One dictionary defines panic as "a sudden, overpowering, often contagious terror." That's a remarkably accurate description of panic as it applies to motorcyclists. From the countless motorcycle crashes I've witnessed and investigated over 25 years of street riding, 14 years of road racing and nearly a decade of full-time motorcycle track instruction, I can tell you that panic is by far the greatest cause of crashes. Ironically, it's an instinct programmed into our minds back when we were defending ourselves against saber-toothed tigers that's the culprit, not panic brought on by the more commonly feared left-turning vehicles, lack of traction, etc., that are usually listed as the greatest dangers to our motorcycling well-being.
Controlling panic is best approached on two fronts. The first is understanding what triggers panic and (obviously) avoiding the situations that create it. Any number of things can trigger panic, and they vary from person to person, but most are linked to time, speed or some state of surprise. These, not surprisingly, are interrelated as well.
Of course, avoiding these triggers is best accomplished by expanding your visual awareness by looking farther ahead and using your peripheral vision to become aware of things before they become a hazard. Linked to visual awareness is speed; the higher your speed, the farther your field of awareness needs to extend and the better your bike control skills need to be. You need to be confident in the actual action of steering and braking at the highest speed you choose to travel, not just confident about it in theory. You must be able to do it on demand at a moment's notice, in the most unexpected and inconvenient circumstances.
The second way to deal with panic is gaining knowledge of its responses and training yourself how best to counteract or overcome them. If you learn one lesson from this Riding Skills Series column, make sure it's this: Look where you want to go. It sounds ridiculously basic, but believe me, in a panic situation this action becomes perhaps the single most difficult-and yet most critical-thing to do. This is because in nearly every panic situation, the primary response is to target-fixate on the immediate hazard.
Target fixation is dangerous for a number of reasons, but most critical is the fact that panic usually causes us to fixate on the bad (the brake lights of the car skidding in front of us, the ditch to the outside of the oncoming right turn or the gravel trap at the racetrack) and ignore the good (blocking out any available escape routes, or the turn you're attempting to make). For better or for worse (usually the latter), you and your motorcycle will go exactly where you're looking. Narrowing a rider's field of vision is just one of the negative effects of visual fixation. Fixation also impairs our natural perception of speed because peripheral vision tends to blur in a fast-forward-type effect not unlike that of hitting the fast-forward button on a DVD player.
It's important to realize how little additional speed it takes to trigger panic entering a turn. Did you know that we all have a natural perception of speed based on visual information and other senses? How precise is this awareness of speed? Most experienced riders can feel a difference of 1 or 2 mph in turns. Advanced riders and racers' sense of speed is often calibrated in tenths of a mile per hour. Don't believe me? Next time you're at an AMA Superbike event, put a stopwatch on any of the front-runners and see how little their lap times vary (barring outside influences like lapped traffic and tire wear, obviously). You'll most likely see lap times differ no more than tenths of a second from one lap to the next. On a 2.5-mile track with lap times in the 1:30 range, a change of one second per lap is a 1.1-mph difference in average speed. That means that the racer's average corner speed, and resulting speed on the straights, is varying by no more than 1.1 mph from one lap to the next. A full-second change in lap time is considered a huge difference by racers.
Let's say you're leading a group of friends down a favorite road on Sunday morning and approaching a challenging decreasing-radius right-hander that you've entered at 58-62 mph on various weekends, depending on the amount of coffee you had at breakfast and how confident you were feeling on a particular morning. How much additional speed would be necessary to trigger panic? Would you believe less than 2 mph? Just that extra 2 mph faster than your maximum comfort speed will make your eyes enlarge to the size of saucers; an additional 4 mph will feel like 100 and send you into cardiac arrest. The important point to remember, however, is that what feels like 40 mph too fast is most likely only 5 mph or less. And it doesn't take much additional braking to scrub off even 5 mph.
The final important aspect of panic is that it typically doesn't dissipate until you've slowed to a running pace (say, 10-15 mph) or below; again, probably due to the fact that our panic instincts were programmed into our minds long before Kawasaki came along with the ZX-14. The typical panicked, target-fixated rider usually runs straight off the track, remains hard on the brakes and either tips over at a crawl or comes to a terrified stop in the dirt; in a 60-mph corner at a track I'm familiar with, it's usually within an average of about 10 feet off the edge of the track. I ask students, "If you're able to come to a stop 10 feet off the track, how fast were you going at the time?" The answer is, Not very fast.
Panic so impairs our perception and judgment that it often causes us to go straight off the road or track when we could have easily negotiated the corner under different circumstances. The same can apply for a car turning in front of you or encountering an unforeseen hazard in the road. Panic induced by these situations can be overcome by resisting the temptation to fixate on the hazard; you must force yourself to continue thinking about your riding, scrub off the necessary speed and stay focused on where you want to go, not what you're trying to avoid. For instance, the aforementioned Sunday morning situation can be handled by looking far into the corner, dragging the brakes a little longer to bring the speed back into the comfort zone, and simply applying a smooth steering input to bend into the corner.
We may never be able to totally eliminate panic from our riding experiences, but hopefully you'll have the basic knowledge and skills to realize that when you feel the panic start to come on, you have the power to reach over and flick the panic switch off just as quickly as it switched on.