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.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


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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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