Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


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?

One Man’s Junk is Another Man’s Hazard

March 20, 2009

I’m always amazed by what some people manage to pile into and onto the back of their trucks, open utility trailers or in the trunks of their cars — and how feeble their attempts are to secure it all in place. Many times I think they rely completely on a length of twine, gravity and the power of positive thinking to keep their goods from scattering all over the roadway. This becomes particularly important to us folks on two wheels. Having a loose trash can fly out of the back of a pickup truck and skim across the hood of one’s car is an annoyance. Getting hit by one while riding a bike can be deadly. overloaded-truckJust think what a vintage flathead V-8 engine such as the one seen in the photograph. I took this shot while riding in Georgia last year on my way to work with Pete Tamblyn on a Stayin’ Safe Smokies tour. Take a close look at this truck and all of the heavy guage anti-motorcycle “artillery” that this fellow is carrying — undoubtedly on his way to the scrap yard to cash in. If you look carefully, you’ll see that there are just a couple wire cables holding all of that heavy metal in place — and the only thing keeping that old V-8 engine from falling off the back is that the guy snagged one of the head bolts with the cable. That’s it! That’s all that’s keeping that thing from becoming a cast iron tumbleweed rolling directly into the path of an unsuspecting motorist.

A few years ago I was riding out west on one of LA’s freeways and found myself following an overloaded pickup truck filled with construction refuse. Suddenly a length of metal banding strap flew off the back of the truck and sailed at my head. I ducked as the metal band skimmed across the top of my helmet (had I remained sitting up it very well could have sliced my throat). When I pulled off the highway and removed my helmet, I found a deep gash in the top of my helmet that would otherwise had been my scalp had I not been wearing a helmet. That was the moment when I decided I would never ride without one on the street again. Anyway, what could I have done to avoid this situation? I think I could have benefitted by maintaining a bit more following distance when following a loaded vehicle, even if it meant that another vehicle could have slipped into the space in front of me. I also would have been better served to simply get as far away from that vehicle altogether — preferably ahead of it considering that any vehicle following may suddenly swerve or slam on brakes as a reaction to something falling into their path. I wouldn’t want to get caught up in that.

Maybe everyone who carries crap loosely in or on their vehicles should have to post a placard on their vehicles like the big trucks do when they carry something particularly dangerous. The sign should read “Hazardous Material … Especially for Motorcyclists.”


Read Any Good Roads Lately?

February 23, 2009

It’s always interesting to see how many riders maintain a steady travel speed on rural roadways. The throttle is set to at or near the posted speed limit and away they go, stubbornly holding the speedometer needle to a fixed position only giving in at the last possible moment when something threatening calls their bluff. Perhaps we can get away with that kind of riding for the most part, but think about the possibilities. Not surprisingly, many riders tell me that they have numerous “oh s**t!” moments as they ride when blind curves get blinder or when a turning car or a stopped mail truck appears immediately over the crest of a hill. With no time or space to work with, riders are periodically left with no reaction time let alone enough opportunity to actually slow or maneuver out of harm’s way. So, does that mean we should just give up our need for speed and just ride sedately below the posted speed limit? Should we give up the thrill of cornering in the name of safety? No way. But what else can we do? Perhaps the best place to start is with a bit of speed reading. Every road can be read and each has much to tell the rider if he’ll just pay attention. By reading and comprehending visual distance, we can easily set an appropriate travel speed based on how far we can see. Look at the pictures below — all taken on the same stretch of road — and notice how the site distance diminishes as the rider approaches the hillcrest.

At 45mph, approximately 6-7 second visual lead

At 45mph, approximately 6-7 second visual lead

At 45mph, visual lead reduced to 4 seconds

At 45mph, visual lead reduced to 4 seconds

At constant 45mph, visual lead now only 2 seconds

At constant 45mph, visual lead now only 2 seconds

Is there something just over the rise? It becomes clear that maintaining a constant speed is not a viable or safe option. The astute rider will adjust his or her speed downward, almost as if the throttle was directly connected to sight distance. Ask yourself if you can stop your motorcycle within the distance you can view. The same holds true for curves.

How far can you see? The exit just begins to reveal itself.

How far can you see? The exit begins to reveal itself; add throttle.

The visual lead runs away; roll on!

The visual lead runs away; drive out with the throttle (but be sure to read what's coming up next!).

By reading the curve’s characteristics as one approaches — and being unable to skip ahead to see how the story ends — the rider can set an appropriate entry speed based strictly on what he is able to see. Then, as the scene begins to unfold and the rider can see further ahead, the throttle can be exploited and the fun of cornering can begin. Just remember to read the next chapter as you exit, adjusting speed as appropriate for the next turn, hill or intersection. As Pete often says, “ride only as fast as you can see.”

Ride on … “read” on … right on!

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 (

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.


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 ( ) 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.