On Balance  

Left at the crossroads

Music for today: obviously, the old classic, Crossroads Blues, with Mr. Clapton on the frets.

And slightly less obvious, a bit on the creepy side, but oddly both compelling and popular, Every Breath You Take. Thank you Sting.

About that title. We have problems with crossroads.

In fact, our biggest problems seem to be with crossings (intersections) and corners, and in both cases those issues have a lot to do with vision and sight lines. And with kind of being stuck on our own.

It’ll help if you know the lyrics.

But we tend to talk about those difficult environments in very different ways. “I” is for intersection and invisibility. “C” is for cornering capability.

Meaning, we seem to look at intersections as being mostly about them - other drivers, their bad habits and failures to see “invisible” riders. Whereas we seem to look at corners as being mostly about us - our skills and techniques for managing the dynamics and opposing forces.

Without going all Zen and the Art metaphysical here, I believe this to be a dualism that gets in the way of safety by separating, instead of combining, critical patterns of observation, thought, and action.

About intersections, we’re lectured to a fault that the main problem for motorcyclist safety is that, because drivers of other vehicles don’t see riders (or, more recently, that they “see and forget” riders) they turn left when it’s unsafe. Collision necessarily results.

Let’s take that apart. The main elements of the “not seeing” argument are that:

  • Drivers aren’t looking for motorcycles (inattentional blindness
  • Motorcycles are difficult visual targets (small, narrow, and thus hard to locate in traffic and hard to assess in terms of approach speed).

In either case, the concern is that other vehicle operators are both more focused on the larger vehicles they see and deal with more often, and more able to focus on them.

These are important, well-developed, and logical positions. They’ve resulted in a major emphasis on riders making ourselves more conspicuous in traffic, and on drivers making themselves more careful to consciously look for riders.

Hence the high-visibility yellow stripes, jackets, and helmets, the additional running lights, the headlight modulators, and so forth. And, the international efforts to include motorcycle/scooter awareness in driver training systems, as well as the giant highway signs imploring drivers to “watch for motorcyclists.”

However, Sager et al, and others, have pointed out that, after decades of this conspicuity and hectoring, the results are in, and they’re bad.

Other vehicles are still turning left at the crossroads, at the wrong time, and riders are still whacking them with very ill effect. The traffic fatality stats for motorcyclists, unlike for drivers, are not significantly improving, and have not improved for decades.

Yellow, as it turns out, is the new black.

With all due respect for the excellent “drivers don’t see/notice/care about riders” argument, the fact is that it’s turned out to be something of a blind alley in motorcyclist safety.

Consider, for a moment, a different perspective on the problem. Riding toward an intersection, we’re faced with two potential cross-traffic hazards:

  • Approaching vehicle, opposing traffic, may turn left across our path. It has only three options: straight, right, or left. So high probability of left.
  • Approaching vehicle, cross traffic, may continue straight, or turn left, across our path. Again, highly probable hazard.

In either case, the hazards are clear, regardless of whether the approaching vehicle is moving or stopped.

  • The vehicles are familiar, frequently seen objects, so we’ll notice them readily. No inattentional blindness argument.
  • They’re large enough, and in positions, to be seen readily. No conspicuity argument.
  • Their movement, given their size, is easily tracked for both direction and approach speed. No approach estimation error (“he came out of nowhere”, or “there wasn’t enough time…”)
  • Their road position makes the potential cross-traffic hazard both obvious and probable. Nobody with any traffic experience at all is unaware of these patterns.
  • Traffic pace and timing is evident. For example, the status of the traffic control light: if it’s amber, the oncoming driver is much more likely to risk a “last moment” left.

If we accept any, or all, of the arguments that are used to explain drivers crossing the path of oncoming motorcycles as “the cause of the crash," then, what do we say about the rider who collides with crossing traffic?

The hazard for the rider is known and predictable, much more obvious, and more extremely life-threatening:

  • multiple vehicle, motorcycle involved collisions result in serious injury or fatality in 80% of cases.

When we consider motorcycle involved crash causation from this, rather than solely from the “other vehicle fault” perspective, the questions change dramatically.

  • Approaching a visible, familiar, understandable, extreme hazard, why does the rider not fully and proactively take necessary preventive steps?
  • Shouldn’t those steps be slowing, positioning, and looking for, expecting, hazards, as we do when cornering?
  • Are the skills and techniques for managing opposing forces not precisely applicable?
  • Was Sting talking about other vehicle drivers? “Every move you make, I’ll be watching you”.

We’re on our own at the crossroads. We need to use the tools we’ve got, not expect to hitch a ride on other drivers’ good will.

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.

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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