Updated: Aug 16, 2022
Four weeks ago, I wrote a post here about how modern bikes can easily smash the Highway Code's stopping distances. That's why many riders think they are outdated and that they can ride faster and follow closer than the UK's 'road code' allows, and that they can get out of trouble when something goes wrong in front of them.
As a new rider I had to cope with disc brakes that couldn't be relied on to work in the wet, and with tyres seemingly constructed of Teflon and with the grip characteristics of a non-stick frying pan.
Frankly, braking hard on those bikes I grew up on was something of a lottery. And not too surprisingly I sometimes drew a losing ticket.
But now we have brakes powerful enough, and tyres grippy enough, to stand a bike on its front tyre.
So why are we still having EXACTLY the same crashes as riders fifty years ago?
Don't believe me? The evidence is there in the crash stats. There's been virtually zero change in where riders get crash.
The cold fact is that whilst a motorcycle's brakes have had an upgrade, nobody has bothered to upgrade the rider's brain.
And that means we're still not stopping much quicker than our grandparents managed. It's no good having brakes that will stand a bike on the front wheel if the rider's not ready to use them.
For example, a year or so back a video was posted on a motorcycle group. There were plenty of comments, ranging from straightforward opinion to unprintable invective, that the crash was entirely the driver's fault.
Well, certainly the minivan pulled out. I watched and waited for the inevitable bike to appear...
...and I waited
...and I waited
and I waited...
Finally, when the minivan has ALMOST cleared the lane ahead of the bike, in the rider comes, stage right, to hit the offside rear wing of the vehicle.
I watched it several times to be sure. The bike didn't seem to be slowing down, and there was no attempt to change direction by the rider either.
An Australian instructor, Brett Hoskin, had noticed this too.
"Count the seconds from the time the van started to move... there was 7 seconds between the van moving and the collision..."
Easy enough to see with a timer on the video.
"At 60 kph the rider had more than 110 metres of warning that his risk was increasing and appeared to do very little. If the rider had simply rolled the throttle off and applied a little front brake the outcome would have been far different."
60 kph is around 37 mph, so rounding it up to 40 mph for the sake of simplicity, what does the UK's Highway Code give as our stopping distance in the dry? Adding up the REACTION and BRAKING distances, the rider should have been able to stop in 36 metres.
So what happened over that 110 metres that meant the rider failed to brake or change direction?
The answer is simple. It's the 'Startle Effect'.
It's well-known in aviation circles. The incident reminded me of the words of Chesley Sullenberger - the Miracle on the Hudson pilot - "the startle factor is real, and it's huge". He was talking to a US Congressional hearing into the two aviation accidents involving Boeing's 737 Max, and refuting claims that an alert and properly trained pilot could have dealt with the issues the plane was throwing at them.
How bad can it be?
Well, a study by Australia's Griffith University found a pilot's ability to process information is significantly impaired for THIRTY SECONDS after being startled.
"When a sudden upset occurs - such as icing or powerful air currents from a storm - even the best pilots can experience a 'startle effect' and may struggle to recall manual flying skills for that rare situation."
And that's a highly trained pilot!
You might argue that if the pilot can't get it right in 30 seconds, what chance does a road user with the most basic training have?
The answer is that we need training that focuses on coping with the unexpected. That study argued that knowing what goes wrong and having a strategy ready to deal with it "is as important as knowing cockpit theory."
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So back to riding. Simply knowing how to apply the brakes, even knowing how to apply them hard and having the confidence to do so isn't enough.
Our planning MUST encompass the likely scenarios in which we might have to USE them.
As riders we KNOW that drivers occasionally fail to spot us and turn across our paths at junctions.
But we have a choice.
We can continue to blame the driver for being the one that failed to stop.
Or we can start taking ownership of our own health and safety.
ALL of us on the roads make mistakes - ourselves included. But collisions are almost always 'Two to Tangle' incidents. One vehicle operator may SET UP the conditions in which a collision COULD occur but to make it happen, the other road user has to drive or ride into it.
There's no rule in the Highway Code that says we have to get involved in other drivers' mistakes. But the key to staying out of trouble is to know where a mistake is likely to happen, then watch out for it, and be ready to take some evasive action if it does happen. That's the only way to deal with the Startle Effect effectively.
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