If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Close one

A box van, yesterday.

I believe life is about learning, and when you stop learning, it's all over. I apply the same thinking to motorcycling. I turn over every experience, good or bad, in my mind, to see if there is anything to be learned from it. If there is, I try to make adjustments to the way I do things, so that future unpleasant things are made less likely.

Most folk assume that bikers are vulnerable and are always being taken out by car drivers (and vans, and lorries, and coaches, and the rest). Bikers are the worst at this; it's always someone else's fault. People think that one accident, or close call, will unnerve a rider so much that he/she decides that the risks are just too great, and hangs up his/her helmet forthwith. It's as if the dice are constantly rolling, and one day they will roll in such a way that the real and terrible nature of what you are doing is made clear (provided that you survive the experience), and you pack it all in out of self-preservation. I have a colleague - an intelligent and thoughtful guy - who hardly rides at all, because he is just waiting for something dreadful to happen to him. He's in victim mode before he throws a leg over the saddle.

It doesn't work that way for me. I try to ride to a system where nothing should be unexpected. If I have a close call, I will look at what caused it. This will probably be one of four things:
  • Poor bike control (like taking a bend too fast for the conditions)
  • Poor judgement (like overtaking where there isn't room to complete it safely)
  • Poor observation (like failing to see a junction where a car emerges)
  • Poor anticipation (like failing to take account of other drivers' stupidity).
Then I will have a good old think, and see if I can build the experience into my riding for the future. That's the way ordinary riders get good, and good riders become expert. If there is ever a situation where I have to say to myself:

There is no way on Earth I could have avoided that accident

then that is the day I will put the helmet in the spare room, put the bikes on eBay, and retire to a life of Ford Mundaneos and air conditioning and power steering and little pine trees that smell of artificial nature. Everything else is just learning and a chance to improve.

As an example, I hereby admit to having something approaching a close call this week.

I was following a large box van along the main road, with heavy traffic in both directions and not many opportunities to overtake. The van was doing a steady 35, and I needed to get to work. I got a view ahead of the van on a curve, and the road up ahead in my lane was clear. When a brief opportunity for an overtake arose, I did all the checks, and pulled out to overtake. The chance to get by was a bit of a 'pinch', so I accelerated hard. At the same time, the van I was overtaking started to pull out and closed off the bit of road I was hoping to use. No signal.

Bacause I had left plenty of room, there was no great drama, and I braked and pulled back in, then followed him through and overtook him later. No harm done, although my heart-rate was fairly high for a couple of miles afterwards. What had happened was that the van was following (at a distance of a few feet) a slow-moving car, which I hadn't seen. He spotted the same chance that I did, and didn't look in his mirror. If he had, he would have seen a large white motorbike with a large man aboard, right in the overtaking position. But he didn't. He saw me as he pulled past the car, and had the grace to wave an apology.

I made several mistakes here. I should not have assumed that the van was just driving slowly for no reason. I could not see the bit of road in front of the van (or the car it contained) and so I should not have gone, but waited for the opportunity for a better look before committing myself to the manoeuvre. (Cardinal rule - never try to put the bike anywhere your head hasn't been five seconds before.) I could have had my headlight on, which might have alerted him to my presence earlier. I could have just decided to hang back and get to work a minute or so later. In other words, although the van driver pulled out into my way without a signal, by better roadcraft I could have avoided the situation. My fault, then. No excuses.

My philosophy is that other roads users can do anything that the laws of physics will allow, and probably will, and that my safety is no-one's responsibility but my own. If I had crashed as a result, it would have been my fault - maybe not legally, but if you're in a hospital bed or worse, who cares about legally? So I had a think, and built the experience into the now quite large database of Things That Can Go Wrong When Overtaking. Hopefully, I am a slightly better rider today than I was last week.

And so it goes.

If I ever have an experience where, despite all the soul-searching and analysis, I could not have predicted or prevented it, than I will admit that there are uncontrolled dangers out there for me, and I will pack it in. Until then, every ride's a day at school.


  1. Lot of stuff this weekend I have sympathy with!

    Box vans have been the cause of my two closest calls ever. Both observation-related, which perhaps indicates something about the vehicle: they're not taken as seriously as they could be. Typically, you have no idea if it's a rental and the driver hasn't a clue how to handle it, or a caffeine-crazed pro-hauler outrunning the tachos of doom (Terry Pratchett quote, iirc). They're ubiquitous, without being as blatant a hazard as, say, an artic. And they are very difficult to see around or through! In short (rather like 4x4s) they encourage bikes to want to be in front of them...

    My only multi-vehicle crash was when a white van turned left in front of me. The taxi waiting to turn right in that side road pulled out when he saw the van do so and neither of us saw each other until too late. If it hadn't been wet, I'd have stopped before planting my knee in his door with bone-crunching force (and probably would feel less arthritic to this day). I blame me, however - I couldn't see the far side of the junction and should have allowed that fraction more time until I could.

    The other was more like yours - a non-accident. Overtaking a long vehicle on a single carriageway: I could see the van in front and had time to take both of them. Except that a pheasant ran out in front of the car that I couldn't see in front of the van. Nowhere to pull in, no gap in front of the van where I had expected one and oncoming traffic made it a close shave! One of those things - I'm not sure I could have anticipated it, but equally, probably should have held back since the visibility to clear road wasn't there.

    Neither experience has made me give a second's thought to packing it in. There's no reason why they should. You learn from doing, be it good or bad! I don't rely on luck - although on occasion I have been lucky when it counted.

    I like the point about "no excuses". That's exactly what it is on a bike. It's your life: having the moral high ground or legal recourse count for very little beside that. But as long as you accept that responsibility and learn from your mistakes, all you folks out there who like to say "oh, I'd kill myself on one of those things" should know that not doing so is a perfectly valid alternative.

    Glad you chose to exercise it!

  2. I think a lot of it is down to assumptions (and we've all heard the one about making as ASS of U and ME, har har). I assumed the van was going slowly because it was a van - much older and scabbier than the one I selected to illustrate this fine piece of prose and logical argument. I couldn't see round it, but I assumed the spot in front was empty. Bad move. I'll remember it next time I am following a slow vehicle that I can't see round.

    I suppose the other thing is the kind-of secondary safety of riding style. The fact that I rarely get close to other vehicles and usually give them plenty of room is what kept this to an oo-er moment, rather than a nee-nar blue flashing light moment. If I'd been doing one of those elliptical overtakes where you nearly clip the guy's rear and then front bumpers as you pass and pull back in, I may not have been writing this.

    I love motorcycling, and want to do it for as long as possible. Simples!


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