On Balance  

Gap in motorcycle safety

Not exactly “breaking news,” sorry. But it strikes me that Safety May could do with a little more emphasis than it’s had from, say, the provincial government or ICBC.

To be fair, of course, everyone’s been kind of busy with other stuff lately, and that other stuff has actually been good for road safety. Fewer vehicles on the road, fewer crashes and injuries, one less worry.

But it is May, and there are way more bikes on the road than last month, just like any other year. So, more riders at risk, and not just from The Virus. Thus, time to talk about motorcycle safety awareness.

I’ve read the Proclamation. And it is good. Except, well, mostly it’s all about something other than motorcycle safety awareness. Lots of stuff as usual about driver awareness, wildlife awareness, even noise awareness. Helpful, but…

We can agree that safety would be improved by more awareness in general on the part of, and about, all road users. We can even agree to be more “aware.” Nice. 

Job done?

Not so much.  My good and trusted friend, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, offers this about “aware”: concerned and well-informed about a particular subject. Having knowledge. 

What facts, what knowledge, about what’s actually happening on the roads, and what actually generates real safety outcomes in this province, right now, do we have? 

Do we know, for instance, how many riders have crashed so far this year? Do we have any concrete information about those crashes? Do we know which bikes – makes, models, equipment levels, age – are crashing? Do we know which riders – age, gender, training, experience, infraction history, residence relative to crash site, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or anything else? Do we know whether helmets stayed on heads, or fell off? Do we know anything about those helmets, like their configuration (full face, partial, modular, beanie), their age, their manufacturer, their rating levels?

This can go on, obviously. The point is this: No, we absolutely do not.

Starting with the currency of the data that is available, we look to ICBC and to Transport Canada for reporting and analysis of the reported motorcycle crashes. There, we can learn today how many reported crashes happened two years ago. 2018. 

Not current, then. Not even recent.

And, very importantly, not comprehensive by a long chalk, because of the “highly variable” reporting thresholds. In something other than bafflegab, that means we don’t gather data at all about any number of rider crashes that don’t meet the requirements for police or insurance reports. 

Over at WorkSafeBC, where you look for a template for injury prevention, the standard is that all incidents that resulted in injury, or might reasonably have resulted in injury, are required to be reported, and to be investigated. This is because we have much to learn from worksite incidents, particularly in the area of keeping people safe, if we will only pay attention to them.

Plainly this is not the standard on our roadways. Where untrained people are operating high-powered equipment at significant velocities in close and varying proximity to other road users, both protected and unprotected.

If we want to do motorcycle safety awareness, then, I propose that we start by gathering, analyzing, and reporting all the data. In real time.

Does this sound impossible? Tomorrow, turn on the television, or go online, and listen to the national and provincial COVID-19 updates. 

Or scan reports about motorcycle safety from other jurisdictions. For instance, as of May 15, there had been 24 motorcycle rider fatalities in Washington State; in 70% of those cases, rider behaviour or action is the major contributor. In Colorado, 26 fatal crashes so far this year, motorcyclist at fault in 22 of those. 

Similarly, we can access public reporting at least for 2019 in Alberta, Manitoba, New Mexico, Virginia, and very many more. 

This reflects, and generates, some greater measure of “awareness” than the overdue and outdated information from ICBC and Transport Canada.  I do not accept our failure to meet at least that standard.

Then there’s the other stuff I mentioned, the bike, gear, and rider specificity that are needed by a policy maker or an educator seriously wanting to generate improved safety outcomes. For example, what if the 2009 Humpty Dumpty Numpty turns out to be the only bike involved in fatal crashes for the past four years? Wouldn’t consumers want to know? Wouldn’t we want to know why?

The fact is that we don’t know, and nobody’s prepared to tell us. The data’s there, in the insurance and police reports, what there is of them. The VIN’s part of the dataset, and it opens out a whole suite of information about the vehicle, including for instance, whether ABS was spec’d.

As to gear, we know that not all helmets save lives. But we don’t know which do, and which don’t. We deserve better.

Same goes for jackets: some fall apart, some protect. Which?

And riders. Some crash a lot, some not. Which ones, and why, here?

May is Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month. Still hoping for some.

Pandemic and motorcyclists

A line from the movie “Moonstruck” comes to mind at times like these. It comes up when there’s a big (Italian) family brouhaha about who’s sleeping with whom, and the tension’s running pretty high in the room.

Grandpa breaks in and says: “Somebody tell a joke!”

Well? Sound about right? Had enough bad news?

Now, overwhelmingly, people tend not to snort laugh and wee a little whenever I try to follow the Instructor’s Guide, Section 2, “Introduce Humour.” So this isn’t that; relax.

It’s like puzzles, which I’ve always hated. Rubik’s Cube and comedy both require a certain intellectual deftness I do not possess. And yet, here’s the oddest thing: I seem to spend my life endlessly poking away at one or another project that turns out to have all the hallmarks of puzzledom. Lots of bits and pieces that should fit together, but in my hands keep feeling like they’re from warring galaxies. 

Usually this results in plenty of comedic entertainment for those more gifted at whatever I’m “learning lots” about. Or it would, except I learned a long time ago to live well away from others, and to lie extravagantly about the ease and simplicity of doing whatever it was I made such a dog’s breakfast of for hours.

Or days --------. I work very slowly, partly out of fear of once again totally destroying whatever it is this time that’s almost useable, but just needs a little adjustment. I cling to my torque wrenches like the wretch adrift in the sea clings to his life raft.

Guess this is a big part of why I’ve enjoyed helping people figure out motorcycling. I feel more at home with folks who are scratching their heads a bit, and maybe even on the cranky side of frustrated and pee’d off about whatever isn’t working for them, than I do with the prima donnas and the naturally gifted wunderkinds.

There’s a thing. In mountain biking, and before that skiing, it’s always been that the most gratifying downhill runs were the ones we had to work for, to sweat the climb. When we’re learning anything, especially motorcycling, we’re climbing. When we’re climbing, we’re learning, getting the feel of the slope and of how we’re doing today, and how yesterday’s ride is affecting and informing how we deal with today’s monster.

My hope about the students I get to spend time with is that they’ll hang onto some sense of how much it matters to always struggle a bit with riding. That they’ll have joy and success with it, have happy confidence. But also that they won’t settle into being too relaxed and confident about it all. There’s more to learn, and if we don’t keep at least one ear to the wind, one day it’ll blow us right sideways.

Isn’t that a moment, eh? There you are, buzzing along in the left lane, and whoosh! In the blink of an eye, you’re in the right lane, going, “Whoa, that could’ve been messy!” Or it is.

This is what the current pandemic is doing, well and truly blowing us right off our regular day-to-day track. Now everybody’s getting some basic motorcycling lessons, being well schooled in issues of vulnerability. We’re finding out that a lot of things people thought were OK, or as good as they needed to be, were actually crap, and left lots of us at stupid levels of risk.  Exposing neglected vulnerabilities. Whoosh.

As vulnerable road users, motorcyclists have been put-put-puttering along, neglected in the shadows of traffic safety for a very long time. So I figure here’s an opportunity to use the public health lessons that everyone’s getting on the nightly news.

Fact: the virus is at its worst where too many people are jammed into too little space, with everyone hurtling along not actually paying much attention to basic safety, and no barriers to keep us from exchanging fluids. Especially where some of those people are old, or they have serious health conditions.

Well? Sound familiar?

“Vulnerable road users.” It’s a term you recognize, if you took a riding course and managed to stay awake during the theory part. It means we’re more exposed to serious harm if anything goes even slightly pear-shaped on the way to grandma’s house. It makes sense because like others in the category (say, pedestrians and cyclists), there are no airbags and such around us when that happens. Very high ouch factor.

But the problem with being labelled “vulnerable” is really well illustrated by what’s going on with the virus. It turns out it’s been too easy to assume that whatever’s happening for our vulnerable seniors is just hunky-dory, because they’re having a nice relaxing ride in their care facility, out of sight. Vulnerable, tragically, has been bureau-speak for “expendable.”

We’re not cyclists. Nor pedestrians. We need safety provisions (research funding, data sharing, infrastructure, regulations, monitoring, training, equipment) that are adequate for, and specific to, our needs as users of motorized cycles, motor vehicles, not theirs. Our nice relaxing ride isn’t an excuse for officials to ignore our safety needs.

Wrong side of the road

I spoke too soon. There are, indeed, a bazillion riders on the road, COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines notwithstanding, so previous columns to the effect of “stay the blazes home” weren’t accurate. Sadly.

Setting aside the two or three percent of riders who are (ever) actually on the bike for essential trips, astonishing numbers of people seem to feel much smarter than all those pesky public health officials with advanced degrees in medical science and health epidemiology, so recreational riding season is well enough underway.

I do get it. Absolutely inundated with news of unprecedented loss and tragedy, we crave some form of balancing outlet now more than ever.

Speaking of, the people of Nova Scotia need our love and support while they cope with disaster on top of disaster. What an unimaginable horror has been visited upon those families and communities. Congratulations and thank you to everyone across our land who has found some way to let them know they are our family, our community, and we are with them in their pain, wanting to help them find their ways through this darkness.

For so many of us, one such way is to seek balance and perspective, and riding a motorcycle is our high road to that place. Movement through space is fundamental to the human feeling of well-being, and the more directly we connect to that process, it seems the more the experience delivers. 

Riding’s a pretty direct connection.

These days, while we’re working from home, and socially distant, we’re physically distant from what works for us on a lot of levels. Here’s my thinking: in sports of all sorts, there’s a tool people use to improve our sense of connection, our feel for how to move ourselves through space effectively, efficiently. 

Visualization. A guided process of imagining, “seeing” ourselves doing a particular action, manoeuvre, or series. It has the effect of helping us to use the abstract, or “disconnected” state, to strengthen the links between mental and sensory maps that we use when actually at the controls.

This has the crucial effect of allowing us to inject some essential calm into our experience of what we’re doing; the “mind’s eye” offers a perspective apart from a lot of the turmoil and angst that come up when we’re in the saddle, as it were.

Calm is the antidote for one of the biggest barriers to success in much of life, maybe especially riding motorcycles: performance anxiety. Stress. Freakin’ out.

I’ve danced with that monster a lot over the years, working with new and returning riders. People get so worked up over what might go wrong, they can’t process what they need to do, can’t “hear” and translate guidance. Without some calming and reassuring influence, things do tend to go wrong, the self-fulfilling prophecy at work.

Alright, already, where the blazes is this going, anyways?

Scroll back up to that image at the top. 

Remember what RCMP Constable Dave Cramm told us a couple of years ago about what was going on in a lot of the bike crashes in our area: riders lacking and losing steering control. Here’s a link to his assessment

One of the biggest challenges to rider safety is that we tend to rush into corners, where we need to be absolutely in control. Doing that maximizes the probability that our control skills are going to be on the line; if we haven’t got the skills, or we can’t use them (freaking), bad things happen. Fast.

Point is, we need a calm space to practice and develop those skills; leaned over, at warp speed, with an oncoming semi isn’t that space.

This could be. Stuck at home, we can still visualize approaching and working our way through that corner, sensing where to place ourselves on the road, how to adjust our body position, seeing where we need to be looking, feeling the brakes keeping us in check and allowing us some steering room, easing back on the gas as we start to straighten up and out. All without having to run over that centre line, without placing ourselves in Oncoming! space.

So, different than our buddy in the picture, who’s freaking out right now, about to whack something. Maybe the cyclist, maybe the oncoming motorcycle, maybe the roadside furniture. Maybe all of the above. This is a dude who really, really needed to spend some time earlier, practising, picturing, and getting a feeling for, how to turn the bike on his own side of the road. Calmly, and in control. 

On our own side of the road, meaning bike and rider. Not just our tires, while our head and shoulders are across the centre line. I see this all the time – riders seem to forget that leaning into a left-hand curve means we need to leave some space between the bike and the line. If we don’t, leaning means our helmet’s looking to take an impact we won’t survive.

Home study and visualize your cornering skills. Nick Ienatsch is a great resource, look him up.

Stay safe, be well.


Feeling the ride

Most of us are in a strange sort of limbo right now, experiencing a “separate reality” of a whole other sort.

Normally, at this time of year, I’m busy with new rider practical training, but this year, we’re working from the textbook of Covid-19, and it’s scary weird. 

I notice, from my listening post in the woods, that the usual roar of motorcycling enthusiasm is almost entirely absent. The North Okanagan 200 is eerily quiet, with no practitioners of the art threading their way through the bends of the Westside Dragon and Commonage Pass.

Well done all, for doing what we’re supposed to be doing, and staying home. 

Our Health Minister makes a point of telling us that it’s working in more ways than one.

Not only are our infection rates staying at a manageable level, but also larger numbers of our hospital emergency and acute care beds are available, because our paramedics aren’t delivering the usual number of casualty victims to their doors.

That’s very good news, but it still isn’t easy, doing without the terrific buzz we get from riding. Which has prompted some thinking about what it is, and how it works.

Motorcycling is a tactile thing. A lot of what we do, and how we do it, revolves around the feel of the experience. We tend to sense, rather than think about, when to shift, when and how far to lean into a curve, how the motor’s responding, what’s going on between the tires and the road surface.

We feel our way through the wind resistance and the air currents around us, the changing air temperatures as we move through different surroundings.

This is a very big part of the learning mountain, one that both new and returning riders have to climb.

  • What “the feel” means
  • How to translate nuances in vibration to an understanding of what’s happening
  • What to do (or expect) next.

On a bike, our feeling of direct, immediate connection to what’s going on pretty much defines how it happens, and at the same time how we feel about it.

People struggle with this. Some folks just instinctively seem to “get” one or another aspect, while others just, well, lack rhythm. 

Mechanical sympathy’s a good example. In a world where we’re increasingly isolated, not by COVID, but by microprocessors, insulation, cushioning, and surround sound from the raw data emitted by engines, transmissions, and tires, many people struggle to have any sense of when to shift, or how hard to brake. How hard to pull or push on a lever, how smoothly to give the machine direction.

The resultant roaring, screeching, clashing, and crunching only adds to the distress and the disharmony. Tears before bedtime, with or without broken bits.

Patience, dedication, and good guidance for the most part seem to overcome this, and we see riders go from lurching about in a panic to gradually feeling their way to an easier sense of how, what and when.

That first clean, smooth shift to second gear is a moment of sweet bliss. It happens when a rider puts together the feel of co-ordinating a myriad of involved senses into a deftly timed and executed set of actions.

You can’t learn this stuff from a book. You can learn about it from books, and videos, but you can’t learn “it” until you feel it for yourself.

The Lean is another of the mysteries of the senses. You’re not going far on a bike without first finding comfort and joy in the feeling of leaning into the direction you want to go.

Again, some struggle more than others with letting go of remaining upright. Much failure to turn results.

This is a trust thing, if we want to get all psychobabble about it — or recognizing that most riders just have different levels of this struggle.

It comes down to how attuned we are to the feel of balance, our sensed experience of when we have just the right amount of momentum, traction, and lean angle to arc that turn in sweet control. 

Not fully describable, only fully experienced. Same as any number of things we do in motion, leaning into an edged point of connection in tension. You have to do it, to feel it work, to do it. 

The importance of feel can’t be overstated. If you want to ride a motorcycle, especially if you want to ride well, start by paying close attention to controlling stuff by feel.

Whatever you physically manipulate, feel your way to the difference between rough and smooth actuation. Go for smooth. That’s the feel.

Bicycles let you play with both mechanical sympathy, and The Lean, by feel. Lots of our students haven’t been on one for many years, and their sense of feel reflects that.

The usual note of caution: feel defines why and how we ride. But it doesn’t define our safety. We often “feel safe” when we’re unknowingly at high levels of risk.

COVID-19 is doing a perfect job of teaching us this lesson. Apply it to riding.

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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