Archive for January, 2009

Staggering Considerations

January 27, 2009

To stagger or not to stagger. That is the question most frequently posed by participants in our Stayin’ Safe advanced rider training program (www.stayinsafe.com).

These riders take advantage of their full lane and "ride their own ride" on rural roads

These riders take advantage of their full lane and "ride their own ride" on rural roads

While riding in a staggered formation may have certain advantages such as increasing visibility of the group, compressing the length of the formation, and discouraging other drivers from weaving in and out of the group, I believe the practice should be limited to multi-lane, divided highways. And even then, it should only be a “loose” formation in which it is understood that each rider can take full advantage of the width of his lane as necessary to avoid objects on the road, create space or increase visibility. On a divided multi-lane highway, the bulk of the group is less of an issue for drivers desiring to pass — they simply select another lane in which they can pass. And, being a divided highway, the group of riders has less worry of left-turning vehicles. On two lane roads however, I just don’t see how staggered riding provides more safety for riders on straight sections of roadway (staggered riding should never be used on twisting sections of tarmac. The trade offs are too significant over any benefit. With regular opportunities for oncoming vehicles to turn left, vehicles to enter the roadway from either side, animals to waddle out from the shoulder and potholes, gravel, or other debris to be in a rider’s path, I simply don’t see the advantage of any rider being locked into a particular position within his or her lane. Can he move if he has to when the car backs out of a driveway? Will there be another bike in his way following just off his rear tire when he needs to dodge a pothole or create space from a turning vehicle?

Will this rider have the freedom to shift to the right to create space ... or be locked into his lane position?

Will this rider have the freedom to shift to the right to create space ... or be locked into his lane position?

In a “proper” staggered riding formation, even if riders are following in an MSF-specified 2-second following distance from the rider directly ahead in the formation but only 1-second behind the rider immediately ahead to the right or left,  if one moves from his position to avoid an object, he instantly cuts in half the following distance of the rider behind him. Even from a legal standpoint, the courts have consistenly ruled that the following rider is responsible for any crash in which the rider rear ends another — even if the rider ahead was “supposed to” stay in his portion of the lane while riders adopted a staggered riding formation and even if everyone was following their MSF-recommended staggered riding guidelines. By law, each motorcyclist is entitled to the full use of his lane from center line to fog line. And every rider is obligated to follow at a distance that allows him or her to avoid a collision with the vehicle ahead. I know because I just served on a case that addressed this very issue.

Instead, why not allow each rider in the group to ride his own ride? To follow at a minimum of two seconds behind the rider or vehicle ahead and have full use of his or her lane to increase line of sight, create a safety cushion from oncoming vehicles or from those waiting to enter the roadway, or to avoid obstacles. Other than looking good and keeping everyone together in a tight, neat package, I simply can’t see the advantages or benefits of riding in a staggered riding formation.

ET

The Way I See It.

January 20, 2009

The way I see things may be a bit different than a lot of other riders. And no, I don’t mean that I necessarily take a different stand on issues. But I do take a different line than many when it comes to executing a turn. Many riders adopt a “racer’s line” — outside, inside, outside — approach to cornering. That’s great if one can see, but more often than not the roads we travel are lined with trees, building, embankments and other vision-robbing hard things that limit our abilty to see around a corner. So I, along with the rest of the gang teaching the Stayin’ Safe advanced rider training course ( http://www.stayinsafe.com ) opt first for the line that gives us the best view through the turn and therefore the earliest indication of relevant activity ahead or notice that the road may take an otherwise unexpected twist. The way we do that is to select a position within our lane that gives us the best line of site through the turn. Can choosing to place the motorcycle in the right wheel track versus the left one when entering a left-hand bend really make a difference? Absolutely.

View through curve from LEFT wheel track

View through curve from LEFT wheel track

View through curve from RIGHT wheel track

View through curve from RIGHT wheel track

Just take a look at the two photos. These shots were taken from exactly the same point on the roadway entering the same curve. The only difference is that one was taken while standing in the left wheel track and the other was taken from the right wheel track. The photos speak for themselves. Would you rather crank through that turn at speed through the inside of the curve and discover the oncoming traffic (are they turning left? Are they breaching my lane? Are there others coming from that church parking lot to the left? Is that gravel ahead?) or maintain an outside line until it’s clear where and when it is safe and appropriate to turn in? Save the racing line for when you can see. Better yet, save it for the race track. The visual line is the way to go on the street.

ET

Linked to the Past?

January 20, 2009
Pete coaches a student in Stayin' Safe braking exercise

Pete coaches a student in Stayin' Safe braking exercise

The 1980 Hurt report suggested that in many frontal crashes the motorcycle operator failed to operate his brakes effectively.  Effectively?

OK, we weren’t there in each instance, but let’s presume a significant number of those folk weren’t highly skilled roadracers who could apply full force braking — right up to the point of lock-up — each and every time.  One might conclude that perhaps, given the wide mix of riders’ abilities, a few of these panic-stricken riders only employed one of their two brakes with any force at all, leaving the other set of pucks sleeping in their calipers; maybe sometimes someone only stomped the rear brake pedal, or hastily grabbed the front brake alone, rather than using them effectively in unison?

The motorcycle industry apparently was aware of this problem early on.  Since when — late 70’s? — we’ve been seeing different iterations of linked braking systems.  Several variations emerged; however, the basic idea was to present a system which operated some of one wheel’s braking force when the brake was applied to the opposite component.

This was industry’s attempt at compensating for rider error; if you didn’t activate both brakes, the system would do it for you, thus saving a few of the hides which were data entries in the Hurt report.  It sounded like a great idea to help the less skilled or attentive riders.  I’m sure the manufacturers’ attorneys and a few safetycrats endorsed the concept.

I would have.

Until a rode a few of these various examples.  I recall testing a large touring bike of the late 80’s.  It didn’t have front brakes for squat…  until you applied the rear pedal, as well, and then it would stop pretty well.  But not with the front alone, no way.  I recall not particularly liking the feel, but accepted it as a quirk a rider would become accustomed to.

Other bikes came along which had the front caliper rather strongly linked to the rear brake pedal.  The result was that you did not dare use the rear brake in a low speed turn; doing so would pitch the bike over on its low side, leaving you the rider wondering what happened.  I consider that a flaw which does not work with my personal riding style.  I depend on the rear brake to fine tune my control of the bike at low speed, especially when I’m turning the bike.  Also, on unpaved surfaces, I insist on having precise and separate brake control for each wheel, as locking the front or the rear on gravel is an occurrence which I prefer to modulate separately.  Anyone else have this problem?

I’m not an expert on 2008-9 models and their systems but I’ve been told most have engineered around this problem by either seriously reducing the transfer to the front from the rear brake pedal, or linkling the brakes in only one direction — from the front brake lever to the rear piston(s).

Experienced riders, especially experienced (ahem) male riders, often make blanket assertions they can manually out brake the newest hi-tech stuff, be it linked or ABS versions.  I prefer to try to keep an open mind, assessing each option on each bike in which I might have a personal interest.  There’s always at least two sides to the question, involving my vigilance (am I always 100%?) and my skillset (again, am I always 100%?), and then there’s the third side of greater complexity bringing perhaps a higher risk of component failure.

It’s hard to beat a rock for basic simplicity…but it’s a pretty limited tool.

PT

ABS – Atrophied Braking Skills?

January 16, 2009

I just heard from a rider who told me of a near death experience he recently had (well, it may not have been quite that bad but understandably it felt like near death to him). After years of riding a BMW equipped with ABS brakes he decided to add another bike to his stable for a little variety. He purchased a Suzuki V-Strom and was delighted to bring it home. What he hadn’t anticipated was the heart-stopping experience he had when he went for his first ride. While he instantly loved the bike, he was blindsided when he discovered that the non-ABS bike did not respond well to his braking inputs when rapid slowing was called for. For the past few years he had simply adopted a “mash on the brakes” approach knowing that his BMW’s ABS would take care of the rest. He claims to have nearly high sided on the V-Strom. I’ve heard from a number of folks who have said that they like the fact that they can just mash/squeeze as hard as they can on their ABS-equipped bikes without worry. But, as this individual makes clear, does that form a bad habit? Does the reliance on the technology reduce our need and desire to practice braking skills? Does it allow our skills to atrophy? I also suspect that ABS gives us a false sense of security that may even encourage us to ride faster than conditions call for. Granted, ABS technology has certainly saved lives. But does it also raise additional risk when we move from motorcycle to motorcycle or when systems fail? I fear that we as motorcyclists, as a result of the very technology that was designed to save our necks, are losing our ability to demonstrate even the most basic braking skills because we no longer feel we need to rely on them. Even airline pilots are taught how to fly planes when sophisticated technologies are disabled “just in case.”

ET

Those Who Have Crashed and Those Who, Well …

January 12, 2009

I was at a party recently and someone happened to mention that I’m a motorcycle safety guy. That pretty much triggered a series of testimonials by a number of folks conveying how they or someone they knew had to “lay it down” when some idiot cager pulled in front of them. As each told his unique story, the common theme was, “there was nothing I could do.” To prove it, the riders who told me firsthand showed me their scars. The folks telling of their husband/son/brother/cousin/neighbor went into gory detail about injuries and hospital stays, somehow believing that information was critical for me to know. I’ve experienced this scenario many times and each time I bite my tongue to keep from being rude or to in any way downplay their experiences with my contrasting take on things. The truth is, more than 90% of motorcycle crashes can be avoided. Contrary to popular belief, our destiny is not strictly in the hands of other drivers on the road nor are we just living right or “lucky” to have avoided crashing up to this point. It’s been said that there are two kinds of riders: those who have crashed and those who will. Well, I would argue that any time we reach the point of “there’s nothing I could do” and end up in an inevitable crash it is only because we have failed to effectively recognize a developing situation (or the potential of one) early and establish our response before it is too late to do anything about it. Examine any crash you have seen, heard of or experienced and I would challenge that nearly every instance could likely have been avoided, regardless of whom may have been  found at fault.

ET

Operational Interrupt

January 11, 2009

So we’re at the hotel on Morning Two of a training tour, throwing stuff on the bikes and preparing to hit the best secret (ok; some not-so-secret) roads of Western NC, when one of the bikes — a new BMW — shows signs of a weak battery as the student grinds the starter with no positive results.

“You better quit cranking it before the computer pulls your plug!” the other student (similarly mounted) offered.

Huh?  “…computer pulls the plug?”  What’s this about?

The explanation was that when the electronic management system senses a battery no longer has enough juice to start the bike, it shuts everything down.  Once that happens, it’s irreversible, and the bike must be trailered to a dealer to have the system re-set.   ….and presumably the battery re-charged.  Or do BMW riders just throw away a low battery and replace it?

Fortunately, in the case above, the rider laid off the starter of the failing bike and I got out my BMW Emergency Kit (jumper cables), fixing the problem the old-fashioned way.  It would have been an ugly start to the day if we had had to go off in search of a dealer and truck/trailer to solve an otherwise dirt-simple problem.

Reflecting on the logic of this “improvement” in motorcycliing engineering, I was remionded of the power-assisted brakes on an ’05 R1200GS I once rode.  If I stopped and shut off the engine, say to refuel, when I re-cranked and was ready to roll, the brakes did not regain their power assist until I had reached sufficient speed to re-set the ABS.  Consequently, if I had to make a sudden stop pulling out of the gas station, perhaps for traffic, the brakes were wooden in feel, and took an unreal amount of lever force to operate.  No brakes when you’re counting on them?  That ain’t good!

Is this a forbear of Motorcycling’s Future?  I sure hope not.

PT

The “S” Word

January 4, 2009

I really never liked the word. You know … the “S” word: “Safe.” When I was first exposed to rider training, I had fears that with every step I took to become a “safe” rider, a proportionate amount of fun would be sapped from the riding experience. I equated “safe” with words such as “slow” and “dull” and “wimpy.” But does safety have to equate to “dull?” I never set out to be a “safe” rider as my primary objective. My intention has always been to be a better, more proficient, and more strategic street rider. Along the way to developing those skills, I found that I became a significantly safer rider in the process. And the best part is that I was still able to enjoy a spirited pace through the mountain twisties I enjoy so much. In fact, I was enjoying brisk riding even more because I was having fewer “Oh s**t!” moments thanks to adopting smarter street strategies. Could it be that safety might possibly be fun? That reducing risk can actually enhance riding enjoyment? Is the “S” word just in need of a good public relations campaign? After some consideration, I’m beginning to think that just might be a safe assumption.

ET