Do the Right Thing
by Jim Barnett
Our safety tip in the last issue was to make ourselves seen by other highway users. We greatly reduce our risk of being in a collision by doing this, but that is still no guarantee that other road users will not turn into our rightof-way. So, what do we do then?
Before we proceed, think about your mind-set when you ride, and that of your friends. What do you or they think about while riding, particularly in congested areas? Where is the focus? Also, think about your skills on a motorcycle. Do you, or any of your riding buddies, ever practice evasive maneuvers skills? I usually get a very thoughtful silence when I ask these questions of experienced riders in class.
Scenario: A car just made that “left turn” in front of us. At this point in time we have to take some evasive action. We can brake, or we can swerve to avoid the hazard. These are the two preferred methods for avoiding a collision. (There is a third option that I will discuss later, to use only if a collision is imminent and unavoidable.)
So, which option is the right one to use, and when should we use it? This depends on many factors. Have we checked the traffic behind us as we ap proached the intersection? If we have to stop our motorcycle quickly, will the large pick-up behind us have the room to stop? Have we made sure that we have room beside us to swerve if necessary? These are factors that many riders never consider when approaching intersections. We tend to ride towards and through them just as if we were in our 3,500 pound metal cage, called the family car.
Think like a motorcyclist when approaching hazardous areas and make a plan. Look at the situation and evaluate the hazards. Play, “What if…;’ and plan ahead.
The first option that I would use is to brake hard to avoid a vehicle that just entered my path, provided that I have the room to stop. That makes sense, right? But how do we know if we have the room to stop our motorcycle in our given distance? Practice!
Practice quick-stops often. I have not had to do an emergency stop to avoid a collision with a car for many years, yet I practice emergency stopping every time I get on my motorcycle. I will practice an emergency stop while out riding in the countryside. I just make sure that there are no other vehicles around when I do it. If I am out riding and it starts to rain, I’ll find an area without traffic and practice a couple of emergency stops on wet pavement. I practice because I never know when that next car might pull in front of me.
Many of us have heard someone ex- plain why they had to “lay their bike down” to avoid a more serious danger such as an automobile, guard rail, or bank. At the risk of offending someone, suggesting this option is absolutely the worst advice you could ever give someone. Any first year physics student can tell you that the drag coefficient of two tire patches far exceeds that of a motorcycle on its side. Stay on the bike and in control. They may have missed hitting the cars, but they still crashed, and it still hurt. So, how did they “lay their bike down”? Chances are they can’t tell you; they just did it, and it sounded good. They crashed because they panicked and grabbed the front brake.
Our front brake has seventy percent or more of the braking capability of our motorcycle. This comes from weight transferring to the front wheel as we apply the brakes. The more front brake we apply, the more weight transfers, and the more brake we can apply. The weight transfers as we “squeeze” the front brake. If we “grab” the front brake we do not allow the time necessary for the weight to transfer to the front tire. This causes the front wheel to lock and skid, sending us immediately to the pavement. We just joined the “lay my bike down” choir.
To avoid the front wheel lock-up, practice emergency stops on a regular and frequent basis. The more that you practice these skills, the more they be come habit. Habit becomes instinct. Instinct becomes survival.
Our second option to avoid a collision is the swerve. This is comprised of two consecutive counter steers. Counter steering is how we get the motorcycle to lean while going around turns at speed. Press on the left handle-bar grip to go left; press on the right grip to go right. The swerve is just two of these press es, one in each direction, done in rapid succession.
I love the swerve! It is the reason that my wife did not become the much sought-after, good-looking, wealthy, young widow back in 1988. I learned how to swerve in 1986, after only sixteen years of continuous riding. We can always learn something, no matter how long we have been riding.
Swerving to avoid an obstacle in front of us is an easy skill to learn and practice, but it must be done correctly! We must not brake, nor accelerate, during the swerve, as it can upset our traction and cause a fall. We must also keep our head and eyes up, looking at our escape path and not at the vehicle or obstacle in front of us. Finally, we want to swerve behind the vehicle that cuts us off.
Why behind, you may ask? When the person that cut you off finally sees you, their first response is to hit the brakes. They will then usually hit the accelera – tor to get out of your way. Ifyou swerve around the front side of the vehicle you have just turned into their path. It takes much more time for them to shift to reverse and back out of your way, and by then you are already around the back. However, you also want to make sure that you are not swerving into the path of another vehicle behind them.
Practice your swerving and quick stops regularly! I pass five man-hole covers in my neighborhood on my way to one of the main streets. This provides the perfect opportunity to practice my swerves, as long as there are no other road users around. I ride right up to them at twenty-five mph and then swerve around them; one to the left, one to the right.
If you have never received formal training in the art of swerving and stopping quickly, I highly suggest you sign up for a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Rider Course based on your skill level. There is a lot of information involved with correct technique to each maneuver, and space here is limited.
Now…for that final option if a collision is imminent. I learned this from my first instructor, Ted Summerfield, back in 1986. When Ted taught us this, he made it very clear that this is not something taught, nor endorsed, by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. It was his recommendation after having been a motorcycle officer with thirty years in the California Highway Patrol.
If you cannot stop, and there is no room to swerve, and you are going to crash into another vehicle, brake as much as possible and, at moment of impact, jump as high as you possibly can! This piece of information saved the life of a friend, Big Al, who worked at one of the local motorcycle shops that I used to frequent. Ted gave Al’s class the same advice. A few weeks after he took his class, Al had a van turn left in front of him. He tried braking as much as possible and then jumped. His approximate speed at impact was thirty to thirty-five mph. His motorcycle was in the van, through the side door. The officer on the scene said that Al would have been killed had he stayed on the bike. His only injury was a broken right ankle, which had hit the rain gutter on the top of the van as he went over. Also note that stuntmen on bikes go over the cars on impact, not through them.
We riders of vintage Japanese bikes need to practice our braking and swerving as well, but we also need to make sure that we have more time and space separation than modern motorcycles. We may have old drum brakes instead of disc brakes, cables instead of hydraulics, and inferior suspensions compared to new bikes. But our skills need to be just as sharp.
Again, my best suggestion to help us all stay safe on a motorcycle is to take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Rider Course based on our skill and experience level. Check out their web-site at www.msf-usa.org for more information.
If you, or someone you know, have just started riding street bikes, or have returned after years of non-riding, you may also be interested in the author’s new book, The Realm of the Cheetah-Helpful Survival Hints for the Beginning Street Motorcyclists. It is filled with hints gleaned from the author’s over ten years as a MSF Rider Coach. It explains, in a slightly humor ous way, why we have the problems riding motorcycles that we do. Look for it on Amazon.com.