No Surprise – No Accident


United Kingdom – “All accidents are the result of prediction failure. Surprise is Nature’s way of telling us we have experienced such a failure. If there is no surprise, there can be no accident”

The aim of the ‘No Surprise: No Accident’ campaign is to reduce the number of motorcycle crashes by shifting the way we think about road safety.

No Surprise – No Accident argues that we need new and original thinking to tackle old problems, a new paradigm for motorcycle safety.

Take the time to read through the article below at times it will seem a bit heavy going but to understand a “new” way of thinking then some thought needs to given to understand it!

Perfectly Normal And Controlled Ride

For a long time, it’s been assumed that if you teach people to a suitable level of skill and then ensure they conform to a set of rules, they won’t crash.

From that perspective, it’s easy to assume that those people who do crash therefore either have inadequate skills or broke the rules.

Typical descriptions of crashes use phrases like “lost control” or “too fast for the conditions”.

But a moment’s logical thinking shows there’s a problem with this description of the event. The rider clearly was “in control” and “wasn’t too fast for the conditions” a mile back up the road or they would have crashed there instead. Throughout their journey they were only considered to be ‘out of control’ or ‘too fast for the conditions’ at the precise point they crashed.

So what changed at that exact point? What turned a perfectly normal and controlled ride at a pace that was entirely suitable for the conditions into a nightmare of twisted metal and pain?

To answer this question, let’s look at what we do know already.

What Do We Know Already

no-surprise-facebookWe know where motorcyclists crash because the majority of crashes involving motorcycles happen in the same places over and over. Just think about the two most common crashes; the collision with a turning car and the rider who crashes on a bend.

We know why people crash – an inappropriate response at the important moment, whether that’s changing speed or changing direction in the wrong way, or failing to make an input when one was needed.

We also know what those inappropriate responses are. Keith Code got a big chunk of the answer with his ‘Survival Reactions’ that he wrote about in ‘Twist of the Wrist 2’, where he talked about inappropriate reactions like target fixation, freezing on the steering, grabbing a big handful of brake.

The next point is that we also know that many people who crash as a result of making those inappropriate responses were actually trained to make the right inputs. Emergency stops have been part of rider training for decades and for the last couple of years riders have been trained to swerve too.

So why don’t riders deploy their crash avoidance skills when they need them?

Surprise Derails Our Brains

For years, that’s been the question that’s not been addressed. The logical step forward that ‘No Surprise’ has made is to identify that the trigger for these inappropriate reactions all revolves around just how the rider perceives the developing situation in the last few and crucial seconds; in fact, right where the right input would prevent a crash.

The key factor preventing the correct response turns out to be that our expectation of how the situation develops turns out to be at odds with how it actually develops. What happens isn’t what we were expecting. And the result is surprise.

Surprise derails our brain’s learned responses to situations it’s dealt with in the past.

An important point here is to understand how we process the information that comes in to our brain in real-time. The neo-cortex, the bit of the brain that makes us human, filters incoming data from our various senses. It compares that incoming data stream with data streams that we have experienced before and stored in memory. Should the neo-cortex detect anything novel in the incoming data we will we will start thinking about the novelty, deciding whether or not that novelty represents a threat and deciding how we’re going to deal with it if it does.

But should the incoming data appear to match scenarios that have already been successfully negotiated, then the neo-cortex automates the task by running the program that is the best fit for what it sees, a program that it’s learned by experience has worked in similar situations in the past.

Remember learning to catch? In the very earliest stages of learning this very complex perceptual/motor task we had to work out just how to judge the flight of the ball and time our own movement to intercept it. Initially we weren’t very good at it at all, but as we gained more experience of how the ball travels through time and space we were able to catch the ball much more easily as the neo-cortex controlled our muscles without conscious input.

If someone shouts “catch”, we look round to see who called to us and prepare to track the ball in the air, and move in a way to make a controlled catch. That’s a learned response, and it’s thanks to these learnt responses we can perform these tasks without conscious thinking. Catching practice allows us to experience many different ball trajectories’ which in turn reduces the level of novelty in each ball’s flight. The process we use to learn to catch a ball is exactly the same as we learn to process tasks as we ride the bike. The process of learning through repetition and practice reduces the potential novelty in a situation and as a result reduces the potential for something surprising to happen.

And then something happens that doesn’t fit the program.

The Reptilian Brain

bikefornosurpriseThink what we do if someone unexpectedly throws a ball at our head – we duck or put a hand up to deflect it and protect our face without any conscious thought. If there’s an immediate threat of personal harm, then a much older bit of the brain automatically kicks in to defend us from the threat. This primitive ‘reptilian brain’ is entirely beyond our conscious control, but we rely on it to control our ‘fight or flight’ reactions to sudden or threatening events.

The reptilian brain is always alert to deal with threats that are beyond the capability of our neo-cortex to manage and this is a significant key fact in ‘No Surprise – No accident’. Because it is understanding that it’s the event that we

DIDN’T predict that is the issue, if we become surprised by a novel and unpredicted event we’re at risk of having our reptilian brain take over and trigger those inappropriate ‘survival reactions’ and that is NOT good for our bike control.

What we are calling ‘Prediction failures’ are a discrepancy between what we predicted was going to happen and were prepared for, and how the last few seconds actually developed. The bigger the gulf between the scenarios we were mentally prepared for and the scenario actually experienced, the less chance we have of preventing our reptilian brain taking over with some inappropriate action.

Reptiles can’t ride motorbikes so we have to take all possible steps to ensure that the reptile sitting waiting in our brain never gets the opportunity to try.

But few crashes are one-offs. As we said, motorcyclists have been having the same crashes since Gottlieb Daimler first stuck a engine in a bicycle frame.


The UNreasonable Event

The problem is we’re creatures of habit, and our habits tend to narrow down to “what worked yesterday will work today”. That means it’s very difficult to stay focused on staying out of trouble. The longer we ride and the longer nothing happens, the more likely we are to think nothing will happen next time either. Riders are not routinely taught to ‘expect the unexpected’. In fact, the UK Police system states we should plan for “what we can see, what we can’t see and what we can REASONABLY expect to happen”.

The problem is that it’s the UNreasonable events that catch us out.

Paradoxically, it’s likely that the longer the interval between prediction failures, the more we come to trust our prediction skills and the less we actively predict the ‘worst case scenario’. This isn’t complacency or over-confidence but a basic function of the way our brain processes experience. The more something happens (or doesn’t happen) the more our brain will rely on that prior experience and it can happen despite the best intentions of the rider to try to stay safe. We go mentally stale.

The sad fact is that accidents will happen when riders continue to do what they normally do unaware of the fact that the circumstances they currently find themselves in are very far from normal indeed. Normal circumstances will generate normal predictions of the future state of the system, yet abnormal circumstances can appear to be very similar to the normal ones and so any predictions made on the assumption of normality will be incorrect.

We believe that motorcyclists need to be better equipped to detect the onset of abnormal circumstances so that they can make much better informed predictions and decisions about how to manage them.

Simple Rhyming Reminders

bikefornosurprise-2Take the case of the classic junction collision as an example of how a rider can assume the situation is normal (car won’t pull out) when in fact it is abnormal (car will pull out). It is knowing and identifying the tiny differences in circumstances that change the situation from normal to abnormal that will guide the rider’s predictions and help them avoid a collision.

Rather than assuming that the car will wait until a rider is past the junction what the rider could do instead is to see if the car has somewhere to go to should they decide to pull out. If there is a space for them to pull out into then that is the clue that the situation could be abnormal.

Remembering that car drivers involved in collisions are also doing normal things in abnormal circumstances helps to identify those situations that if a bike were normally absent a car would normally pull out.

Simple Rhyming Reminders help to mentally re-program a rider so that they can easily identify the abnormal or ‘worst case’ scenario: for example “Cango?-Willgo!” and “Gaps?=Traps!” are simple mnemonics that can be extremely effective at junctions, filtering past other traffic or overtaking as they avoid laying blame on anyone. They judge neither the rider, nor other road users who are just doing normal everyday things, nor even the environment, because they are factual, simple alternative predictions that have proven utility.

These quotes from Professor Erik Hollnagel encapsulate the thinking behind the idea of No Surprise – No Accident.

Prof Hollnagel is an internationally recognised specialist in the fields of resilience engineering, system safety, human reliability analysis, cognitive systems engineering, and intelligent man-machine systems. He is the author of more than 500 publications including twenty-two books, articles from recognised journals, conference papers, and reports.

“If the imagination is insufficiently rich to capture what can actually happen, i.e., if the variety (richness) of the imagination is less than the variety (richness) of actual events, then there will be surprises. The larger the difference is, the more surprises there will be.”

“Most of us have a fairly naive understanding of probabilities. We tend to believe that the most probable thing will happen and are surprised every time it does not. We tend to forget two things. First that the most probable thing to happen is not the only possible thing to happen. Second, that even if something is very improbable, then it is still possible that this improbable something may happen.”

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The No Surprise – No Accident team consists of – Alf Gasparro, Duncan McKillop and Kevin Williams.

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  1. Javi (rider BCN) says

    I totally agree with this…. Nice article.. congratulations…

    The longer we ride and the longer nothing happens, the more likely we are to think nothing will happen next time either.

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