Vision Ins and Outs
“You go where you look,” and, “Look where you want to go,” pretty much sum up the basic visual skills a motorcycle rider needs; ignoring them leads to many common faults. Once the continuous, unbroken flow of information about the road ahead coming through the eyes is fractured by some visual hiccup, riders experience an altered and warped sense of time, their location in space, and their speed. Overactive scanning, target fixation, and tunnel vision are the three major causes of a world of common errors and problems. But there are other factors to consider, and one of them happens so fast that if you blink you miss it.
Blinking is necessary to lubricate and clear the eyes, but a quick calculation of an average blink reveals what’s missed in that instant when your eyes are closed. The average eye blink lasts 300 to 400 milliseconds (0.3 to 0.4 second), not really a problem when you’re sitting still watching TV. But when you blink while riding a motorcycle, simple math shows you what you’re missing out on: At 60 mph you’re traveling 88 feet per second, meaning each blink blanks out 35 feet.
But it gets worse. Blinking is connected to one of the more fascinating functions of the brain, one that can be dangerous for a rider at speed or one dealing with heavy or constantly shifting traffic. That’s because not only does the physical blink take time, but there’s also a phenomenon called masking, during which your vision is shut off briefly by the dropping of an internal brain-blanket over what’s in front of you. Not only are you blind during the moment your eyelid is shut, but your visual control center can also mask vision just before the blink begins and keep doing it for a short time after your eyelid is fully reopened. The whole process can easily take half a second or longer, or 44 feet at 60 mph.
What happens during that half second and in those 44 feet can make the difference between riding in a controlled and confident manner and having a control-panic attack and grabbing the front brake or locking up the rear because you missed the car’s brake lights flashing on. In racing, top speeds of 180 mph are common at many tracks; 180 mph equals 264 feet per second or 132 feet of blinked-out space in that same half second. You could argue that blinking as you approach that brake marker at the end of the straight could be a hidden reason for braking errors.
“At 60 mph you’re traveling 88 feet per second, meaning each blink blanks out 35 feet.”
What’s the purpose of masking? Research suggests that it helps suppress the perception of visual displacement, meaning you don’t notice that things have moved during your blinks provided they haven’t moved any great distance. But when you’re riding, you really do want to know if things have moved, even a little, in case you need to respond to, for example, the tiny initial change of direction that foreshadows a car swerving into your lane.
One study noted that an average of 17 blinks per minute across all age groups increases to 26 during conversation; nearly half of that minute is blanked out. Although you can’t stop blinking altogether, you might try stringing together two or three blinks in rapid succession on a hot, dry day in urban traffic, or on that fun and twisty section of road, or anywhere you have the potential of a life-and-death riding situation. In any case, don’t blink too much–—you might miss something.