Curve With a Curve Ball

June 18, 2009
Is there a left-turning car behind those trees?

Is there a left-turning car behind those trees?

Sometimes life can throw us a curve. As motorcyclists, we tend to like that. After all, curves are fun, right? But what about when a curve — especially one that seems relatively routine — throws us a curve of its own? I’m talking about the left hand bend that has a side road or driveway to the right. While we can often see if a vehicle is situated on that side road as we approach, we are often unable to see around the bend for any potential threat. What are we looking for? What should we expect? A fun curve like the one shown can be a real drag when an oncoming vehicle decides to turn left across our lane onto that tertiary road as we maintain speed. So what can we do? First, we need to recognize that a side road on a left hand bend can be one of the most dangerous situations we encounter on back roads. Become aware of side roads and adjust your speed downward, no matter how much that curve is beckoning your throttle. By moving to the right side of your lane you’ll see any oncoming vehicles sooner, giving you more time and more space to work with should that driver opt to turn in front of you. The number one scenario for motorcycle crashes involving another vehicle is a left turning car crossing the rider’s path. The risks go up on blind left curves with a side road to the right. The only safe play when a curve throws you this curve ball is to create sufficient time and space. Note the skid marks on the road in the photo that are the likely result of drivers being surprised by a left-turning car.

ET

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How to Avoid a Spill

June 18, 2009

This past weekend I was working a private training session with a great group of guys from New Jersey. At one of our breaks we were discussing the value of keeping our eyes up while riding. In addition to improving a rider’s ability to see more of what might be developing up ahead, it is also one of the best tools to establish overall stability and smoothness. Ever see a rider wobbling about at low speed in a parking lot or struggling to turn smoothly from a stop? Chances are, he or she is looking just a few feet in front of the motorcycle and down toward the road surface. Probably due to fear of dumping the bike. The result is choppy and awkward riding and potentially a low speed spill … exactly what the rider was trying so hard to avoid. Conversely, when a rider gets his eyes up and looks to a distant point where he will ultimately place the motorcycle, the bike tracks smoothly and neatly with little drama. Not buying it? As Tom — one of the guys in the training session –suggested, it’s a lot like carrying a cup of coffee.

The Coffee Method: Look up to avoid spillage!

The Coffee Method: Look up to avoid spillage!

He’s absolutely right. Try filling a cup with coffee to just below the brim. Then attempt to walk across the floor without spilling any. Human nature makes you want to look down at the cup as you walk.  You know, to be absolutely certain you don’t spill any of the liquid onto the carpet. Unfortunately, when you do that and concentrate so hard on what is immediately in front of you, you’re likely to leave a nice long trail of java across the carpet. On the other hand, if you can force yourself to peer all the way across the room as you walk, with your eyes fixed on your destination, you will walk more smoothly, the cup will stay steady and, most likely, you won’t spill so much as a drop — even if you climb the stairs. The very same technique works for riding — especially at low speeds. So, next time you face a situation when you’re concerned about spilling your bike, consider having a cup of coffee before you pull away. Figuratively speaking of course.

ET

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.”

ET

Over the Hill

March 12, 2009
Note the tertiary road to the right at the crest of the hill. What should you do?

Note the tertiary road to the right at the crest of the hill. What should you do?

Here’s the scene. You’re approaching a rise in the road. Being the astute type, you notice the side road on your right just at the crest of the hill. So … what are your expectations? Is there any potential threat? What steps do you take as you get closer?

Now, just as you get close, this becomes the scene. Now what would you expect? What should you do as this car approaches and slows? Would you adjust speed? Lane position? What about what’s behind you?

The plot thickens as this car appears and slows. Now what?

The plot thickens as this car appears and slows. Now what?

As riders, we have three primary tactics we can utilize. We can adjust speed, adjust position and communicate. Think about how you might create more time and space as you enter this situation. Slowing creates time and space. Shifting to the right 1/3 portion of the lane creates an additional space cushion. Communication is okay, but remember that it can be misinterpreted (does a headlight flash mean “don’t go” or does it mean “go ahead”?) or ignored altogether.

We also must retain a full 360-degree awareness of the riding environment. Consider any vehicles behind you early while you still have time to check mirrors. You’ve recognized the potential of the turning car, but has the driver or rider behind you picked up on it? Will they slow in time if you have to stop quickly? Recognizing potential threats early gives you time to adjust calmly and provides sufficient opportunity to manage traffic behind you.  You’ve probably experienced this riding scenario dozens and dozens of times before. What would you do?

This is just one of the common scenarios we address in the Stayin’ Safe on-street training program. For more information, visit http://www.stayinsafe.com

ET

“Do As I Say Not As I Do?” What Do We Tell Our Kids?

March 12, 2009

I’ve been a lifelong motorcyclist. I’ve ridden hundreds of thousands of trouble-free miles. Unfortunately, I’ve also ridden a few dozen more that weren’t so trouble free. In addition to all of the great times I’ve had on two wheels, I’ve had a handful of occasions — especially in the early years — when I learned a few lessons the hard way and periodically placed myself directly off of two wheels and onto my arse.

Parker takes the MSF course

Parker takes the MSF course

So, when my son grew old enough to pilot a bike on the street by himself, I found myself feeling surprisingly conflicted. I was thrilled that he shared my passion. I thought of rides we could take together and how much fun it would be to head off on our own bikes. At the same time I found myself experiencing unexpected anxiety-filled moments when reality settled in. He would now be subjected to all of the threats out there in real-world riding that I have spent years learning to overcome. Having him as my passenger was one thing. Seeing him flying solo was different.

Parker gets on-street training

Parker gets on-street training

Was I encouraging Parker to participate in something that would put him in danger? The fact is, I recognized that he was destined to ride at some point and there would come a time when I would have no say in that. He might do what I did and buy a motorcycle when away at college and use that time to teach himself how to ride on the street. By accepting that, I was then able to concentrate on giving him the best headstart I could. Instead of fighting him on it, I focused energies on making sure he got all of the training he could get while still under my watchful eye. I made it easy for him to participate in a variety of training experiences, from the MSF Basic Rider Course to low speed parking drills to backroad jaunts and supervised rides through urban and suburban traffic. And, after he had a couple thousand miles under his belt, Parker participated in one of our Stayin’ Safe on-street rider training programs (a great way for parents and kids to improve skills together, by the way). My goal was to give him the ultimate year of training before

Dad and son make it to California as part of the "ultimate training tour"

Dad and son make it to California as part of the "ultimate training tour"

he headed off for school so, to the dismay of his mother, we set off on a 7200 mile cross country adventure that would expose him to virtually every riding environment imaginable. Today Parker is off at school and on his own where he rides a motorcycle regularly.

Parker ready to head off to college on his own

Parker ready to head off to college on his own

Was my approach a responsible move as a parent or should I have made more of an effort to discourage him fromriding a motorcycle until he was out of college? Should I have tried to keep him from riding at all or would I have been a hypocrit to say “do as I say and not as I do?” If our kids are destined to ride, what is our role and responsibility as riding parents? What can we do to assure they ride as safely and responsibly as possible? In my view, we need to do everything we can to give them the best training possible while we have them in our grasp.

ET

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 (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