by Eli Post
‘Situation awareness’ is the study of the environment critical to decision-makers in complex, dynamic areas from military command and control, and emergency services such as firefighting and policing; to more ordinary but nevertheless complex tasks such as driving an automobile or bicycle. From Wikipedia.
Paying sufficient attention to one’s surroundings to identify and respond to potentially dangerous situations is especially critical where hazards exist or could arise without warning. Whether it’s the scuba diver looking out for sharp rock edges, the skydiver aiming for cleared land, or the road cyclist making sure the path ahead is clear of road debris, certain tasks require close attention to one’s surroundings. Cyclists cannot assume that others (motorists or other cyclists) are watching out for their safety.
Situational awareness is a mindset, and strategies can be learned that better prepare cyclists for situations where danger might lurk. Awareness of what is happening in your environment helps you understand how information, events, and your own actions will impact you. For example, you are riding on a country road that is free of traffic when you see cars parked ahead and hear cars approaching from behind. These cues should make you realize that you will have a more limited corridor to ride and need to become more watchful of obstacles in the road that might cause you to alter your line of travel, now more difficult with cars passing on one side and cars parked on the other.
Some situations; however, require more preparation than simply a heightened sense awareness. A parked car can pull out without warning or, a car door might swing open in front of you, blocking your path. The larger challenge is to develop strategies to prepare for, and deal with, the unexpected.
Obviously, this article can’t define the entire range of possible situations and/or provide all the answers. The key is to develop a sense of awareness that guides you in determining your actions. Over time, cyclists develop an experience base that tells them what is safe and gives them a heightened alertness of any aberrations from the expected that might represent a danger.
Although we do not recommend a state of hyper-vigilance, which can be exhausting, cyclists need to remain aware of their current situation and simultaneously prepare for what might be coming up. Situational awareness involves preemptively figuring out maneuvers to ensure safety in a variety of common cycling situations. Experienced riders are prepared for many possible hazards, and develop strategies to prevent being caught off guard and/or unprepared. Though that sounds complicated, it becomes second nature once one understands where dangers can exist.
Some specific examples illustrate how a cyclist’s decision-making requires attention to the road ahead, and reading the signs and environmental clues that facilitate proactive decision-making:
- While riding in a group, you make sure you and your fellow riders are well off the roadway when you stop to regroup.
- As you cycle down the road to the left of another cyclist, you notice a pothole in the distance in the path of the other rider. You call out the hazard, check to see whether it is safe to move left, signal, and then move to your left or drop back, giving the other cyclist room to avoid the pothole.
- Cyclists must assume that every oncoming car might turn left – perhaps without signaling. Have a plan in mind for turning behind the car, in front of the car, or braking, depending on the situation. Focus your attention on what is happening well up the road. Look ahead and prepare for what is coming, not just for where you are now. Run all possible scenarios through your mind and make sure you have an exit strategy because you can’t be sure what others will do.
- Continuously watch out for roadway hazards like parked cars, potholes and curb extensions.
- Anticipate and look for signs of changes in the roadway, such as a right lane becoming a right-turn lane, a new lane entering from the right, a bike lane ending or traveling to the right of right-turning traffic.
- A rear-view mirror really helps you see what’s coming up behind. Scan it frequently, especially when you anticipate having to make a lane change, as for an upcoming turn. Though you also must turn your head to check your blind spot – especially, for other bicyclists – a mirror can help you determine when it is not safe to change lane positions. Use hand signals to give others behind you (cyclists and motorists) adequate warning that you are going to changing lane positions.
- A cyclist unintentionally bumps you from behind. Do not stop but keep moving to give the other rider space to stop safely (or fall, which is usually the result of touching wheels).
- Fatigue undermines our ability to maintain situational awareness. We begin to lose focus and slowly lose our ability to deal with the complexities of the environment just when we are the most vulnerable. Don’t cycle when you are badly fatigued!
- Don’t assume when a car pulls in a driveway you’re in the clear. It may back up to reposition, get the mail, etc. and be prepared to take evasive maneuvers.
- When making a left turn, position yourself near the center of the roadway, or in a left-turn lane if there is one, well before the turn. Avoid jumping over at the last moment.
- Similarly, when you’re approaching a line of parked cars and will need to move over, do it early to stay with the flow of traffic and to avoid the “door zone” where doors might swing open without warning.
- Finally, as we noted earlier, a parked car can pull out without warning or, a car door might swing open in front of you, blocking your path. Your only recourse would be to swerve out, possibly in front of overtaking traffic. Instead, plan ahead: check for traffic behind you and change lane position before reaching the potential hazard, controlling a travel lane if necessary.
The polar opposite of situational awareness is mindless cycling, which can be very dangerous for you and for everyone around you. Mindless cycling has many forms including obliviousness of the need to follow the rules of the road and being inattentive to potential hazards such as car doors, blind spots and being hidden from motorists. Becoming a mindful cyclist is an essential part of safe cycling and improves the odds that you will not be the cause, or the victim, of a mishap.
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