Jul 23 2011

SAfety First—Situational Awareness and the Solo Traveler

I don’t often see other cyclists on the road when I’m on my bike. And I almost never see a woman riding alone. Now and then someone who’s thinking about taking a solo trip will ask, “Is it safe?” Usually, that someone is female. I’d like to answer in the affirmative, of course. After all, I’ve been knocking about on my own, in and out of the backcountry, for more than half a century now. Mind you, I’ve taken my share of trips with Farwell—our column for Paddling.net is named In the Same Boat for a reason—but many of my jaunts are solo affairs.

Is this safe? Well, no, I don’t suppose it is. There’s no doubt that a buddy can be life-saver in a hard chance. But few of us are grafted at the hip to an always-obliging companion, whose interests and schedule exactly match our own. And even if we were, I’m betting there’d be times when we just wanted to be alone.

So we make do. Life entails unavoidable risks. Absolute safety is found nowhere this side of the grave. But it’s not a grim as it sounds. Intelligent preparation can do much to keep the risks we run within tolerable bounds. Cycling and cyclotouring afford many useful examples. Want a for-instance? OK. Keeping your bike in tip-top shape is important. Mechanical failures can do a lot more than inconvenience you. They can even send you flying over the bars, right into the path of an oncoming car. So it pays to learn how to maintain your bike. A good local bike shop is a pearl beyond price, to be sure, but no shop can replace the knowledge that comes from working on your own machine. And with that knowledge comes power.

Bike handling skills are important, too, of course. I’ve been watching highlights of this year’s Tour when I can, and I never cease to be amazed at the artistry and competence of the racers. Winning a stage race isn’t just a matter of speed and stamina. Neither will save you if you crash too hard or too frequently. Often, therefore, victory goes to the cyclist who simply stays out of trouble. He may not be the best climber or the fastest man in the bunch sprints, but he’s the one left at the head of the pack in the closing yards, while other—perhaps stronger, perhaps bolder—riders have literally fallen by the wayside. Woody Allen was right: In racing, as in real life, the most important thing is showing up.

And that means staying out of trouble. Which brings me to the number-one weapon in the solo traveler’s arsenal: “situational awareness,” mercifully abbreviated “SA.” It has the unmistakable whiff of milspeak about it, but its importance transcends the briefing room and flight deck. And just what is SA, exactly? Put simply, it means staying alert to what’s happening around you. All around you. All of the time. For a cyclist, this entails constantly scanning the road ahead for debris, broken pavement, frisky dogs, and free-ranging wildlife, not to mention the occasional zoned-out jogger or impatient motorist, determined to pass another oncoming car right now, even if this means veering across the lane onto shoulder where you’re riding. But it’s not enough just to look where you’re going. You need to know what’s behind you, too. Something might be gaining on you, after all, and you’ll want to know.

Which means you have to keep your head on a swivel. But there’s more to situational awareness than meets the eye. Your ears are important tools, too. So leave the earbuds in your bar bag. The highway has enough aural distractions. You can’t afford to add more. Memo to motorcyclists: Loud pipes might save your life (a debatable conjecture), but they deafen cyclists, robbing them of one of their most important safeguards. So ease up on the decibels when you pass us. We’d like to stay alive, too. Got that? Good.

Sight and hearing—they’re only two of your five senses, but they’re the cornerstones of SA. Together, they tell you most of what you need to know about the world around you, at least when you’re on the road. (Smell comes into its own when you’re walking. Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of generations of fragrance chemists, I often smell other hikers on the trail before I see or hear them. But that’s another story.)

Close Call

So… “Is it safe?” No. It’s not. And solo travelers—whether cyclists or walkers or paddlers—have more to fear than folks who travel in company. But this fear isn’t something to be afraid of. Think of it as a goad, a reminder of the importance of staying alert. Of the importance of SA. Of course, situational awareness can’t guarantee that bad things won’t happen to you, but it certainly shifts the odds in your favor. For a solo traveler, that’s as safe as life’s going to get.

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