Picture the scene: you’re happily riding your motorcycle along a main road when suddenly and without warning a vehicle enters your path from a side road. You have a fraction of a second to react.
- Emergency brake to a halt, mentally congratulating yourself on your choice of a bike with ABS.
- Attempt to panic-swerve around the sudden obstruction knowing you have little chance of braking to avoid an impact
- Smash headlong into the obstruction and go directly to hospital. Or worse.
I’d wager you’d hope it were number one. It’s almost never number two. It could easily be number three.
Impenetrable objects suddenly presenting themselves in your way is part and parcel of being a motorcyclist. There’s all sorts of excuses other drivers use for doing this, and so common is it that the acronym SMIDSY (for Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You) is used as convenient shorthand for this type of incident.
Here’s what you can do as a motorcyclist to stay as safe as possible:
Tip 1. Don’t speed.
Drivers are notoriously poor at estimating the closing speed of motorcycles -especially at night- as bikes don’t have two widely spaced headlights which show at-a-glance their proximity or, through perspective, their rate of progress.
If a driver waiting to enter a road or turn right across it can’t recognise a space between approaching headlights, they may assume the white blur they see is a car and so must be a good distance off, not realising it is in fact the single headlight of a motorcycle closing in much more rapidly than they calculated.
By not speeding, you help drivers estimate your closing speed better and give yourself valuable time if they make a mess of it. Which they do. A lot.
Eye contact: As you approach a potential hazard – especially a car waiting to turn right across your path – try to establish eye contact with the driver. Looking into a driver’s eyes may give you a clue as to what they might do next. Have they actually seen you or are they looking in the opposite direction?
Tip 2. Improve your odds
Motorcycles present a limited frontal area and are more difficult to see compared to other vehicles. Short of taping a boat flare to your head, riding with a dipped headlight, wearing a white or light-coloured helmet and a hi-vis reflective jacket improves what limited means you have to get other drivers to notice your presence.
Tip 3. Know your patch: urban or rural?
The type of roads you ride on tell you a lot about what hazards might present themselves.
Urban roads have lower average speeds but there are multiple opportunities for drivers to dart across in front of you.
As any motorcycle courier will tell you, cities work on a system of all drivers knowing ‘The Rules’ whether these appear in the Highway Code or not. For example, drivers will rarely wait for a safe space to pull out but may push across your pathway simply because they know that occupying space is the only way to make progress.
Accept this as a fact and ride both defensively and offensively, by which I mean prepare for the worst by covering your front brake for a rapid response, but also occupy a dominant road position and ride confidently – don’t scoot along the gutters or white line it – you’ll be asking for trouble.
Spotting a problem before it’s a problem: Experienced urban riders scan for particular vehicles as potential problems. Multi drop delivery drivers for example lead a high pressure existence and, being timed, can be highly erratic. Taxi drivers are famous with motorcyclists for sudden changes of direction and everyone knows cars used during the school run are best avoided. Use your instincts – what might that vehicle do next?
A-roads share a toxic mix of high average speeds with local and cross-country commuter traffic, farm vehicles, public transport, HGVs, bicycles, pedestrians and even animals, all of which can appear from side roads without warning.
Although they seem safer at a glance than urban roads, you must ride with supreme care because of the increased speed differential between you and the potential hazard. Check ruthlessly for signage indicating junctions. Look ahead for tracks or wear marks showing possible construction or farm vehicles emanating from unmarked access points. Be vigilant where you see access points for out of town business parks, pubs or other developments.
A word on animals. If you frequently ride on rural roads at night – especially in forested areas during the early morning, be aware that deer can present a sudden and immovable obstacle to your progress. You will not enjoy this encounter with nature. Night-time A roads can make for safe push-on style motorcycling, but if you see the triangular warning signs for deer, respect them.
Tip 4. Consider all other road users as selfish, careless morons – even the ones who aren’t.
Modern cars are heavily marketed on occupant safety, so the modern driver’s mindset is increasingly that they’re largely immune from harm no matter what bad luck should befall them. Unfortunately this can also have the effect of making drivers more than a little careless with the safety of others.
Drivers are more distracted than ever before. Passengers, radio interviews with important pop stars, telephone calls, Facebook, What’s App, annoying children and the many needless electronic distractions modern cars are provided with all take their toll on the concentration of the modern driver.
As a motorcyclist, be satisfied with the thought that you’re the least important consideration in their lives and come a long way down the shopping list. Consider these out-of-the-car delightful people as self-interested morons the moment they step into one and you’ll be giving yourself a vital edge.
A word on pedestrians. It’s not only drivers who might suddenly rush across in front of you. Be particularly wary of pedestrians – especially if you habitually filter through stopped traffic. Some lemming like ones will choose the moment traffic temporarily halts to dash across multiple lanes. If you’re unlucky, one of them might pop out in front of a bus at the same moment you’re passing it. It will give them – and you – quite a surprise.
Tip 5. Take the time to remind yourself of your own vulnerability.
It’s sometimes easy to believe that we’re invulnerable, encased in our world of armoured safety clothing, velcro, padding and buckles. But even if you do have CE protective elbow pads and feel like Iron Man on steroids, you’re still sitting on top of something that has changed little in safety terms since it was invented over a century ago. Remembering this fact occasionally will help to keep your mind focused razor sharp on the safety angle.
If you think all this is a bit much and makes motorcycling seem like an unnecessary life risk, don’t be afraid. Just be aware – and enjoy your ride.