The Riding Season Begins

Harry Clark, ABATE of New York Safety Officer

Winter is just about over, with this year’s riding season now getting under way. This is a good time to review safety concepts, and work on attitude adjustments, if called for. Here’s a list I found on the Internet, which appears to be a good definition of safe riding, and a good place to start:

What makes a good rider?
• A good level of attention
• Accurate observation
• Matching the vehicle's speed and direction to the situation
• Awareness of risks inherent in particular road and traffic situations.
• Acting of their own limitations and those of the vehicle on the roads
• Skillful use of controls
I got the above from a web site hosted by a police agency in the UK.

“A good level of attention.” To me, that means devoting a high level of attention to the task at hand, which is riding defensively. It also implies having the appropriate attitude, with safety as the highest priority while you ride.
“Accurate observation.” Kind of a British term, but it relates to how well you observe what is going on around you. It means more than just seeing, it also means understanding what you are seeing and the implications of what you see.
In the US, the MSF and AMA use the term “SEE, which stands for Search, Evaluate, and Execute, which are the required steps in avoiding accidents. Groups who promote safety try to condense their ideas into simple to remember acronyms or lists. These are useful, although sometimes in the act of condensing, some things tend to get left out. That’s one reason to look at how the folks in the UK approach motorcycle safety.

“Matching the vehicle’s speed and direction to the situation.” I like this one and consider it very valuable. Slowing down for hazardous situations is one of the most valuable techniques available to you. You need to have a keen appreciation for when you need to slow down. For example, you are following a car on a two-lane highway. As you enter a village, that car slows, apparently to turn left at a crossroads. There is an oncoming car. If you ram and jam, and power around that car ahead of you, you risk the oncoming car turning left in front of you. There will be many, many situations where you need to slow down. How good a rider you are depends on your ability to consistently determine all those situations where you need to slow down, and change lane position to maximize your visibility to other motorists. “Slow down in town” is a good motto, especially when approaching intersections with things going on.

“Awareness of risks inherent in particular road and traffic situations.” This is a gem of wisdom, and one reason I saved the above list. It is not enough to scan for individual vehicles that might cause a collision. You must go beyond that, and learn to spot dangerous situations. For example, a long queue of vehicles is stopped to turn left on a boulevard in town. If you hammer past this queue at full speed, you fail to realize a dangerous situation, and are placing yourself at risk. What if there is a gap in that queue, left by a well-meaning motorist, to allow another motorist to cross that queue, say to or from a driveway? It is a dangerous situation because a gap might open up in the queue and a car come shooting out, right in your path. Scanning for that car shooting through the gap isn’t enough, because it will appear too suddenly. You have to scan for the gap, and realize the dangerous situation, rather than one vehicle. This is just one example; there will be plenty of other dangerous situations out there. Elevate your scanning activities beyond recognizing vehicles that are a threat, and recognize hazardous situations.

Any time a motorist’s vision is blocked you have a hazardous situation. Before you can deal with a hazard, you have to recognize it as such.

“Acting of their own limitations and those of the vehicle on the roads.” I’m not a road racer, nor do I pretend to be. Excess speed is a factor in a high percentage of motorcycle accidents, especially on rural roads. Notice that there are two limitations, those of the bike, and those of the rider. I can get my bike leaned over quite a bit on a curvy mountain road and go pretty fast. But I’ve got touring tires mounted, not racing tires. There’s a limit to how far I can push the bike. There are limits to the traction I have available.

There’s also a limit to how far I am willing to push myself. Half the bike wrecks in rural areas are run-off-the-road, single-vehicle accidents. In many of these accidents, the rider fell victim to panic in a turn, and used brakes instead of counter-steering to get through the curve. In many of these situations, the rider jumped on the rear brake and skidded straight ahead and off the road in a full panic. If you know a rider who does not know what counter-steering is, then you know a rider at high risk of running off the road. Anyone who drinks and rides is limiting his own abilities to ride safely, in some cases severely enough to cause an accident. Know your own limitations. If you must drink, then one drink per hour is the sensible limit.

“Skillful use of the controls.” You really do need to know how to ride a motorcycle well to be safe on one. The best idea is to learn the controls on a dirt bike or street/trail bike on a bike of modest size, rather than jump right on a full-size motorcycle. Skillful use of the controls means knowing how to get the most out of your brakes, for example. Inexperienced bikers often use only their rear brake in a panic situation, locking it up and skidding into what they were hoping to avoid hitting. This also lengthens stopping distances. You have to know that your front brake provides most of your stopping on a motorcycle.

Instead of swerving around a car partway in his lane, an unskilled rider will steer into it. You have to counter-steer to swerve a motorcycle. If you know a rider who is unaware of that, then please insist that rider get training and the know-how he needs to ride safely.

When you look over the above list of requirements for a good rider, feel free to consider all the different aspects of a good rider you can think of. I’m sure I haven’t described all of them.

I attended a safety meeting hosted by the Corning Harley Owners’ Group in Corning, New York. They screened some good safety films from MSF, one on group riding, another on riding while impaired, and one film titled “Street Smarts, Volume I.” That was well made and thorough. It’s available from Whitehorse Press. There are 3 volumes available, as well as some other titles:

Just a reminder to watch out for all the loose sand out there on curves and at intersections, left over from winter sanding. That would fall under “a good level of attention” and “accurate observation.”

Enjoy the new riding season, and ride safe.