April 13, 2011

My first post-gradschool job was in the Windy City during the reign of Richard Daily the First. He was constantly hounded by his critics in the press for fabricating new words. One of my favorites was “insinuendo.” Even though it was a brand new word, the mayor knew what it meant and it meant exactly what he intended it to mean. Take that.

Over the years I’ve invented several Daily-esque terms that made me smile; far too often they’ve been passing helmet thoughts which, soon as the kickstand went down, they scatter. One that’s been running around long enough to become lodged in my neural circuits, though, is “mundangerous.” You know what it means just by saying it out loud. It’s a mundane situation which – though perhaps boring — is actually quite dangerous.

A person’s daily commute must be full of them. Inured to the dangers of the everyday traffic situation simply by having performed the same maneuver repeatedly, our minds no longer recognize for its full potential, say, the blind curve to our left at the routine stop. Out of habit (there’s never a car approaching on this lonely road), we roll the stop sign with a quick glance over the shoulder which is much more an afterthought than a true precautionary measure. Your momma doesn’t have to tell you that sooner or later…

Another good example is the quick run to the grocery store. You won’t be going at interstate speed, and again – traffic is (usually) light. “Surely, jeans and a long sleeve sweatshirt will be sufficient,” you think as you dutifully pull on your helmet, leaving the jacket and riding pants on the hanger. It’s not particularly cold, so you leave the gloves behind, also.

We have a saying at Stayin Safe that goes something like, “You know, you can get away with that MOST of the time…”

Contrast the attitudes above with the mindset you adopt when you’re on one of your favorite challenging roads with some yummy curves you love to hit “just right,” or when you’re navigating a multiple-lane expressway junction in a strange city at rush hour. These situations are far from mundane, and you have every sense heightened to make sure you don’t make a slip. Are they any more dangerous? Who’s to say? Inattentive drivers are everywhere, and – let’s face it – we’re sometimes guilty of a misjudgment of our own which can put us in a world of hurt. Like when a vehicle actually does appear coming around that blind curve mentioned above and you’ve rolled past the stop sign onto that main road; too much front brake – a common panic reaction when the routine suddenly goes South – will put you and the bike down right in that vehicle’s path. Bitten by the mundangerous.

So, think about situations during your habitual ride which could fall into this category. Share them with us. And meanwhile, don’t get whacked by the commonplace.



99 and 44/100ths percent

April 10, 2011

Ivory soap claims to be 99 and 44/100ths percent pure. Most motorcycle safety experts agree that 90% of all motorcycle crashes are avoidable. Now, while I’m not going to go quite as far as Ivory, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I believe that 99% of crashes are avoidable. I’m leaving that 1% for the freak occurrences such as wildlife and those very rare stories that are reserved for those “The Most Amazing … ” television shows. With proper riding/driving strategies, good judgment and appropriate risk acceptance levels, almost all crashes are avoidable. Virtually every crash scenario that has been presented to me — including the multitude of stories that included some version of “I had to lay it down” — has been an avoidable crash; at least if the rider had been thinking ahead and planning for the possibilities. Is there any crash, other than the admittedly uncontrollable instance of deer strikes (although we can do much to avoid peak deer activity hours) that are truly out of our control? Or are those of us who have had crashes (myself included) just unwilling to admit that we had other options? ET

If Only …

April 9, 2011

Don’t you sometimes wish you had the job at your State/County Department of Transportation which gave you total responsibility over every road sign posted?

Now before you go off on all the wimpy way-too-slow-for-my-fun-factor conservative speed limits which spoil your day while generating local revenue via Good Driving Awards (aka citations) , let’s agree to move on to something a little less obvious: the posting of warning signs which go beyond the obvious. My home state has plenty of cases where, in addition to the bright yellow double lines painted down the center of the road, there are also additional “No Passing Zone” signs posted, making us wonder (hope?) if in the signs’ absence it might be OK to sneak in just a little pass. (Wrong!)

We’ve all seen somewhat redundant “RR Crossing” signs posted where there are black and white crossing gates, flashing lights, elevated railroad tracks, and several other indicators we’re approaching a live railroad crossing. I’ve recently noticed in an adjacent county there are several “Hill Blocks View” and “Curve Hides View” yellow signs posted just before a blind hillcrest or blind curve…when in actuality any driver who still has a pulse should recognize that he can’t see over the next hill with no need of a sign to point it out. And – often as not – the very next blind curve has no such warning. Go figure.

But let’s move beyond the superfluous, and look at some instances in which some additional or more enlightened signage would actually be of benefit.









The above example was so rare I stopped and went back for a photo. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the highway department appeared to recognize the danger inherent in decreasing radius curves, which spiral in like a chambered nautilus and suck you in at a speed way faster than you can eventually negotiate? It’s not like some engineer who designed or supervised building of the road wasn’t aware the curve tightened up. I suspect the failure occurs at the cubicle level, where generic signs are purchased by the gross, but then I’ve grown a tad cynical.

So, how’s this for an idea for a little fun? Send us your best examples of the most redundant/least useful signs you’ve seen, and also share with us any glimmers of brilliance where the sign goes above and beyond the call of duty.

Or is just plain silly, (such as the following example). PT

The Roads Less Traveled

April 2, 2011

Finding peace on the road less traveled

A few years ago I headed out on my brand new BMW K1200LT (some folks argue that “LT” stands for “Light Truck”) on a ride through the twisties of West Virginia. I was riding two up and enjoying a particularly fun roller coaster section when I saw up ahead that the pavement was about to switch to hard-pack dirt. With 900lbs of motorcycle plus a passenger, I forged ahead. Probably because the road became narrower and the prospect of turning that behemoth around was even more intimidating at that moment in time. The first mile or so the dirt was a bit intimidating on this new machine. But, as I rode the next 17 miles, I was surprised to find that I had become increasingly comfortable, even as the road wound its way up and through the mountains. And dare I say that I was actually enjoying the adventure.


When the pavement ends … does your confidence end there too? Many riders who are perfectly comfortable on a variety of paved road conditions become unglued when faced with negotiating unpaved surfaces. In fact, there are those who go to any length to avoid a gravel or hard-packed dirt road if they can. But is there a real reason to be uneasy on “unpavement” or is it just a matter of being unfamiliar? Could riders be missing out on some great riding just because they are reluctant to let the tires touch dirt? Granted, a bike does move around a lot more under the rider on unpaved surfaces and that can be unnerving for those unaccustomed to so much feedback. But does that mean we can never become comfortable with dirt roads–or even seek them out for enjoyment?

In most instances, there is significantly more traction available on hard-pack than a rider might expect. The key things to remember when riding on “unpavement” are to keep eyes up and looking well ahead (instinct pulls the eyes down to the unfamiliar road surface), maintain a light touch on the handlebars and consciously steer the motorcycle with the feet and knees. On curves, let the motorcycle lean beneath instead of leaning with it as is the practice on hard pavement. When slowing, apply brakes smoothly to allow the tires to find traction. And even if they slip a little, simply release them and let the tires regain grip. But the best way to get comfortable riding on loose surfaces is to spend some time on them. The uptight rider can let out a big sigh, ease out the clutch and proceed at a conservative pace. After just a few miles it’s almost inevitable that the rider will become more comfortable with the bike moving around beneath him. Then, by practicing slowing and accelerating on straight sections the rider will get a feel for traction and how the bike responds and gain a level of confidence.

When I think back on that dirt stretch on the LT, I’m so glad that I opted to continue on when the pavement ended. My passenger and I saw some spectacular views as the dirt road wound up to the top of a mountain ridge, revealing a spectacular panorama of the Appalachians–a view we would never have seen otherwise.

When the pavement ends think twice about turning around. There’s a whole world to be discovered on the road less-traveled.

From 18 Wheels to 2 Wheels

April 2, 2011

Valuable learning can come from a variety of sources, including driver training programs designed for vehicles nine times the number of wheels we are accustomed to. Tom Balaz, an active motorcyclist and commercial truck driver (and a former Class 8 commercial tractor trailer Driving Instructor), shared some valuable tips from a one day course developed for the trucking industry. So here are The Smith System’s Five Keys for Space Cushion Driving, which can also be applied to motorcycle riding:

1. Aim High in Steering – Avoid Collisions by seeing, evaluating, and acting upon all information available. As an example, look at least 15-30 seconds into your future, so you can evaluate what may happen before you get there.

2. Get the Big Picture – Fewer mistakes are made when you have the complete traffic picture. Obtain as much information about other traffic as you can. You may be able to identify distracted, or impaired drivers before they cause you problems. Having this information gives you more time to plan an escape route, should that be necessary.

3. Keep Your Eyes Moving – Proper scanning techniques separate safe drivers from people who make costly errors. Check mirrors every 7-12 seconds (we recommend every 4-5 seconds for motorcyclists. ET). This is important for commercial vehicle drivers as these vehicles have large blind spots. It also aids in information gathering.

4. Leave Yourself an Out – All that separates drivers from a collision is space. Use it to your advantage. Try keeping the front and one side of your vehicle open. The more space you can create, the more relaxed your drive/ride will be. When in traffic, others will always try to take your space, but that doesn’t mean stop trying to find it. There’s much more space available than you might think.

5. Make Sure They See You – Seek eye contact and use your warning devices at the same time. Trying to obtain eye contact allows each driver/rider to become aware of the other, which is often enough to prevent collisions. Always use your headlights at all times. People are naturally drawn to lights. This won’t always keep them from entering your path, but that is no reason to not use them. Lastly, you want your family and friends to see you at the end of your ride.

How well do you feel these tips apply to motorcycling? Are there any special considerations we should have when interacting with large trucks? Thanks Tom for sharing this with us. ET

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

April 25, 2010

On any given ride, we are presented with countless signs along the way that were strategically placed to guide us and warn of potentially dangerous situations. But how much attention do we pay them? From what I’ve observed over the years, riders often fail to heed all but the most intrusive warning signs posted along the roadway. Are they choosing to ignore the warnings? Are they seeing them as merely conservative suggestions? Or are they simply not seeing them at all? I’m thinking it’s more a matter of volume. With so many signs out there screaming to us in bright yellow,  it’s easy for us to become somewhat desensitized to them. Especially when so many of them don’t seem to require any specific or dramatic response. So how can we make certain we don’t miss critical messages? Are there certain road signs that suggest more of a threat to riders than others? I suggest that there are.

Right curve with intersecting road to the left


For starters, consider the two common signs shown here. Each represents a routine curve to either the left or right. And each indicates there is a junction with a side road at some point mid-corner. Although neither sign appears to suggest a higher level of priority over the other, one does present a particularly increased threat for the rider. Granted, any intersecting road deserves our undivided attention, but the curve with a junction to the right is of particularly great importance, especially on a blind curve. There is an increased risk of left-turning vehicles who will cross our path of travel as we execute the turn. And, as we all know, traffic crossing our lane is the leading cause of multi-vehicle crashes. By making this sign — the left bend with a junction to the right — a high priority, we can make a more conscious point to be on the lookout for it, and then take precautionary action to avoid a conflict.

Approaching a blind curve with a side road to the right

The photograph above shows a rider who is staying to the outside of the curve, thereby increasing his line of sight and giving himself the most advanced visual warning of turning cars possible. He slows as he approaches, leaving enough space to stop completely within the distance he can see ahead should he need to. He’s far enough behind the car ahead to avoid being hidden from oncoming traffic, yet not so far back as to invite an oncoming driver to turn between him and the car ahead. In addition to scoping out a potential left-turning car, he also scans to the right in anticipation of a vehicle waiting at the intersecting side road and any other vehicle lurking beside it that may be waiting to turn right onto our lane but is  “eclipsed” (hidden by the first vehicle).

These are just two of the many signs we encounter. What other signs do you consider to be highest priority for motorcyclists?

Riding in the Future

December 2, 2009

One of the most common questions we hear from our Stayin’ Safe rider students is, “just how far ahead am I supposed to be looking?” My response? “Far enough to be able to predict the future.” In other words, we really like to get our eyes up and looking well ahead. In effect, we want to get beyond riding in the present and project ourselves into the future. You see, so often we look just far enough ahead to get information about the next curve or the next hillcrest. And while that’s great, we are often missing out on some very helpful information that’s available if we just get ourselves to broaden our view. Take these images for instance.

Looking ahead, we see the road crests a slight hill.

In the first photo (above), the camera shows us the view we often have as we ride along. We can see the road ahead until it disappears at the slight hill crest. And while this is a good place for us to focus most of our attention, we may be missing opportunities to see a bit farther into the future. Such as in the second image found below.

But when we widen our view, we can see into the future!

Here, just by widening our view and turning our head a bit to look across the fields, we have a good bit of information available to us. From where we are at this moment, we can see at least 20 seconds into the future. And even from our distant vantage point, we can see that the road dips to the right, rises to another hill crest near a house on the left, and then drops to what appears to be an intersection surrounded by several houses before the road rises again. We can predict then that there may be crossing traffic from side roads over that second hill. And we can begin to formulate a loose plan, just in case. But if we miss this opportunity to take in the big picture, this sneak preview will quickly disappear as we crest the rise immediately ahead. As a result, we will be limited to riding in the present. Or at least the very near future. And, while we do need to keep our primary attention on the section of roadway we can see directly in front of us (we surely wouldn’t want ot ride off into that field to the right as a result of fixing our attention on the distant houses), it’s important to recognize that a glance farther ahead or across a valley may just give us a glimpse into the future. So, on your next ride, try to become more aware of just how much information is available to you when you widen your view. And see how well you can begin riding in and predicting the future.  ET

Simple Intersection. Complex threats?

November 26, 2009
Compound risks

How many potential threats do you see?

I took this shot recently while on a ride. Although there are no visible vehicles, what in this scene is of concern to us as a rider with this vantage point? What do we need to consider? Where is our greatest threat? What, if anything, should we do as we approach? Post your comments and we’ll see how many potential threats we can identify in this one seemingly simple intersection.

All It’s Cracked Up to Be

November 26, 2009

Road surface irregularities impact lane position choice

Nothing takes away the joy of riding a favorite stretch of road like a few poorly-placed surface hazards.  Instead of looking farther up the road and carving a nice, clean arc, our eyes are drawn down to the surface and our cornering line becomes nothing but a series of corrections to avoid surface issues. Like the big, man-made pavement cracks visible in the photo to the left. So what do we do?

Instinct tells us to do all we can to keep our tires from touching the cracks for fear that something bad might happen (“step on a crack/break your mother’s back” flashbacks perhaps?). But is that always the right answer? Would side-stepping that road irregularity successfully keep our tire firmly planted but simultaneously place us dangerously close to oncoming vehicles — especially on a curve? No doubt, there’s going to be a compromise of some sort, but what should it be?

The general rule of thumb we practice in the Stayin’ Safe program (borrowed from our friends in the UK) is to determine lane placement based on the following priorities: First and foremost, “Safety” rules. Provided the desired lane position is the safest option, the second priority is “Stability” — do we have sufficient traction and can we maintain control? Provided that the first two priorities are met, we can pick a lane position that enhances “Sight” (or Vision in the UK). In other words, does our lane position enhance our ability to see and/or be seen.

Rider avoids pavement grooves

Has this rider made the best choice?

So, in the case of our road cracks and based on the pictures here, the first priority is to remain in a safe position. Then, it would pay to determine if the surface irregularity really is likely to be anything more than an unpleasant riding condition. For example, these cracks are most likely more disconcerting than disabling when ridden across — but be sure to recognize that wider, deeper cracks or sudden steep changes in road surface height can be dangerous.  Looking at the picture with the motorcycle, has this rider picked the best lane position based on our established priorities?

Separation Anxiety — Your Ideas?

July 31, 2009

Rider September 2009

In the September issue of Rider magazine, my Riding Well column’s focus is on being prepared for when things go wrong. This was written following a ride my son had taken back to college when the KLR 650 he was riding suddenly gave up the ghost. As the sun set and his cell phone battery did as well, he was stranded in the growing darkness, out of touch with civilization. The gory details are in the column, but following this event he and I drew up this list:

Eight things we can do to simplify an unexpected situation:

1.    Have a working cell phone with a fully-charged battery. Bring a wall charger for use at a restaurant, gas station or motel if necessary. Having a small emergency power source for your phone is a plus. Plus, a SPOT satellite tracker enables contact even where cell phone reception is non-existent and even lets you call for help, pinpointing your exact location.

2.    Even if you choose not to wear bright colored clothing when you ride, take a high-visibility article with you. A bright, retro-reflective vest will show brilliantly both day and night and is easy to pack.

3.    Carry a small flashlight or “head” lamp with you at all times. It can be used for working on the bike and can be helpful in attracting attention at night.

4.    Bring your owner’s manual. Read it prior to taking off to improve your familiarity with the machine beyond basic controls. A workshop manual is even better.

5.    Know where your tool kit is located and how to perform basic functions like side panel and seat removal. The time to learn how to get to the battery or fuse block isn’t in the dark.

6.    If something on the bike is acting up when at a stop, don’t press your luck by pressing on. It’s better to lose some time getting things worked out than to be stranded in the middle of nowhere. Just ask Parker.

7.    Make certain someone knows the route you’ll be taking and when you’ll be traveling. Make a point to check in by phone at various stops. When Parker and I took a cross-country trip last summer, we used text messages on Twitter to keep friends and family posted on our progress. It’s simple and also captures a record of your travels.

8.    Join AMA and get free roadside assistance ( The $39 annual fee more than pays for itself with a single tow. I could have paid dues for nearly seven years with the KLR’s $267 tow charge.

Since this column was published, the feedback from readers has been extremely high, each with valuable additional suggestions. I’ll post some of those as well but please provide your suggestions here as well. ET