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Three Keys to Riding Safely

I've been reading frequent discussions on riding safety online at a motorcycle forum. I am no expert, but I have a few miles of riding under my belt and I thought I would post my thoughts.

Riding is a complex activity, where many minor and major technical skills are used. It is good to know and develop every skill you can, but this discussion is not focused on the minutiae of riding technique. In my experience, safe riding can be broken down into three major elements.

Living in the Future

As you ride, keep your eye out for anything and everything that is taking place, or will take place, when you are twelve seconds or so further down the road. I have found this little bit of wisdom to be a major cornerstone to riding safely.

Looking ahead, both in time and distance, gives you time to assess your environment and make a plan for anything that could happen or is developing. Anticipating problems is key to avoiding them. As much as it is wise to practice your technical skills in avoidance and stopping, its always best if you never have to put those skills to the test in an emergency situation. Living in the future could also be described as “avoiding the use of emergency procedures.”

Don't focus on the rear of the vehicle directly in front of you, but also watch for telltale signs ahead of possible dangerous situations developing. Pay attention to the brake lights or turn signals of the car ahead of the car your behind, and the car in front of them. Constantly scanning and using your peripheral vision, watch for side streets and stopped cars waiting to cross or join traffic. Look for white backup lights in driveways ahead, which tell you to be ready for them to back into the roadway. Notice that railroad crossing ahead and decide before you get there if you need to change lane position to enable you to cross the tracks at a better angle. Watch for dogs or other animals near the side of the road ahead and be ready for them to act unpredictably.

It is important to periodically glance in your mirrors for anything developing there, but most of the time the real danger is ahead of you, so keep your mind on watching that area ahead of you where you will be in about twelve seconds.

Living in the future has been my mantra and has kept me from having to use my emergency skills for many miles. A couple years ago my brother and I rode from central Florida to Michigan, a round trip of about 2,800 miles in both country and city traffic. During the entire journey neither of us had to utilize our emergency skills. It wasn't that we didn't observe all sorts of crazy behaviors from other drivers, but when we saw these dangers ahead of us we were ready for them. The only incident that could have ended badly was a pickup truck backing out of its drive into our path, but we were watching that truck. Before it became an emergency, although we braked quickly, we were stopped well away from the hazard.

Riding a motorcycle has its dangers, but living in the future goes a long ways for improving the odds of avoiding danger.

Don't Panic

I think we've all done this: You're coming into a tight curve and in the middle of it you realize you're in too hot. I've done it; I ran wide in a local corner that for some reason often catches me off guard when it doesn't straighten out as early as it looks like it should. The time I did that, I purposely ran off into the grass. I stood the bike up, braked, released the brakes before leaving the pavement and my Honda became a dirt bike on a gentle ride across the grass on the right shoulder. I should have judged that corner better, but I didn't panic, I chose what to do and I did it, straightening the bike up and readying myself for a ride off-road. Was that the best option? Nope. I could have misjudged the shoulder and gone down. However, having ridden on the grass and off-pavement gave me an idea of what I could expect, as did knowing and seeing the condition of the shoulder. Braking upright reduced my speed enough that riding through the grass was not much different than riding on my front lawn, something I do every time I leave home. But most of the time, running off the road is not a good option. On a right-hand curve, there are often other vehicles there. And going off-road in the Blue Ridge Mountains is usually the last thing you want to do.

Now I take that that same curve occasionally on purpose, so I can hone my cornering skills to the point it doesn't surprise me anymore. Now, I don't run off, I lean more. Often, a rider when faced with this situation will panic and throw on the brakes, or at least chop the throttle. At first thought it seems like slowing down would be a good idea, but hard-braking when leaned is a course of action that can have devastating effects. When you roll off the throttle, the bike will want to stand up. When the bike is no longer leaning it will not turn, so the rider accomplishes just what he or she wanted to avoid.

Your tires only have so much available traction. When you brake, either with the levers, or by engine braking by chopping the throttle while in gear, you are asking for more traction for stopping at a critical time when you need all the traction you can get for turning. Often, the loss of traction for turning is enough to cause the tires to slide and you end up is a low side slide or over the bars in a high side. Both of these things are something to avoid.

What the panicking rider is doing is not having faith in his bike's ability to lean, and by leaning, its ability to turn. If anyone has watched motorcycles racing, one thing that is striking is how much they can lean and still retain traction. While we don't all ride racing bikes, the bikes we do ride on the street are usually far more capable of leaning than we realize. Instead of panicking and bailing in a turn, have faith in the bike and lean. Unless you are dragging the peg or hard parts of your motorcycle you haven't leaned as far as you can, and you haven't turned in the direction you want to go as far as you can. Even when dragging a peg, you can shift your weight to the inside and get a tighter turn with the same amount of lean.

How do you lean? You countersteer; you turn the bars opposite the direction you want to go, often described as “push right [the right end of the handlebar] to go right.” It might be counter-intuitive to actually turn the bars opposite the direction you want to go, but it works, and the task for the rider is to practice this until it becomes intuitive and becomes a natural response. Part of learning that is thinking about it each and every time you take a curve.

Panicking is not thinking; it is reacting without thinking. Keep a clear head and don't panic; do what you know you need to do. If you practice turns while consciously thinking countersteering, when the time comes and you're in too hot, you will naturally repeat the practice of “thinking through the turn.”

On straightaways, too, it pays not to panic. When that car pulls out in front of you, squeeze the brakes progressively; don't just snatch the lever and pull for all your worth. A skidding tire is a tire that has lost traction, and a tire without traction stops much more slowly than one with grip. Moderate your braking to ensure your wheels keep turning until you are at zero mph. When you panic and lock your tires you have relinquished control and have resigned yourself to luck. Once your panic has caused you to lock up, unless you can release and reapply properly in time, the accident controls you.

I recall reading about race car drivers and how they “drive through the crash,” in other words, they never relinquish control of their vehicle but do everything they can even when a crash is imminent. That last second controlling your braking before hitting an object, might mean the difference between minor and major injuries, or death.

Target fixation is another form of panic. You see an obstacle, be it sand, a car, or a guardrail and instead of watching where you want to go, you freak out and stare right at the thing that is scaring you. It's almost magical: when you stare at something, that is where you go. You want to exit the turn; look at your exit. You want to hit the guardrail; look at the guardrail. Again, this is a matter of ignoring your natural instinct (staring at the threat) and trusting your mind instead.

Controlling panic will help in many situations. Our natural instinct when things go wrong is to stop, and stop quickly, but thinking may tell you something completely different. When that tire blows, throwing on the brakes will do little to help the situation, but using your head will tell you to slow gradually and apply braking to the good wheel. When the back locks up, your natural instinct will be to let go of the brakes, while your head will tell you to determine if you are straight or sliding sideways before taking any action. If something runs out in front of you in a curve your natural instinct will tell you to slam on the brakes, but your head will tell you to straighten up, then use the brakes. Your head will tell you these things instantly if you have practiced, practiced, practiced. Once learned, these skills will replace your natural instincts with what might be called “informed instinct,” the difference being that what you have thought through and practiced now is what you do automatically. Practice is the best antidote to panic.

Ride Your Own Ride

Another easy way to avoid accidents is to “ride your own ride,” as I quote every time I sign off on a new blog entry. Riding your own ride means to control your own riding and not let others' behaviors control yours.

If you are riding in a group, and the rest of the riders blow through a late yellow for which you would normally stop, then stop. When the pack is turning right after stopping at a red light, roaring onto the pavement to get ahead of oncoming traffic that is getting closer the further back you are in the pack, if you would stop when riding alone, then stop when riding in a group. Don't let being part of the pack put you in harm's way. Don't relinquish control of your fate to others. If the pack doesn't like it, find a new group with which to ride.

Other vehicles can also cause one to ride unwisely. Don't let that tailgater who won't pass you force you to ride at an unsafe speed. Be willing to first signal clearly, then pull off the road if necessary to get them past you. Chose the road you feel comfortable riding on, don't just choose an Interstate, for instance, because everyone tells you, “But it's the fastest route!” When someone doesn't yield the right of way to you, don't let having the right of way make you do something unsafe.

Riding in a place like the Tail of the Dragon, or any number of other popular twisty roads, is differently challenging for each motorcyclist. Street riding shouldn't be a competition. Don't try keeping up with riders much more experienced than you, or perhaps more foolhardy than you. Ride your own ride, within your own comfort level and envelope of ability. Don't be sucked into trying to ride like everyone else. If competition is your bag, then schedule a track day. Don't turn the road into a track and don't let ego control your actions, possibly causing you and others harm. There is no shame at riding twisties slower than other riders. Not a single GP racer had mad skills in the beginning. Let your mad skill be using your brain and making the right decisions. Really talented riders will admire that more than your cornering speed.

With all the myriad skills you can employ riding a motorcycle, keeping these three elements in mind while riding will help you avoid or minimize many dangers. Best of all, they may save you from having to use any emergency techniques in the first place.


Road Dog

"Ride Your Own Ride"

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