On Balance  

Riding and the White Bear

I’ve been obsessing, sifting through media reports to get last year’s count of tragic results from our mutual passion.

I do this because data summaries in this province are always years out of date. And they’re rubbish.

A solemn task, and not just a voyeuristic impulse, like the guy with the camera who has no business on scene, but intrudes, clicking away to satisfy his own ghoulish needs.

And a frustrating task, struggling with the reports themselves, because we’re often left with a limited sense of what actually happened.

More often than not, some banal comment about impairment not being a factor, or whatever.

Makes sense, though. There are obvious privacy issues, and sensitivity concerns, that I share. I apologize if it doesn’t seem like it. There are legal issues, insurance issues, you name it.

So we rarely get a comprehensive understanding of the who-what-when-how-why, except in the rare instance of published court proceedings.

Still, if we’re going to have any sort of useful discussion about rider safety that’s relevant to our local experience, we do need to know more than we’re told.

And the information sure isn’t coming from ICBC.

Their most current data summary, for 2019, does confirm what we were able to glean from the media survey for the year:

As usual, 13 fatalities in the Southern Interior region.

Once again, our area topped the provincial collision outcome severity rates. We didn’t crash more than riders in other areas, but the crashes were more often fatal.

Might want to read that last sentence again.

Now, the Southern Interior region is a vast territory, so to be specific:

Highway 97. From just north of Vernon, to Osoyoos. Even more specifically, from Peachland to Penticton. Apart from that, Highway 3 beyond Princeton. The Kamloops area, and the Salmon Arm-Sicamous area of Highway 1. Highway 33. Occasionally outside those corridors, but not concentrated in particular areas.

In terms of rider safety, we really are talking about some very identifiable sections of the main routes through the Thompson-Okanagan that have for years been very hazardous for motorcyclists.

You can see where this is going: just like with the COVID vaccination roll-out debates, there’s a pressing case to be made for targeted road safety measures specific to motorcycling in historically high-risk zones.

How did last year compare? Did the outcomes support that case? Absolutely, they did.

Even though, for large chunks of the year, we weren’t supposed to be taking “non-essential trips” (almost the definition of motorcycling), we lost nine good souls in our region. Five of them on the Highway 97 corridor, as described.

Painfully, more women seem to be showing up in this ledger. I’ve written before on my growing concern about the specific safety issues for women who ride. Usually, those issues don’t seem reflected in the fatality rates.

During the past 10 years, the B.C Coroners Service has found that 91.3% of riders fatally injured were men, and only 8.7% were women, usually passengers.

Last year, in our area, make that 22%, riders, not passengers.

I’m worried about this becoming a trend. Even though the numbers are small, the change they represent is consistent with the changing demographic, and the limited amount of women-specific design incorporated to motorcyclist safety.

What else do we see in the reports?

We see the White Bear.

Dostoevsky apparently said it first: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

That’s from Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, 1863, not that I’ve read them.

More recently, this has been studied as the problem of Rebound Effect Psychology, or Ironic Process Theory, but we get it.

The more you try to look away from something, or not think about it, the more you wind up looking at or thinking about just that, overwhelmingly.

We also call this “target fixation” sometimes, in Rider Theory.

On the Okanagan roads last year, this looks to have cost lives two different, but critically related ways.

First, riders crashed into vehicles in their path, or near it. Too often, as described in most rider training, this happens when riders are unable to avoid a hazard because they can’t direct their sight, thoughts, and actions anywhere but directly at that terrifying thing.

The White Bear.

“Look away, to stay away,” or “Look to safety, look to your out.” Easy for us instructors to say, but as the science tells us, extremely hard to actually do in the moment. Fear and resultant fixation are cruel and relentless masters.

Second, though, and important, The Bear invades the mind of people responsible for making our roads safer. In this case, try as they might, they cannot stop seeing motorcyclists as The Problem, and look instead at the roads.

In most fatal collisions here last year, and previous years, a simple centre divider on the roadway would have saved the rider.

We need a concentrated effort by decision makers to look away from riders, toward the needed safety measures for everyone.


Ready, set, check your head

May is Motorcycle Safety Awareness month. A day late and a dollar short, as they say.

Around here, that should be March, because our two-wheeling community is already out and about in serious numbers. Why wait for (late) spring?

It’s not just us, though. According to the Motorcycle Moped Industry Council of Canada, sales of new bikes are booming across the land.

February sales this year are way up over previous years, with street rides finally showing some strength. Last year it was all about the dirt, and boy, were those numbers amazing.

Obvious, when you think about it, what with COVID driving a huge rediscovery of the outdoor life.

We’re definitely on a roll, which means now’s the time to think about how to keep the shiny side up, instead of waiting for May. Let’s start with the problem of rust.

Yeah, no, I know you looked after the bike, it isn’t all rusty and crusty from leaning on the back of the shed all winter. It’s been hiding somewhere cozy out of the weather, while the old pickup was bearing the brunt of wintry road conditions.

That’s where the type of rust I’m talking about was creeping in; it was sneakily coating and corroding our riding tools while we were using others: our driving tools. OK, skills.

Actually, this goes a bit beyond just the spring transition to riding, it applies for lots or riders throughout the year. If the vehicle you’ve been using most of the time isn’t a motorcycle of some sort, then you need to take a moment every time you do get around to rolling Rooster out of the shed.

But especially now.

The point about rusty skills is, behind the wheel we get used to having some extra crunch space around us, and we get into some habits that can really put us in harm’s way on the bike if we don’t choose to lose ‘em.

Michel Mersereau, of the Rider Training Institute, writing for Inside Motorcycles mag, raises the issue that there’s been a major increase in aggressive driving in recent years.

He points out that this is also showing up in rider collision types and numbers, with particular emphasis on the high rates of rear end crashes.

This has come up in other research I’ve seen, but he’s looking at Toronto Police records, from a couple of the country’s busiest roadways. There, of a group of 206 motorcycle-involved, multiple vehicle crashes, 58% of them were riders whacking into the back of whatever was ahead of them.

Motorcycles, ridden aggressively, rear end other vehicles more often than the other way around.

That’s a wildly different picture than you get from all the stuff you usually hear and read in the motorcycle world. Which is all about protecting yourself from the menace of the following driver.

Good plan, but maybe better to sharpen your own following skills, keep your distance, and anticipate “unexpected slowing” ahead. The front bumper on your bike has your teeth inside it.

Mersereau’s stats, by the way, were from expressways. No intersections. Which is another place where life needs to be more, considered, shall we say, on a bike. Aggressively accelerating late toward an intersection, like many of the drivers I see, is Plan A for some serious injuries on a bike.

Stuff changes really quickly at intersections, so our habits have to change ahead of time to manage that fact.

Instead of just whacking on the throttle to beat the light, park that pickup habit and slow down, touch the brakes, double check what’s up with everyone, and ease through the trouble zone ready to stop instead of go. Helps keep you out of ambulances.

Touching the brakes, though, is where rust is a serious problem. Rust, and lack of operator familiarity with the controls. I’m not just talking inexperience, here. I’m talking habit.

Rider instructors spend a lot of their working lives attending to the several issues involved in stopping motorcycles. Of these, one of the most prominent is that the controls are very different than in other vehicles, and they have to be used very differently.

When drivers (which most riders actually are most of the time, especially winter) transition onto a bike, they have to overcome deeply ingrained habits and familiarity with the brake pedal.

Especially when we’re panicked, we mash down hard with the right foot on a bike’s rear brake lever, using those driving habits. This tends to create a mahoosive rear tire skid that ends with a smack. Or, for the fortunate with ABS, just not stopping in time.

Either way, what’s needed instead is some practice time to scrape off some rust, and re-familiarize ourselves with our control systems, instead of ignoring the problems of transitioning from the cab to the saddle.

This is where parking lot sessions and skill refreshers, maybe with an instructor, come in. At the beginning of the season. Like now.

Happy polishing!

Back in the Ride Life Again

Hey, how ya doin? It’s been awhile, you still up for it? And did you notice I ripped off the title?

Right! The theme song for this column is Steve Winwood’s timeless classic, The High Life. Because, well, it’s riding season, and like he says, we’re back, going to do our own version of singing and dancing with one hand free, and won’t we be a sight to see.

If you’ve read any of my columns, you know my brief is traffic safety through the lens of motorcycling. So today’s bit is that, but different.

It’s been a very long season of discontent for most of us, and the itch to get out there on two wheels has probably never been stronger.

This, as it turns out, is important to our safety, in a very particular way.

Before I go there, though, I just want to mention some background. My early academic and career work was in mental health. Theories of personality, psychopathology, systems of therapeutic interaction, interpersonal dynamics, that sort of thing. “Active listening.”

Then, just as I was getting my feet on the ground with that work, one of my mentors packed up the whole counselling and therapy gig, out of frustration with what she said it amounted to. “Helping” people, one or two at a time, to feel better about the crap in their lives.

Changing that stuff seemed like a better plan.

That got me thinking. Meanwhile, we bought a cabin in the woods, I started riding motorcycle, and it seemed like a good plan to keep paying the mortgage, so I played along with being transferred out of the mental health gig, and into a whole other deal.

I’m a lucky, lucky boy. I may have mentioned this before. I wound up working in the new world of moving people out of mental health institutions, where they were being “helped” every day to live miserable lives and die young.

Instead, we got to find them places in community, and get them real help to have lives of their own.

  • Places to live
  • Places to hang out
  • Places to work.

Real things to do with having a real life with everyone else.

Living, playing, working, and loving on your own terms: we kind of take this stuff for granted, until or unless people in positions of power and authority figure we’re too stupid, or weak, or dangerous to be allowed out.

The thing is, those decisions far too often have nothing to do with the truth of the matter, and way too much to do with how comfortable or convenient it is to keep some folks out of the high life.

In our case, the people we got the chance to support proved the old ideas were mostly just BS invented to keep them hidden away. And they’re still proving it, every day, in every community in this province.

So, you can sense my scepticism about a lot of what passes as “mental health” intervention. And my preference for giving people a chance, and the resources, to get on with having a life.

That is sort of where we came in. You were wondering, right?

In the pandemic, there’s been a huge amount of focus on the mental health concerns related to people being stuck in limbo, not being able to move around or go to work or whatever. No autonomy.

Sound familiar? Did to me. Took me right back to the looks of helpless desperation on the faces of the folks I met in institutions.

And in our little world of motorcycling, I saw the same antidote that lots of other riders saw: the sheer joy of throwing a leg over, and riding away on whatever sort of two wheeler we could drag out of the shed. Mental health in action.

This is the sort of “therapeutic interaction” that actually works, and doesn’t require a bunch of guys with real tall foreheads and lots of letters after their names to create or sanction.

We just go and do it, and come home better, mentally healthier, for it.

There’s even science that says so. Found a new paper out of the New Zealand Transport Agency: “The relationship between transport and mental health in Aotearoa New Zealand.”

It’s even more long-winded than me, but in a nutshell, their research found that long, car or bus commutes that are noisy, cramped, expensive, and largely on someone else’s terms, are bad for your happy genes. Especially for women.

But, the more control you have over an affordable way to get around on your own terms, the healthier you are. Wow! That’s us. That’s why the great big happy grin on the face of the girl on the scooter.

So get back in the riding life, your mental health safety is, well, riding on it.


Not designed for women

A question that often comes up, and probably should come up a lot more often, is whether there are bikes that are designed, or better suited, for female riders. The short answer is no, not something specifically designed for women. There are bikes that tend to be marketed more to women, but that’s not really the point.

The point is that some people – who often, but not always, are women – are poorly served by products designed and manufactured with a person in mind who is 5-foot-10 and weighs 180 to 200 pounds. Yeah, I’m that old, and there’s a calculator around here that will do the metric conversions, but you get what I’m saying.

Actually, I’m an old cyclist, and in that role I spent a good deal of time helping women find a fit in the bicycling world. This was made far easier when Georgena Terry came onto the scene in the late 1980s, introducing the concept of “women-specific design” as it related to bikes and bike saddles.

Terry noticed, and actually did something about, what everyone else was either ignoring, or trying to put up with: lots of women, particularly the smaller ones, were horribly uncomfortable even on bikes that were, according to the standards of the day, “properly fitted” to them. 

In a nutshell, her thesis was that there are patterned differences between the standard physiques of men and women, and those differences needed to be addressed in the actual design of bikes, rather than masked or accommodated by messing with the components (stems, handlebars, crank arms) after the fact.

The science that describes and documents the differences, both in gender-typical physique, and in proportioning of musculature, can be found in such places as PeopleSize and NASA. It’s also somewhat controversial, depending on who’s selling you what.

Terry started building bikes that were configured to better fit women’s shorter torsos, narrower shoulders, and wider pelvic bone structures. Terry Precision Bicycles began the women-specific design “thing” that has risen and fallen in the cycling world ever since; right now it’s been largely abandoned by the big manufacturers that are happiest selling generic products, but still very much in play with the smaller producers and custom builders.

OK, this is supposed to be about motorcycling and rider safety, isn’t it? Well, I’ve spent the last decade or so watching women trying to deal with motorcycles, and feel safe; they were experiencing many of the same “bike fit” issues. Some of those issues I share, being a buck short of the full adult male admission. 

My observations are these:

  • People who are struggling to control devices that don’t fit them, or to use controls that are cumbersome or poorly fitted, are at risk. Those risks increase dramatically in user contexts that entail high power, high speeds, critical response thresholds, and high impact vulnerabilities. Like motorcycling.
  • Efforts to adjust the fit of devices by changing the position and configuration of the control interfaces (like handlebars and levers) can create more comfort, but introduce limitations or dangerous changes to the device response characteristics (like handling and braking).
  • “Getting used to it,” as in learning how to manage around the problem, is not the same as getting proper service, value, or safety from what you’re using, and paid for. When that’s a motorcycle being ridden at speed in the stream of traffic, this is a very critical difference.
  • Size, weight, and power are not the only important elements in the “fit” of motorcycle to person. Rider positioning, and their ease of access/use of the controls are equally, if not more, crucial.

In this time of #MeToo, after so many decades of the Women’s Movement, and with so much long-overdue attention to issues of gender-based inequalities, I’m flatly dismayed when I see yet another woman bravely struggling to manage a motorcycle that’s obviously been designed, built, and marketed for someone completely other than her.

I’ve also heard too many stories of women who have had that “close call,” or crash, and decided that the problem was them, when the selection, the adjustment, and the servicing of their motorcycle were all handled by some “expert” twice their size with a completely different physique.

Women could be much better served by a motorcycling world that lived by an appreciation of the value of genuine fit, rather than just offering lessons in “getting used to it.”

Some thoughts: when you’re choosing and setting up your bike, look for help from someone who looks like you. Someone who has the same ratio of lower and upper body strength. Same hand size and shoulder width. If you can’t find that person, then try for someone who starts by listening to you, instead of prescribing to you.

Look for a bike that fits you as well as possible without having to make significant changes to the bars and seat height, so the thing handles the way it was engineered to in the first place.

Find some female riding friends, like Women on Wheels, Motoress, or WomenRidersNow

And ride on International Female Riders Day – Aug. 22. 

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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