Urban Traffic Survival: Part 4

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Urban Traffic Survival

Part 4: Survival Tactics

(...continued from Part 3)

By David Hough

Familiarity Breeds Complacency

You may understand that the majority of motorcycle accidents occur in business or shopping areas, on sunny days, on straight, level, dry roads, at speeds below 40 mph, and that about half of all motorcycle crashes are collisions with cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs. One of the interesting statistics from the Hurt Report is that most accidents occurred within the first 12 minutes of the intended trip, or on trips of less than five miles.

Think about that. When you're close to home, you are familiar with your surroundings. I've traveled this street a thousand times before, and never had a car pull out of that alley before. I've ridden past these same parked cars on this residential side street for five years, and never had anyone back out of a driveway into my path. I've never had someone swerve into my lane to get around a bicyclist. Familiarity tends to breed complacency. Obviously, it's a lot quieter on the side streets. But if you happen along at the same instant when someone else suddenly gets in your way, you need to be just as prepared to avoid a crash as you would be on the busier arterials.

Timing Timing Timing

You might be amazed that there are significant differences in the accident and fatality numbers depending upon time of day. The time frames when frustrated workers head home from the job, and when the drunks head home from the bars on weekends are especially hazardous. Be aware that afternoons between 3 pm and 6 pm generate about one fourth of all motorcycle crashes and fatalities. There is also a surge in accidents around midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. By comparison, early mornings between 3 am and 6 am have a very low accident frequency, even on weekends. So, Bigdawg Dan actually faced a much lower collision risk heading out on a Friday morning than if he'd waited until Saturday afternoon. That ought to be useful information when you're scrambling for an excuse to slip away from the job for a day in the canyons. But, whatever the time of day or week, the risk of a smasho never drops to zero. Those suburban side streets have some peculiar hazards we need to understand.

Parked Cars

With all those parked cars lining the side streets, it's easy to start thinking of them as permanently fixed objects. Just remember, most of them are automobiles. They move occasionally. The clever rider looks for clues that a parked car is about to go mobile. For cars parked parallel along the curb, watch for a driver behind the wheel, or eyes reflected in a side mirror. Look for exhaust emanating from the tailpipe, or a brake light illuminated, or for a flickering backup light as the driver shifts into drive. Beware a front wheel turned toward the street, and remember that the top of a wheel moves twice as fast as the bumper.

Do you see there's a driver in the station wagon, and the front wheel is pointed toward the street? It shouldn't be a surprise when the driver pulls out in front of you without looking.

Don't ignore cars parked in narrow driveways just off the street. A driver backing into the street isn't likely to have a good view of a motorcycle zipping along. This is especially important where cars are parked on steep inclines or partially hidden behind retaining walls, hedges or fences. When you do spot any clues that a vehicle might move, get prepared for evasive action, preferably a quick stop.

Pedestrians, Bicycles and Skateboarders

You're more likely to encounter kids and animals dodging into the street near residences. Kids playing along side streets also become complacent about traffic, and might chase a bouncing ball into your path without thinking about the consequences.

Bicyclists, in-line skaters and skateboarders are also very common these days on suburban streets. For whatever reason, many of these folks seem to believe that the traffic laws don't apply to them. It's fairly common to encounter an adult bicyclist or skater zipping through an intersection against a red light, or sailing off the sidewalk and into the street against the flow of traffic. And remember that a vehicle in the opposing lane may swerve across the line to avoid a skater or bicyclist. Young children can be excused for not really understanding the risks, but adults who should know better are just as likely to be the victims. 60% of bicyclist fatalities are in the over-15 age bracket.

Darting into the road is a leading cause of pedestrian collisions. And three-fourths of fatal pedestrian accidents occur at locations other than intersections.

Darting into road is the single largest contributor to pedestrian accidents. Of the 4,749 pedestrians killed in the US in 2003, 79 percent of the fatalities happened at locations other than intersections. It may also be helpful to know that 65 percent of pedestrian fatalities occurred at night, in normal weather conditions. You probably won't be surprised that 5 – 9 year old males and 10 – 15 year old females have the top injury rates. But the highest fatality rate belongs to the 55 – 64 year old males. 37% of total pedestrian fatalities occurred between 8:00 pm and midnight on weekends, and it's not uncommon for a pedestrian wandering on the highway to be intoxicated.

In a motorcycle vs. pedestrian or motorcycle vs. skateboarder collision, the motorcyclist is more likely to come out on top. But, even if you have the right-of-way, consider all pedestrians and human-powered vehicles moving targets to avoid.

Rear Enders

You might be a little paranoid about being rear-ended. Yes, there are crashes where a car rear-ends the bike. But the most likely scenario is that the rider rear-ends another vehicle. The majority of all motorcyclist fatalities involved the motorcycle crashing head-on into something. For a recent year the fatality score was: 1,540 front of bike crashes vs. 76 rear of bike crashes. In other words, be aware of vehicles behind you, but pay primary attention to what's happening ahead of you. If you see someone approaching from your rear who doesn't seem to be slowing quickly enough, you could take evasive action—say pulling to the side of the lane alongside the car ahead.

Clues and Rumors

When you're riding in traffic, position yourself for the best view, and for maximum separation from other vehicles. For example, where buildings or large vehicles block your view of traffic on streets to your right, you could move to the left side of the lane, or even move over to the left lane. That same tactic works for narrow alleys. It may not help to look drivers in the eye or watch their turn signals, but there are some hints about what other vehicles are about to do.

Whether an oncoming car is in a left turn lane or not, there are clues that the driver is about to turn in front of you. For instance, the hood dipping slightly means the driver is braking.

To identify potential left-turners approaching from the opposite direction, watch for these important clues:

  • The vehicle begins to slow as it approaches an intersection

  • The hood dips slightly as the driver begins to brake

  • An oncoming vehicle eases over closer to the centerline.

  • The front wheel begins to turn in your direction

Your first clue that a vehicle is starting to pull out in front of you is the top of the front tire, which moves twice as fast as the bumper. Eye contact with the driver won't prevent a collision.

For cars on your right, watch the front wheel. The top of the wheel moves twice as fast as the vehicle, so that's the first clue the car is actually starting to move. When you are approaching a side street or alley, moving left gives you more time to react.

Quick Stops

When you are approaching an intersection where you predict the possibility of a collision, prepare yourself for aggressive braking. Consider that stopping distance depends upon your speed, your reaction time, and your skill, as well as your equipment.

The higher your speed, the greater the distance required to stop, even with quick reaction and perfect braking technique. At typical street speeds, stopping distance almost doubles for every 10 mph increase. For example, if it takes you 65 feet to stop from 30 mph, it will take you more than 100 feet to stop from 40 mph. Even at 30 mph, your reaction time to get on the brakes might eat up 30 feet--or more if you don't already have your fingers squeezing the brake lever. The moral is, slowing down just 10 mph could cut 36 feet off your stopping distance at typical urban street speeds. That could make the difference between a quick stop and a collision.

Your stopping distance depends on your skill as well as your equipment, but note that total stopping distance includes your reaction time to get on the brakes.

Regardless of when you manage to get on the brakes, your actual stopping distance depends greatly upon your braking skill as well as your equipment. Riders who haven't actually practiced quick stops from 30 to 0, typically can't pull off a quick stop successfully. In rider training courses for experienced motorcyclists, even veteran riders often can't stop quickly without sliding the rear tire, or don't know how to do a quick stop in a curve without losing control. If the thought of practicing quick stops makes you nervous, that's probably something you should take care of before you get the big test out in traffic.

Remember that in a panic situation your muscles will follow your habits. A rider who doesn't use enough front brake, or doesn't use the front brake at all is not prepared to make an aggressive stop. That's why some machines have integrated brake systems that automatically activate both front and rear brakes, and ABS to help prevent skids. But the quickest stop still requires proficient use of the front brake lever in addition to the pedal.

Yes, ABS can help avoid a spill if you overbrake on a rain slick surface, but ABS won't prevent the tires from sliding out from bad tactics such as snapping the throttle closed while leaned over in a curve. And even with ABS, shortest stops can be made if the rider brakes to a maximum just short of where the ABS activates. Whether your bike has interlocked brakes, ABS, or independent brakes, you need to be proficient at both comprehending the situation, and making quick stops; whether in a straight line, or in a curve. And the only way to get more proficient is to practice.

David Hough is a long-time motorcyclist and journalist. His work has appeared in numerous motorcycle publications, but he is best known for the monthly skills series "Proficient Motorcycling" in Motorcycle Consumer News, which has been honored by special awards from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Selected columns were edited into two books Proficient Motorcycling and More Proficient Motorcycling, both published by Bowtie Press. He is also the author of  Driving A Sidecar Outfit and a pocket riding skills handbook, Street Strategies.

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