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Under threat – how to cope when others make mistakes

I’ve just been on one of the forums I frequent and answered a “what would you do in this situation” post. As it happens, it’s the third of those I’ve answered in a couple of days, with a couple of similar incidents occuring to a rider on another forum.

Let’s deal with the first incident.

The rider posted a video showing what happened. The rider’s on a motorway, in the outside lane of three, approaching a junction in moderately heavy traffic but which is moving well. In lane one (nearside) is an HGV. In lane two (middle) is a hatchback. Car and bike are both travelling at more or less the same speed, faster than the tanker and catching it. The bike is approximately one car length behind the car.

What happened next? As the car closed on the tanker, the car driver put the indicator on and at more or less the same moment moved into the outside lane, into the space just ahead of the bike. The rider barely rolled off the throttle but took the car’s manoeuvre as a cue to sound the horn and do some arm-waving (which he apologised for by giving a thumbs-up as he went past).

Why did it happen, what could have been done differently?

1) The rider was too close to be seen in the rear view mirror, almost certainly in the door mirror blindspot of the car driver, and at the same time much too far back to be seen in peripheral vision directly out the window. If we’re in the blind spot it doesn’t matter how carefully a driver looks, they can’t see us. And if the driver can’t see us, but can see the car behind us, just think what it’ll look like – a nice, sensible (and EMPTY) gap to pull out into! So when positioning, we need to remember the basic CBT advice – “see and be seen”. Most drivers have their door mirrors showing the side of the car rather than the wide angle view, but it’s not difficult to check if WE can see the driver’s eyes in the door mirror – and if we can’t, we should drop back a bit. The driver’s ‘one flash and go’ movement tends to confirm that the rider was out of sight – she probably thought she was moving into a clear space between the cars.

2) Although it’s not clear from the video clip, and the original poster went a bit silent on the topic when questioned, it looked as if the rider had been in that position for a few seconds. The risk is that if we ‘hover’ in the blindspot, the driver will forget we’re in it – whilst the driver might originally have seen us closing up from behind, they’ve lots of other things to concentrate on and out of sight is out of mind.

3) Anticipate where drivers might change lane. Are they catching slower vehicles? If we’re in lane three (outside) we shouldn’t only watch traffic in the lane to our left, watch traffic in lane one (nearside) lane too; all four lanes on a four lane motorway! If slower vehicles pull into the middle lane, vehicles in the middle lane will pull out into ours too. Where trucks are bunching, drivers will sometimes change lanes to ease the movement of the faster trucks into the middle lane, or to avoid getting stuck behind.

4) When traffic’s moving in queues – and this is particularly important where vehicles might change lane, as in this case, or approaching a junction like a roundabout or traffic lights – we should try stagger aligned with the GAPS rather than ride with vehicles next to us wherever possible. That way if the car changes lane regardless of the fact our bike’s there, it might take away our safe following gap but it won’t mean they take the front wheel off! It’s not a good idea to sit alongside the car window as one person suggested. Whilst the driver should be able to see us there, we’ve little in the way of an escape route, if as is likely in moderately heavy traffic, we’re following a bit too close and are being followed (as is likely) too close too.

5) A guideline for overtaking is that it should be done in a way which minimises ‘Time Exposed to Danger’. There’s no reason we can’t apply this concept when traffic is moving in queues. If we’re following at a safe following distance (and whilst I’m very aware that a full two seconds is next-to-impossible in heavy traffic, it’s still possible to maintain a reasonable gap), then when we decide to pass, we should be able to move forward into the gap and past the car on our left so it’s now behind us. Be positive. Don’t drift indecisively past, because once again it puts us in the blind spot for a significant amount of time – certainly long enough for the driver to check behind, decide there’s nothing there and start to pull out. If by passing we eat up some of our safe gap ahead up, then we simply reinstate it by slowing slightly.

6) Don’t use excess speed when passing. For all our precautions, drivers will still get it wrong. If we’re riding much quicker than the vehicles we’re passing, then we’ll find it that much harder to react in time. Don’t forget, braking isn’t linear – most of the time spent braking gets rid of relatively little of the speed. We don’t need big changes of speed to achieve a decisive pass – how long does it take to walk past a stationary car? That’s a 3mph speed differential.

7) Expect things to go wrong – then when they do, it’s not a surprise!

As an aside, when I’m in the position of the driver in the middle lane looking to move to the outside lane, one of the things I hate riders doing is catching me up in the inside lane (because they are ‘advanced’ and keep left wherever possible) then zooming across all three lines straight behind me and straight into the lane to my right to pass me. They usually then dive back all the way to the left and ten seconds later repeat the whole process. If that describes your motorway driving, take a long think about it. It’ll only be luck if the driver spots you in the rear view mirror by looking in it at precisely the same moment as you pass behind him!

Back to the incident. In reality, it wasn’t really that much of a near-miss, and was pretty much an everyday occurance for motorway riding. It seems it was just the first time for this particular rider, but fortunately whilst he was surprised, he didn’t panic and it all had a happy ending. But next time, he’ll hopefully be more aware of the potential for this kind of thing to happen and if it does, he won’t be surprised but will just adapt to the situation.

Just a day or two later, a second incident was posted for discussion on another forum. In this case, the basic situation was that the rider was filtering past near-stationary traffic from one roundabout along a short stretch of single carriageway towards a second roundabout which leads to the motorway access. There are two turnings, one on each side leading to a garden centre and a crematorium respectively, each with its own ‘no right turn’ signs; the idea is that vehicles for either side turning should go up to the roundabout and do a U turn, coming back so they can turn left into the side turnings.

In this case, just as the rider came up to one of the turnings on the right, the car he was about to pass made an illegal right turn into the garden centre.

It’s a junction I know well. So did some of the other writers on the thread, who had a rant about impatient car drivers who ignore signs, but the real point is that anywhere someone CAN turn right (regardless of signs) someone WILL turn right sooner or later, and just because there’s a no right turn sign doesn’t mean someone will see it or obey it. It’s a situation not helped by GPSs which don’t know all the ‘no right turns’.

Leaving aside those drivers who ignore the rules (and how many bikers don’t speed, or cut it a bit fine on double white lines?), it’s easy to say people should see the signs but all road users, ourselves included, make mistakes. Garden centres attract elderly drivers. Elderly drivers often don’t drive particularly well. We’ll all be old sooner or later; it’s a fact of life and we have to live with it. The opposite turn is for the crematorium, and drivers also turn right illegally there toom but it’s worth bearing in mind that people going there aren’t usually in the right frame of mind to concentrate fully on driving.

A frequent complaint in this circumstance is that car drivers don’t look properly for bikes. In reality, however much we as riders bang on about “the car driver should have looked”, it’s often extremely difficult to spot a filtering bike coming up behind a car when behind the wheel. As well as having despatched in London for 15 years and around half a million miles, I drove a van up there too for a while and at certain angles it’s just plain impossible to see a bike until it’s alongside – by which time it’s too late if we’re turning right. Take a look at the average small hatchback these days. The rear windscreen is full of head restraints and the rear three-quarter view is blocked by the rear pillars. We really shouldn’t rely on the driver seeing us coming.

Ultimately, if we’re filtering, we have to take the chance of someone deliberately ignoring the sign or failing to spot it into account. So if we choose to filter as we pass the entrance we must accept there’s a degree of risk. The same applies to overtaking, incidentally. My attitude has always been if a car starts to turn right when I’m filtering or overtaking and I haven’t noticed the entrance, then it’s down to my own poor observation. Should we be in such a hurry that we can’t deal with an equally impatient car driver taking an illegal right turn?

The third incident occured on the two lane approach to a roundabout with only two exits (one goes left into a tiny industrial estate and the other is the continuation of the main road which is just right of straight ahead). The rider used the “by the book” Highway Code approach to the roundabout by taking the righthand lane whilst the cars took the left hand lane. As the bike appeared on his right, the driver to the rider’s left took this as an attempt by the bike to ‘push in’ to the queue, and responded by accelerating to close the gap the rider was trying to use.

Unfortunately, it’s another road junction which I also happen to know well, and local knowledge (as well as just looking in front of me!) tells me that car drivers all approach in the left hand lane and use the wide approach on the left to straightline the roundabout as much as possible. The problem here is that the rider made life difficult for himself by being “too correct”. It’s not as if he doesn’t know the roundabout, it’s his regular commute. Whilst he was technically correct in his approach, going with the flow and using the left hand lane is far less hassle and far less likely to get a negative reaction from a car driver, whilst barely costing any time!

It was also quite interesting to see how others responded to the three incidents. Comments varied from serious to comic.

Some people suggested that we should see car drivers as ‘the enemy’ who are out to kill us. I think the ‘enemy’ mindset is ultimately unproductive. It simply propogates the ghetto mentality that so many riders have when it comes to sharing the road with others. I prefer to think of riding in traffic rather more like a game of chess, where I’m trying to anticipate the moves of all the other road users and have my own strategy prepared, ready to respond. If they do something I’m not expecting, then I didn’t analyse the situation well enough.

There was also one suggesting that in the ‘illegal right turn’ incident, the rider should ‘educated’ the driver by following the car (presumably by turning right illegally too!) to have a word when it stopped. Not a good idea, in my opinion. Getting involved might help us let off steam but it’s also likely to turn into a confrontation and unlikely to do any good; people don’t like having their mistakes or bad decisions pushed in their face.

At the serious end, there were a quite a few “So what? It happens, get over it” answers. Personally, I think all of these events are just everyday happenings when using the roads. It’s simply not worth getting wound up about or we spend our entire riding life in a state of stress. Any incident that puts us at risk of harm is liable to make us angry or aggressive, but getting angry doesn’t help us make sensible decisions for the rest of the ride; in fact we’re more likely to make a stupid mistake ourselves if we’re inwardly seething over something someone else has done.

Personally, I’m prone to getting very angry in this sort of situation and it’s something I’ve had to fight for years when riding. I don’t say I totally achieve a state of Zen-like calm when riding, but if I feel myself starting to loose it, I just take a deep breath and talk to myself. On occasion, I’ve actually got off the bike and taken a break for a few minutes to give myself chance to calm down.

Accept it, and move on. And if it’s happened once, make sure you’re not putting yourself in the same position next time.

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