Thursday, July 01, 2010

What are they capable of?

"Will they, or won't they?" This is a question that riders find themselves asking quite frequently. Those referred to as "they", of course, are drivers that we're forced to share the road with. It's a guessing game where guessing wrong can be disastrous. The process can also leave a rider mentally frazzled by the end of the ride. I'd like to suggest a better method. Think of capabilities instead of possibilities.

I have a couple of issues with the "guessing game". Firstly, while riding is certainly fun, survival on a motorcycle isn't a game. Winning or losing isn't measured by points on the scoreboard. Secondly, call me a control freak, but I don't like the idea of basing my health and well being on a "guess". Waiting breathlessly to find out if I made a good guess isn't my style.

Is there a better way? In my opinion there is.

Think in terms of capabilities rather than possibilities. Consider an example.

The rider in the picture above is looking across the intersection at this white vehicle waiting at the light. Notice the sign above the stop lights. It's not a protected left turn. The sign tells left turning traffic to yield to oncoming traffic during a green light. This means the rider is having to decide whether or not the white vehicle's driver will turn across her path of travel. Thus begins the guessing game.

Will they or won't they? I talk to a lot of riders. As a professional trainer I tend to analyze their understanding of, and behaviour in, traffic situations. There are a lot of riders who, having guessed that the car won't turn left, relax their preparations. No bogey, no countermeasures. What if they guessed wrong?

Here's the vehicle turning left across traffic. A rider who guessed this wouldn't happen is not only surprised, but they are also faced with a pretty critical situation. Any accident avoidance move has to start from scratch. That takes time that might not be available. Chances of success are worsened by the added adrenaline rush which impairs a rider's abilities in the moment.

The better way is to approach this situation thinking in terms of capabilities. Instead of asking what is possible, ask what the driver is capable of. Then make actual preparations based on that. We know drivers are capable of turning left in front of other large vehicles, not just motorcycles. I was talking to a cop who had a woman turn left in front of his patrol car. He was running "hot" with the overhead lights activated and the siren blaring.

Just recently an elderly couple were killed south of Astoria on the Northern Oregon coast. Both Mike and I have written about the Camp Rilea Military Reservation in the area. It's the place where we both have photos of our bikes with the tank. Anyway, a 72 year old man was driving. His wife was his passenger. Coming out of Camp Rilea, the man turned left into the path of a dump truck. Both the man and his wife were killed. Sad.

If a woman can turn left in front a very visible police car and a man can turn left in front of a dump truck, I'm certain any driver at any time is capable of turning left in front of my motorcycle. I'm not asking myself whether the driver will do it. I'm asking myself what the driver is capable of in whatever situation I am in. Then I take the actual steps to protect myself for when it happens. If the driver doesn't move, then it's a bonus, but I was prepared. No guesswork involved.

I know this seems like a subtle difference. A lot of you are very vigilant and have strategies in place to deal with traffic. I salute you. In my opinion thinking in terms of what drivers are capable of gives me a bit of an extra edge. When a person reaches a certain level of proficiency in an area, sometimes that's how their skills develop further. A fraction of a second here. A certain tweak in the mindset there. The difference between a sharp knife and dull knife is sometimes measured in microns. Those microns, though small, have a huge affect on how the knife performs, don't they?

Will this driver pull out in front of me? I'm not going to guess. I kow they are capable of it so I'll be ready. I hate nasty surprises!

Miles and smiles,



Lucky said...

This is very similar to my strategy: assume they're going to do the stupid thing.

Yes, that pedestrian is going to leap in front of me without looking. That truck is going to turn left in front of me. That car isn't going to stop. That fellow is going to mess with my pizza.

Well, OK, I assume everyone has enough self-preservation instinct not to do that last thing.

At any rate, I try to come up with a plan for what to do when the stupid occurs. If it doesn't, great. If it does, well, I just dodge that car like a fly dodging a clumsy hand, because I already had a plan in mind.

komet said...

Great post. There's a lot to watch out for and like you said, it's not a game.

Steve Williams said...

Like you, I don't like relying on guesswork to keep myself safe. Your post is a great reminder, especially in the hot weather where I like to move faster to stay cool...

When riding in traffic I always prepare for the worst situation. Generally it means adjusting speed, lane position, and such. Not a big deal but definitely an adjustment.

On the open road I find myself doing the same thing for deer. There are places in the road that seem ideal for the critters and I change speed expecting them to run out. For whatever reason I am more wary on roads fringed with vegetation than I am in town. Seems much more difficult to prepare for deer other than just go slow.

Maybe I am worrying about nothing.

Steve Williams
Scooter in the Sticks

bluekat said...

Possible leaves the option of possibly yes, or possibly no. Capable just means yes, it's capable. Very big distinction.

I haven't figured out all the clues I pick up on. It's not the one who looks me in the eye. That means nothing. It's not the moving wheels...they're almost always rolling a bit in anticipation. Are the going to go now, or are they preparing to cut around behind me? Decisions decisions. It's a lot of tiny little things added up and calculated, but still being ready to implement plan b (or c) at a moment's notice. Isn't this fun!

Good post Irondad :)

Gary France said...

I like reading these sorts of posts where you give these riding tips. They make you think and just a bit more careful when riding. I will think about this one today when on the road, so thanks, keep 'em coming!

Dean W said...

Wednesday morning, headed for McMinnville, I followed a pickup up an exit ramp. There was a plastic barrel wobbling around loose in the back. Will it or won't it?

At the top of the ramp the driver paused then stomped on the gas to get across the overpass before a semi-truck could block him. Great- now I have to worry about dodging shards of plastic (former) barrel.

(To make that morning complete, I rolled onto the Wheatland Ferry, and half a dozen motor officers rolled on behind me... and I knew we were all going the same way.)

irondad said...


Not even I would be brave enough to mess with your pizza! As you saw while I was in Phoenix with you, I did the opposite. I made an offering to the Pizza God!


Thank you for gracing my blog with your comment. I always like people who agree with me!

Take care,


irondad said...


Dealing with the possibility of deer strikes has no simple answer. When we know we're on their turf your strategy is sound. Slow down and be ready.

There are several "target rich" areas here. I find myself looking deeper off the side of the road looking for flashes of movement and color, as well.

Take care,


irondad said...


Thank you for sharing your comment. It reinforces what I said on your blog. You are gaining valuable experience all the time.

You wrote that you haven't figured out all the clues, yet. Let me offer an observation. Your description tells me that you are starting to think like a motorcyclist as opposed to a driver. That is a critical transformation to make.

So even though you can't easily put it into words, it's clear to me that you "get it". Well done, Grasshopper!

Take care,


irondad said...

Gary France,

You know, I really appreciate your comment. Firstly, it's great to know that riders are gaining something of value from these posts.

Secondly, you reminded me that I have sort of strayed from my original mission for the blog. It's supposed to be a source of riding wisdom. I'm bringing it back on course.

Take care,


irondad said...

Dean W,

So the barrel actually fell out of the truck and broke on the pavement in front of you? Interesting.

Gee, I wonder where the motor cops might have been going? Did that have anything to do with a certain track and airport in McMinnville?


Take care,


Tinker said...

Texas used to have a safe driving campaign, they billed it as "Drive Friendly", and you will still see the odd sign around. I decided years ago to "Drive Paranoid".

It's not just driving as if you were invisible, its a matter of assuming that someone will do the WORST possible thing, at the WORST possible moment. You must presume, if they can see you, they WILL do their d*mnd*st to kill you. Its not a matter of bad luck or good luck it's an active attempt, at homicide.

It has resulted in my continued safety on the road, and my total disgust with auto and truck drivers.

Conchscooter said...

Clearly this defensive riding stuff needs to be talked about but the benefit of dressing like a fluorescent christmas tree remains dubious to me. It seems to me there is a differnece between being seen and being noticed that defies the color of one's jacket. yet the accepted wisdom requires one to be dressed in fluorescent or being labelled a non conformist. (like that's a bad thing).

irondad said...


On one level yours is a wise approach. On the other, don't let anybody rob you of your joy in riding!

Take care,


irondad said...


Just as there are many tools in a complete tool box, there are many ways to be visible. A multi-tip screwdriver is not a magic wand.

So it is with Hi-Viz. It is only one tool among many. Other tools include not hiding in traffic, using turn signals and brake lights to communicate, awareness, and so on.

If your fluorescent Christmas tree thinks the color is a force field, and / or rides with their head up their butt, then it is all useless.

The best tool is to see other drivers before they see us. That can be done equally well in a black jacket and dark helmet. To put it more bluntly, I know of highly visible motorcyclists that are shitty riders.

I don't count on drivers seeing me no matter what color my gear. However, I like retro-reflective stuff at night. Of course, I also hate negotiating a staircase in the dark without a flashlight.

Damn, it kills me to have to admit I agree with you!

Highest regards,


Arizona Harley Dude said...

Now I’m going to have to change my thought process Dan. I’ve always said I ride like every cage driver was trying to kill me. Some have asked why I ride with such a negative attitude and I guess it could be taken that way. Since I would never call an engine guard a crash bar or a helmet a crash helmet maybe I need to wise up. Starting today I will ride anticipating the capabilities of all the drivers around me. Mostly the same concept, but without a negative connotation .

I, as well as my family and loved ones, thank you again for your wisdom.

irondad said...

Arizona Harley Dude,

A lot of motorcycling is mental. Our mental state has a large bearing on how we react. Hostility and anger, though subdued, can make us do things we really shouldn't. At the very least we lose our edge.

At the same time, why let the bastards win? If they rob us of our joy then they are the victors.

Thank you for your kind words. I send my warmest wishes to you and your loved ones!

Take care,


SonjaM said...

Dear Dan, thanks so much for posting this. Your message probably prevented me from having an accident yesterday when a pick-up truck driver pulled out of a gas station in front of me. It was a young guy who could barely control his vehicle. His capabilities were probably tending towards zero, hence I was prepared to stop right on time. Again, thanks a lot for this lesson.

irondad said...


I can't tell you how much I appreciate hearing this from you. We write stuff and send it out into cyberspace. It's nice to know some of it is actually of use to someone else.

You get full credit, though, for internalizing the information and making it work for you. Well done!

Take care,


jONh0 said...

Yes - and I think that it is worth assuming that all car driver are busy texting - all too often, they are!

Dave McCallister said...

Happened to me last Thursday. Wondered if someone was going to turn left in front of my bike. They did! I swerved to the right and ended up stopping upright on a sidewalk. Nice maneuver attempt, but I was still hit in the process.

Chuck Pefley said...

Thanks for the mindset tweak, Dan. Valuable reminder!

Having just finished a 1400 mile ride on Washington backroads, I can strongly identify with Steve's deer comment!! Saw far too many of those lovely, but unpredictable, critters last week.

Here's the answer to your comment on my blog recently:

"Irondad, no, this isn't right out of the camera. I do some post processing on almost everything I shoot. No different than when I made prints in a darkroom. Color and density as well as dodging & burning are almost always necessary to finish the image.

In this particular case an HDR technique was used, though I don't remember if I used Photomatix or CS5. Final was via Lightroom 3. "

Chuck Pefley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.