The distraction of a motorcycle intercom

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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.

In case you can’t be bothered to go to Google Translate, “Ausfahrt” is German for “Exit.”

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?

A typical motorcycle communicator, the Sena 20S, which installs inside a motorcycle helmet.

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.

These reprobates need to keep their minds focussed on the ride, not on telling filthy jokes and singing dirty songs.

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.

Editor Mark and his long-suffering wife Wendy, staying connected, for better or for worse.

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.

10 COMMENTS

  1. My 1st helmet communicators were gifts from the Real Estate agent who helped us find our home here in Alberta, about 12 yrs ago. They were used to allow the little lady & I to talk when/if needed when out on my bike together.

  2. I swore I would never use one, and then tried a set and found the benefits. My wife and I have used them for years and they have to be managed effectively to not be a distraction. Older models that required you to re-initiate communication often were somewhat dangerous, however the new mesh systems are on an entirely different level.

  3. My 1st helmet communicators were gifts from the Real Estate agent who helped us find our home here in Alberta, about 12 yrs ago. They were used to allow the little lady & I to talk when/if needed when out on my bike together. I didn’t play music through them (handlebar mounted speakers has that task) as I found the “break” waiting for the music to start playing again, after the VOX disconnected, to be more of a distraction in and of itself. My second set is the Cardo Freecom 4, which does allow a cell to be connected, but we haven’t. I don’t use my cell in my truck Period; not in hand held mode & it’s not even paired to my blue tooth equipped truck. I don’t need to be “that” connected to the outside world when I’m driving said truck & I sure as hell don’t need to be that connected when on my motorcycle.

    Where I did find the communicators to be handy was after the little lady took rider training and was then allowed to ride with a licensed rider following. They allowed us the communication to take her training under me to the next level easier. The next level was enough miles under her butt, to become “competent” enough to attain her Class 6 here in Alberta. The communicators allowed me to give her advice as she was actually moving & encouragement, when she “thought” she was doing poorly. Thankfully the many thousands of KM behind me as a passenger, also helped her learning curve, as she knew about lane positioning, where to stop when approaching a traffic light, how to “approach” an intersection & understand potential hazards that can show up in a split second. The communicators may not have been necessary, but they sure have been handy, just don’t connect your cell phone

  4. “What’s the difference between cell phone use in an automobile and active listening via a motorcycle intercom? There is no difference.” So what is the difference between cell phone use in an automobile and active listening to a passenger in an automobile? It should follow that there are more accidents in HOV lanes…

  5. I can speak only of the music / entertainment portion of this topic. I’ve had both a fairing equipped with radio and have also used earphones on another couple of motorcycles. Both of these choices were used on long distance rides. The level of distraction with the earphones was very high, the fairing mounted system was a relief with little to no distraction.
    My personal experience is that on extended rides over a long distance background music or better still talk radio keeps me more awake and aware as long as it’s delivered via external speakers.

  6. My first thought is… if you can’t do at least 2 things at once, get the f off a motorcycle!

    My wife and I use intercoms so that I can relay info to her about our route, potential dangers, or if she needs me to stop or whatever(She is on her own bike)…etc We use it as a safety tool and have never felt it as a distraction. We don’t connect our phones to it or listen to music. These are especially useful when riding on foreign streets. Wouldn’t want to ride with her without them.

  7. I’m glad you pointed out the difference between active and passive listening. To say that we can’t ride with music is to also say that cars should not have radios. Letting a play list or random sampling of your music run is far less distracting than changing radio stations of looking for music from a satellite service in a car.

    I also don’t think it is fair to compare an auto-answer com phone conversation with a phone conversation in a car. Screens in a car (mounted phone or integrated) offer an additional visual distraction that you don’t get with a com (if your phone is in your pocket). Similarly, GPS directions over a com allow you to look down at your GPS screen less often, especially when you should be looking where you are going when making a turn.

    Keeping an open com with my wife on the back keeps her engaged in the riding process. We don’t talk much, but being able to say something when necessary is much better than distracting me with hand signals. Without it, she we wouldn’t be doing the touring we do, which makes it a very good thing.

  8. My wife and I have an excellent communication device, our thumbs.
    Thumbs up; everything is good, thumbs down; pull over.
    Works well…

  9. I had great expectations when I bought one for an 11 day trip a couple of years ago. I turned it on and connected my phone for tunes and gps when I left home inVancouver. I pulled the damn thing out of my helmet in Seattle. The other 7000 km were blissfully filled with motorcycle sounds. Navigation was via maps and turn by turn instructions written on a piece of paper and pinned to my tank bag in a zip lock. Give me the simple life.

    • David Ryall – My exact experience. Listening to music, conversing with others either by bluetooth or cell is not only distracting, it can also be potentially fatal, And, it completely detracts from the purity of the experience of riding a motorcycle.
      For me, at least, riding is a special time, a unique time that is separate and different from the ‘daily grind’ of interaction with people, computers, cell phones, media etc. etc. etc., and it is the absence of these things that contributes immensely in making the ride ‘special’.
      Keeping it pure and simple is the only way to ride imho.

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