Staying Alive
Okay, I know I've ripped-off the title of a Bee Gees song for this (and I'm not a Bee Gees fan, believe me!), but it is appropriate for this little rant about safety. Well you might think it's a rant, but it is intended to be helpful. As a motorcyclist, I am concerned for the welfare of other motorcyclists. I want all you guys out there reading this to keep coming back safe-and-sound whenever you go for a ride! (And not end up like the photo on the left!). So this is intended to be a few tips about surviving this activity that we all love; riding motorbikes
Of course I've already talked about a couple of safety issues in other articles (so you can see it is something I think about a lot!), but this will expand it further. I said on the front page that if you ride a bike you don't get to be an old bloke unless you have a certain amount of wisdom. So you might call this "words of wisdom", or you might just call it "words from someone who has a strong sense of self-preservation and an equally strong aversion to pain"! Either way, I hope this is of some use for anyone who shares the road, and shares my love of motorbikes.
There are a lot of things you can do to help yourself "survive the ride" as the title of a road safety production puts it, and not end up with your bike looking like the one in the photo. Rider-training is an excellent thing, and highly recommended - even though I've never done any! The video I mentioned in another of these articles, called "Ride On" (produced by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau), is a great piece of rider-training you can do right in the comfort of your own lounge-room.
A lot of this "survival" business comes down to common-sense and experience. Being an old bloke at the very least gives you a fair amount of the latter, and hopefully at least some of the former! So anyway, let's stop the waffling and get into some actual tips.
The first thing - and this is a common-sense thing - is to ensure that your bike is in top condition. Yes, I know, basic stuff; but it's surprising how many people don't keep up with this. Talk to the service people in bike shops and you'll hear stories of bikes being ridden that are in a seriously less than roadworthy condition. Keeping your bike in top mechanical condition should be a given, and so I'm not going to spend any more time on it here; but sadly it isn't! But let's get to the "tips".
You know how everyone comes up with those catchy words (called a mnemonic) that are intended to help you remember things? Well I've come up with a couple that might help. The first one I came up with is "SALSA". The other one, which is the one I like best, is "CRAP"! And it's probably the best one; so I'll start with that.
If you want to survive the ride, you have to be CRAP! Let me explain. "CRAP" stands for Confident, Relaxed, Alert, and Prepared. I'll explain what I mean by each of these.
Confident is the first one; you need to be confident. Remember that kid's story about the little engine that kept saying "I think I can, I think I can"? Well, don't be like that! Things like "I think I can take the corner at this speed", or "I think I can get past this car okay before the next bend" and all other such "I think I can" things are a recipe for disaster! Don't do things you only "think" you can do; only do things that you "know" you can do! It's all about riding within capabilities and limitations. Riding within the limitations of the road conditions, riding within the limitations of the bike's handling and performance capabilities, and also riding within the limitations of your own capabilities.
I'll mention speed when I explain the next word, but the speed you ride at has a lot to do with how confident you are. (Or it should have!). Always ride at a speed that allows you to feel confident of being totally in control. That might relate to the "limitations" mentioned above, but it can also relate to things like prevailing weather conditions. For example, if you're riding in a strong wind, in pouring rain, you probably won't feel as confident as you would on a perfectly still sunny day. So adjust your riding style and speed accordingly.
There's one more point about this confidence thing I should address. Some people seem to think that they're a cross between Valentino Rossi and Superman. That's over-confidence! And that's dangerous! But when it comes right down to it, "over-confidence" is really just another word for "bravery" and "self-delusion". And there's a difference between confidence and bravery. Confidence is knowing; as in "I know I can". Bravery comes back to the "I think I can" thing; together with "I'm willing to give it a go because I think it will be okay". And I reckon that for most people, if you're totally honest with yourself, thoroughly assess things and consider it carefully, you'll be able to pick the point at which "I know I can" becomes "I think I can". 
Relaxed. You need to be relaxed. Now, this is kind of a difficult one to define. I'm not talking about sitting back with your feet up! (Well, if you're on a cruiser you might be; but you know what I mean). In this context, being "relaxed" has more to do with mental state than it does with physical activity. You should be relaxed mentally. You shouldn't be up-tight, stressed, on-edge, nervous etc. Another passion of mine is music, and if you talk to any musician they will tell you that they play at their best when they are feeling confident and relaxed. If they feel stressed, or up-tight, or suffering excessive stage-fright, the hands and fingers are stiffer; they don't move as smoothly, accurately and fluently, and they don't play as well. And they make more mistakes. It's the same thing with riding a bike. If you're riding "on-the-edge", really pushing to the very edge of your ability or the bike's ability, your fingers and hands and feet will be stiffer and not move as smoothly as when you are relaxed. And because fingers, hands and feet are what you ride with, then you won't be riding as well, and are more likely to make a mistake.
That doesn't mean that you can't enjoy a good fang, because giving it a bit of a fang is one of the joys of motorcycling! But when you do fang it, do it only to the extent that you are still confident that you are riding within the capabilities of your bike and yourself and the prevailing road and traffic conditions.
Alert. This might seem like a contradiction of the last one. Can you be both "relaxed" and "alert" at the same time? Well, if you take "relaxed" in the context I've used above, then of course you can! There is a trap though. If, for example, you are cruising down a quiet country road, enjoying the scenery etc, you can end up feeling so laid-back that you lose concentration.
It can happen too, when the ride gets a bit boring; like long stretches on a freeway etc. The mind wanders. Mine does anyway, and I'll bet you're no different. I've even written songs while cruising along the freeway! (I don't mean with pen and paper, but made them up in my head). I came up with the idea for this article, and the two mnemonics, while riding along a highway in "cruise-mode". But that's not safe! Even in cruise-mode you need to stay alert and keep the concentration up. You still need to be concentrating on the SALSA! (That's the other word I'll get to in a minute).
Prepared. You need to be prepared. What for? For anything that might happen! It's the old principle of "expecting the unexpected". You've got to have fingers, hands and feet all ready to spring into action if the need arises. Be ready to brake if you suddenly have to. Be ready to swerve if you have to. Be ready to (and this is a challenge to the knee-down cornering freaks!) change your line mid-corner if you have to.
Okay, that's "CRAP"! Now, onto the next word; "SALSA". This relates to more specific things to consider, and to do, while riding.
"SALSA" stands for Speed, Awareness, Looking, Space, and Anticipation. I'll say a bit about each of these.
Speed. Okay, speed is one of the attractions of riding a bike isn't it? Of course it is! But the road-safety people tell us that "speed kills"! Well, as another (more accurate) saying goes, "It's not the speed that kills, it's the sudden-stopping"! So the idea is to travel at a speed that isn't likely to result in a "sudden stop"! Basically that means riding at a speed that is appropriate to the conditions. If you're doing a ride-day on a racing-circuit, on a fine day with a good-surfaced track, then you can screw on the throttle and really go for it! But if you're travelling down a multi-lane in the pouring rain, something a lot slower might be appropriate!
I've already mentioned speed in the "CRAP" part, and I've also discussed it in "How Fast Should You Ride" (so read through that one too, if you haven't got to it yet). So I won't go on more about it here; except to say that the point of it here is that you should be constantly monitoring your speed and assessing it in relation to all those limitations and capabilities I spoke of above. Assess your speed and ride at a speed that enables you to be confident of being in total control; and a speed that is, as I just said, appropriate to the prevailing conditions.
Awareness. You have to be aware of what's going on around you. If you are being tailgated by Mr.white-van who's driving with one hand while he uses the other to hold the mobile phone he's talking into, and dividing his attention between the road infront and the delivery-schedule on the passenger seat (it happens!), you'd want to know about it, wouldn't you? Traffic is one very important thing to be aware of! Check the mirrors regularly. You should know what's going on behind you. Read the bit below about "Space" and apply that to this awareness thing.
But that's not all. If I'm in traffic, I not only want space behind, but I want someone behind who I think is driving well and paying attention to the other traffic (especially me!). Check the cars around you, and do a quick assessment of their driving; it's not as hard to do as you might think. How close are they to the car infront of them? Are they paying attention to their driving or carrying on an animated conversation with someone in the car? Check how smoothly they accelerate and brake. You can do a lot (if not all) of this in a matter of seconds, and try to choose the safest one to be behind you.
You might think that being aware of what's happening infront of you is easy; because you're looking that way, right? Well, if your gaze is fixed on the back of the vehicle you're following, it's not enough. Look further up the road; know what's happening up ahead. That way you'll see trouble happening long before it gets back to you.
Of course you should be aware of weather conditions too. Although that's a bit of a no-brainer. If it's raining and you don't know, you plainly shouldn't be riding! You'll know if it's windy too; although maybe not how much. If you have a naked bike especially, and you're out on the highway, then you're going to feel a lot of wind anyway. But if there is a natural wind, especially blowing across your direction, then that might effect the stability of the bike; especially if it is blustery. Look at trees and bushes and see how much (and in which direction) they are being blown about.
One of the most important things to be aware of is road-surface. Of course you need to know if it's wet or dry. But you need to go further. Look at the road and assess how good the surface is. If it is coated in rubber and gunk from lots of traffic, then it is likely to be slippery. It might not feel slippery at a constant speed, but if you need to stop quickly you could find yourself in trouble. In this situation slow down and give yourself more space. I've mentioned other aspects of road-surface in the "Anticipation" bit below. So put that principle in here as well.
To sum up, know what is going on around you; that means behind you, infront of you, beside you, and underneath you!
Looking. Okay, you can't be aware unless you look! So I suppose this is the same as the last one. (But putting it in helped make up the mnemonic!). Although having it as a separate thing is a good reminder to actually do it! You need to be constantly looking. Give yourself a check. If your eyes haven't varied from staring straight ahead for the last few minutes, then look! At any one of the things I've mentioned. And if you've looked at all those things, don't forget to look at your instruments. Check speed, (of course), and whatever other information like temperature, fuel level etc, is available.
There are certain things to look at in certain situations. If you are riding along in suburbia and have a car stopped at a side-street, look not just at the car, but at the driver. Make eye-contact and make sure they've seen you. You can even stare-them-down to some extent. If you make eye-contact and then continue to look at them for a second or so, they will be less likely to pull out on you. (Call it intimidation if you like, I just call it being sure they've seen you and they know you've seen them!). And look at the wheels of the car, not at the car itself. Because the scenery behind the car moves relative to the car even if the car is stationary (because you are moving relative to both), it is harder to determine if the car is actually stationary or moving slowly if you just look at the car itself. (And if it's moving slowly that's a danger; because it's probably about to pull out infront of you!). So look at the wheels. If the car is stationary, then the wheels will be stationary. If it is moving, even very slowly, you'll know because you'll see the wheels turning.
Space. The "Ride On" video I mentioned makes a big thing about creating a "safe space" around you. That means a safe space infront and behind. If you've read the "3-Seconds" item, you'll know about leaving a safe space between you and the vehicle infront. But you also need a safe space between you and the vehicle behind. Now, you might think that is something beyond your control, but it's not. If someone is tailgating you, and you don't have the space infront to ride away from them, let them past; it's much safer to have them infront of you than having them a couple of metres off your back tyre! Even if it ends up slowing you down in some places. At least if they're infront they aren't going to run over you!
You should also leave a safe space beside you. If you're in a multi-lane, try not to travel right beside another vehicle. People have been known to change lanes and not look, you know! Try to position yourself where they can see you.
In heavy traffic this space thing can be hard to achieve; but there are a couple of things you can do. If you have someone tailgating you, but you can't let them go past, try dabbing the brake-pedal a couple of times. Not enough to reduce your speed, just enough to make the brake-light flash on. Now, I don't usually like doing this, because it can start the whole "road-rage" thing; but I've tried it a few times on the bike and been surprised at how effective it can be! Maybe they think that you're a big bad biker and if they upset you, you'll pull them over and beat them up? I don't know, but as I said, I've tried it occasionally, and it's worked. If you're stuck beside someone, try momentarily getting closer to the car infront, so the one beside knows you're there, and then dropping back again. It's better than just staying put and hoping they know you're there.
Think of space as a "buffer-zone". It's something that you need, and it is something that, if you work on it, you can create.
Another aspect of this space thing, as I mentioned in the "3-Seconds" one, is that it makes you feel more relaxed. So we're back to the CRAP thing again!
Anticipation. This is a part of being "prepared" (so it still goes back to the CRAP thing!). It's part of the "looking" bit I just mentioned too. You can anticipate what other vehicles are going to do. Like the car that pulls out infront of you. If you can anticipate that happening, you will avoid the danger! It's learning to read the "body-language" of vehicles around you. Do that and you get to be able to anticipate what another vehicle might be going to do. And you can be prepared for them doing it.
Certain road conditions can be anticipated too. For example if the road you're on is shaded by trees and it's been raining the night before, you can anticipate that the road might have some wet spots on it at certain places. The same road during windy weather might have leaves and twigs on it. So anticipate these things and be prepared for them.
Okay, this has been a long one, and you're probably thinking it has been a "long rant", not a "little" one as I described at the top. But it is an important topic; because whether we like to admit it or not, riding motorbikes is a dangerous activity! And these issues are something that we all (me too!) need to be reminded of and be thinking about. So hopefully you will have found something useful from it. If you have, then it has been worthwhile because it just might have saved your life!
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