the stats. Know what the trends are. You can look at Minnesota Crash Facts at under Traffic Safety.

A friend of mine recently crashed his motorcycle in a low-drama single-vehicle event. I had another article all ready to go, but changed my mind and decided that I would follow his lead and maybe learn from his experience. Long story short: he’s a skilled and conscientious sport-riding enthusiast. A couple weeks ago, he was carving corners with a friend over the border in Alphabetland. The morning went fine, he felt good, in control; he was on. After lunch, they switched positions and continued at the same pace. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Gixxer had an unplanned get off–looking too long into his mirror for his comrade, a sharp corner snuck up and bit him. Hard.

I call this phenomenon Changing Gears. Think back to Dirk Koenig’s articles about the Hurt Study. Remember “fifty percent of all motorcycle crashes happen within the first six minutes” of riding? Why do you suppose that is? And why do you suppose such a large majority of crashes happen during rush hours? Aside from the obvious increased traffic volume, might there be another factor?

Let’s approach this from a fresh angle. When you spend a long time inactive–being lazy, sitting down, studying, sleeping, whatever–and then decide to go for a walk, or running, or biking, how long does it take to get warmed up? When you start exercising, how many minutes does it take to get your heart pumping, to get your body burning fat? How long does it take to forget about what you were doing, and focus on what you are doing? When you take a vacation, how many days does it take for you to forget about work and really start having fun? When you come back, how many days does it take to get back into the work groove? How about after a busy weekend of fun–how many hours or days does it take to get back down to business at work? After sleeping for eight hours, how long does it take you to wake up? These are examples of changing gears. It’s the time of great energy inefficiency, or Diseconomy of Transition, between one activity and another.

Example: you go on vacation. First day: you get up early, go to the airport, and fly to your destination. You get to your new place, check into your hotel or take a cab to your friend’s house, and you sit down. So far it’s all been a blur. You’ve been busy all day, but it’s like a dream. You’re a machine, going through the motions. You’ve accomplished a lot of nothing. You’ve put on miles, and that’s all. A whole day has passed, and you haven’t felt it. You were making a transition.

The next day, you get up and start having fun. But you’re not good at it yet–you’re still energy-inefficient. The bed is unfamiliar, the sink, the stairs, breakfast–it’s all weird. It’s all fine, but you’re still disoriented because it’s so different. You feel like you should be at work, but you’re not. Part of you is at work. You might even imagine what everyone else is doing: going to work, talking about you not being there, looking through your stuff. You’re there. You’re still in work mode. But you’re on vacation, so you push on.

You have your fun, whatever it might be–food, golf, beach, snorkeling–and you start to loosen up, imperceptibly. Your inputs for the last 24 hours have been anything but work-related, and you start to get into the groove. The next day you really tuck in and start having fun. You feel rested. You feel good-natured. You’re on vacation. By day four, you’re down. It’s all good. You’re finally where you wanted to be.

The problem is, it took four days. (Your transitions might vary, but you get the point.) They weren’t bad days, but because you were still in the work mode, you weren’t able to give them your full attention. You didn’t get your full value for your dollar. That’s Diseconomy of Transition.

Everything’s like that. Vacations. Mondays. Exercise. Sleep. When you change gears, when you switch from one mode to the other, you lose efficiency at both for a time. It’s very difficult to concentrate on one when you’re still in the cloud of the other.

So you lose efficiency and concentration when you change gears–big deal, right? Wrong. It’s important because if you’re on the road changing gears, or if you’re on the road while everyone else is changing gears, you’re at a higher risk. This is probably why rush hour is so risky. Not only are you and everyone else in a daze at four-thirty when the whistle blows, you’re also trying to switch to from worker-bee gear to TV-dinner gear. Again, not a big deal, but you’re also in the saddle, or at the wheel. How many times have you been halfway home from work, and not realized how you got there, or even where you are?

It’s a lot of work to go from one thing to another. The last mode always lingers, and the next one creeps in. As you’re riding along, you start thinking about the leftover pizza that’s in the fridge. The lawn that needs mowing. The cold beer you’re going to have after you mow it. Throwing the football with your kid. Playing on the floor with your dog. It all creeps in, takes away the little concentration you do have, and makes you a menace to yourself and to everyone else on the road. It ain’t pretty, reality.

How to combat it? It’s not easy. But like everything else, simply being aware of your weakness, being aware of the heightened risk, is a good start. You might arbitrarily take fewer chances, or drive slower, or more defensively. You might force yourself to allow a greater margin of error. Knowing you’re not at peak efficiency may also help you in your decision making process. David Hough, the World’s Most Proficient Motorcyclist, also suggests a solution: match your brain speed to the road speed. Just like matching your motorcycle’s speed to the environment, make sure that your brain is able to deal with hazards at the rate they come. If they come too fast, you either have to speed up your brain (through focus and concentration on the task at hand) or slow down the rate at which the hazards approach (reducing your speed so your brain can keep up.) This technique, used when changing gears, can save your biscuit.

Knowing that most everyone else is in the same boat is also critical. You’re ready for other people to be distracted, to make sudden unpredictable moves, to be somewhere else entirely. To be ready for people’s minds to be anywhere except behind the wheel also lowers your risk.

Can we avoid changing gears? I doubt it. I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate the gear-changing period between modes. But you can shorten it, or try to through get most of it before you hit the road. A leisurely period of walking to the bike, putting on your jacket and helmet, and taking slow, deep breaths all work to get your motorcycle juices flowing. You need a ritual to soak up some of the time you need to change gears. Let the bike warm up for a couple extra minutes. If you smoke, smoke. Give your bike a lazy safety inspection. Take some time to focus. Maybe even sit on the bike without moving, visualizing the ride home–which way you’re going to take, what you’ll see, where the lights are, the trouble spots–and about what time you’ll get home. Talk to yourself. Remind yourself that you’re done working and you’ll be home soon, but now it’s time to ride the bike. You can’t avoid changing gears, but you can get better at it.


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