The Importance of Vision While Aboard A Motorcycle

Be sure your vision and visibility are up to snuff when you ride

Some years ago I was riding down a road with Kenny Roberts. At that point, Roberts was at the height of his career as an American racer and about to go to Europe and prove he was the best rider in the world. Roberts’ two-seat Mercedes was traveling in excess of 100 mph on a two-lane road when he drawled, “This car is so smooth you’d never know it was going that fast, but that CHPie probably wouldn’t like it.”

As he lifted his foot slightly and the car began to slow, I squinted ahead trying to see the police presence he’d indicated. Although my eye-care specialist said my vision corrected to 20/20, I had to strain to make out the dot that must have been the police car Roberts had identified. I couldn’t even be sure it was a car for a few more seconds. It was almost a minute before I had any visual clue it was a police cruiser, even though we were hurtling toward each other at a closing speed that averaged better than 150 mph. Roberts had seen the car long before I could, and he had identified it not only as a police car but as a CHP vehicle.

Some time later, when asked which physical characteristics made him such a great rider, Roberts said he didn’t think his reactions or coordination were anything special, but he did possess exceptional eyesight. This advantage helped him beat the rest of the world’s best motorcycle riders.

If anything, vision is more important for a street rider than it is for a racer, who is dealing with a controlled, familiar environment. Yet motorcyclists seem just as lackadaisical about their vision as automobile drivers. I see dirty and scratched face shields, goggles and glasses, and tall windshields that obscure vision with smudges or surface defects.

Importance of vision aboard a motorcycle
Making sure your eyesight, eye protection, and windshield are all in working order is important for a safer ride.Illustration by John Breakey

At the Source
Since we don't always recognize deteriorating vision, annual eye exams are important. In my twenties, I always assumed my vision was acceptable until I had an eye exam and got glasses. I was near-sighted in one eye and had astigmatism in the other. Glasses were a revelation. Suddenly everything, especially motorcycling, was easier.

Hard contacts improved my vision further, but they did not work for me in the motorcycling environment, where wind and grit dried out and invaded my eyes. Soft contacts were the solution to those problems. They also eliminated the limitations, distortion and reflections that made my vision deteriorate with glasses, especially at night.

Contacts eliminated a problem I encountered in the rain. Water that got inside my helmet coated the inside and outside of my glasses in addition to the inside and outside of my face shield. In other words, glasses added two more layers of water droplets to my field of vision. Although current full-face helmets seal out rain effectively, some moisture still sneaks in or gains entry when you open the shield. Goggles also let mist in.

With soft contacts, I have good vision quality without the distortion of glasses. I even get it at the edges of my field of view, where glasses don’t cover. The reflection that glasses (even those with antiglare coatings) present at night is gone, and there seems to be less loss of light than with glasses. Dust is no more troublesome than without contacts. The only drawback is sometimes the lenses get sticky when my eyes are dry. Removing and rewetting them solves the problem.

Of course, advancing age hasn’t improved the capabilities of my eyes. But we live in an era where technology is almost keeping pace with the deterioration of our bodies. The latest innovation in vision improvement is eye surgery, and I’m contemplating it.

Other motorcyclists who have had it done rave about the results. (Of course, people are apt to rave about anything they have spent a large amount of money on.) I just have to convince myself laser eye surgery is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Eye Protection
Full-face helmets provide very effective eye protection, shielding your eyes not only from debris and bugs but from most of the wind as well. Top-shelf helmets typically have shields with good optics and a scratch-resistant construction. In fact, the Arai and Shoei face shield optics work better for me than most expensive sunglasses. I tend to avoid sunglasses both because of that and the degradation of vision another layer creates. I prefer tinted shields (which provide UV protection).

A clean shield is essential. I carry a soft cloth to buff my face shield and a small container of cleaner so I can remove bugs and grime anywhere. The trick is to wet the shield down first and give it a minute to soak. You can do this with the cleaning solution or simply with a wet rag draped over the shield. This floats some particles off the shield and softens dried bugs. A clean rag is essential, since you don’t want to scratch the shield. If you fold a washcloth-size rag twice and use each surface once, you avoid rubbing a grain of sand across your shield. Do not use gas station paper towels; they can scratch.

Whatever form of eye protection you use, keep it clean and dispose of it when it becomes scratched. Although the shields for modern helmets resist damage quite well, they are expensive to replace. It is worth it, however.

Windshields
The primary reason for cutting a windscreen is to clear your line of vision. Your bike's windshield should be low enough that you can comfortably see the road over it. This will still provide wind protection comparable with a shield that extends above eye level (though your passenger may notice a difference). And, it will make your bike safer to ride because it gets any distortion out of your line of sight and keeps obscurations such as exploded bugs and scratches from hindering your view.

The greatest value of a windshield that doesn't extend through your view of the road is apparent on rainy days and even more so on rainy nights. Rain turns a windshield into a translucent curtain. If you can't comfortably see over it, you are in serious trouble.

The same cleaning procedures previously discussed for face shields apply to windshields, especially the warning about paper towels.

Other Considerations
Sight is a very complex process, and I don't claim to be an expert. However, subtle changes can alert you that something else is amiss. When I get tired, my peripheral vision deteriorates, serving as a warning that it's time to park. You can experience similar visual signs when you have absorbed too much carbon monoxide or are becoming oxygen deprived (which might happen to a flatlander riding in the Rockies or Sierras). If you are having trouble distinguishing between green and blue, the Viagra is kicking in and you shouldn't be riding your bike.

Changes in vision, whether short-or long-term, are warnings of physiological changes you should heed. They also warn that your ability to ride is probably impaired. The trick is to be aware of these signals.

The View
Your reward for taking the time to get good, up-to-date prescription eyewear, reducing the number of layers you must look through and eliminating anything that degrades your view of the road is heightened control and confidence. Everything you do on a motorcycle is based on what you see. If you detect the oil in the intersection sooner, if you see the subtle movements of a driver's head indicating a direction change, if you observe the thin layer of sand at the entrance to a corner well before you get there, if you spot the deer in the bushes 100 yards sooner, you will be able to deal with them more easily. If you see better, you will have more information earlier, make better decisions and have fewer surprises. You probably won't be able to see quite as well as Kenny Roberts, but you might get fewer tickets than you do now.

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