SIPRE as a Way of Life – March 13, 2011

Even though I ride a high-powered motorcycle, I get very few traffic tickets.1 Maybe I’m careful or lucky. Maybe I’m invisible. But for every ticket I get, I go to traffic school in order to work off the insurance points. It was there I learned the cornerstone concept of defensive driving, SIPRE, which I’ve since come to understand is the key to achieving personal speed and safety in living as a whole.

SIPRE stands for See, Interpret, Predict, React, Execute. This chain of mental events is the basic structure by which our awareness meets a threat. They teach it as an aid to avoiding traffic accidents, but it really applies in almost any situation.

Seeing marks the brain’s first awareness of a possible situation. Maintaining an appropriate state of alertness and observation really precedes seeing; you can’t see if you don’t have your eyes open and possess a readiness to look around. In contexts other than driving, “seeing” might also reflect any of the senses. You might hear a twig snap behind you in the forest, or smell the garlicky odor of natural gas in the basement, or touch an unexpected warm body in a darkened room. The classic driving example is that something bounces into your field of vision from the side of the road.

Interpreting is the second step. The first sight, especially from the visual periphery, is of movement, or something that strikes the eye as out of the ordinary. From there, the mind interprets what the eye sees. That movement from the side of the road is the bumper of another car, or a bicycle, or a dog running, or a ball bouncing into the street.

Predicting follows interpretation, based upon knowable or guessable facts that are associated with the interpretation. If the movement is another car and driver, a human life may or may not be at stake: perhaps the driver will see your car and slam on the brakes, avoiding an accident. If he doesn’t and hits you broadside, there may be collision damage but, at normal street speeds, not much injury. If the movement is a bicyclist, his ability to stop is much less and he may hit your car, or you may hit him, and his injuries will be severe. If the object is a dog, it is unlikely to stop, or it may freeze right in your path; in either case, the dog is at risk. If object is a bouncing ball, there may be a child chasing after it. Balls you can roll over without worry; children are an entirely different matter.

Not all of these predictions will occur to you in the split second after you interpret the object. Experienced drivers have thought about these possibilities, either over time as incidents occurred or at their leisure while reliving past incidents. New and inexperienced drivers will benefit from imagining various situations and what the possibilities are in each.

Reacting is the key step in the mental chain. Reactions do not have to be wild and woolly impulses thrown out by the hind brain. Reactions can be learned: ahead of time and at your leisure, you reason about what is the right thing to do in each situation, rehearse it, think it through, get the feel of it, practice it if possible.

If a car pulls out in front of you, is it better to slam on the brakes and possibly T-Bone it, or be T-boned by it, at a decreasing rate of speed, or to swerve into the next lane—possibly into oncoming traffic—and risk a head-on collision at compounded speeds? If a bicycle or dog darts out from the right-hand side of the road, is it better to swerve to the left and try to pass ahead of it, while possibly absorbing its impact on your passenger door, or swerve to the right and try to pass behind it, while possibly hitting it dead-on because the object itself stopped or swerved? If a ball bounces out and you swerve left, you might hit it but miss the child chasing it. If you swerve right, you miss the ball but might hit the child.

You can forge a link in your mind between these strategies and the triggering interpretation: car, bicycle, dog, ball, ball-with-child. This helps makes your reaction become an informed or learned movement, rather than panicking because something unexpected happens and randomly slamming on the brakes or swerving into traffic.

Executing is the final step in the sequence, where your muscles perform the learned reaction. Reaction is the choice of how to move; execution is the movement itself.

This is all well and good, as far as it goes, for defensive driving. The five steps of SIPRE describe the split-second instances of awareness, realization, and choice that guide how you respond to a threat. But how do they relate to life itself?

I pondered this until I realized that these steps were all familiar ground. During my college years, I studied karate and graduated with a black belt as well as a bachelor’s degree.2 Karate is not actually a glamorous undertaking. You practice the same moves over and over, throwing a million practice punches and kicks during a lifetime, absorbing and building into somatic memory the nuances of moving and positioning the elbow, wrist, and fist in a punch, or the knee, ankle, and toes in a kick. You practice combinations of block and punch, step and kick, until they become automatic, two movements working as one. You spar with partners—not in order to beat them, but to build your awareness of body spacing, ranging, and timing.

The result is an ingrained reaction: see something moving, interpret it as crossing into your personal space or not, predict its trajectory, react with the appropriate combination of moves, execute with muscle memory. It was my experience with karate that told me the reaction part of the SIPRE sequence was not supposed to be just a random movement. If you can practice block-and-punch combinations to build reaction speed in self-defense, you can also practice braking and swerving to build reaction speed in driving emergencies.

So SIPRE applies to self-defense and driving, but what is the application to life as a whole? In moving through life, you operate in two ways: first, you choose to act based on your desires, goals, and plans; and second, you react to your environment, which brings you both opportunities and obstacles. SIPRE cannot tell you how to choose your goals, but it can certainly help you coordinate your responses to the environment and what it throws at you.

Any movement or change in your environment presents the alert observer with possibilities. You can evaluate and interpret the actions of friend or foe, the tremors in the ground, or the fluctuations of a stock price as either threat or opportunity. You can use your previous experience to predict the future course of that occurrence and assign to it a probability. You can apply that probable outcome to your existing plans and goals, which then form the basis for your possible reactions. And finally, you can move based on the threat or opportunity.

SIPRE becomes the basis for tactical or strategic maneuvering in the context of your short- and long-range plans. Life stops being a panic rush toward gains and flight from losses. Instead, you move with deliberation toward your goals in the context of evaluated opportunities and obstacles that the environment offers. You become an analyst and a strategic thinker.

You gain some measure of control, even when all around you is chaos.

1. Okay, ’fess up time. One ticket in 1976 was for driving 60 mph in a 55 zone. That was during our national experiment in driving slowly, and the ticket was written in Oregon. I made the state trooper’s day by being from California and letting him explain the innate environmental superiority of Oregon’s traffic laws. The second ticket was in San Francisco in 1987 for crossing the broad white line that sometimes defines a traffic lane, this time on the on-ramp to the Bay Bridge. A string of us motorcyclists routinely bypassed the eternal jam on the bridge approach by invading this forbidden zone rather than “share the lane” with the single line of cars. One day, the Highway Patrol stopped us all. Fair enough. The third ticket was in 2004 in the East Bay for driving through a stop sign that wasn’t on that intersection the last time I went that way. Also fair enough. Such is my life of crime.

2. See Isshinryu Karate.