Thursday, June 07, 2007

Look out for.....Us?

Happy Harry was glad to be riding to work again. The weather was turning warmer. Riding in the cold of winter was not his cup of tea. It was time to start using the bike to get to work. His commute was just about right for him. Work was twelve miles away in another small town. Most commuters used the main road. There was another road Harry could ride. Big fields of Rye grass were wrapped by a curving road. This road should be safe and fun. Harry figured his biggest hazards would be the cell phone toting, latte drinking, drivers in town at both ends of the commute. His gear was complete. Harry felt ready to tackle the hazards. The only mistake he's made is in how he prioritized the hazards.

Harry hadn't ridden for a lot of years. Like many guys do, he'd given up riding while the kids were growing up. With schooling all done and only himself and the missus to look after, Harry was hungry to ride again. He'd met Irondad last fall. As a part of the process of returning to riding, Harry had wisely taken a class to sharpen long rusty skills. Of course, the students had no idea who "Irondad" was. To them, the instructor was just plain old Dan. As far as Harry was concerned, Dan was just an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guy who'd helped impart physical and mental skills. Students seldom see the other side of the motorcycle safety coin.

As a dedicated motorcycle safety professional, I study data and statistics on motorcycle crashes. The objective of the training program is to meet the needs of Oregon's riders. From this study springs the strategies to meet these needs. First and foremost is the critical need to give riders skills that will help keep them from crashing. An effective way to tackle this problem is to study motorcycle crashes. Questions must be answered. Questions like,

"Why do riders crash?"
"What contributing factors were present?"
"What skills should be taught to riders as preventative tools?"
"How do we make it easier for riders to take training?"

These are simplified summaries of complicated subjects. Eventually the findings are incorporated into training programs. Notice the last question. We're not offering easier training. Standards are still high for students to successfully complete the course. Surviving on the street is serious business. Motorcycling, whether for pleasure or utility, is fun but not a game that can be taken lightly. We study the perceived obstacles to taking training and then try to help potential students over them.

One strange aspect to motorcycle safety training is the tendency to hold onto long held beliefs. We live in a dynamic world these days. Training programs have to adapt along with this world to be effective. The "that's the way we've always done it" school of thought is no longer appropriate. Tried and true basics will always form the foundation but risk factors change over the years.

As an example, consider the widely held belief that most motorcycle accidents are the result of colliding with another vehicle. Riders talk about it all the time. Stories of how car drivers just don't see motorcycles abound. There's always an abundance of riders who tell about how an accident just wasn't their fault. They state that there's nothing to be done if a driver does something stupid. On and on it goes. A new rider listening to these people talk might soon come to think that the biggest hazard out there is other vehicles. Motorcycle accident research shows that this just isn't true anymore. The biggest hazards to motorcyclists, in this neck of the woods at least, are riders themselves.

I've been doing updates and public service presentations for the past several years. Oregon's Department of Transportation has a Traffic Safety division. It's here that data is gathered, analyzed, and passed on. You might find this interesting.

This information concerns reported accidents. Contributing factors have been distilled from police reports, either by the officer(s) on scene, or accident reconstruction specialists. These are accidents in general, not just those that result in fatalities. Most accidents have been deemed to be the fault of the rider. Furthermore, the majority of motorcycle accidents are riders out by themselves. In other words, single vehicle accidents.

According to the 2006 figures, only 31 percent of motorcycle crashes involved another vehicle. In multi vehicle crashes, only 13 percent were determined to be definitely the fault of the car driver. This means that the vast majority of motorcycle crashes were caused by some sort of failure on the part of the rider.

There's not space here to go into all the supporting details. However, here's a couple of examples.

Take a left turning car. It's right in front of the rider. Weird there should even be a crash in the first place, isn't it? Sometimes there was nothing a rider could do. Most of the time, though, the rider did the wrong thing. Riders assume eye contact means the driver saw them. Flashing high beam headlights are presumed to mean the driver was warned of the rider's presence. In actuality, this is a signal used by truck drivers, and by extension, car drivers to indicate permission to procede. In reacting to a sudden surprise, a lot of riders use bad braking technique. What commonly happens here is too much rear brake and not enough front brake. The resulting rear wheel skid causes a crash where the bike may have successfully stopped. The other side of a rear wheel skid is a high side.

Like I said, this is only a brief mention of things that look like a car driver is at fault but where the crash was actually caused by rider error. The biggest cause of motorcycle crashes in Oregon is the failure to negotiate corners. Riders just aren't looking far enough ahead. Crash investigations bear this out. Most of the crashing happens in the last third of the turn. Either a rider goes off the road or crosses the centerline. It seems so simple but seems so hard for riders to "get". You can't commit to a corner until you have all the information. Everything else hinges on this information. Corner entry speed, path of travel, apex point, all of it. Too many riders are literally operating on "blind" faith.

Adding to the problem is impairment. Half of our fatalites are alcohol involved. Only about a third are legally intoxicated. People are dead, not because of being drunk so much, but from being impaired. It would make you shudder to know what other substances also show up in toxicology reports. These are all factors the rider could control should they choose to do so.

There is one area where traffic seems to be adding to injuries suffered by riders. When a rider does have a crash with another vehicle, they are more likely to be hurt these days. The proliferation of vehicles like SUV's and mini-vans are bad news for riders. Where a bumper used to hit a rider somewhere lower like a leg, now the bumpers are hitting riders in the torso. Bigger, taller vehicles mean higher bumpers. Impacts to the torso hit more vulnerable body parts. When a rider leaves their bike a new situation has developed. Instead of travelling over a car, riders are more likely to slam into a solid body of a bigger vehicle.

What's the take-away here?

Good gear is a great thing. Like I wrote in the last post, there's several reasons to have this gear besides crash protection. One possible drawback to having great gear is that a rider may tend to rely on this more than on great skills. Gear is only a tool, not any sort of magic force field.

Niether are loud pipes any sort of magic bullet. Loud pipes save lives? Loud pipes lose rights. Without good skills, no sort of noise is going to do much for riders.

The biggest threat to riders out here is their own lack of skills. That's cold, hard, reality. Our concern and studies are for Oregon' riders but indications from other states show the situation is the same there. The solution is to wear good gear but develop great skills. The most valuable of these are the mental skills. Gather critical information as early as possible. Based on that information a rider can make good decisions. Minor adjustments early can avoid major trouble.

By the way, don't forget to have fun!!!!

Speaking of which, these last posts were too much like work. My burning passion for helping riders gets the better of me, sometimes. I'm going back to some fun stories for a while!!

Miles and smiles,



ps said...

And minor single-vehicle motorcycle crashes are gonna be way underreported. Probably no police report if the rider could pick up their bike and ride away.

On a lighter note, you don't need loud pipes to save lives if you have this.

balisada said...

David Hough said the same thing in his book. Most motorcycle accidents were single vehicle accidents, and like ps (above) said, many are unreported because the rider gets up and rides away.

I think it goes back to the concept that most drivers think that they drive pretty well, when in fact they are average or below. But many people don't seem to want to improve their abilities because they know it all already.


That's one of the reasons that I like motorcycling.

It's a skill that I can work on that is not computer or office related.



p.s. I liked ps's link, but I find that I like the "Analog GPS" more.

American Scooterist Blog said...

I look at the folks who've been riding for years, stop for whatever length of time and return to the sport. They have this assumption that they've been doing it before and know all the rules. Riding without concentration mostly. Or on bikes that can easily overdrive their skills. Or their apprehension in doing what needs to be done. Riding is like shooting in my mind. There are no accidents. Only regrets. But how do you get people to start thinking that way?

Dan, I know it pains you to keep bringing this stuff up but you need to. Or we all do I don't know which. But we aren't the trained instructors.


Michelle said...

Great post. As a novice rider that is constantly watching out for what car drivers might do I need to remind myself to also watch out for what I'm doing!

Keep up the good work!