It’s no secret that left hand turning vehicles are a significant hazard. And because we know this, we are presumably on high alert when approaching intersections.
But, don’t get that prudence confused with fear. Riding afraid can cause its own problems and makes riding no fun at all.
You can’t control what the other guy does, but you can utilize specific strategies for minimizing the risk of being hit.
1. Ride at speeds that others around you expect.
2. Give yourself more time and space to respond by approaching intersections at conservative speeds. Speeding into intersections is a bad idea. Avoid trying to “make the light” (guilty).
3. Cover your brakes to reduce reaction time and to put you mind and muscles on “high alert”.
4. Be conspicuous. I’m all for high viz, but even more important is selecting the optimum lane position so others can see you. Always be aware of line of sight! Studies show that high beams on during the day can be helpful. Do not flash your lights…it’s too easily mis-communicated. Avoid “hiding” behind vehicles ahead…don’t tailgate.
5. Move across your lane to become more noticed and visible. This is the SMIDSY concept. You don’t have to weave as some advocate. A move across the driver’s field of view is sufficient so you visually break yourself away from the static background.
6. Know the clues. Drivers often have a “tell” that they are about to go…a turn of the head or a steering wheel movement should have you already going for the brakes (don’t overreact though). Look for wheel movement on cars approaching from the side.
7. Make sure your emergency braking skills are as close to 100% as possible. Most riders don’t come near the stopping potential of their bike and tires. Training and continual practice is key here. My parking lot course and track days are excellent for getting more comfortable with more extreme brake force.
8. Learn and practice “brake, then swerve” techniques.
9. Don’t rely on loud pipes and other passive strategies for your survival.
10. Look at situations like this as a challenge. I equate it to a video game, like w88, where you encounter hazards that you skillfully manage.
The bottom line is that riding a motorcycle in traffic is risky. People do stupid things and will continue to do so. It’s your job to do the very best you can to minimize the risk by using effective strategies that give you some measure of control.
This article appeared in Motorcyclist Magazine in 2017.
I know that talking about crashing can harsh your mellow. But, I’m betting you’ll want to know how to avoid the expense and embarrassment of an avoidable mishap. One way to increase your chances of arriving home unscathed is to learn from other riders’ mistakes. That’s where the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) come in.
These two organizations teamed up to create an updated study identifying factors that increase the risk of crashing. This is good news, because the last comprehensive study was published way back in 1981. That’s when USC professor Harry Hurt published his findings of 900 investigated accidents and 3,600 police reports of crashes in and around Los Angeles. The problem is that the results of The Hurt Report were based on eyewitness accounts, rider interviews and police reports, which are often unreliable and inaccurate.
What’s different about the new study is that it uses a “naturalistic” approach, recording the actions of 100 participating riders and then documenting factors that resulted in crashes and near-crashes as they happen. Data is captured by GPS, accelerometers, gyros, lane trackers, forward radar and five unobtrusive video cameras connected to the bikes. This technology dutifully observed and chronicled every move in actual riding conditions over the course of 366,000 miles in and around California, Florida, Virginia and Arizona. The average length of rider participation was one year.
The ages of the volunteer riders ranged from 21 to 79 years of age with roughly one-quarter being female. 41 riders owned a cruiser, 38 had a touring bike and 21 piloted sportbikes. Riding experience ranged from 1 month to over 50 years with pre-study annual mileage ranging from 40 to 40,000-miles. 65% attended and passed at least one rider course. For reference, the national average of formally trained riders in 2014 was only 44%.
Over the course of the study, 30 of the 100 riders crashed. That’s a rather big percentage, but it makes more sense when you consider that over half of the crashes (17) were low speed falls. Past studies didn’t include mundane tipovers, because nobody reported them.
The study doesn’t include conclusions about why riders crash or how to prevent a crash, so I will share my thoughts as we go on. First, let’s list the 30 crash scenarios:
Low speed ground impact (17 crashes)
Leaving the road (3 crashes)
Colliding with a vehicle turning left at an intersection (3 crashes)
Rider striking the back of another vehicle (2 crashes)
Vehicle crossing the rider’s path (1 crash)
Being rear-ended (1 crash)
Getting cut-off by a driver traveling in the same direction (1 crash)
Poor curve negotiation (1 crash)
Falling once underway (1 crash).
The descriptions of the crashes are a bit vague, but you get the idea.
Besides crashes, the naturalistic approach allowed the researchers to “witness” and record 122 near misses. This information helps the researchers identify factors leading up to the mishap.
Many of the study’s tables combine both crashes and near-crashes to identify the most common situations that increase risk. I went ahead and paraphrased the report’s most significant findings to save you from having to decipher the data yourself. You’re welcome.
Slow speed maneuvers are a problem. “Low speed ground impacts” account for over half of the recorded crashes. Whether you consider a slow speed tipover a “crash” or not, these pesky drops are quite common and can cause significant misery. Most are due to insufficient speed, mainly when starting, stopping or making a U-turn.
Curves are dangerous. 55% of the recorded single-vehicle mishaps happened in curves, mostly in right-hand turns and are usually the result of weak cornering skill and/or a too fast entry speed. We can also include poor visual skills as a common contributor to cornering mishaps.
Intersections are hazardous. No surprise here. Careless drivers surely can be blamed for not double-checking before proceeding, but too often a big load of responsibility lands squarely on the rider. You must remember that because of your bike’s relative small size it is difficult for drivers to see you or judge your approach speed and closing distance. Slowing down and selecting a lane position that allows others to see you can avoid the majority of mishaps at intersections. You also want to watch for signs of vehicle movement and cover your brakes just in case.
Rear-ending other vehicles is more common than you think. The number of riders running into the back of another vehicle is surprising. Typically, insufficient following distance, inattention, and a failure to recognize and respond to stopping traffic are likely causes. You can also count on target fixation and weak emergency braking skills as factors.
Beware of blind Spots. The study recorded several incidents where a vehicle traveling in the same direction nearly sideswiped the rider. This frequently happens when a driver fails to check twice before changing lanes, but is also caused by riders surfing in drivers’ blind spots. Don’t blame the driver if you are hiding.
Lack of knowledge, inattention and weak control skills increase risk by 9 times. This combo can result in a multitude of problems like running a red traffic light, failing to recognize a crash as it unfolds, failing to negotiate a corner, dropping the bike during a slow speed maneuver, or running into the back of a stopped vehicle.
Excessive speed and aggressive riding are particularly perilous. The study concludes that riding too fast and passing, particularly on the right, increases the risk of crashing by 18 times.
Aggressive riding combined with a lack of skill is very bad news. The risk of a mishap increases by a whopping 30 times if you mix squidly behavior with lack of knowledge, skill, and attention. That’s 30 times, people!
Tricky road conditions are challenging. Participating riders had issues with sloped surfaces and gravel or dirt roads. Uphill starts present problems for many riders as does maintaining control when riding downhill. Riders also have problems managing balance and traction on gravely surfaces.
Swerving may not be the best choice. Swerving to avoid an object often causes the bike to leave the roadway. This is likely if the rider has weak swerving skills. Many times it’s better to focus on stopping rather than swerving.
Animals, pedestrians and bicyclists need to be watched. People and animals can be unpredictable, so keep an eye out and cover your brakes!
The VTTI/MSF study confirms much of what we already know: that intersections and curves are dangerous and that aggressive riding is just plain foolish. It also reminds us of the importance of rider judgment, attitude, attention and knowledge so we can avoid situations that call for evasive action. And of course, it reinforces the need for excellent bike control.
You’d be smart to identify your own risky behaviors and then get to work to bolster your survival strategies and improve your control skills. And please don’t think that reducing risk comes at the expense of fun. It just isn’t true. The best riders know that a serious attitude, in partnership with well-developed mental and physical skills, makes riding both safer and more fun.
Originally appeared in Motorcycle Consumer News in 2012
As I write this column, I am grieving from the loss of a friend and coworker, taken by a careless driver who ran a red light. Chappie was an avid rider of exceptional skill and was aware of the risks of riding a motorcycle. Many of us can name one or more highly skilled riders who were involved in crashes; some may have even succumbed to their injuries. I am reminded of Larry Grodsky, the safety columnist for Rider Magazine and founder of the Stayin’ Safe on-road rider training program. Larry died when he collided with a deer. Larry fully knew the dangers of animals and took all precautions to avoid being exposed to this hazard. However, circumstances required him to ride later into the evening than he wanted. The chances of encountering a deer may have been elevated, but the risk was probably acceptable. Fate stepped in with a different idea.
Just last week, I answered two letters from readers looking for explanations to why they crashed or almost crashed. Both concerns had to do with traction loss in a curve. After reading each letter, it appeared that both riders were doing nothing that would have increased their risk and that each was fully aware of the long list of possible hazards before them. I answered their letters by mentioning the conditions that can exacerbate traction loss and how to spot surface hazards. What I didn’t include in these replies was a statement that sometimes crashes happen and that even the most knowledgeable, conscientious, and diligent rider can become involved in a mishap. Fatigue, a slip of concentration, or a slightly mistimed maneuver may be responsible, but sometimes the cause is a force or forces completely outside our control.
As someone who has dedicated much of his life to rider training, this does not sit well. Even though continual learning and purposeful practice improves my odds significantly, nothing can absolutely guarantee my safety.
Possible versus Likely
I do believe that “out of the blue” mishaps that befall alert, skilled riders are rare and that the vast majority of crashes are preventable. I also know that sometimes crashes happen, even when the rider has taken all precautions. To ride a motorcycle well we must ride with knowledge of this fact. We all must understand the risks we are taking by riding a two-wheeler so that we can do what is necessary to increase the likelihood that we live a long and healthy life. This means doing all we can to minimize the risks of riding.
The odds of getting hurt or dying as the result of a motorcycle crash are illustrated in statistics. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2010, there were 4502 fatalities nationwide with a fatality rate of 24.39 per 100 million miles traveled. In comparison, drivers of all vehicle types died at a rate of 1.11 per 100 million miles traveled. NHTSA summarizes by saying: “Per vehicle mile traveled in 2010, motorcyclists were about 30 times more likely than passenger car occupants to die in a motor vehicle traffic crash and 5 times more likely to be injured.”
These statistics are upsetting. But, if this is news to you then you haven’t been paying attention. Motorcycling has always been riskier than driving a car. And it’s been riskier (statistically speaking) during some years and less risky during others. The reasons include: a surge of new riders during good economic times and/or when fuel prices are high; good weather that leads to more vehicle miles traveled; increases or decreases in safety initiatives at the government level. The list goes on, but you get the idea.
So, does that mean that the more you ride, the more likely you are to crash? Not necessarily. Statistics suggest trends, not absolute outcomes. The chance that flipping a coin will result in heads or tails is 50/50. But, you can flip a coin ten times and it’s possible to get heads all ten times. That doesn’t mean that the odds of getting tails have now gone up; it’s still 50/50. Let’s say the odds of crashing are 1 in 100,000. If we ride 99,999 times, does that mean we will crash on our next ride? No, because the likelihood of you crashing is not based on past rides.
It can be argued that the more you ride, the less likely you are to crash, because you’ve learned how to ride well. However, this only holds true if you have actually become more skilled, as opposed to simply having ridden more miles. It may be less likely that you will crash if you are skilled, but crashes still happen. The fact that we ride means that we are exposed to that risk. So, what can we do to reduce the chance of being involved in a crash? Excluding any mention of bad luck, or fate, or acts of God, we are left with our ability to manage the risk.
Why Crashes Happen
The reasons why crashes happen are not numerous: inattention, alcohol or drug impairment, lack of traffic-management strategies, poor risk perception, lack of mental preparedness and attention, and inadequate cornering, braking and slow-speed skills. Sure, there are other reasons we could add to the list, but you’ll find that this list covers a huge percentage of why crashes happen. You’ll notice that 5 of the 6 reasons I list are mental skills. Not being in the right mental condition to effectively and accurately evaluate the environment puts you at high risk of being involved in a crash.
The physical skills of cornering, braking and keeping a slow-moving motorcycle upright are also critical. It is necessary to have the highest possible level of ability to control your motorcycle, but often it is the lack of mental proficiency and good judgment that gets us into trouble. Poor mental skills require us to use superior physical skills to survive.
About half of all fatalities are the result of single-vehicle crashes and the vast majority of those crashes occur in a curve. Riders often fail to negotiate a corner because they enter the turn faster than they can handle (a lack of mental skill). This usually is followed by an inability to corner effectively at this higher rate of speed (a mostly physical skill). Had the rider used better judgment about entry speed, the corner would have passed without incident.
Single-vehicle crashes can also be the result of road surface hazards. Motorcycle stability relies on traction. Add sand, gravel, oil, anti-freeze, or water onto the pavement and you’ve got the potential for a crash. While the existence of road surface hazards are not in our control, we must learn to spot these hazards before they become a problem.
Car drivers do not need to pay any attention to trivial things like sand or gravel or tar snakes. That’s why many new riders crash as the result of surface issues. Veteran riders learned long ago the dangers of surface hazards and have developed a keen eye for spotting potential problems. However, even experienced riders can find themselves on the ground, having failed to identify a patch of sand or fluid spill.
Unfortunately, we can’t catch all potential surface hazards, but what we can do is predict the likelihood that sand or some other contaminant may be present. For example, riding near a construction site should prompt you to slow down and scan the surface more carefully. A wet road can make it nearly impossible to see a slick spot caused by oil, so it’s smart to reduce speed and minimize lean angle and brake force.
Low speed tipovers may not seem all that scary, but these seemingly benign mishaps can land you in the hospital with nasty fractures and soft tissue damage. Too many riders ignore their slow speed riding skills, partly because it doesn’t seem that important, but also because learning to control a motorcycle at walking speed can be rather intimidating. Stay tuned for an in-depth article on slow speed riding techniques in an upcoming issue.
The Other Guy
The other half of fatal crashes involves a second vehicle. Too many drivers operate their vehicles with ignorance, complacency, and carelessness. These drivers have no intention of killing anyone, but they do not consider that their behavior is putting all road users, not just motorcyclists, at risk. And it’s not just the victim who suffers. I’m sure the driver who took my friend Dereck’s life is living his own personal hell right now.
One factor that leads to careless behavior is how some people treat other drivers when they get behind the wheel. It’s common for otherwise courteous and thoughtful people to tailgate, or bully, or intimidate other drivers when in traffic. There is something about the perceived safety of one’s own automobile and the righteousness of many drivers’ sense of entitlement that causes them to judge others as incompetent and in the way.
There is also the feeling of safety that many drivers of large vehicles feel as they loom over smaller cars and motorcycles. Their perception of personal risk is reduced and the motivation to drive aggressively when late for work can be difficult to resist.
When it comes to motorcyclists, there is a “de-personalization” that happens when we cover our head and face with a helmet and dark shield. Instead of being perceived as a fellow human being, we can be seen as an inanimate object. Even fellow motorcycle riders can fall into this unconscious misperception. I often start track day rider’s meetings by having the attendees introduce themselves to each other. Then I ask them to remember the people they just met and understand that the person they are sharing the racetrack with is just like them; someone who is here to have fun and has to be at work the next day. It sets a tone for safer passing and more courteous behavior.
Do riders who choose to not wear a helmet fair better, since their head and face is not covered? I don’t know of a study that can confirm that theory. However, there have been studies showing that drivers come closer to bicycle riders who wear a helmet compared to riders who don’t. I’m not suggesting we all ride helmetless so that drivers perceive us more as humans; that would be trading a sure risk reducer (head protection) for the hope that a driver will treat us with more courtesy (wishful thinking). However, it does point out that we are sharing the road with fallible beings whose perception of reality varies. Knowing this, you must take precautions that take these variables into account.
A World of Distraction
Another factor that can increase risk is distractions by electronic devices and other sources of stimulation. Music devices, cell phone use, GPS, and texting is at an all time high. It’s common to see drivers wait until they get into their cars before dialing their phone. Even though law-enforcement discourages distracted behavior, the trend of driving while distracted is increasing. More than once, I’ve even seen members of law enforcement chatting on cell phones while driving their police cruiser. What message does that send?
It’s not only electronic devices that distract. Alcohol is the most obvious cause of poor judgment, but there are conditions that we may not consider risky, including having the wrong person in the passenger seat. It’s easy to let a conversation or distracting exuberance lead to poor decisions. The number of teen fatalities with at least one passenger in the car is much higher than teen drivers who are alone. This is why several states allow teens to drive only with immediate family (no joy rides) for the first several months of learning to drive.
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What to Do?
Yikes! With so many uncontrollable factors to contend with, it can seem foolish to ride a motorcycle at all. There is good news, however. We can train ourselves to reduce risk.
For instance, knowing that intersections are one of the most likely places where crashes occur, you must approach intersections with the alertness and precision of a hunted animal. Every sense should be heightened to spot anything amiss. Scan aggressively for movements from the side, front and behind that can signal a vehicle about to invade your space. Keep your brakes covered to minimize braking reaction time, and identify possible escape routes, just in case. To help drivers see you, make sure you are aware of lines of sight and use lane positions that ensure that drivers see you. I see too many riders who foolishly ride in drivers’ blind spots or “hide” behind other vehicles so that it is nearly impossible for drivers to see them until it is too late. You must develop a sixth sense about line of sight to ensure the highest level of conspicuity possible.
Another simple strategy is to wear bright colors. High-viz jackets and helmets are very popular lately. Unfortunately, high-viz is not the color of choice for most fashion-conscious riders. Okay, fine. If you choose to wear black, then be aware that you are increasing the risk of not being seen and don’t be surprised if drivers pull out in front of you more often than if you were to wear more conspicuous gear.
By choosing lane positions that ensure good lines of sight and by wearing bright clothing, we can help defend ourselves from careless drivers who may not see us. But, sometimes crashes happen where neither party is clearly to “blame”. Human beings make mistakes and one or two seemingly small mistakes occurring at just the wrong time can suddenly lead to two vehicles coming together. Even though true “accidents” do happen, you should take solace in the fact that there is usually some control you have in preventing mishaps from happening. In case accidents happen, Go Here and get the best attorney help. However, even the most diligent and skillful rider cannot control all situations at all times. People can avoid mistakes for claiming compensation with the help of attorneys. We share the roads with people that do not take driving seriously and are often in a daze so that they see what they expect to see and not what is in front of their eyes. This means that we must take more responsibility for our own safety by doing all we can to not let a crash happen to us.
Here I go again touting the need for rider training. The reason is that rider training is the gateway to reduced risk. When I say rider training, I don’t only mean formal training programs. I also mean continual practice, whether that is in a parking lot or at a track day. It can also mean purposefully refining mental strategies and control skills while you are on a typical ride or when commuting to work. The opportunity to become a better rider is always present.
The biggest challenge to effective training is motivation. How many riders take advantage of training opportunities to learn new techniques and to brush up on old ones? Not many. I understand. Spending a weekend rolling around a parking lot instead of touring the beautiful countryside does not appeal to many. However, the time spent focusing on mental survival strategies and physical control skills can mean the difference between making it home and spending several expensive days in a hospital bed, or worse. Even a fractured ankle or foot can change your plans for the rest of the season.
Self-help training is just as valid as formal training, as long as your knowledge and control skills are solid to begin with. Get a copy of “Riding in the Zone” or “Total Control” and find the sections in these books that outline parking lot drills. Then find a clean parking lot to spend a half-hour to practice the skills you think need refinement. Make it a social event by inviting a couple of like-minded riding friends to join you (especially those who really need to work on their control skills). Self-help rider training lacks the feedback of a professional instructor, but the drills outlined in a good book can provide you with the fundamental information to help you raise your skill level.
Even the most proficient riders are involved in crashes. However, there is no doubt that we can tip the scales in our favor, if we become as skillful possible, both mentally and physically.
Lane position is one of the top strategies a motorcycle rider must utilize to avoid the most common multiple vehicle crashes. Here is a common scenario that illustrates the need to be hyper-aware of blind spots.
You and your wife gather your things and pack your bike for a ride to visit family. As expected traffic is heavy, but people are calmly rolling along at about 25 mph. You position yourself in the left portion of your lane to see past a truck in front of you, leaving ample following distance in case the truck stopped quickly.
Suddenly, an SUV just ahead and to your left moves right, into your lane. You have little time to react, but it’s too late. Your front tire makes contact with the right rear bumper and you are both thrown to the pavement.
As innocuous as the situation seemed, you still needed to be aware of the risks around you. The driver who crossed into your lane did so because she thought the lane was clear. She claimed to have looked in her side mirror and even glanced over her shoulder before turning, but saw nothing.
Yes, the driver is responsible for making sure the lane was clear, but you were riding in her blind spot. Not smart.
Here are some ways to help drivers see you easier:
Avoid lingering in blind spots. Drive through blind spots when possible (and safe) by traveling a bit faster than surrounding traffic. Filter or lane-split if you can (and if legal).
Ride in the driver’s peripheral vision, slightly ahead of the passenger or driver side door.
If that’s not possible, then drop back so the driver can see you in their mirrors and to place your bike out of harm’s way if the driver changed lanes suddenly.
Never “hide” behind other vehicles where it is nearly impossible for drivers to see you.
Position yourself at least 2 seconds behind vehicles you are following. More when following large vehicles.
Develop a sixth sense about your environment so you can respond before things unfold. Ask “what’s wrong with this picture”?
Predict what actions drivers are likely to make. Look for arm and head movements that can indicate an imminent lane change or turn.
Pay close attention to unexplained slowing, drifting or erratic behavior. I call this “vehicle body language”.
Environmental awareness and proper lane positioning are two of the most important strategies for being seen.
I am a believer in managing risk. And one way to do that is to protect yourself in case you go down. Modern armor does a decent job of mitigating impact injury. But, as good as modern armor is, it can only do some much to minimize injury from a big impact. That’s where air bag protection can help.
I was given a black Helite Turtle Airbag Vest to use and test. The Turtle Vest I am reviewing here is the street rider’s version with a lighter nylon construction compared with the GP Track Air Vest. Read my review of the more robust GP Track Air Vest Here. FYI, I know many riders who use the Turtle version for both street and racetrack duty, and vice-versa.
After several street rides with the Turtle, I have a good idea of the pros and cons of the Turtle air vest. Here you go.
Low Tech – Unlike high-tech, electronic GPS/IMU units, the Helite has a mechanical system with a simple elastic-nylon tether that connects the bike to a CO2 cartridge mounted in the front of the vest. When the rider falls off the bike, a steel ball is pulled away from the housing that holds the CO2 cartridge. And Bang!
Deflates Quickly – It takes a couple of minutes for the vest to lose its air once the vest deploys. This allows you to safely ride back home without restricted movement.
Easy and Cheap Recharges -Recharging the vest means simply replacing the $25.00 cartridge. Replacement takes 5 minutes. I keep a spare on hand.
Fits Over any Suit or Jacket -The correct size allows you to put it over a street jacket and the Velcro backed nylon straps allow a snug fit.
Sturdy Armor – The Turtle Air Vest has a quality, semi-rigid SAS-TEC back protector.
Heavy Nylon Construction – The Turtle vest is made from 600 Denier Textile with a mesh liner.
Free Movement – The large arm opening provide no restrictions in movement. The only restriction comes when getting off the bike.
Neck, Back and Chest Protection – The vest inflates to cushion your torso from impact and the inflated neck roll supports the head from hyper movement.
Helite Turtle Air Vest – Cons
Have to Remember to Connect – The vest won’t work unless you clip the tether to your bike. I’ve had to pull over a few times because I forgot to clip the tether. To remind me to buckle up I have a piece of bright colored tape on the end of the tether, near the buckle. I also drape the tether across my seat.
Have to Remember to Disconnect – You have to disconnect the tether before walking away from the bike. A lot of people think they will deploy the vest by forgetting to disconnect before getting off the bike. But don’t worry. It takes a lot of force to deploy the vest. You’ll realize that you’re still connected well before you walk away. Watch the video below to see how hard the person has to pull to fire the vest.
Back Protector Interference – The top of the back protector sometimes bumps under the back part of my helmet, even on my upright Tiger 800 riding position. I may trim the protector a bit.
It’s Hot – Adding a thick vest over my vented jacket defeats the benefit of a perforated suit. But, it hasn’t been as big a problem once I get up to speed.
Another piece of gear – This isn’t unique to the Helite vest. But, it’s a pain having to put on another piece of protection. You’ll get used to it.
It’s Expensive – At $659.00, the Turtle Air Vest is not cheap. But, the argument about how much is your spine, neck, ribs, and guts worth comes into play. If you ride a lot (and especially if you race), it’s a good investment in your health.
Too many street riders fail to realize that even though the odds of your skin meeting pavement is not all that likely in normal situations, we can’t control everything, which is why you need to wear protection. Consider investing in an air vest…before you need it!
Like politics and religion, it’s usually a very bad idea to bring up the Loud Pipes debate in mixed company. But, this website is here to discuss such topics, because your well being is at stake.
Before you assume this is an anti- or pro-loud pipes opinion piece, rest assured that I am sympathetic to both sides of the argument and you will discover here which tells more about the best pipes durability and performances. I’ve had bikes with loud exhaust and stock exhaust.
My intent for writing this article is to shed light on the effectiveness of certain strategies for surviving the streets on a motorcycle, including loud pipes.
First, let’s discuss whether noise is effective at getting drivers’ attention. Before that can be answered fully, we must first define “attention”. A loud noise intended as an alert, such as a siren (EMS or law enforcement), a fire alarm, or a horn is perceived as something that requires attention and triggers immediate response.
The appropriate response depends on the noise. A siren heard while driving means you need to pull over. A blaring horn means you may be about to collide with another car (or the other driver is just being a dick). Either way, you snap out of any stupor you may be in and frantically look for the problem.
A siren blasting from a municipal building means a risk to the public, like an approaching weather or seismic event. Even this depends on where you live. In Kansas it’s likely to be a tornado. In California, think earthquake. It also depends on where you are. In a movie theater this may mean fire. You get it.
Did you know that drivers colliding with stationary construction crews is a big problem? Hard to believe, but I guess it’s a thing.
Several methods have been tried to mitigate this all-too-common problem with the latest being sound. An article from the Iowa DOT talks about their trial using audible attenuators to alert drivers of construction crews in the roadway. Read the article here.
Below is an accompanying video demonstrating the attenuator. Take a look. I’ll wait.
Many of you will take this attenuator solution as justification to run loud pipes.
But, hold on. There are differences between this system and loud motorcycle exhausts.
One big difference between the attenuator and loud bike exhaust noise is that the attenuator is directed toward the driver and is accompanied by bright flashing lights. The sound from a motorcycle exhaust is mostly directed rearward.
Sirens and horns are pointed forward for a reason. And when you consider that most multi-vehicle motorcycle crashes come from in front, not behind, you can see the argument against loud pipes being responsible for saving lives.
Also, sound bounces off buildings, etc and is absorbed by vegetation, etc. This means that locating the source of the sound is tough. And the time it takes for a driver to identify your location could be way too late.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Another argument against loud pipes is that even the loudest exhaust may not be heard and then responded to in time. This is because cars are sound-insulated to the degree that moderately loud music or an AC fan on high can mask, mute or muffle the sound until it is just part of the background noise.
An open window certainly helps in this regard, but almost every vehicle on the road today has efficient air conditioning, which means fewer and fewer people drive with windows open.
OK. Let’s assume that your loud pipes alert a driver that you and your bike is in the vicinity. But, to avoid a collision requires the driver to know exactly where you are. Knowing you’re in the vicinity isn’t enough.
An example is a driver traveling in the same direction (you’re not riding in a drivers blind spot, right?) not being able to see you and then cutting you off. Unfortunately, your loud exhaust noise won’t tell him or her whether they can change lanes or not. They may look first, but maybe not.
One scenario that was pointed out to me that may justify loud(er) pipes is when in very slow traffic (think L.A.) and you are lane splitting. At these slow speeds it’s possible that a driver could hear a bike approaching from behind and will think twice about changing lanes. But, thankfully most riders don’t have to endure (or at least avoid) that extreme traffic situation, which brings us back to questioning th validity of the loud pipes strategy.
Let’s assume that loud exhaust systems can get attention. But what exactly is the noise conveying? It’s not telling drivers’ to pull over or run for cover, so what do we expect drivers to do exactly?
A Reliable Solution: Be More Visible
If your real goal for having loud pipes is to get drivers’ attention so they don’t cut you off or crash into you, then the arguments made in this article suggest you’d be wise to consider other (or additional) strategies. Here are some suggestions that are likely to be effective.
Now, I know that hi-viz jackets, vests and helmets may not be your thing. But, you don’t have to go all HAZMAT to become more visible. Harley-Davidson predictably sells mostly black jackets to satisfy their traditional customer base, however look beyond the badass blackness and you can find a few more visible options.
Those of you not as encumbered by traditional style requirements have many options available to you, including the aforementioned hi-viz, but also white or bright colored gear that looks both sporty and stylish…and helps you be seen better in traffic. Check out this Scorpion jacket at Twisted Throttle.
One of the MOST effective tools for being seen and avoiding crashes is effective lane positioning.
Select lane positions that put you in open view so drivers can see you. This means not tailgating the car, which may be using a new car shade, or truck in front and riding in the left or right portion of your lane to make sure drivers waiting to turn into or across your lane can clearly see you. It’s up to you to select lane positions that put you in plain view.
Even if you are in plain sight, don’t assume drivers see you. There’s this thing called “motion-induced blindness” where stationary objects disappear when surrounded by a moving background, such as busy traffic. Get drivers’ attention my moving within your lane. You can simply change lane positions, or do a slight weave as you approach.
You can rightly argue that a horn is in the same category as loud pipes. But, there is a difference. Unlike loud exhaust, a piercing horn has a more commanding meaning than the noise from loud pipes (yes, even from a “barking” throttle blip). Remember earlier when I talked about how the types of sounds communicate different meaning? Yeah, That.
Before you get all cranky thinking I’m not on your side. I believe that any added tool for being seen is worthwhile.
However, (you knew this was coming, right?) loud pipes can’t be relied on for adding the kind of conspicuity necessary to avoid collisions…visibility. People have to see you!
I’m no scientist, and this is not based on empirical evidence, but experience and logic suggest that relying primarily on loud pipes for visibility is a weak strategy. Does it help? To a degree. But, in my opinion, the effectiveness is trumped by the risk of discrimination from authorities, the disdain from your neighbors and the perpetuation of the outlaw image puts us in risk of heavy handed regulation.
Of course I know that this won’t convince anyone already enamored with the badass sound of their bike to dig up the stock exhaust from the basement. However, I hope this article gives you pause before you repeat the old saw “Loud Pipes Save Lives” without at least considering that this strategy may have a relatively minor effect on preventing crashes.
Admit it…loud pipes make your bike sound better and is a way to experience the raw, visceral power of your awesome machine. But, ask yourself if perhaps they aren’t as effective as most people think at saving lives.
Getting your motorcycle stopped in time to avoid a collision is one of the most important skills you can have. But, simply being able to apply maximum brake force isn’t enough (even if you have modern ABS). Here is an article I wrote for Motorcyclist Magazine a while back about braking and reaction time that I think deserves some more airtime. Enjoy!
You’re riding along minding your own business when suddenly you are facing the bumper of a left turning sedan. Every cell commands you to get the motorcycle stopped ASAP to prevent your early demise. But, will your response be quick enough?
It’s a good thing that we are hardwired to respond immediately to threats, but too often our synapses do not fire fast enough for a quick and effective respond. Thankfully, there are ways to help make sure you aren’t a victim of too little, too late.
There are actually two components of reaction time: “perception time” and “activation time”. Perception time is the time it takes to figure out what’s going on and decide what action to take. Response time is the time it takes to reach for the brakes. You also have to account for the amount of time it takes to actually get the bike stopped.
Let’s say you’re traveling at 40 mph, which is about 59 feet per second. Recent research indicates the average rider will use about 1.5 seconds to recognize the situation and reach max braking rate, also known as perception-response time. That number can increase to over 2 seconds if you’re daydreaming. That equates to between 88 and 117+ feet before any physical action is taken.
The actual time it takes to get the motorcycle stopped once the brakes are applied depends on speed, machine geometry/weight, available traction, and your ability to use your brakes fully without skidding (ABS helps in this regard). Recent research also shows that an average rider can only achieve a braking rate of 0.6 g’s. That means from 40 mph you’ll need 89 feet to complete the stop. The 1.5 seconds of perception-response time mentioned earlier adds another 88 feet for a total stopping distance of 177 feet.
With perception-response time adding nearly 50% to the total stopping distance, you can see why it’s so important to remain alert. You also want to develop your ability to predict when bad things are about to happen before they unfold. Get ahead of potentially hazardous situations by aggressively scanning for clues that indicate trouble. Be especially vigilant when approaching intersections where most collisions occur.
Stopping in a Corner
Hard braking when the bike is upright is tricky enough when facing an emergency. But, things get even more challenging when you have to stop quickly while leaned because of a hazard around a corner. Perception, response and braking times still apply, but now you also need more time to free up traction by reducing lean angle so you can brake hard with less chance of traction loss. This necessary action adds to total stopping distance. Machines with Cornering ABS offer a distinct advantage here where you can brake hard while maintaining lean angle.
You can reduce activation time by covering the front brake lever and rear brake pedal when approaching potential hot spots. Not only will this simple action reduce activation time, it also puts your whole system on alert.
Of course, the best way to reduce braking distances is to slow down. Trimming just 5 mph off your 40 mph travel speed requires about 32 less feet to stop. Add 5 mph and you’ll need about 35 more feet to stop. Speed up to 60 mph and you’re going to need an extra 155 feet to stop, for a total of 332 feet. Yikes.
Whether or not you avoid a crash is dependent on your ability to react quickly when an otherwise sublime day suddenly turns into a DEFCON 1 war zone. The best riders remain alert and ready for battle, wasting very little processing time before executing evasive action. They also cover the brakes to reduce activation time when approaching intersections. The final step is to regularly practice emergency braking techniques. Can you stop your motorcycle in the shortest possible distance while maintaining in control? Too many riders cannot.
At the request of the district manager for the Northeast Region, I booked several dates during mid-to-late winter of 2018. One event was held at Wilkins Harley-Davidson, located in South Barre, Vermont. As with each of the talk, around 100 people attended to learn about cornering…or learn more about cornering. Wilkins recorded the seminar in its entirety.
My aim with these talks is to spread the good word about the benefits of life-long learning…safety and MORE FUN and satisfaction. A secondary goal is to encourage participants to join me for one or more of the training opportunities I offer or am involved with.
This is a clear demonstration of the consequences of not having proper braking skills. Take a look and then I’ll give you my opinion. I’ll wait.
A shocking number of riders in this video’s original version blamed everything but the rider. Sad.
Well, this is the most classic example of a failure to apply the brakes properly under pressure.
The rider demonstrates an inability to “predict the future” through situational awareness leading to the sudden need for evasive action. And while you can argue that the rider was positioned too close to deal with the stopping vehicles and that the tar snakes reduced traction, the primary reason the crash occurred was lousy skills.
The rider skids the rear tire. Untrained riders react to panic braking situations the only way they know how… which is to stomp on the big brake pedal with their strong leg, like when driving in a car.
He then throws out his “outriggers” (legs) so that his feet are now off the pegs…and off the rear brake.
Our rider fails to use the most powerful tool at his disposal—the front brake.
All the time, the rider fixates his eyes on the back of the truck. Target fixation is the final straw.
According to Ronald A. Ramos, one thing different about this rider is that he is taking the time to self-analyze his role in the crash and explore how he could have done better. Kudos Hans Solo!
I want to stress that in the real world, under battle conditions, we humans will make flawed decisions. It’s what we do. The takeaway is to have effective strategies so we can do all we can to avoid needing to use superhero skills…assuming we have them at our disposal. Hans should be commended. He is doing the hard work of looking in the mirror to evaluate what he could have done differently.
That said, I have a different take on what could have helped, so I’ll add my .02 about how things could possibly have turned out differently.
Monday morning quarterbacking can come off as smug, but I don’t want to miss an opportunity for my readers to learn from others’ mishaps if we can. Take a look at the vid. I’ll wait.
If you can’t see the video: Imagine a rider approaching a cross-street intersection with a white car waiting to turn left across his lane in a dedicated left turning lane. There is a gray car located at 10:00 from the rider who is also approaching the intersection. The rider accelerates to pass the gray car on the right before the intersection when the white, waiting car cuts across both the gray Nissan and the bike. The white car zips in front of the gray car and the bike hits the white car broadside. Sorry the video isn’t available.
OK, so here are my thoughts:
Lane Position & Conspicuity
Using the Dark Blue-Gray Nissan as a “pick” or blocker is often a good plan, but it’s a mistake to do it at the expense of being seen. In this case, Hans moved into the right lane to put the Nissan between him and the left turning cars. The problem is that the white car couldn’t see him as well (not that the driver was even looking) and Hans couldn’t see the white car as well. We call the blue-gray Nissan an eclipse vehicle.
Add to that the fact that the road was curving (see :45) in a way that makes Hans even less visible to the oncoming white car and you can see the problems with this particular lane position.
One possibility is if he had stayed in the left lane behind the Nissan, he could have seen the white car move earlier. But then if the Nissan hit the white car (they missed by inches), Hans would have needed to be far enough back to be able to brake in time to not rear end the Nissan. In the end, he made a fine decision, but the driver of the white car did something so unexpected that it’s tough to blame Hans for this decision.
Lane position plays a huge role in terms of being seen and being able to see ahead. Greater following distance would have allowed Hans to see the movement of the white car earlier. And remaining in the left lane (with lots of following distance) would have allowed him to see past the Nissan.
Because intersections are so dangerous, my eyes would be flicking around while my wide vision would be looking for any peripheral movement. You can see the white car move at 1:58. Impact comes at 1:59, so because of his speed he had almost zero time to react.
Speed & Stopping Distance
Hans wasn’t riding particularly fast, but his speed could have been better for the situation. Hans says he slowed (and downshifted) before impact, but I don’t hear any significant change in RPM…although he clearly brakes just before the crosswalk. What I saw was a seriously dangerous situation ahead that would have had me rolling off the throttle earlier and covering my brakes.
For reference, trimming just 5 mph off of 40-mph travel speed requires about 20 fewer feet to stop. Add to that the reality of perception time and reaction time that further increases actual stopping distances and you can see how much speed affects safety. Read my article in Motorcyclist about reaction time and speed.
So, how much time did Hans have to stop? A Nissan Altima is about 16 feet long, so at the time of initial brake application (seen by the front end dive) I estimate the distance between the rider and the white car to be about 40 feet. The speed he would need to be at to get the bike stopped in time is about 25 mph! See this chart from the MSF that documents that a VFR800 needs about 36 feet to stop at 29mph. This is with a trained rider in a controlled environment.
Keep in mind that Hans is likely to be an average rider who rarely (if ever) practices emergency braking skills. This means he, like most average riders, can only achieve a deceleration rate of 0.6 g’s even though most bikes are capable of 1.0 g. Add to that the reaction time of the average human is 1.3 seconds and you can see the problem.
Expect the Unexpected
The point of this article is for us to consider possible solutions that would have prevented or at least minimized the effect of the driver of the white car’s screw up. In this particular case, the white car cut off a large four-wheeled vehicle, so he would have surely cut in front of a motorcycle. This is an extreme case of a driver totally screwing up and is hard to believe. But, that doesn’t mean we don’t still do all we can to prepare for the unexpected. Do what you can to not let it happen to you!
That’s about all I got. I hope you heal fast, Hans.
Share you thoughts and comments below.
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Here is another installment of “Videos Lessons” where we pull from the seemingly never ending supply of rider videos from which we can learn. Even though these are 2 very slow speed crashes, the injuries could have been serious. I hope everyone is okay.
This particular video shows the seriousness of slow speed mishaps and of course the importance of rider training.
First, take a look at the video. The crash happens around 1:15. I’ll wait.
Pretty scary, right? It’s hard to see, but it seems the first rider to crash was actually in the lead, and the rider with the passenger had to slow and go around his friend as he tipped over. The second rider (with passenger) watched his friend fall and appeared to be putting his right foot down to stop, but failed to use his front brake and rolled off the road.
I want to point out that at about :45 the Harley riders demonstrate some apprehension about their ability to handle the tight turns. You can see this as they approach the right hand turn marked by a 20mph road sign. They are smart to slow down because there is a yield sign before a narrow bridge, but they seem to slow more than necessary. This is often indicative of serious cornering anxiety. The confirmation of weak cornering confidence comes when the mishap occurs.
It’s interesting to note that this mishap is different than others where the rider enters a turn too fast (for his/her ability) and runs wide (see this video). In this case, both riders fell on the inside of the right-hander. Why?
Let’s begin by discussing the rider who first crashed. He says that he hit a hole in the road and then rode over the patch of sand. I don’t doubt this. I also don’t doubt that the hole and the sand contributed to upsetting the bike’s stability (at least a little bit).
Even so, the real questions needed to be asked are:
1. why did he hit the hole when there was opportunity to ride over smoother pavement?
2. why did he fall over?
Here is my explanation:
1.Why did he hit the hole? The reason the rider who first crashed hit the pothole was because of poor visual skills. It’s human nature to look down when we are anxious. It is likely that the rider wasn’t looking far enough ahead to come up with a plan to manage the tricky hairpin, resulting in him being taken by surprise by the tight radius and and steep slope. As he rounds the bend, he sees the hole and the sand which further increases his anxiety and triggers his survival response that includes staring at the hole. When we panic, we tend to target fixate on hazards. The problem with staring at a hazard is that we tend to steer toward it like a super-powerful magnet. This tendency of going where we look is called Visual Direction Control and is likely what causes him to run over the hole…and then the sand.
Solution: Looking well ahead allows you to avoid surprises. Also, looking at an escape route rather than the hazard could have kept the bike away front the surface hazards. Seeing hazards early is critical for keeping these dangerous survival triggers from taking over.
2.Why did he fall over? Hitting the hole and sand did not make the crash inevitable. Factors that caused the actual fall probably included an overreaction and extreme tension. This would result in the rider clamping on the handlebars and chopping the throttle at a time when he was already moving very slow on a steep uphill hairpin. This reaction hindered direction control and killed what little amount of stability the bike had, causing gravity to take over and the bike to fall over.
Solution: Motorcycles are more stable with speed. Had he kept steady drive the bike’s suspension would have handled the bump better and stability would have been maintained. As far as the sand goes, easy acceleration and a light grip on the handlebars while reducing lean angle slightly would have allowed the tires to deal with the sand while allowing the bike to remain in its lane. As I mentioned earlier, had the rider kept his eyes up, he would have likely selected a path that avoided both the hole and the sand. Problem solved.
The lead rider’s crash was caused by the same two reasons I already outlined: Looking in the wrong place and insufficient speed for stability.
1.Why did he ride off the road? Because we tend go where we look. The lead rider looked over his right shoulder, causing the bike to drift to the right and drop off the shoulder and down the ravine.
Solution: Same as above. Look where you want to go. Yes, seeing your buddy fall over can grab all of your attention, but it’s imperative that you always remain in control and that means keeping your eyes ahead until you can come to a safe stop.
2. Why did the bike go off the road so quickly? Because of a loss of directional stability. When the rider decelerated on the steep slope he slowed down enough for gravity to take hold of the bike and send it down the hill.
Solution: Same as above. Had the rider maintained positive drive he would have completed the corner on two wheels.
This video demonstrates the importance of two of the most critical skills motorcyclists need to maintain control: Visual direction control and Speed for stability. Think of these two hapless riders the next time someone suggests taking a parking lot course that covers basic slow speed maneuvers and cornering techniques. The techniques would have saved these two a world of hurt and embarrassment.
Even better is if they had signed up for on-street training where instructors can observe problems at real world speeds and conditions.
Here is another video that I’m pretty sure demonstrates how we humans don’t want to admit when we screw up. See the video of the poor guy who sideswiped a big truck on his R6. The problem that he says the wind drove him into the truck. Whaaa?
Note: you only need to watch the first 15 seconds to see the incident, but you’ll have to stick it out until the first passerby arrives to hear him mention the wind. WARNING: The video may be difficult to listen to as the poor guy writhes in pain. He also swears a bit.
While I know the wind out west can be strong enough to knock over tractor trailer rigs, I’m pretty sure wind had nothing to do with this incident. I think it’s another case of inaccurate self-evaluation and lack of rider ability and/or a serious lack of concentration.
I can’t tell how strong the wind was at the time of the crash, but the trees aren’t being blown around very much and his friend’s hair (he appears later in the video) is barely moving at all. Maybe he’s wearing copious amounts of hairspray, but I don’t think so.
Besides, if it were strong enough to blow a bike across a lane, I doubt the rider would be chatting away so casually before the incident. Also, the rock formations on the side of the road should have blocked any direct side forces.
One explanation for this seemingly bizarre crash is a complete and total brain fart. I’m not sure if he is talking to himself or to his friend who is riding ahead, but he wasn’t focused on leaning enough to make the curve.
Early Turn Entry
Notice how the rider began heading toward the inside of the corner too early, causing his bike to be pointed toward the oncoming lane. – Thanks for readers for pointing this out.
Another contributing factor is that perhaps he did not have a good grasp of countersteering. A hard push on the right handlebar should have kept him in his lane even if it were windy.
Target fixation is another likely contributing factor in this incident. Target fixation is a phenomenon that explains why we go where we look. Once the rider realized he was drifting wide into the path of a big truck, he likely couldn’t take his eyes off the hazard and that’s where he ended up. Look toward the solution, not the problem.
Human Nature Strikes Again
I think this is another example of someone blaming something other than their inability to stay focused or steer effectively. Deferring blame is a basic human response to help explain how they could have made such a serious and basic mistake.
See this video of another crash that demonstrates how humans can delude themselves.
The reason to highlight these videos is not to place blame, but to recognize the danger of not knowing why an incident happened. Without that, we are destined to repeat the mistake.
What do you think?
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