Countersteering: Frozen like the proverbial der


Whenever I first encounter a white-tailed deer or a porcupine, the animal stops what it's doing and holds the posture — it freezes. Turkeys, garter snakes, and grouse all do it, too. If I then move some more, especially if it's toward the frozen animal, all bets are off and it crawls, runs, or flies away.

Freezing makes sense as a first line of defense. A lot of predators rely on movement to detect prey. If the would-be prey detects the predator first, cessation of movement might well solve any further issues, with the predator's going on its way. "Phew! That was close." The indifferent hand of evolution has sculpted the behavior over the millennia. Prey that ran immediately were chased, sometimes with dire results; animals that froze were often overlooked.

Are we humans in the same boat? Do we freeze when alarmed or frightened? Absolutely. How many times have you stopped and stood still when you caught some movement out of the corner of your eye or heard a sound where you didn't expect it? Freezing may well be our first line of defense, too. Why should we be any different? We've been prey for most of our history, and, occasionally, still are.

But are there also instances of freezing's being a bad strategy, one that doesn't work in a busy, rapidly moving, modern world? I think so.

Mallory and I are devoted fans of British TV mysteries. One very popular series, set in the idyllic, small towns of a fictional county, has the contented citizens murdered at a good old rate. Sometimes, it was hard to believe that there was anyone left after an episode. But, then, there were always other villages to depopulate. Frequently enough, we the viewers can see the murder coming, with heavy, stacked furniture toppling or a giant chandelier slowly disengaging from its moorings and falling on the hapless victim. Our united voices cry out, "Do something!" But the victim was frozen.

When I first got into motorcycling, I read every "How to" book I could get my hands on. Each book or column was full of advice, some of it common sensical and some of it not. In his very short chapter on riding at night, for instance, Pat Hahn said simply, "Don't ride at night." Mostly I don't. He's right, it's much harder to see dark-clad pedestrians, or the way a particular corner is going to play out. Since I have memorized every foot of Route 9 (at least from Brattleboro to Marlboro), I ride home on it if I'm late in Brattleboro, maybe a movie at the Latchis. So far, so good.

But there was another piece of advice that informed my response to the TV mysteries. The advice was simply, "When a collision is imminent, do something." OK, fine, but what? It depends on a lot of things: (1) sometimes accelerating gets you through unscathed, especially with a good swerve. That worked for me in New York when someone turned left in front of me. I'm convinced I was never seen, because the car never slowed, allowing my frantic swerve to just clear the rear bumper, (2) brake like hell, cutting speed and, therefore, reducing the energy of the impact, or (3) ride into the bushes (a variant of the "lay 'er down" strategy), a tactic that worked for a riding companion in Europe when a log truck suddenly appeared and ate up all of the corner we were approaching.

Interestingly, however, the news is full of stories where the rider just rode right into the problem. How come? I think s/he froze, just like the proverbial deer in the headlights. How can you practice your way though a natural, probably hard-wired, response that has been around since before the dinosaurs? Mostly, you can't. You're frozen, but your machine isn't.

Bob Engel lives in Marlboro with his motorcycles, wife, and cat.


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