Jul 27, 2010

Highway IQ

All Rights Reserved © 2006 Thomas W. Day

I stare into every car, truck, van, or SUV that shares the roadway with me. Women probably think I'm checking them out. Sometimes there might be an element of that. I'm human. I stare at guys just as often, though. No matter what they think, I'm not checking them out. I am stereotyping them, though. I know that's politically incorrect, but there it is. Like the marketing gurus say, "impressions are everything." Or "image," something like that. I don't have time to get to know these people. I'm not even interested in doing so. I just want to know, as quickly as possible, what kind of hazard they present to me. Cops call this "profiling." Lawyers get really upset at this practice. So sue me.

The average person has an IQ of 100 points. I grant that and start from there. My built-in point system adds or subtracts from that number almost as quickly as I can make out the interior of the vehicle. From there, I either disregard the driver, more or less, as a threat or apply evasive tactics to get as much distance between me and the hazard. The dumber the driver, by my IQ accounting system, the quicker I want to escape their sphere of disaster influence. You probably do the same thing, either more or less aggressively than me.

  • Driver is in a 4(or more)-wheel vehicle: -5 points (How smart do you have to be to drive a cage?)

  • Driver is a cop. This class of government official has an inflated sense of driving skill, not reflected in performance. They are prone to make sudden, irrational moves when their radio distracts them. They regularly ignore stop signs and stop lights. They scare the crap out of other drivers, making everyone in their vicinity a little less skilled and attentive: -10 points.

  • Coffee, hairbrush, and/or cigarette in hand: -15 points for each item

  • Driver is tipped at 45 degrees, so that his (always a guy) head is right under the rear view mirror: -20 points (This appears to be a Minnesota thing, because I've never seen it anywhere else, but it always means the driver is drunk, stupid, physically incapable of holding himself upright, or all three. I treat this driving posture as a flashing "beware of idiot!" sign.)

  • Backwards baseball cap, blue hair, cowboy hat, or ski mask on driver's head: -25 points

  • Coffee in face or driver is most often looking in any direction other than the vehicle's path of travel: -30 points

  • Driver looking at self in rearview mirror with hairbrush, coffee, or cigarette in hand: -40 points

  • Cell phone in use or beer in hand: -50 points

  • "Start Seeing Motorcycles" or other pro-biking sticker on the vehicle: +2 points

  • I catch the driver's eyes in the rear view mirror: +10 points

  • After seeing me once, the driver looks again every few moments to see if I'm still there: +10 more points

  • Both hands on wheel, head and eyes in motion: +25 points

  • The driver is towing a trailer full of dirt bikes: +50 points

After I've made the above calculations and classifications, I use a modified version of the David Roth (ex-Van Halen frontman, current-EMT-has-been) crowd intelligence rule. I roughly count the number of vehicles in a 100' distance, front to back and both sides, of the vehicle and divide the driver's IQ by that number. In heavy traffic, everyone is a menace to my safety, almost by logical default. I'm the least likely vehicle on the road to harm the passengers of another vehicle, so I'm in the logical space for an escape route for other vehicles.

Just to calibrate your appreciation of my scoring system, an article in Scientific American Magazine once stated, ""Adults in the bottom 5% of the IQ distribution (below 75) are very difficult to train and are not competitive for any occupation on the basis of ability. . . " and "Persons of average IQ (between 90 and 100) are not competitive for most professional and executive-level work but are easily trained for the bulk of jobs in the American economy. . . " That's pretty cold, isn't it? Nature and the highway are cold as the floor of an icehouse. As far as my own survivability is concerned, a web article on IQ gave me the following information about the brainpower behind the numbers and I've added my own "Estimated Driving Skills" column to assess my own risk based on the driver's IQ:

IQ RangeEstimated Driving Skills (Alert Level Color Code)
Below 30Flashing Red: This driver is clearly an unpredictable moron, an outrageous hazard at any speed, expect any damn idiot move from this rolling example of chaos theory. Ultimate alert.
30 to 50Red: Mostly unpredictable, slow-witted, prone to panic and irrational lane changes. High alert.
50 to 60Orange: Unless a slight change in traffic, road condition, or the moon's position relative to the sun occurs, you can probably count on this driver to remain stable. Check for distracted behavior every second or two.
60 to 74Yellow: Loud noises, bright colors, anything sparkly or in motion will distract this driver, but he/she will probably do something mildly predictable when panic occurs. Moderate alert.
74 to 89Blue: Mostly, this driver is stable. Pay special attention to this driver at intersections, on curves, and near fast food entrances. Fairly low alert.
89 to 100Green: Probably not a risk, if anyone else in the above categories is sharing the road, this driver warrants minimal attention. I'd still avoid spending any time in an adjacent lane with this driver.
Above 100Invisible: The chances are slim that this driver provides much risk. Based on past experience, one of these guys will probably be who kills me.

I realize these generalization are culturally "unfair," "biased," and even irrational. They are based on my nearly half-million miles of motorcycling and they are habitual. I constantly and automatically balance my belief that most people are decent and well-intentioned and that most drivers are nuts and "out to get me." My riding state boarders on paranoia, I'll admit. My confidence in my ability to deal with these contradictions varies with the road conditions and my concentration. You'd think that this would take the fun out of riding a motorcycle and it does put a damper on outright highway euphoria, but I'm disinclined to that mental state as you might have noticed. Riding a motorcycle is risky and that's part of the attraction. However, there is a definite line between assuming risk and committing suicide and evaluating the folks I share the road with is part of my risk assessment.


  1. I do something similar, but not quite as elaborate. The last thing I want to do while riding is math. Well, maybe the second to last thing. Falling would be the last thing I want to do.

    I do miss riding in winter. It was easier to see the "glow of death" from cellphones and other electronic gizmos from a distance since it was always dark during regular commuting hours.

  2. Honest and perhaps even somewhat useful.


  3. Chris,

    I did the math when I wrote the article. Otherwise, it's a seat of the pants judgement call weighted more-or-less the way I described it. Some folks, exhibiting exactly the characteristics detailed in this article, still get a lot more points deducted from their Highway IQ based on the gut feeling I get from their performance of the moment.

    Thinking about it, though, you can't ride with constantly making calculations. It takes math to balance the bike, to corner and maneuver, to judge distance at speed, to anticipate stopping and passing distances, and to figure out who might be the most dangerous hazard on the road a the moment. So, if you're riding and surviving, you're doing some sort of math while riding.

  4. Yes, your brain is doing the calculations for speed and all of the rest subconsciously, but I am not necessarily aware of the formulas. :)

    Thinking about your system and comparing it to mine. Yours seems more refined. Likely due to the fact that you have at least 10x the riding exp as me! I also account for the size of the vehicle. If I can't see around it nicely, I will make a pass to get a better view angle (or drop way back).

  5. I'm with you there. You can't escape what you don't see. About the only time I aggressively pass is to get around those kinds of obstacles.

  6. I have a similar scheme I apply to other riders. Leathers with 'aero-humps' and knee sliders are definite bad signals. If the leathers and helmet colour scheme matches the bike, then apply at least a times 2 miltiplier.

    I was recently riding up the A5 (Watling Street; the old Roman road North) to the 'Festival of 1000 bikes' approximately keeping to the posted speed limits, but overtaking most vehicles. I came up onto the tail of three or four vehicles doing about 50 in a 60 zone and started looking for a place to pass. The Landrover Discovery at the front seemed to be slowing and I drifted right for a better view. I could then see they were indicating right to turn into the Super-Sausage Cafe. I checked my one bar end mirror and could see a tail of vehicles and one headlamp (bike) out in the middle of the road, but at indeterminant distance. I drifted back left a little. At the last moment the Discovery checked its right turn just as the bike came past at something over 100mph, 30 seconds later, four of his mates did the same.

    I've been cut-up by this type of rider on a number of occasions and sometimes been held up by them in the twisty bits.

    P.S. I was riding my 1977 Morini 350 Sport, that despite being full of Italian 'character' has failed to let my down in any way in the last 7 years. None of my other Morinis had ever failed to complete a journey either.

  7. Good point Paul. I put about 200,000 miles on four bikes in SoCal in the 80s. The only serious near misses I experienced were with other bikers. The first was in my first 6 months as a Californian, when a clown on a Suzuki GS750 blasted past me on the inside of a curve on a backroad in Huntington Beach. He actually clipped my CX500's footpeg on the way by. He showed up a couple of days later, in the OC Register, when he rear-ended a cage on PCH at 80+ mph. DOA.

    I "enjoyed" the company of a few other similar riders lane-splitting on the San Diego Freeway over the years. Cars were never serious hazards, in my experience, but idiots on bikes were something to watch for all the time. We are our own worst enemies.

    Is there really a "Super Sausage Restaurant?" Sounds like another marketing mistake, like Big Boy or Fatties.

    I don't know if I've seen a Morini outside of motorcycle museums.

  8. Is there really a "Super Sausage" Restaurant?

    There most certainly is;


    It's a survivor from the pre Motorway days when the 'Transport Caff' or 'Greasy Spoon' kept the country trucking. They also gave birth to the 'Cafe Racer', put a record on the Jukebox and ride to a designated point and back before the record ended.

    It's not that far from another;


    I don't know if I've seen a Morini outside of motorcycle museums.

    A Morini in a museum, disgraceful!

    Other marques have owners clubs, we have a riders club. The Annual track day is at the beginning of September. This will be the 27th year. The Morini e-mail list has quite a few US members.

  9. Glad I found ya'I Loved the article! After nearly 30 years of on-road riding I, too, have established a "method" to gauge the level of danger posed by others. Most of my method comes from the MSF Basic & Experienced Riders Courses (SIPDE)-- Search (for the idiots), Identify (the idiots doing idiotic things)Predict (what they may do, since they're idiots), Decide (what you will do to stay alive), Execute (DO IT!).
    "Bike on bike" idiots are the worst! I've seen so many DUMB (idiotic) things on Poker Runs, etc. that I rarely participate anymore and when I do, I try to be dead last... This puts the (other) idiots in front of me should I do something idiotic myself. =) Respects

  10. When I moved to MN, I found and joined the MN-Sportbike group and did my first group ride with those guys. I managed to stay with the group for about 20 miles before getting distracted and heading off on my own path. Good people, great riders, terrific routes, but I just don't trust other motorcyclists or road-users enough to want to be near them. You can't do a group ride without getting near other bikes.

    Two years ago, my wife and I were talked into going on the local Swan Ride. We barely made it out of town before we skipped out on that group. Too many loud exhausts, poorly tuned twins emitting more unburned fuel than CO, and some really squiddly riders. That's it for me: two experiences and I'm out.

    I don't ride horses, either. I'm only capable of keeping track of one unpredictable mind, my own.


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