On Balance  

Darkness is not your friend

Night Riding: There Be Dragons!

There we were, having a great late season, and Pow! It all went dark.

The annual fallback debacle, never welcome when I’m on two wheels. It’s mostly “trick" and not so much “treat” for us in the gathering gloom, what with not being able to see much beyond our front tires.

Depends, of course. Some of us are in the first bloom of youth, so those eyes are more readily dark-adapted.

For the rest of us, the larger demographic group, normal age-related vision changes mean we need a lot more light to see important details, such as potholes and pedestrians.

Two to three times more light.

Some of us, the lucky ones, are riding bikes that have lights a person can actually see with. Most of us, not so much. A lot of headlights are more glow-in-the-dark than light-up-my-life.

North American automotive headlight standards are not what they could be. My experience has been that European-market headlights are genuinely superior, have been for years.

This is a point that the American Automobile Association, Consumer Reports, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have been making some noise about.

Their testing reveals why so many of us are pretty uncomfortable driving in the dark, especially at highway speeds.

Turns out even the best contemporary headlight systems don’t give us enough light down the road to see a non-reflective object (say, the side of a deer) in time to stop safely at any speed over roughly 80 kilometres an hour.

On high beam.

Which most people don’t use, even when we can. Odd, but true. Most drivers don’t use their brights, research says.

Of course, most of the time, there’s oncoming traffic so you can’t use them to save your life. Which was kind of the idea.

Those headlight tests are with new vehicles, any make/model/price range. Quite disturbing reading, which you too can fill a quiet moment with: try https://www.iihs.org/topics/headlights.

Any car or truck, that is.  Not, as usual, motorcycles.

I can’t find any trace of scientifically tests motorcycle headlights in controlled road-simulation trials.

Believe me, I’ve wasted some serious keyboard time searching. Lots of the usual marketing claims, and even a bit of bench testing for brightness.

But no bike-by-bike tests like IIHS and Consumer Reports do for cars and trucks.

So we don’t know. All I can figure is, take a pair of rather useless automotive headlights, and divide by two. There’s your motorcycle headlight test. One half of not very good.

There is, happily, a whole bunch of other research on motorcycle headlights. That’s the stuff about how much more visible we are to other vehicle drivers when we ride with headlights on in the daytime. We are, and it does reduce our crash risks, so that’s a good thing.

But I’d still rather count on seeing where I’m going at night, than count on someone else seeing me coming in the light.

I know, just crazy talk.

About that problem of seeing where we’re going. One of the reasons new riders aren’t allowed to ride in the dark until they’ve passed a (daytime) riding skills test is that riding at night is really disorienting.

When we turn motorcycles, we lean them over in the direction of the curve. And it all goes dark in that direction.

This is because the headlight leaned over too, and now it’s shining down instead of forward. Clever bit of engineering there.

People probably heard my excited cries of joy for miles around when I first experienced the full effect of that piece of “intelligent design” at speed.

Ah, but I’m being way too negative. Setting aside for a minute that more than 50% of rider fatalities happen in the evening hours, 42% of them in dusk or dark, we do have reason to hope to enjoy those after-hours rides.

First, our provincial government is doing something we asked them to do. They’re letting us stop falling back next year. Maybe. Depends on California. So anyway, more daylight for shoulder season evening rides.

Next, lights are getting better. Most of the leading manufacturers are starting to offer “cornering headlights,” part of motorcycle stability packages.

These beauties add in-fill lights in the direction of the curve we’re following, to compensate for the lean problem.

Also, there are retrofits of LED and HID bulb systems for our current lights. But I don’t know anything about that, because it’s not legal to make your existing lights work better. So forget I said anything.

Instead, there are better quality bulbs for the lights we’re stuck with, and there are a host of auxiliary lights we can add. Most are LED type, so less drain on the charging system, and better light down the road. Well worth it.

Last, we do have the option of not using the whole twist of the wrist all the time. Slowing down amid the dragons in poor light conditions can bring with it the twin benefits of living longer and enjoying the ride through the misty moonlight.

And that’s a whole happier tune.


The irony of not walking

Mental Health alert!

OK, this is still a column about traffic safety, especially but not exclusively for motorcyclists. First though, I have to look after an issue that just came up.

I learned, in discussion with the editor of a major Canadian motorcycle magazine, that the stuff I’ve been writing is “too depressing,” with not enough solutions.

True, I don’t have to sell motorcycles or motorcycling, my role is specifically rider safety, so I’ve not been offering the usual happy-clappy fluff you can buy at the magazine racks.

But in any case, I felt I should make some mental health suggestions in case somebody is feeling a bit blue after reading about safety issues and how they affect us. Degrees in psychology and social work, after all.

Little irony there, eh?

So here you go: take a hike, ride a bike, go for a swim, ski, snowshoe, whatever. Run, jog, racewalk on the trails. Get some physical activity. Burn off calories and the blues, so it’s a twofer.

Decades of research have confirmed what my grandparents knew on the homestead. Moderate physical activity, “aerobic activity”, is a very effective antidote to depression, more effective in many cases than various medications and other therapies.

Go outside and play, as my mom used to say.

But, like the headline says, don’t walk. Around town. Especially, across roadways.

Because that, my friends, is a very good way to get killed or injured, wrecking the happy buzz you were after. Particularly at this time of year, it’s a minefield on our city streets, and crosswalks are where the big bang happens.

This is familiar to motorcyclists because intersections are very hazardous zones for us while we’re riding. Same deal as pedestrians, because, well, we’re “vulnerable road users” either way.

That’s what the safety boffins call both groups. No roof and fenders equals vulnerable.

Forty per cent of pedestrian fatalities happen at intersections, often involving a vehicle turning left or right across a pedestrian’s path. Just like when we’re on the bike. Big numbers in the afternoon or early evening, same again. 75% of pedestrian injuries happen in the evening rush hour. Similar patterns.

Not similar: time of year when this is at it’s worst. Which starts right now, when we’re putting away the bike. And continuing through the winter non-riding, pedestrian doldrums.

So, fellow riders, right when we thought we could let our hair down a bit from all our intersection vigilance, what’s actually happening is we’re just changing our roles but not our risks.

Some other patterns will seem familiar as well. When it comes to solutions, the standard old party lines get repeated endlessly.

  • Look left and right before crossing.
  • Make eye contact with drivers.
  • Approach with caution, don’t rush into the intersection (crosswalk).
  • Be prepared to yield, even if you “have the right of way”. No point in being dead right.
  • Avoid distractions, like phones, headphones, and texting.
  • And  - Wear Bright Clothing!

Once again, (depressingly), we as vulnerable road users are told to look after our own safety, by dressing up like a clown and waiting for everyone else to get where they’re going first. Wowee. 

Oh yeah, I forgot. Wear a hat with flashing lights. Helpful.

But, what if we actually want to stop the carnage? After all, the Better Homes and Garbage list for pedestrian safety has, for decades, just let pedestrians occupy a bigger, not a smaller, piece of the injury and fatality pie chart. Like riders.

For some stuff that works, here’s an “aerobic activity lis," if you will, for real pedestrian safety. The stuff I want all our governments to get busy with.

  • Change the crosswalks. Raised, better lit, and better controlled pedestrian crossings save lives.
  • Change the timing. When cars and pedestrians occupy the same space at the same time, people die. So, pedestrian movement only, then automotive movement only.
  • Change the speeds. The faster a vehicle is moving when it hits a pedestrian, the more likely a fatality.
    30 km speed limits at crossings and in high-pedestrian areas save lives. Proven worldwide.
  • Change the placement. Moving the crosswalk back a few feet along the roadway, instead of right at the point where vehicles are starting a turn, gives drivers more time/space to actually look for pedestrians.
  • Change the timeframes. Pedestrians move at a bit less than the speed of light, that is to say, the Walk Light. 18 seconds? How far is Grandma going to get in 18 seconds? Into harm’s way, that’s how far.
  • Change the movement. Some cities have a different pattern for pedestrian crossings.  Cars in all directions get red lights, and then pedestrians can cross in all directions, including diagonally. Called a “pedestrian scramble." Works.
  • Change the courts. In countries with better safety records, drivers who hit pedestrians are automatically deemed at fault, and penalized accordingly. Here, our legal view seems to be that pedestrians are the problem, and they struggle for compensation. Should have worn that yellow hat with the lights.

Proven solutions. The Safer Systems Approach to road safety. If our leaders implement them, following the Provincial Road Safety Strategy, we’ll all be a lot less “vulnerable.”

Also happier, walking or riding.

What's stopping you?

We motorcyclists are a pretty unstable bunch. Sad, but true.

Oddly, this didn’t come up when I was grinding through the obligatory psychology degree. It came up when I was studying the problems with motorcycle safety.

Turns out that one of our big problems is that we fall down.

A lot.

Most often, when there’s something getting us overexcited, like another vehicle turning in front of us, or when we’ve gone into a corner too fast.

We jump on the brakes, lose control, and throw the bike on the ground. Or into something we needed to miss.

In any case, a sudden lack of upright attitude, with consequent injuries, at the very least to our pride, but more usually to our person. And the bike, of course.

This has a lot to do with the fact that motorcycles don’t stand up on their own, like cars and trucks. They need us to balance them on their pointy little rubber toes, there being only the two of them. Unstable.

Because of this, a lot of safety experts globally have taken to stating the (blatantly) obvious:

if we don’t come up with some way to keep motorcycles upright, especially when they need to stop quickly, then it’s best to get rid of them.

If we can’t keep bikes upright, and we don’t get rid of them, then motorcyclists are going to keep being injured or killed. The goal of road-safety programs is to prevent injury and death, so there’s your problem.

Here’s the scope.

  • In B.C., we average about 35 rider fatalities a year, and 1,600 injuries.
  • In Canada, about 200 rider fatalities annually.

That is one very large group of people who aren’t coming to this weekend’s Thanksgiving blow-out, or whatever other family event is on the horizon. A lot of families who really, really wish the motorcycle of note had stayed upright and stopped all in one piece.

Put another way, that is a massive financial cost to society. According to the coldly analytical document, “Default Values for Benefit Cost Analysis”, 2018,  BC Ministry for Transportation and Infrastructure, there is an average total cost for collisions.

And that cost is part of how we make decisions about the relative benefits to making changes in our transportation systems. CBA.

Here are the numbers: fatal collisions cost society roughly $8 million. Each.

And those 1,600 serious injury crashes in B.C. — if it got reported to ICBC, it was a serious injury  — $2 million. Each.

Ouch. But what to do?

Better stops.

Riders need help to stop bikes in emergencies, instead of losing control, falling down, and whacking things at speed. The common-sense standard prescription for that is: riders need more training, or in most cases, some training. And more experience.

Training is what I do, so I agree. Every rider instructor out there is very willing and able to describe, demonstrate, and coach riders both new and “seasoned” in the fine arts of using the brakes effectively.

That is, unfortunately, a major fly in the ointment. The fine arts.

People in trouble are often not at their best or most proficient. In an emergency, we do what we do, not necessarily what we can do when it’s a nice calm day in the studio. Or in a training session on a parking lot.

You see this when you root around in the research about motorcycle crash causation. Riders with training, without training, with extensive experience and without, tend to screw up in pretty much the same ways and to the same extent, in emergencies. Skid, crunch.

There’s a doctrine in law about this, called “agony of collision.”

In a nutshell, the courts have noticed that people acting in what they feel is an emergency can’t be expected to exercise perfect judgment or do the perfect thing. There are legal precedents built on this point. I’m no lawyer, so you should look this up yourself.

I came across it in a case referenced by Tim Schewe (Castanet columnist who appears on Tuesday) in his most recent DriveSmartBC posting.

We need, therefore, to move on. Can’t just expect riders to be perfect when they’re freaked out and reaching for the brakes.

Instead, all riders need better brakes. Ones that help us stop the bike upright, without skidding and losing control. With Anti-lock Braking Systems, or ABS, that’s what we get. This has been comprehensively proven.

See: https://www.iihs.org/topics/motorcycles#motorcycle-abs

Motorcycle ABS reduces fatal collisions by 30-40%. Injury collisions by 25-30%.

Whoa! You’d think that would be standard equipment, wouldn’t you?

It is. In Europe, India, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia……… Not Canada.

Here, when you go shopping for a bike, like you’re probably planning this weekend, (falling leaves bring falling prices), you have to ask for ABS. And on lots of bikes, you have to pay the extra cost for the option.

Your call. I paid the extra couple of hundred bucks. I figure that’s a better deal than the $8 million. And missing out on turkey.

What’s stopping you?


Dead man's curve

Our beautiful B.C. is a land of fantastical landscapes, of deep and winding valleys through steep and rugged mountainous terrain.

Those of us who love riding motorcycles are doubly blessed because our roadways, for the most part, follow those contours, up and down, twisting and turning, coiling back on themselves, endlessly fascinating and challenging.

Each turn or rise is a new vista, often a whole different topography, and every shift of shape drives us to deeper connection with our bikes and ourselves.

That’s the good part.

Not so good is when it all goes horribly wrong on one of those curves.  

In a moment, a heartbeat, we’re down and gone.

That particular moment has come this season for far too many riders in the Southern Interior. 

By my count, based on the media reports I can find, 13 riders have died of their injuries this year. Can’t tell how many more are badly injured, but from previous year statistics, at least 500.

I combed the media reports to find those numbers because we need to be able to talk about this year now, not two or three years from now, which is when the official statistics come out.

These aren’t just numbers we’re talking about. These are people, families, communities. In a river of pain. Right now.

So I want to be very, very careful here to be heard as a person who gives a damn about those people, and not just some wonk playing around with the numbers about their lives.

Before we go any further, let me introduce you to some other people who give a damn, and actually do something about it:

AIM, the Interior BC Association for Injured Motorcyclists, in a community near you, is a group of people who volunteer their time and energy to provide some help to downed riders and their families. They get out there and lend a real hand.

You can find them if you or somebody you know needs them, by phone or by e-mail:

250-306-4561; [email protected].

Go ahead. They’re the real deal.

Now, it’s cold and wet outside, and I’m happy about that, because what it means today there are fewer riders on the road, so fewer chances for another rider to be hurt or worse.

But “fewer” isn’t good enough.  

Relying on rain to wash away the problem is just daft.

I’m looking for zero. Zero fatalities on our roads.

Nothing else comes anywhere close to what I expect, and we should all expect for each other. That’s the plan, and Vision Zero is what it’s called, around the world.

You can look it up: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vision_Zero

The idea, originated in Sweden in the 1990s, is straightforward.

We need to stop accepting that some people will die, others be harmed for life, just trying to get from A to B.

Mobility is what we want from our transportation system, not death. And to get there from here, we need to stop kidding ourselves about what works, and what doesn’t, to create safety.

What works is a systematic way to deal with the problems of getting people safely from A to B, instead of just forever hectoring people to “straighten up and fly right."

That system, the “Safer Systems Approach” is based on a very clear-eyed, honest appraisal of the human being.

  • Fact: people make mistakes. All the time. That’s never going away. We can reduce error rates, but it’s ridiculous to base everybody’s safety just on the wild notion that we can somehow magically get
    100% of the road users, 100% of the time, to be 100% correct in their decisions and their actions.

For this reason, we need all the elements of our road system to make it possible for people to survive human error; to arrive alive in spite of it.

  • Fact: human beings aren’t built for hitting. If we’re hit too hard, we perish. This is a pretty major flaw in our design, but we’re not making any useful headway in genetically modifying our way to indestructibility.

For this reason, we need a road system that has designed-in limits to the amount of impact force a person will have to deal with when a mistake is made. The limit for pedestrians, for example, is very familiar.

Remember those reminders earlier this month about school zones? 30 kilometres an hour, right?

Why? If a car hits a person at that speed, they have about a 90% chance of living. At 40 k/hr, they’re five to six times more likely to die.

So, to get to Zero rider fatalities, we’re going to use a Safer System that works to reduce riders’, and other drivers’, mistakes, and at the same time prevent fatalities from them.

It works on four channels:

  • safer riders
  • on safer roads
  • riding safer motorcycles
  • at safer speeds.

Starting now. Channel Two:

All those curves on B.C. roads? Predictably deadly.

Seventy per cent of the riders who died this season in the Southern Interior lost control and crashed on curves, into oncoming vehicles or into trees and rocks, for lack of simple protective barriers. Some concrete protection.

Stop the blame, and the pain. Fix the roads.

More On Balance articles

About the Author

Bill Downey is a retired professional social worker in support programs for people with congenital or acquired physical and cognitive challenges, who was also a volunteer firefighter and a BCGEU health and safety advocate.

For many years, he has been a motorcycle riding coach/instructor with Kelowna Safety Council who spends too much time studying international traffic safety research and not enough time doing all the outdoor things a boy from the Okanagan should be doing.

He has lived a very large portion of his life on two wheels as a commuting and travelling cyclist, but, for the extra challenge, he is also as a motorcycle commuter.

By nature, he has a balanced approach to all things.

[email protected]https://kdsc.bc.ca

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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