Speed and Motorcycles
Accident reports frequently note that the motorcycle rider was going "too fast for conditions." Too often the condition the motorcyclist had overrun was his own skill level. Can you really handle the speed you normally travel when things go wrong? If not, what can you do about it? From the October 2003 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine.
Read traffic accident reports, summaries or statistics, and you will often see the comment that "speed was a factor." That presumably means that somebody was moving too fast. But if you think about it, speed is always a factor in an accident. After all, if nobody is moving, there is no accident, right?
The report may also read "too fast for conditions." That seems to mean that although there are times when one may safely ride or drive at a higher speed than the accident-involved vehicle was going when things went wrong, at this time going that speed was dangerous, although the conditions are often not specified. Traffic, rain, or road construction might be "conditions" that would dictate that you slow down. However, if a car turns right in front of you, almost any velocity is too fast for that condition.
I have experienced conditions, like freezing rain, where any movement in almost any vehicle, and even on foot, could be too fast to reliably maintain control. However, there are also situations where you could be going too slow for conditions. Anybody who has ridden on a soft dirt or sand road has experienced this. You simply can't steer a motorcycle until you get up enough speed to get on top of the sand. Going the speed limit on some major highways can also be too slow for safety, if everybody is going 20 mph faster. I recently passed a Valkyrie rider on I-10 who was going 55 in a 65-mph zone and was a danger to himself and those around him as cars came up on him going 10 to 20 mph faster and braked hard or swerved to get around the unexpected rolling roadblock.
One of the "conditions" you never see mentioned is rider skill. How many people riding along at 70 mph have even attempted a panic stop from that speed? Have you? I mean, a real, both-brakes, front-tire-howling panic stop, like you'd need to perform if a vehicle came over the median, an elk walked onto the road ahead (been there), or an SUV rolled while its supposed driver was trying to juggle a cell phone, a notebook, and a Big Mac? How about a full-tilt swerve at that speed? Can you comfortably wrench the handlebar for a full-performance countersteering swerve around an obstacle at the speed you routinely ride on the highway and then immediately wrench it back to stay on the road? Are you sure? Have you practiced...recently? (If you have no idea what countersteering is, call 800/446-9227 or go to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's website immediately and sign up for a rider-training session right now. Don't ride until you do.) If you can't answer "yes" to those questions, then you are probably riding too fast for your condition.
Does the idea of really slamming on both brakes at 70 mph scare you? Do you think that if you can stop hard at 30 mph that you are good to go...er, stop at twice that? Don't count on it, especially if you haven't practiced high-speed stops. Do you know how much distance you need to stop at 60 mph? Did you know that while your reaction distance only doubles when your speed doubles, the actual distance needed to stop -- once you get to max braking -- is about four times greater? A typical cruiser with an expert rider stops in 30 to 35 feet from 30 mph but requires 120 to 140 feet from 60 mph. That's with someone who does it routinely, picks his spot, covers the controls going into the stop, and is mentally and physically prepared to hammer on the brakes, and is dressed for the fall if he screws up.
However, Calvin Cruiser, who is rumbling down the a somewhat unevenly paved road with his feet on the highway pegs, his right hand loosely on the friction-damper-held throttle, his left hand on his hip, thinking about that hottie he met least night, carefully dressed for what will soon become excess in his Nikes, fingerless gloves, muscle T, leather vest, and head protection by Ray-Ban, and who last practiced high-speed stops never, is likely going to take at least twice that distance, and it could be much more if he isn't comfortable really yanking on that front brake lever. And he can die or be turned into a zucchini if he comes up just 15 feet short...er, long.
The same goes for corners. In college, I used to hang around with a bunch of guys who categorized states by how to interpret the recommended-speed signs posted as you approached corners. "Indiana," Dave would tell the other Dave, "Is a double-it-and-add-30 state, like Florida. Now, Ohio is a double-it-and-add-15 state. In Colorado, you just double it, unless you are riding a Metralla or Commando..." The problem with that logic showed up one afternoon when the girlfriend of Dave Mk. II put his dad's car in an Ohio cornfield. Dave knew how to comfortably negotiate that marked-for-25-mph turn at 65, and had done so many times, but his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend (to whom he'd just recommended that speed) didn't have a clue.
The same thing shows up in motorcyclists. The guy ahead knows how to manage that turn at 50 and has done so before. He doesn't freak when his floorboard drags. But the guy behind him, who just rode into the corner at the same speed, always thought that leaning over more than needed to leave the driveway was dangerous, really scary, or maybe even irresponsible, and never tried it. Now, suddenly realizing that he's faced with a corner that's beyond his experience, he:
1. Gets on the brakes, which makes it hard to turn, and runs off the road.
2. Gets into the turn, drags his footrest, freaks, straightens up and runs off the road.
3. Resists turning at first, gets too close to the outside edge of the road, then turns too hard, perhaps with the brakes on, and crashes.
4. If it's a right-hand turn, he does one of the above and crosses the centerline, becoming the hood ornament on an Escalade going the other way. (And, although this will be counted as a two-vehicle accident, the car driver has contributed nothing except his presence, though most riders upon hearing that a car was involved with no other details will assume that the driver was at fault.)
This is becoming the most common accident scenario in American motorcycling. Riders run off of turns that their bikes are easily capable of handling at the speed they were going and crash. The bike could do it, but the rider didn't know how. The condition he was going too fast for was his own sad skill level. Of course, the same rider is no more prepared for that common other-guy scenario and won't be able to effectively swerve or brake when a car turns in front of him.
I'm not sure why so many riders refuse to work on their skills. Some will tell you they have been riding for decades and never had a crash, but if you follow a typical example, you wonder how that's possible. You see him lock up the rear wheel with no front brake applied at a stop sign, sawing at the handlebar in a corner as he tries to find a lean angle that will complete the turn but doesn't scare him, dragging a foot up to and away from every stop, and blowing through lights that turned red way before he got to the intersection because he was going a bit fast and is afraid to brake hard.
He probably has never taken any training and certainly hasn't taken any advanced training this century. (He says it's because he feels like he's a pretty good, safe rider, but it sounds suspiciously like it's because he's afraid he might get criticized -- even though most of the rest of the class members aren't any different.) He won't wear anything conspicuous, and he certainly isn't going to impinge on his own freedom by forcing himself to wear a DOT helmet. (A guy actually told me that.) Yet, when you ask him why he has loud pipes that are obviously irritating almost everyone around, it's because "they save lives." Right, his concern for safety is real convincing.
But he thinks nothing of running down the road at 80 or 90. Nothing can happen out here on the open road, he tells you. And 20 mph over the limit in town is no big deal to me, he says. I can handle it. Too bad that's not true. But the really sad part is that with a bit of work on his skills, he might have turned that awful, unseen event into a non-event -- if he'd taken some time to become as good rider as he pretended to be. (If you don't believe things actually go wrong very often, go to Google News Search some Monday and have it search for "motorcyclist." You'll read about some of the riders who didn't think it would happen to them that weekend.)
Improving your skills, either in a racetrack course (see www.motorcyclecruiser.com/streetsurvival/Skool/ for info on cruiser-friendly schools), at a Motorcycle Safety Foundation RiderCourse (see www.msf-usa.org), or simply practicing on your own in a safe environment, can be fun and confidence-inspiring. Spending a couple of hours with your cruiser (or any bike) on a racetrack will open your eyes to motorcycling vistas you probably never knew existed and can expand your abilities and self-assurance enormously. Repetition every 6 to 18 months will reinforce the experience and the lessons.
Unfortunately, cruiser riders tend to lack the attitude that solid or even superior riding skills make you cool, an attitude which tends to prevail among sportbike and dirtbike riders. The "biker" segment of motorcycling too often tends to dismiss mastering your machine as showing off or as displays of speed and anything concerning safety (starting with helmets) as dorky. But there is nothing excessive -- or dorky -- about knowing the basic limits of your motorcycle's turning or stopping capability or being able to ride to them when that thing that can't happen actually does. Taking the first step may be intimidating, but you owe it to your relatives and friends to ride as well as they think you can.
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