Every biker on the planet cherishes summer’s first sunny day. Northern or southern hemisphere. Seasoned motorcyclist or newbie. It matters not; the first day that sunshine hits bare bitumen is always the best day of the year.
It’s also probably the most dangerous. The cagers — that would be anyone driving anything with four wheels — aren’t used to us frolicking amongst them, not to mention that we’re not at our practiced best on two. And do those brakes feel mushy? Perhaps in our eagerness we didn’t even take the time to check our tire pressure.
Whatever the case, you are suddenly — as in the first time perhaps in, say, six months — extremely vulnerable. Indeed, the Greater Toronto Area has already seen its first motorcyclist fatality and, sadly, it won’t be the season’s last. The oldest lesson in motorcycling is that no matter who is at fault in a car-motorcycle collision, it’s always — absolutely always — the biker who loses.
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So, with 48 years of so-far accident-free street riding — and, yes, I knocked on wood as I wrote those nine hopefully-not-oracular words — here’s my top four ways to get through a summer of two-wheeled hi-jinks unscathed.
Common knowledge it may seem, but it bears repeating that the number one reason cited for cars inadvertently colliding with motorcycles is that drivers didn’t see them. There’s been endless studies of this phenomena and, while it’s more complicated than auto drivers simply not observing another road user — some studies suggest they see us and then, because we don’t generate enough synaptic attention, forget we’re there — the fact remains that anything you can do to increase your conspicuousness will greatly improve your chances of being seen and acknowledged.
I’ve tried all manner of tactics to increase my presence on the road. Brightly covered, reflective clothing — mostly the same fluorescent yellow that road workers use — has long been popular. For a while, I even connected what’s called a headlight modulator — essentially a relay that constantly flashes at about four cycles per second — to my low-beam to catch oncoming traffic’s attention. That it certainly did, so much so that motorists often thought I was a cop and, when they found out I wasn’t, resorted to all manner of unwanted personal interactions (that would be road rage).
That led to what I am now convinced is the best conspicuity solution for motorcyclists: an auxiliary LED driving light with Selective Yellow lens. Not amber, i.e. the colour of your turn signals. Selective Yellow. Originally invented by the French amid the turmoil just before the Second World War — the government wanted to be able to quickly distinguish French cars from those of different nationalities — a bright yellow light is a true attention-getter even on the sunniest days. Positioned to form a triangle with the standard headlight — mounting them on your bike’s lower crash bars about half a meter apart is ideal — if a cager can’t see you with this blinding compendium of illumination, they need to be taken off the road. I went the high-end route with some big-buck Denali D4s mated to the company’s Selective Yellow lens kit, but you can get similar, lower-cost items on Amazon. Forget “loud pipes,” it’s bright lights that save lives.
If the most common reason car drivers, uhm, interact with us is that they can’t see us, we most commonly find that out when they inadvertently turn left across an intersection while we ride through it. Depending on the jurisdiction and the specific study, it’s reported as many as 50 per cent of car-motorcycle collisions result from a car cutting left across our path.
Apart from trying to prevent automobiles from actually straying across our path — e.g. via the bright lights I just mentioned — the best protection from the seemingly inevitable is being prepared. Virtually every time I cross an intersection with a car waiting in — or approaching — the left-turn lane, I “cover” my front brake lever. That is, I place my two dominant fingers — that would be the index and, of course, the, ahem, middle finger — on the brake lever and use just the ring and little fingers to maintain throttle control. The time saved — about half a second — in releasing throttle, spreading fingers and then grasping the brake lever works out to a whopping eight metres at just 60 kilometres an hour, the difference between becoming a hood ornament or simply cursing at yet another car driver’s stupidity.
No matter who is at fault in a car-motorcycle collision, it’s always the biker who loses
Two more things are also worth noting here. The first is that you should also be confident in the use of your motorcycle’s front brake. It generates anywhere between 70 and 90 per cent of your maximum braking ability. Using only the rear brake will extend your stopping distance by three or four times, and “laying her down” — deliberately crashing the bike to supposedly avoid a collision — is just an old wives’ excuse bad bikers use when they panic and crash. Secondly, in such a panic situation — where you might be inclined to grab both brakes with a little too much enthusiasm — anti-lock brakes are worth their weight in gold, and are the number one mechanical safety hardware in motorcycling.
Hopefully, it goes without saying that you should be wearing protective clothing. A helmet is a no-brainer — and also a legal requirement — but anyone serious about their safety should be fully clothed in protective gear. Genuine motorcycle gloves — with both scaphoid and knuckle protection — are essential because, take my word on this, the first thing you’ll do when you come off a bike is put your hands out to break your fall. Ditto boots with rigid angle protection.
The newest technology in the fight against motorcycling injury is wearable airbags. The airbags we’ve all come to expect in automobiles are difficult to incorporate into the frame of a motorcycle. Only one motorcycle, Honda’s Gold Wing, has ever been so equipped, and the option has not been popular.
Instead, the motorcycling industry is finding it easier to build inflatable protective devices into the jackets we wear rather than the motorcycles we ride. Originally expensive and bulky, the latest versions are compact, (more) comfortable, and bordering on affordable. My favourites are the non-vest version of Dainese’s Smart Jackets — I wear the company’s vented Smart jacket LS in the heat of summer, and am looking forward to the introduction of the three-season Stelvio for spring and fall — but there’s a plethora of products from Alpinestar, Klim, and Helite that all do an admirable job of protecting your back, torso, shoulder, and even the neck area if you get launched skyward. They are the most important development in motorcycle safety equipment since the helmet, an opinion you can find illustrated here when then-Driving-editor Neil Vorano took the opportunity to hit me with a baseball bat — yes, he won a lottery — to prove their efficacy.
Another seemingly obvious admonishment is to not drink and ride. Besides being illegal to drive — or ride! — while impaired, the simple practicalities of riding a motorcycle would seem to make it obvious that consuming alcohol and then riding a bike is even more dangerous than driving an automobile while under the influence. Besides being, as we’ve mentioned numerous times, more vulnerable, it takes significantly more skill to ride a bike than drive a car, balancing, cornering, and even just braking all requiring significantly more operator skill and attention to be performed with a sufficient degree of safety.
Combined with the relatively high performance of motorcycles, it’s no wonder that, according to the American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 43 per cent of all riders killed in single-vehicle motorcycle crashes were impaired. Simply put, if you consume any alcohol at all, you shouldn’t be riding at all. Lock ‘er up and pick it up in the morning!
Many motorcyclists — even, sadly, some who read this article — will ignore this advice. I will leave them with perhaps the wisest words I have read regarding motorcycle safety — attributed, curiously, to mystery writer J.A. Jance: “There are old riders and bold riders. But no old, bold riders.”