I just returned from a quick trip to the grocery store about two miles from my home. Noon-ish on the Saturday before Easter, and the store and its parking lot were packed. After witnessing countless near misses between shopping carts inside—along with several actual collisions—I watched two automotive fender-benders at close range in the lot before I could circumnavigate the mayhem on my way out to the street. I felt like I’d been dropped, dream-style, into a demolition derby and only narrowly escaped with my bike and body intact. I huffed in my helmet about the aggravating inconsiderateness, carelessness and obliviousness of Some People!
However, as the soothingly glorious spring weather became figural on my brief return trip and “those people” receded behind me, no longer a threat, I began to view things differently. It occurred to me that no one in any of the recent crash scenarios behaved aggressively. None of the close calls or actual impacts indoors resulted from someone careening angrily through the aisles, and folks had been politely apologetic afterwards, even when they managed to narrowly avoid contact. Drivers of the cars outside had likewise been moving slowly and presumably with caution, though I couldn’t tell exactly where everyone was (or wasn’t) looking. I did see people climb out of their vehicles in a calm, albeit unhappy, state; there were no fists or voices raised. At least on the surface, it was hard to discern any real guile on the part of the participants in these micro-dramas.
Listen to this column as Episode 23 of The Ride Inside with Mark Barnes. Submit your questions to Mark for the podcast by emailing [email protected].
True, the congestion in the store and surrounding lot made navigation more challenging. The combination of more bogies and less room to maneuver could be expected to yield an increased number of clashes, but why so? After all, not everyone on the premises hit someone else. While the close calls and contacts were plentiful, victims and perpetrators still comprised a small minority of the entire group. I suggest this is a threshold phenomenon, with the task complexity exceeding the limits of said minority’s competence. The specific competency relevant here is visual-spatial processing, which involves such subroutines as noticing, tracking, and assessing objects in space, with attention to/judgement of their positions and movements relative to one another.
This type of processing is often taken for granted as a fundamental and automatic component of perception, though we can devote more intentional effort to it when we choose to do so. For motorcyclists, this is an extremely critical skill to deliberately cultivate and exercise for obvious reasons. As with any faculty, we’re each born with a certain level of innate ability and potential, upon which we can build with education, practice, and focused determination. As a result, all of us possess varying degrees of aptitude in a broad array of dimensions. For example, one person could have fairly good visual-spatial processing, but not so great a capacity for sustained attention. Such a person may make blunders similar to those of someone with better concentration and worse visual-spatial skills. Among those at the grocery store, there were undoubtedly a wide range of skill—and skill deficit—configurations among the shoppers and drivers there. Some portion would not have had what it takes to manage the cramped conditions. This wasn’t a function of evil, but rather unintentional ineptitude, and was more worthy of my sympathy than contempt, since routine existence is harder in many ways for such people through no fault of their own. Were the challenge a different one, I might well be in the minority who failed to negotiate it successfully.
We all know people with sub-par visual-spatial processing; they’re not terribly rare, and they’re frequently our neighbors on the road. They certainly don’t account for all the bad driving that demands our constant vigilance. There are genuinely inconsiderate, careless and oblivious drivers, not to mention those who are more overtly and actively aggressive in any number of ways. People with poor visual-spatial processing, however, may be doing their very best to drive in a considerate, careful, and attentive manner, but their abilities to judge how close something is to them, how quickly it’s approaching (or they’re approaching it), and whether its path will intersect with their own, may prove inadequate in trickier situations. The seriously impaired won’t even be able to muster accurate predictions in simpler circumstances. If you ride in a car with such a person driving, you’ll marvel at how they hit every single pothole in the road, despite changing lane position in apparent attempts to avoid them. They will consistently misjudge where their wheels are in relation to the hazards.
Some of what gets attributed to clumsiness is actually not a problem with muscular coordination. A person on the dance floor might demonstrate above-average athleticism with their elaborate moves, but also often bump into those nearby. Someone may break a lot of dishes, not because they lack grip strength or dexterity, but because they don’t realize the table edge is right there! They either catch that edge when they thought their movement would be unimpeded, or they lay the plate down with too much of it hanging off—especially if that edge is rounded and supplies less support than it might seem to promise at a glance. In fact, such people can be prone to breaking all sorts of things, and have likely been this way since childhood. They may have no insight into the real source of their difficulty, and simply make the same attributions as those who have faulted them for clumsiness, carelessness, or inattentiveness throughout the years. Unfortunately, the heightened motivation that comes from being shamed this way makes little or no difference in their performance, because motivation isn’t the issue. Alternatively, they may view mishaps as mysterious occurrences, and say things like, “My phone fell,” as though the event were unrelated to their own action.
I’m quite certain some of those shoppers today thought they had plenty of clearance as they passed one another, at least until they were only a few centimeters apart. Considering how everything is more complex and our visual field more compromised when we’re operating on the basis of the image in a rear-view mirror, it’s no wonder miscalculations were made by those two drivers I watched bump other cars. Sure, head-checks should augment mirror usage, but the brain then has yet another challenge – reconciling two disparate data streams to create a three-dimensional mental model via extensive interpolation and extrapolation. Again, this is the kind of thing people with good visual-spatial processing don’t think about. It’s so reflexively integrated they don’t recognize it as a discreet category of experience; it happens at a pre-conscious level requiring no deliberate thought or action.
To grossly oversimplify, the brain generally takes in information from the bottom/rear. The spinal cord conducts most of this business, relaying the status of muscles, nerves, organs, etc. from the rest of the body into the head. Although the eyes are at the front of the head, the optic nerves actually pass under much of the brain and extend into its rear-most lobes, the occipitals, where visual data is initially assembled from the conglomeration of raw details taken in by the retinas (e.g., edges, colors, brightness contrasts, movements). The whole back half of the brain (including the parietal and temporal lobes) gets involved in putting together increasingly comprehensive packages of information as processing proceeds towards the frontal lobes, where executive functions reside. It really is a lot like a business or military operation wherein the lower ranks collect and organize information, passing it up the hierarchy until the finalized, polished report reaches those in charge. In the frontal lobes, that report is evaluated and decisions are made based on executive analysis, with commands issued back down through the spinal cord (or cranial nerves) to the various systems overseen by the brain, including the muscles involved in acting upon whatever interpretation was made of visual inputs.
What we experience as consciousness is largely a frontal lobe phenomenon, although it is most definitely impacted by processing elsewhere. If anything is amiss in any of the circuits collecting or assembling the information being processed, the report and any commands generated on its basis to the rest of the body will likewise be askew. The old computer science adage “garbage in, garbage out” applies. Of course, the executives can mess things up, too; even if the report is good, the analysis of it or choice of response may not be. There are literally millions of places where things can go wrong, whether we’re talking about visual-spatial processing or any other brain function. The fact we can get anything even remotely correct is absolutely astounding! It’s awfully harsh to condemn below-average visual-spatial processors. On the other hand, it would be extremely dangerous folly to ignore the threat they pose when behind the wheel of an automobile.
A common theme among riding gurus’ teachings is the need to maintain a “space cushion” between ourselves and the vehicles nearby. Whether we’re in a unidirectional flow on the interstate or picking our way through crowded urban intersections, we must be on constant alert for drivers who may try, wittingly or unwittingly, to occupy the same space as us at the same time we’re there. This could happen just as easily with a car changing lanes alongside us as with one facing us, turning left into our path. It’s vitally important for us to notice where cars are and predict where they might go, and to have an accurate sense of closing speed/distance, the trajectories involved, and where we might realistically seek refuge or escape. Our visual-spatial skills must exceed those of the drivers around us and provide the means for split-second decision-making that could make the difference between a near-miss and an actual collision. Space cushions add to the finite time and distance within which we must process visual inputs and react; these are resources we can never have too much of, no matter how robust our visual-spatial processing. If this isn’t a strength, we need to work on it diligently and make even greater allowances.
Some people are indeed more accident-prone, despite their best efforts and lack of malice. Good intentions make no difference in the amount of damage that can result from their glitchy visual-spatial processing. It’s incumbent upon us to give them plenty of room on the road.
Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.