Judgement comes with experience, but can new riders observe and imagine their way to good judgement?


“Yeah, well,” a veteran rider will say to me when he learns what I do for a living, “ya can’t teach judgement.” He will then wax philosophic about all the skills in the world not saving a rider with poor judgement.

And since I’ve been working at riding schools for almost 20 years, I’ve heard this a lot and I’ve thought about “teaching judgement” a lot. Many of us gained good judgement along with bumps, bruises, scrapes and worse, but many of us know riders who decided to quit riding after the above-mentioned physical injuries, so I’m quite motivated to try to actually teach riding judgement.

Riders gain judgement by observing. High-mileage riders have observed more and have a store of knowledge that allows them to judge situations based on past experience. They have seen crazy and stupid and unsafe and everything in between. The best way for low-mileage riders to catch up is to begin to be much more imaginative. Since they haven’t seen crazy, stupid and unsafe in the first person, they must begin to see it in their imagination.

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation talks about scanning and then interpreting what you’ve seen…that’s your imagination. It should border on paranoid.

Your imagination should do two things: picture a worst-case scenario unfolding, and picture what you would do about it. Mentally see your escape route or your control input if what you’ve imagined actually happens.

I have two examples that showed me this subject needed to appear on Ienatsch Tuesday as soon as possible. Each of these examples had me shouting “Heads Up!” in my helmet as what I had imagined began to unfold.

Last summer I was street riding in a large east-coast city with a friend who was new to our sport. We were zipping along a four-lane inner-city highway with him leading toward a green light at about 65 mph, just slightly over the speed limit. There were three or four cars lined up waiting to turn left across our lanes and my paranoid radar went off causing me to roll-off the throttle and cover my brakes as I imagined the first car turning left in front of our bikes. My friend didn’t roll-off, he continued at a steady clip toward the intersection TAKING FOR GRANTED that the car saw him and wouldn’t turn.

The car turned. I had been yelling in my helmet for about three seconds. At the last possible moment, the car slammed on the brakes and my friend dodged to the right. Close.

The second instance that prompted this piece was last month as another (veteran rider) friend led me onto the freeway. As he accelerated down the onramp I could see that his trajectory would carry him right into the blind spot of a car angling over to exit the freeway. My alarm went off and I started shouting. Only a swerve by both vehicles at the last moment saved the day. Close.

In both instances, these riders learned from their experience and gained “judgement”. But do we need to have close calls or painful experiences? No, we need to kickstart our imagination and think about cars ahead getting ready to turn, cars wanting to get over to the exit lane that also serves as the entrance lane. Imagine why a driver would make a move, predict how he would make it, see a way out and don’t be there when it happens.

The second step that gains judgement from imagination is the rider filing away the experiences he or she sees. For instance, I was once a passenger in a van and we were whipping along in the right lane, flashing past stopped cars in the middle lane. A driver in the middle lane lost his patience and made a quick and unexpected move into the right lane forcing our van onto the (fortunately vacant) sidewalk. From that moment on, I imagined drivers losing their patience and diving into a lane that is open, and this thought continues to affect my speed, lane position and brake readiness. I gained judgement from an experience observed as a passenger.

To build your riding judgement quickly and strongly, fire up your imagination every time you ride or drive. Imagine the worst and have a plan for dealing with it. Pay attention to traffic flows, corner layouts, driver types, vehicle appearance, weather conditions affecting grip, especially when you are a passenger in a car. Store the stupid, crazy and unsafe situations in your riding file and you will begin to painlessly gain judgement.