We Can Be Our Own Worst Enemy
by Jim Barnett
Introduction by Roger Smith #135, VJMC Safety Coordinator
VJMC events are held around America and almost all of them involve riding motorcycles. The old “Ride ’em don’t hide ’em” saying really describes our events. VJMC always puts safety first.
I would like to introduce to you Jim Barnett, from Mesa, Arizona. Jim will be doing a series of safety articles for the VJMC’s magazine, focusing on what we can do to ride safer, be more visible, and more aware when on the road. Jim began riding in 1966 at the age of 8 and has had many motorcycles since. He has raced motocross, road-racing and even trials events. Jim said, “Once I moved to the Phoenix area in 1 999, I started looking into becoming a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Rider Coach, and have been certified since November 2002. I took my first MSF course back in 1986. What I learned in that course saved my life in 1988. Becoming a Rider Coach was my way of repaying the motorcycling community. In the past ten and a half years I have taught easily 5,000 students in the Basic Rider Course. I love what I do. Motorcycle safety is a full time job for Jim and we are very lucky to have a certified safety instructor help us improve our riding techniques which can keep us safer on the road.
A few weeks ago, Bob Leonard sent an email to the Arizona members of the VJMC, which had an attached article from a local newspaper. This article concerned the total motorcycle fatalities in the Phoenix area during March and the first two weeks of April, 2013. (There were seven, by the way). The author stated that a couple of the crashes were single vehicle (most likely excessive speed), and that a couple were “alcohol related:’ The author then mentioned the negligent car drivers turning into, and in front of, the motorcyclists.
Yes, the majority of collisions between cars and motorcycles are a result of a series of factors, ending with the car driver entering the motorcyclist’s right of-way. Many times a distracted driver not seeing the motorcyclist is a major factor in the crash taking place.
But always assuming that it is the car driver’s responsibility alone to see you are one thing that I see far too often in the motorcycling community. We tend to think that if we weren’t speeding, riding aggressively, and/or driving impaired that we are somehow just innocent victims. However, many times we actually help the situation occur with out realizing it.
Always blaming the car driver usually gets me up on my soap-box, preaching. That is what happened right after I received this email. I shot back a reply to the group about being hidden and additional training, and started a great conversation within the group. How many times have you, the motorcyclist, while driving your four-wheeled vehicle looked twice, started to pull out, and suddenly a motorcycle appeared? Where was he hiding?
There is always the possibility that we have done everything correctly, but the crash may still happen. We are simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, and physics wins.
Roger Smith, the VJMC Safety Coordinator, called a few days after the email, suggesting the possibility of a series of articles for the VJMC magazine. We came upon the idea of helpful survival hints that should be common knowledge to motorcyclists, but usually are not.
Helpful Hint #1: Make them see you! We have all had that car driver cut us off at some point in our riding careers. Chances are pretty fair that it will happen again at some point in our future.
We are smaller than cars, and harder to see. Plus, being smaller, we are not as threatening to the instinctive part of the brain. This means that the car driver may not see you, even if they are looking right at you.
So, with all of this working against us, how can we ensure that we have given drivers the best opportunity to see us?
First, I will position myself where I can see the most other road users, particularly when approaching an intersection. The two people that I am most interested in seeing are the oncoming left-turner, and the impatient right-turner who pulls into traffic directly in front of you. The crossing left turn is the classic car-bike collision.
Many municipalities now have landscaping in the medians of their main streets. Many intersections allow a left turn on green if time and space permit. A truck or RV waiting to make a left turn, and partially in the intersection, blocks much of an opposing left turn driver’s view. A motorcycle in the left wheel track of the left lane is very hard to see for on-coming motorists in this case. I have witnessed this situation set up numerous dose-calls and two actual collisions. Place yourself where you can see and be seen.
Next, I am going to make myself as “visible” as possible. I am going to do this with my gear, my lights, and my horn. The other drivers may have the responsibility of seeing me, but I am responsible for making myself seen!
I have four motorcycle jackets at home: two leather jackets (black), one synthetic mesh with liner (red, black, and silver that matches my XS-650), and one synthetic mesh with liner (BRIGHT fluorescent yellow) and black pants. I rarely wear any jacket other than my bright yellow one since I purchased it. It is so bright that it hurts to look at it, but you can’t look away.
Make sure you are seen with bright colors and reflective materials. I look forward to the day I see a club patch-holder flying his colors, patches, and run pins on a safety worker’s vest instead of denim or leather. You may laugh now, but it will happen …one day.
Once I’m on the bike and ready to go it is time to turn on the lights. This is a non-issue with modern bikes; the lights turn on with the key. But we ride vintage Japanese bikes. Headlights on in the day-time is an option for us. My third piece of advice on being seen is to opt for turning on our lights at all times, even when not required by the state in which you are riding. And don’t forget your turn signals, if your bike is new enough to have them. They let people around us know what we are planning to do. Just remember to cancel them after the turn or lane change.
If, after checking my lane position, wearing high-visibility riding gear, and riding with my lights on, I still have doubts about being seen by other drivers, I go to the horn! Large modern cruisers and touring bikes generally have pretty good (LOUD) horns. Unfortunately a lot of small and mid-size bikes, as well as our beloved vintage steeds, are rather anemic in the horn decibel department. If your vintage stock horn is not intimidating, keep it on a shelf in your garage, as it is standard equipment, but replace it with a after-market horn in the 120+ decibel range. Just remember to point it away from yourself; at three feet 120 decibels hurts. However, you will be heard above all but the loudest of car stereos, emergency vehicle sirens, and low-flying jets.
Now that we are making a conscious effort to position ourselves in the best area for visibility, dressing to be seen, and using our lights and horn to help in that effort, it means that we can relax a bit because people are less likely to cut us off, right? Wrong! We have not eliminated the risk, we have only reduced it, albeit a significant amount. We still need to prepare for the possibility that another vehicle may pull into our path of travel. We will save that for the next installment, “Helpful Hint Number Two: Evasive Action.”
Hopefully, this has planted a seed that will remind you to consciously check your positioning to see and be seen, particularly when approaching intersections. It is a great way to reduce risk.
The best helpful hint that I could possibly give is to take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation rider course, based on your experience level. You will get hands-on training taught by Rider Coaches that are passionate about what they do, and you will be pleasantly surprised at how much you learn. Check out their web site at www.msf-usa.org for more information.
If you, or someone you know, has just started riding, 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 over ten years’ experience as a Rider Coach. It explains, in a slightly humorous way, why we have the problems riding motorcycles that we do. Look for it on amazon.com •