A few years ago, on a German autobahn southeast of Arnhem, the intercom speakers in my helmet crackled to life with an incredulous outburst from my friend Neil who, with his wife as passenger, was riding a hundred metres behind me.
“Wow, this city of Ausfahrt must be absolutely huge. I’ve never seen a place with so many exits.”
For those who don’t already know what Ausfahrt translates to in English, a quick trip over to Google Translate will set you straight.
Initial joking aside, let’s take a look at motorcycle communication systems. Is the use of an intercom system a benefit to safe and pleasurable riding, a worrisome distraction, or something in between?
While motorcycle intercoms have been available in some form or another for many decades it’s only in recent years, with rapid advances in Bluetooth technology and good products at favourable price points, that they’ve become much more widely used.
We use these devices to listen to music, chat with our riding buddies, engage in phone conversations, and receive verbal navigation prompts. So, when is it appropriate to use a communicator?
Passive and Active
The key is to first distinguish between passive and active listening. Passive listening, for the most part, is simply hearing with no need to react. Listening to music is one example of this. When “the girl from Ipanema goes walking” we accept there will be no conversation. Listening to a speaker without a requirement to respond is passive listening.
With active listening, things become much more complicated, particularly when operating a motorcycle, or any other vehicle for that matter. Research shows that planning to speak, and actually speaking, put far more demands on the brain’s resources than listening. Talking and active listening — and this includes cell phone use — interferes with visual tasks. What’s the difference between cell phone use in an automobile and active listening via a motorcycle intercom? There is no difference.
We are now in an area often referred to as multitasking which, as multiple studies have confirmed, is a myth. We are not capable of giving 100 per cent attention to two or more things at the same time.
Studies at the University of Sussex have shown that the increased brain power required to hold a phone conversation can alter a drivers’ visual scanning pattern. The human brain compensates for receiving increased information from a mobile phone conversation by not sending some visual information to the working memory, leading to a tendency to ‘look at’ but not ‘see’ objects by distracted drivers. Sound familiar? Anything that causes drivers to imagine something visually can interfere with driving performance, because the two tasks compete for similar processing resource.
What does this mean in practical terms?
A 2016 University of Queensland study found that the reaction time of drivers participating in either a hand-held or hands-free conversation was more than 40 per cent longer than those not using a phone. In real terms, this equates to a delayed response distance of about 11 metres for a vehicle traveling at 40 km/h. That’s a significant distance in a very short period of time.
In addition, active listening has an impact on driver braking behaviour. Distracted drivers on average reduced the speed of their vehicle faster and more abruptly than non-distracted drivers; these are potential recipes for a collision from behind, or loss of grip.
Looking, but not seeing
Now, here is where I’d like to add a couple of unscientific anecdotes from my own experience.
Frequently, when on a tour, I’ll have two navigation aids. Up front is Sheila, Garmin’s capable Australian-accented guide. In addition to her voice prompts, the Garmin SatNav displays the suggested route. To the rear, occupying the pillion seat, is Bee, who never travels without a paper road map in her hands, and who is connected to me via a Bluetooth device.
On the open road there is seldom conflict between the two women. However, I have been known to bark at Bee. This usually happens when approaching a busy area where situation awareness — visual information — and multiple navigation prompts require rapid interpretation and coordination. My limited supply of processing power becomes overly stretched. It’s a challenge to to safely operate the motorcycle and perform complex navigation tasks at the same time.
The second example involves a phone call where my phone was paired to the intercom and set to auto-answer. Although it only took a short time to complete the conversation, I realized almost all awareness of the distance covered during the call was missing from my memory bank. Although I had ‘looked’ at the road, I had not ‘seen’. At the very next stop, the phone was quickly unpaired from the intercom. Better to let the caller leave a message and ring them back later, when safely stopped.
Where does this leave us? Are motorcycle intercoms a benefit or a handicap? The short answer is simply this: An intercom is a benefit when its use does not interfere with the safe operation of our vehicle. As motorcyclists, we’re often quick — with good reason — to blame car drivers for being distracted. It’s helpful to be acutely aware of our own distractions. Since we’re already among the most vulnerable of road users, let’s not double our jeopardy.
So, we can listen to our music, and accept directions and prompts if they do not intrude on our ability to ride safely. Right then; Bee says we’ve reached our Ausfahrt.