Archive for the ‘Safer Riding Through Technology’ Category

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.



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.”


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.