Riding Safe: Crash Avoidance

Tom Roderick
by Tom Roderick

What are the two kinds of motorcyclists? Those who have crashed and those who will. Scoff if you like, but given a long enough timeline, we all crash.

Although this unpopular proverb carries the danger of alienating prospective motorcyclists, I argue that if a person is so easily freaked out, they most likely do not possess the mental fortitude to correctly react when presented with a hazardous situation, and therefore should not be riding a motorcycle in the first place.

Don’t think of crashing as dying in a fiery, two-wheel spectacle. More commonly a single-motorcycle crash is a low- to mid-speed tip-over resulting in minor road rash and the occasional broken bone. With this in mind, isn’t it better to openly discuss crashing so the motorcyclists residing in the those-who-will crowd can properly prepare for a crash and minimize the damage rather than avoid the topic and maximize the havoc?

Motorcycling and crashing are inextricably linked, as bikes don't stay upright unless they have a human keeping them oriented that way. However, you can reduce your chances of being in a crash and increase the possibility of escaping serious injury by being more skilled, better protected, and possessing a motorcycle with advanced safety technology. (Photo courtesy DEKRA/Winterthur)

I’m also of the opinion that bluntly discussing crashing may help end our country’s nonchalance about motorcycle safety. In our article “ The American Culture of Motorcycle Safety,” we asked Dainese marketing manager and Valentino Rossi’s personal safety gear supplier, Andrea Nalesso, which country is most in the dark regarding motorcycle safety. He replied that it’s “very much the U.S., which is the worst among the countries that I know.”

Plug “motorcycle safety” into Google and there’s no shortage of authoritative, politically correct, user-friendly books, articles, videos, classes, etc., available and aimed at educating and sharpening the skills of the inexperienced as well as the experienced motorcyclist. Information, that as a former Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) instructor, I support but will not regurgitate here. What follows is my personal motorcycle dogma culminated from a career spent aboard two-wheelers that’s kept me (thus far) out of harm’s way.

Ride Paranoid

It’s not always the other person’s fault. The incredible speed and performance of modern motorcycles can easily overwhelm unskilled and inexperienced riders.

They are out to get you. Every moving vehicle within visual proximity is not to be trusted. Whether it’s a left turn, lane merge, U-turn, running a red light, etc., you must always assume the driver of another vehicle lacks all reasonable intelligence and will execute any maneuver necessary to inflict maximum harm upon you.

This distrust also applies to cyclists, pedestrians, animals and birds – basically anything not attached to the ground or too heavy to move of its own volition. Included in this category are other motorcyclists.

From sportbikers on a Sunday morning canyon run to a gaggle of cruisers riding in formation down the freeway, if you are unfamiliar with the bikers in front, beside and behind, you should be suspicious of their riding skills or lack thereof.

This proverbial kitchen sink struck on a California freeway earlier this year caused minimal damage to the BMW car. A motorcycle striking the same object would have resulted in much more serious consequences.

Lastly, inanimate objects such as potholes, rocks, tree limbs and the unimaginable detritus littering our freeways are just as deadly and capable of ruining your ride, your day, your life.

Things That Can Ruin Your Ride In A Hurry
VehiclesForget road rage, just ride away. You will always lose a fight with something that outweighs you by a margin this substantial.
BicyclesPiloted by the same inept people who drive cars. Enough said.
PedestriansEverybody from jaywalking tourists to stumbling drunks.
AnimalsHit anything in your path smaller than a squirrel; avoid anything larger.
BirdsLight enough to fly, heavy enough to injure a rider and inflict damage to a motorcycle.
Other MotorcyclistsRide your own ride. Do not attempt to keep up with faster riders and beware of slower ones.
Inanimate ObjectsIt’s an ultimate cliché expression, but learn to expect the unexpected.

Tip: Look at the wheels. It can be difficult to judge if a vehicle approaching from a perpendicular street is slowing or accelerating. Wheels, with their contrasting designs, better convey forward motion giving motorcyclists an indicator to the other driver’s intentions.

Embrace Technology

As good a rider as you may be, technology can make you safer. In addition to laptop programmable fuel injection and ECU mapping, the age of electronics has endowed modern motorcycles with safety benefits including Anti-lock Braking Systems (ABS) Traction Control (TC), power modes, wheelie control and ride-by-wire throttles. These systems won’t save you if you’re riding like an idiot, but they might be just enough of a safety net that they are worth considering.

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Antilock brakes (ABS) is often a controversial topic. Claims of both better braking control from humans and flawed statistical data supporting the opposite are rampant on the internet. The fallacy in most arguments against ABS is the assumption of a controlled environment.

ABS quickly stops a motorcycle while retaining steering control and without locking the wheels, almost regardless of the situation. The same cannot be said about a skilled rider given the following real-world scenario.

While riding a familiar twisty back road, said skilled rider rounds a blind corner to find a car parked in his lane with oncoming traffic approaching in the other lane. In milliseconds the skilled rider will:

1. Freak OutTo some degree we all freak out, and if you think you’ll manage a peaceful calm when in the same situation, you’re fooling yourself.
2. Apply BrakesEither without enough force to stop in time or with too much force, causing the wheels to lock and the bike to fall.
3. ImpactEither the back of the car or the underside of the car. Either way, you’re hitting the car.
BMW announced it will make antilock brakes standard equipment across its entire lineup starting with the 2013 model year.

At least with ABS a rider can squeeze the brakes with prejudice and not worry about locking the wheels, thus slowing the bike as much as possible prior to impact – all the while freaking out because operating ABS requires no skill, which is likely what you’ll possess given the same situation.

Arguing against ABS and other worthwhile technologies is akin to anti-helmet activists remonstrating the benefits of wearing a DOT-approved motorcycle helmet.

Tip: Honda’s CBR250R is the only beginner bike to come equipped with optional ABS. The $500 increase in MSRP over the non-ABS model is worth the peace of mind and is far less expensive than a hospital visit.

Dress Accordingly

If I knew when I’m going to crash I’d prepare for it. Another erstwhile aphorism highlighting the unpredictability of crashing and the importance of boy-scout diligence in regard to readying for the event. Protective gear has its limitations and, depending on the severity of the crash, will not always protect you completely. The service riding gear provides, especially a helmet, is limiting the damage incurred during a crash.

Crashing generally involves impacting asphalt, steel, concrete and occasionally glass and wood — none of which are kind to flesh and bone. And the faster you’re travelling, the more unmerciful these objects become. To better understand the coarse, belt-sander nature of asphalt at speed, simply apply an unprotected hand to the freeway’s surface the next time you’re the passenger in a car. If you’re unwilling to do this, how do you justify riding a motorcycle without protection?

If it’s hot and you’re making only a short trip to the corner market for a six-pack of human coolant, it’s understandable if you’re reluctant to fully gear up. However, as benign as the task appears, the possibility of crashing remains constant, and although you wear protective gear the other 99% of the time, you are no more safe in this scenario. Deciding to proceed means you accept the risk as well as possible consequences.

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Purchasing protective gear begins with general-purpose essentials: helmet, jacket, gloves, pants and boots. As a person’s motorcycling career progresses, so should your closet of protective gear become more expansive. Riding gear specific for temperature and riding conditions is abundant, and while quality gear can be expensive, the investment is more affordable and a preferable option to skin grafts and brain injuries.

Tip: Retailers specializing in used motorcycle apparel are abundant across the U.S. This is a great alternative to purchasing new gear. Be careful purchasing a used helmet. The Polystyrene inner liner meant to absorb impact forces can degrade over time rendering the helmet less protective no matter how good it looks on the outside.

In Conclusion

The first and foremost way of avoiding a crash is employing your intelligence and skills in combination with the motorcycle’s safety technologies. The second line of defense is the protective gear you’re wearing.

If you’re a new rider, take a beginner’s training course. If you’re a seasoned motorcyclist, take an experienced rider’s course. The MSF offers both at locations across the U.S. Training and/or refresher courses not only increase your knowledge and sharpen your skills, they can also reduce insurance costs.

Also consider other extended-education options. We’ve learned a lot during these programs, such as the Lee Parks Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic and the Streetmasters Motorcycle Workshop, which accept riders of all types of motorcycles.

Also consider attending a school at a racetrack, especially if you ride a sportbike. You might have zero interest in racing, but being able to explore a motorcycle’s performance envelope in a controlled environment can pay dividends when riding on the street.

“I’m a firm believer that the skills required for safe motorcycle riding occupy a space somewhere between a car driver and an airplane pilot,” says Editor-in-Chief Kevin Duke. “Despite how much you know or you think you know, there is always something new an astute rider can learn. And if you don’t continue to learn and enhance your skills, you’re not taking your hobby serious enough.”

Night riding increases the dangers motorcyclists confront by hiding all that is obvious in the daylight, including you. The most common excuse given by automobile drivers is not seeing the motorcyclist, so making yourself as visible as possible at night by wearing reflective material is a good start.

Risk Management is not absolute and varies among individuals and changes according to scenarios. Riding a motorcycle can be dangerous, but being an enthusiast doesn't require a person to risk riding a motorcycle – you can be an admirer of motorcycles, their technology and the skills of those who do ride them from the safe confines of observation. But we’d much rather have you riding alongside us!

If you’re willing to accept a little risk into your life and offset it as much as possible with proper training, common sense, practiced skill and protective apparel then benefit from the rewards of the activity, motorcycling welcomes you.

Related Reading
The SEE System: Search, Evaluate and Execute
Top 10 Motorcycle Safety Tips
Motorcycle Safety Primer
The American Culture of Motorcycle Safety
MSF Begins Year-long Real World Motorcycle Safety Study
Night Riding
Motorcycle Beginner: Rider Training
Motorcycle Beginner: Buying Riding Gear

Tom Roderick
Tom Roderick

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