Make no mistake about it: riding a motorcycle — and as you are no doubt aware—poses greater risks of injury than driving a car. According to the NHTSA, based on statistics from 2006, motorcyclists are eight times more likely to be injured in a crash per mile traveled.
However, and this is critically important, several decades of research have pointed to this central fact: motorcycle accidents are not random, mysterious occurrences—bolts of lightning that can strike any rider at any time. To the contrary, motorcycle accidents, considered as a whole, are highly predictable. They are ultimately attributable to a small group of contributing factors or causes.
The moral of the story, then, is that the risks of motorcycling can be effectively managed. Statistics may continue to show that, when the population of motorcyclists are all considered together, motorcycling poses substantial risks. But riders who understand and avoid these common accident causes can feel secure in knowing that they are in class apart from their less experienced, less skillful and less attentive peers.
The goal of this chapter is a modest one: to detail a few basic recommendations and general principles that come out of this body of research, and ones that I have collected over the years which I think deserve special consideration. In no way does this chapter approximate a comprehensive guide to motorcycle safety. Nonetheless, following these recommendations can help you avoid future accidents, no question about it. They can also help maximize the likelihood that, should an accident occur, you and your attorney would be able to demonstrate the driver’s responsibility for the collision and secure fair compensation for your losses. Showing that you were riding safely and responsibly at the time of the accident goes a long way towards a successful claim.
Give Yourself Time to Respond
What does this mean? It means making every effort to ensure that— should another car make an unsafe maneuver—you would have time to get out of the way. Your speed is a crucial factor here. The faster we ride, the quicker our reaction time needs to be—the less time we have to apply the brakes and to swerve out of the way and the less time we have to scan our surroundings, which whiz by us faster and faster as our speed increases.
In addition, any errors we make in driving are magnified. A second of inattention is more dangerous at higher speeds—the vehicle covers a greater distance while we are distracted. If we over-correct in our steering, we veer further from our intended path the faster we’re traveling. Excessive speed also contributes to the severity of the accident. The force with which two cars collide is a function of two things: their mass, or size, and their acceleration—that is, their speed. According to the NHTSA, 36% of motorcyclists killed on the road in 2007 were speeding. The actual percentage is likely to be substantially higher, as the collisions included in this percentage are only those in which the police officer at the scene was confident that the motorcyclist’s speed was a contributing factor.
Respect Your Limits
From one perspective, excessive speed is anything above the posted limit. But on a more fundamental level, excessive speed is in relation to the rider’s skills and ability. A great many motorcycle accidents don’t involve another vehicle. In these “single vehicle” crashes, which are often fatal, motorcyclists make the mistake of ignoring the limits of their experience and ability. Whether they over break or under corner, the results are the same.
Riding within your limits can be a difficult thing to do. Cars and other bikes can exert pressure on you, whether intentionally or not, to ride faster or more aggressively than you’re comfortable with.
Don’t let them. It’s okay to “push the limits” once in awhile, but take extra care when pushing your limits. If your intuition is telling you to ease up, listen. It may be that more novice bikers, who are aware of their limitations and ride accordingly, stand in better stead than the slightly more experienced bikers who overestimate their skill level and continually push their personal envelope. Ride when, where and how you feel confident riding.
Prepare Your Mind
One of the defining features of motorcycling as it compares to driving a car is that, not only does motorcycling require the participation of our entire body (Can you imagine a motorcyclist talking on the phone, eating a cheeseburger or changing a CD?), but it also demands every bit of our attention, which is one of the greatest things about it. We become completely absorbed in the feedback of our senses, requiring us to achieve a balance with our environment and the physical forces at work, and to do so faster than we have time to consciously deliberate. How well we ride and how much we enjoy it, is in direct proportion to our ability to focus, to let everything else go while on the bike. Motorcycle safety, in other words, is all in your head.
So what does that tell us? For one, it means that anything we can do to get the right mindset is smart. A quick motorcycle maintenance checklist can not only help us spot problems when we can do something about them, but it also serves as an effective pre-ride ritual, helping our minds switch gears, so to speak.
It also means that we need to guard against the various distractions that divide our attention. Emotions are a big one—anger in particular. When we’re furious, we are in an altered state. We say things we don’t mean. We may take it out on someone else, slam the door or throw something—all of which are indications of a lack of control. Being in control while riding is paramount. If you find yourself pissed off for one reason or another, take few deep breaths, go for a walk, give
yourself some time—do whatever you have to do to give the bike your undivided attention. Taking your anger out on your throttle may wind up being something you regret.
Lay Off The Sauce
It always surprises people to learn that riding drunk is not as bad, from a safety standpoint, as driving drunk. It’s worse. The reason is a simple and, by this point in our discussion, a familiar one. Two wheels require more coordination, not to mention attention. The skilled biker is a master of centrifugal force, inertia, gravity and the gyroscopic effect. Putting aside the fancy-sounding high-school physics, consider the simple fact that motorcycles don’t balance by themselves. Unlike cars, they tip over when they come to a stop. However, sober bikers have no problem keeping the bike stable, balanced and upright. It feels like the forward movement makes it happen automatically. With some booze on board, suddenly overcoming gravity is something that requires concerted effort, which in itself might not necessarily be a problem.
What is the problem is that there isn’t any gray matter left for everything else the biker needs to do, including—and here’s the rub—detecting danger and avoiding accidents. Swerving, counter steering and coming to a quick stop without skating the rear wheel simply require too much precision and a quicker reaction time for someone under the influence.
And we’re not just talking about someone who’s completely tanked, or even a biker whose blood alcohol content (BAC) hovers around the legal limit of 0.08%. Studies have shown that as little as one drink can impair riding ability. And one’s riding ability doesn’t necessarily return to its baseline normal state after the person’s BAC has fallen back to 0.00%. The effects of alcohol as a fatigue-inducing depressant can still remain.
Alcohol poses other problems for the biker. We all know that a few drinks boost “confidence,” which is another way of saying that it makes us less cautious. It is little wonder, therefore, that, as BAC goes up, helmet use goes down. Another problem is in direct contradiction to a popular myth—because alcohol has a relaxing effect, it makes one more likely to avoid serious injury. In a given accident, a drunk person would likely come away with less serious injuries than the sober one – or so the theory goes. Afraid not. Just the opposite, in fact. The body, unable to protect itself as it is designed to do, is more vulnerable as a result of alcohol. Believe it or not, alcohol can negate the protection of a helmet. One study from the University of Washington found that the likelihood of a serious head injury was twice as high for motorcyclists under the influence, even though both groups of bikers included in the study—sober and drunk— were wearing helmets.
As an attorney, I’ve also seen how disastrous alcohol can be to the victim’s case, even if the person’s BAC was below the legal limit and the fault for the accident rested primarily in the driver’s hands, rather than the motorcyclist’s. Obtaining a fair settlement for a client is largely a matter of making a convincing case that he or she did everything reasonably possible to avoid the accident. The credibility of this argument can only suffer when alcohol is involved.
Do Your Body Good
Meeting our bodies’ basic requirements helps ensure that we can meet the cognitive and physical demands of two-wheeled travel. Take sleep, for example. Sleep deprivation slows reaction time, diminishes coordination, lessens attention and impairs judgment. Sound familiar? Too little sleep can impair drivers no less severely than alcohol. And, like talking on a cell phone, being tired—ranging from mild sleepiness to extreme sleep deprivation—impairs our ability to ride safely more than we are apt to realize at the time. Make sure to get a good night’s sleep before a big ride. And if you’re too tired to think straight, you’re probably too tired to ride straight. Go get some sleep—your bike will still be there in the morning.
Water is another requirement. Motorcycling can dehydrate you more quickly than you think. Riding a bike is far more physically demanding than driving a car. Wearing a heavy leather jacket— certainly a good idea for preventing abrasions—is likely to make you sweat. There’s no doubt that dehydration negatively impacts physical performance, and—as studies are beginning to show—mental functioning as well. So drink water and plenty of it.
Consider Yourself Invisible
The failure of the driver to see the motorcyclist is the number one cause of accidents involving a motorcycle and another vehicle. The number-one cause. That means that anything you do to increase your visibility—wearing brightly-colored gear, using a headlamp during the day, for example—significantly reduces the risk of an accident. Tackling this all-important issue of visibility also means adopting the attitude that, when in doubt, the driver doesn’t see you. Remember the most common accident scenario, where the car makes a left turn into the motorcycle’s path. As we talked about before, these accidents occur because, due to the size of motorcycle, the driver either doesn’t see the motorcycle approaching or, very often, because it appears that the biker is further away than is actually the case.
The vast majority of cars on the road at a given time are driven by people with little or no experience with motorcycles. They don’t understand them, they don’t expect them and—as a result—they don’t see them. On the one hand, it’s not advisable to make yourself insane with paranoia. But at the same time, putting too much faith in drivers is one of the fastest ways to become a victim of one.
Build Your Skills
Motorcycles, as we’ve said before, require far greater skill to operate than does your average car. Among motorcyclists, there is a wide continuum of ability that separates the novice from the expert. You might say that you don’t “ride” a motorcycle as much as you “pilot” one. That’s another great thing about riding a bike: it allows the rider to pursue mastery and offers the possibility of never-ending improvement.
Riding a bike, in this regard, is akin to playing a musical instrument. But this analogy begs the question of how one should learn to ride a bike. Is it enough, as it is with driving a car, to learn from a friend or family member? Are there any downsides to being entirely self- taught? Accident statistics seemed to suggest that there might be. The risk of an accident is more than twice as likely for motorcyclists without any formal training.
Another predictive variable is experience. It should come as no surprise that the likelihood of an accident and the amount of experience a rider has are highly correlated. Inexperienced riders, those with only a few months on the bike, are proportionately overrepresented among accident victims.
Taking a course in rider education through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation is one of the best ways to build your skills and gain experience in a safe, controlled environment, with the guidance of a qualified instructor. These classes are not just for the beginner. There are a number of courses specifically designed for more seasoned riders, which focus on more advanced skills, both mental and physical.
Taking a course has other advantages as well. Taking a course in motorcycle safety can make your insurance rates go down. Not only that, if you are injured in an accident, having taken a course in safety can help your case because it shows that you are a conscientious rider.
Listed below are a few final riding tips. The list is not intended to be comprehensive—just a few tips that I think are essential for every rider to keep in mind.
Look where you want to go
Not to be confused with the equally sound advice “look where you’re going,” what I’m suggesting is that you use your eyes, in a sense, to steer your bike. It is a well-established fact that motorists—bikers included—tend to veer towards what they look at. So what’s the worst thing you can do when trying to avoid hitting something? Stare at it. Instead, if you direct your gaze along your intended path, your bike is more likely to go where you want it to.
Check your mirrors, but don’t forget to use your head
Checking your mirrors when changing lanes or turning is a great habit to get into, but mirrors still have blind spots. Remember to also check with a quick head turn that it’s safe to maneuver.
Watch your speed going into turns
Excessive speed just before the turn is the single most common cause of solo motorcycle crashes. Slowing down while turning is difficult and dangerous. Better to go into a turn at a reasonable speed and accelerate out of it.
Respect the dark
Visibility, as we talked about, is one of the most common contributing factors in motorcycle crashes and a key variable to consider in accident prevention. When the sun goes down, you lose the greatest source of visibility. The difference between riding during the day or at night should not be ignored, and can scarcely be overstated. Make sure your headlights are working properly, make sure your face shield is clean—do whatever you can think of to ensure that you can see other motorists and that they can see you.
Use your signals
It’s never a bad idea to signal. It lets drivers know your intentions, and the flashing light might be the decisive factor in whether or not they see you. For the same reason, don’t hesitate to give your brakes a few small squeezes before coming to a stop, just so your brake light flashes.
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