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The root cause of motorcycle crashes

Sunday, November 12, 2017   (5 Comments)
Posted by: Roger Wiles #3279

And close calls, as well. In fact, the researchers’ term of art is Near Crash. Philosophically and morally, near crashes are as bad as crashes, although from a practical standpoint, riders would much prefer a close brush with disaster to a crash under most any circumstance. After all, the same failures that lead to crashes also lead to near crashes, and luck probably plays a part in changing a crash into; "Whew! That was close!" We’ve all heard someone say they would rather be lucky than good, but Lady Luck’s razor cuts both ways, and I suspect that riders would much prefer that luck play no part in having fun and reducing risk while riding. What do you think about the subject?

In any event, wouldn’t it be nice if we could discover the root cause of motorcycle crashes and near crashes, and address that root cause in our day-to-day riding activities. So, what IS that root cause? Well, let’s go exploring.

Those who study such matters tell us that the primary or single cause of a particular crash is normally difficult to determine; usually, there are multiple risk-factors that converge, accumulate, and interact with one another in unpredictable ways that produce either the crash we all try to avoid, or the pucker-moment of a near crash. Take a peek at this scenario.

Clarence and Ty were enjoying a mid-morning ride through some winding mountain roads. The weather was clear, comfortable and dry, and the pavement was in good condition; since it had been recently repaved, there were barely visible temporary centerline markings. Clarence and Ty were riding in a staggered formation, with Clarence in the left-hand portion of the two-lane road, close to the centerline, and Ty’s position was about 50 feet back in the center portion of the lane. They were riding just a tad above the posted speed limit. This section featured a tall cliff on the left verge of the road, and a gently descending hillside just past the roadside ditch on the right verge.

Clarence was riding a nearly new motorcycle which was professionally serviced only two days previously, while Ty’s machine was not only well-used, but sported a worn rear tire.

As the duo approached a left-hand curve, a compact car appeared suddenly around the blind curve, about two feet over the centerline and drifting even further into the incoming lane. Ty was interested in viewing the scenery off to the right, and failed to notice that he was creeping up on Clarence’s bike as Clarence rolled off the throttle prior the curve. Clarence, however, was looking toward the curve as the car appeared, and realized that a crash was imminent; he caught a glimpse of Ty’s bike in his right mirror, very close, and knew that he would likely collide with Ty if be moved to the right, but had no other escape route. By this time, the collision had occurred, with Clarence’s machine striking the middle of the auto’s grill head-on, while Ty managed to lock the rear brake on his motorcycle and low-side into the soft ditch at a low speed without colliding with any object.

Clarence was thrown violently into the ditch on the right, and suffered a compound fracture of his left leg, a broken arm and multiple contusions; he was conscious when citizen first-responders arrived. Ty was dazed; his helmet came off during his low-side crash and he had scratches on the side of his head, as well as road-rash on the uncovered parts of his arms. Neither rider had been drinking, and both were well-rested. Both riders had temporary motorcycle permits that had been renewed multiple times. The driver of the compact car suffered a broken arm, and said that the power steering on her aged car had failed last week, and it was "hard to steer."

What was the cause of this crash? The defective auto? Was there more than once cause-factor that contributed to the crash? Did too many factors accumulate, so many that Ty and Clarence were overwhelmed and had no responses left? How many risk-factors were present, and how did they interact with one another to produce this horrific event? What errors, if any, did Ty and Clarence make? What do you think Clarence or Ty would say caused their crash? What could have prevented this crash? As an aside, The Lovely Norma and I were some of the initial citizen first-responders at this crash scene.

You may have a different count, but I find about six risk-factors in this sad tale, maybe more. Some risk-factors are moving, some are stationary, some appear in the moment, and some risk-factors begin sometime in the past. Some are under the control of the rider, while you may have no actual control over others. However, all the factors arrived at the scene of this crash together. But have we discovered the real root cause of crashes within this story? What do you think the real root cause, the ‘silver bullet’ might be?

Certainly, if Clarence and Ty had advance knowledge that an auto with defective steering would appear suddenly in their lane around a blind turn, they both would have taken action to reduce the risk and eliminate the likelihood of this crash happening, right? Unfortunately, the driver of the compact car neglected to first ring up Clarence and let him know that she was coming towards him in a car that maneuvered badly;"Watch out, fellas! I’m headed your way, and this thing steers like a pig!"

Risk-management folks tell us that there are few true ‘accidents;’ rather, events like this, ‘crashes,’ are predictable. If you or me can predict a crash, we then have the means to prevent it, despite the absence of prior detailed certain knowledge that broken auto would soon be in our lane. Were there visible clues to this risky situation present, clues that could have given Clarence and Ty some specific advance warning of a possible threat? Sure! See how many of them you can identify.

Let’s then consider the root cause of motorcycle crashes and close calls. Perhaps it is: A lack of awareness of nearby converging, accumulating and interacting risk-factors and clues.

We can defend ourselves by actively searching and scanning the situation for the visible clues that indicate hidden risks as well as spotting clearly visible risk-factors, and actively and consciously thinking about, and creatively predicting how the visible risk-factors, as well as the clues that point to the crash-traps in hiding might come together at the wrong time and the wrong place and produce a dreaded crash, or an embarrassing near crash. Then, of course, we take some actions early that mitigate or eliminate the risk in the potential crash-chain.

Many riders learned the strategy of Search, Evaluate, Execute from rider education classes and literature. Pretty easy to do, right? Well, yes, actually, it is a relatively easy task to perform, given these conditions:

  • The rider has undergone education of some type; the rider is informed
  • The rider has competent maneuvering skills, and maintains these regularly
  • The rider uses past experience to expand his or her personal knowledge base
  • The rider is actively and consciously involved, mentally, in the riding-task

The last bullet-point is the lynchpin of the entire process, isn’t it: Keeping our brain/mind ‘on-task’ while riding. Our minds have a voracious appetite for engagement and content. It’s likely that few, if any, humans are actually able to ‘think of nothing’ while awake and conscious. Try it; see if you can think of ‘nothing.’ Go ahead; we’ll take a few minutes off…

How did you do? Likely, you were actively involved in thinking; ‘nothing…nothing…nothing,’ weren’t you. And that’s thinking about something – it’s not ‘nothing.’ So, without some conscious mental oversight of what you, the rider, are currently taking on as a current thinking-task, our content-hungry minds can become subject to daydreaming, searching for an interesting, engaging thinking-task. Let’s define ‘daydreaming’ as any thinking-task that does not involve the business of actively searching and scanning, and evaluating all sensory input for possible threats and risk. We can become blissfully unaware of the threats posed by these multiple risk-factors that are continually milling around us, accumulating, forming up, dissipating, appearing and disappearing, changing, getting closer to us, dissolving, and so forth; the endless ribbon of road-risk as it presents itself to us.

This business of active mental self-oversight is possibly the second-highest order of mind/brain activity after self-awareness; is an active process of CHOOSING what to think about, how long to continue on that thinking-task, what task should be next, and what mental task is the most the important in one’s life at that moment. Or, what SHOULD be the most important.

Do you know how you or me can improve our attentiveness? If so, write Street Strategies with your thoughts. Clearly, as a well-known Hurt Study Finding states, "Lack of attention to the riding task is a common factor for the motorcyclist in a crash," and that makes you and me, riders, one of the constant potential risk factors. If it is indeed true, the root cause of motorcycle crashes is: "A lack of awareness of converging, accumulating and interacting risk-factors and clues," consider how you might address this issue within yourself. Street Strategies very much would like to hear from you on the subject!

Ride fun, ride often, ride safe… Think!

Originally published in BMW Owners News in November 2017.


Cal Drake says...
Posted Monday, December 4, 2017
I would think a bit of pre ride communication would be helpful. If the second rider had left more room this could have been avoided. I always ask any other riders to use even more following guides than a car would. Anybody can hit a slick spot, raised road dot, manhole cover or whatever. More room is usually the real need, and state the cautions early in the ride. In writing this, I note that I always try to start curves so that any oncoming cars would have to be nuts to be in my lane that far, and some few are.
Lorenzo Washington says...
Posted Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Riding safety relies heavily on the ability of the rider to perform an effective threat assessment, and adjust his/her riding accordingly. The most immediate threat in this instance was the blind curve. A proper reaction would have been to communicate the threat (hand signals?), and adjust road position in anticipation of the likelihood of a vehicle crossing the center line by slowing and taking a wider arc. Bottom line (stating the obvious) anticipate the threat, and act preemptively. If you're's too late.
Kevin Weiche says...
Posted Friday, November 17, 2017
When you say "choosing" what to think about, that is interesting. When I ride, I analyze the threat environment and alter my thinking accordingly. In other words, in heavy traffic in unfamiliar surroundings, I am thinking only of what I am seeing as I scan, particularly what is ahead. On a desolate stretch of Idaho or Wyoming roads in ideal conditions, I think about my favorite 19th-century American authors and their works, the meaning of life, where I will be next year. In education, metacognition is the process of knowing how we learn, and in riding, it is knowing how we allot our cognitive resources based on multiple conditions and variables to keep us safe and within our performance envelopes.
Jerry Scott says...
Posted Friday, November 17, 2017
The kind of crash you wrote about happened to me a couple of years ago while riding a Kawa 1000 Concours. My riding buddy a 50 something retired Marine on a 800cc Suzuki was not paying attention to me from behind as I slowed down to negotiate a fork in the road. He was watching the work on a farm house and didn't notice my speed until he came up on me and smacked me hard in the rear knocking both of us off the bikes and me tumbling head over ashcan on the pavement. I counted my helmet hitting the ground at least three times as I rolled over and over. From my motorcycle course, I remember to lie still until help came in case some was broken. I survived with a deep road burn down my right leg and Don had a broken clavicle. His not remaining attentive was the cause. Insurance paid for the two totaled bikes and a new helmet. Now, I am on a R1200RT and riding alone mostly except for benefit rides. Lastly, I was 76 when the accident occurred. You're never too late to learn. Ride safe.
James Cooksey says...
Posted Tuesday, November 14, 2017
When we say, "ride safe", we are actually saying "remain attentive" and that is sometimes hard to do.

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