Backmarker: “I Hate It When That Happens”

September 10, 2014
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

As a rule Motorcycle USA refrains from posting videos of motorcycle crashes, and we have never posted video of a fatal crash. But MotoUSA has chosen to make an exception for the following story by our Backmarker columnist Mark Gardiner. The embedded video below shows the fatal collision of rider and automobile in Norfolk, England. While the video does not show graphic images of the deceased, it contains footage of the fatal collision which some may find distressing.

The video, which has been viewed more than 11 million times on YouTube, was released by the local police as part of a road safety campaign. The rider’s family cooperated in the production, with the video stating: “It is their wish this footage is released to make riders and drivers think more seriously about road safety.” In republishing the video with Mark’s analysis, MotoUSA hopes to convey the campaign’s intended message to our readers. – MotoUSA Editor


Last week, a horrific helmet-cam video went viral. It shows a fatal motorcycle crash, from the rider’s perspective. Normally, I wouldn’t touch this kind of video with a ten-foot pole, but for some reason, I watched it. After watching it, I realized that the video highlights a number of dangerous assumptions and bad habits that are common to many motorcyclists.

I note that the driver of the car involved was charged in the accident, in spite of the fact that the guy on the motorcycle was traveling nearly 100 mph moments before the crash. This was a classic, “I didn’t see you, mate” accident. This happens, all over the world, many times a day. I thought motorcyclists could learn from it, so I posted the following analysis on my personal blog at Bikewriter.com.

Within a few days, the story was among the Top 10 most-read posts on the blog, bumping posts which have been accumulating views for years. I had people sending me FB messages to the effect of, “I think you may save some lives with this post.”

That made me want to share it with a wider audience, so I offered it to Motorcycle USA, who has agreed to put it up.


Off he goes. According to a comment added to my blog post, the motorcycle is a Yamaha FJR1300. In the next few seconds, he’s going to catch and pass several cars and at least one other bike. I can’t read the speedo, but the official investigation found that he traveled up to 97 mph. His mum said, “He loved speed.” We all do, and we’ve all exceeded 97 mph at some point.

The good: alcohol was not a factor. The roads are dry, visibility is good. He’s wearing good gear and traffic is light. The passes he makes are all safe – although he’s traveling at a rate of speed that is bound to earn him a big speeding ticket if he’s caught.


The bad: Already at this point, 97’s too fast. The big green sign on the rider’s left tells him, there’s an intersection ahead. The heavy foliage could conceal a car about to pull out. Meanwhile, the white car just ahead has seen him coming and pulled over.


Taking the invitation, the bike passes the car. His lane position is not too bad; he’s to the right in his lane, maximizing his sight lines into the intersection, maximizing his own visibility. He could’ve just let his momentum carry him past the car and rolled off the throttle, but he’s still on the gas.

He’s in the UK, of course (which is why he’s on the left side of the road.) There’s not a big risk of deer jumping out of that treeline in the English countryside, but in much of North America, especially at this time of year, that would be another incentive to slow down.


He should be in Condition Orange by now. There’s an intersection up ahead, with a view of potential cross traffic obscured by trees. And now, he can see an oncoming car positioning itself to turn across his lane; it’s “in the box” as they say over there.

A rider using proper situational awareness would already have rolled off and taken other steps to reduce his risk by now. But anyone can be caught off guard, so this would be the time to roll off and try to alert the driver in the right-turn lane to your presence. Here in the U.S., we’d flash the high beam to say, “Hey, I’m here, and I’m going a bit quick.” In the U.K., flashing your light would mean, “After you,” so an English rider might try honking his horn. And, check the rear view mirror and flash brake lights to tell the guy in that white car, “I know I just passed you, but I’m about to hit the brakes and you should think about it, too.”


At the very least, the road on left would be a perfect place for a cop to be parked, pointing a radar gun our way. At this moment though, a cop would be the least of his problems; the rider should have a laser focus on that car’s left front tire – that car’s still rolling, and the driver has steered into the motorcyclist’s lane.

Now, the rider has to be on the brakes, racer-style, with a swift-but-smooth take-up to plant the front, followed by increasing pressure. He should be checking the position of the white car behind him, and moving to one side or the other to reduce the risk of being rear-ended. But no, the rider is still on the gas, accelerating.


Look at his right hand. Finally, he’s rolled off. I can’t know what was inside his head at this point, but I’m guessing that he’s jumped straight from Condition White (daydreaming) to Condition Red (immediate action required).

But what’s he going to do? He’s less than a second from the moment of impact. His speed hasn’t yet decreased at all. He’s now in the middle of his lane. I can’t blame him for moving towards the verge from the earlier position. At this point, his brain hasn’t caught up to his situation. He’s probably still thinking, “This car signaling a turn will poke into my lane, the bastard.” But, as understandable as that drift to the left was, it’s put him in a crappy position for an emergency evasive maneuver. He’s now on the dirtiest part of the asphalt, at a moment when he needs maximum braking grip.


Now he’s in Condition Red. He’s realized that the car’s not stopping. Look at his right hand. He’s reaching for the brake. C’mon you guys! Always cover the front brake! The time it took him to reach for it has already made some kind of crash almost inevitable. Note that at this point, although the horizon is tilted, it’s not any more tilted than it was on the straightaway; he hasn’t taken evasive action, he’s just drifted towards the left. He hasn’t looked for an escape route; he’s looking at a gap, but that gap’s closing – he’s looking right the point of impact.

Although it’s easy to second-guess, it’s now a certainty that the car’s momentum is going to carry it into his lane. In hindsight – considering that the car did fully enter his lane – it would have been better if the motorcyclist was at the extreme right in his lane, from where he could’ve used the center lane as an escape road. Even the far left would be better than where he is; that lane position would give the driver a longer opportunity to see him and stop. (Remember, although the motorcycle’s almost doing the ton, the car’s only going 15 mph. At this moment, he could still stop in the left lane, leaving a gap for the motorcycle to squeak past on the left.)


He’s finally on the brakes, but still hasn’t scrubbed much speed. He needed to be on the brakes earlier and harder. And, our worst fears are confirmed, the car’s fully entered his lane. A crash of some kind’s impending, but remember Gardiner’s Rule #7: Always try to avoid an impact.

Even Marc Marquez probably couldn’t make that left turn, but it would be worth trying. The high-speed low side crash that sent you flying into the trees is a guaranteed ambulance ride, but it’s better than a center-of-mass-to-center-of-mass collision with a car.

Although it would take impressive presence of mind to realize it, and racer-level machine control to negotiate it, there’s a viable route behind the car. But even if the rider had the skills, he’d have to have been planning it a second or two earlier. At this point, he’s probably looking at a maximum braking dodge to the right that might well carry him off the road to the right. Not good, but again, better than hitting the car.

Even locking the front and dumping the bike at this point is better. At least in that scenario, the bike would transfer its momentum to the car before the rider hit it.

His brief yell, as he realizes what’s about to happen, is heart-rending. In the video, his mum says, “He had no time to take evasive action.” He certainly has no time now. Although he’s on the brakes, his speed’s still barely changed. Considering the vectors involved, serious injury or death are now the only possible outcomes.

Or, as a last-last-last ditch tactic, there’s always jumping off the footpegs, in the hope that you’ll clear the car. (Don’t scoff; I know a racer who leapt completely over an Armco barrier that destroyed his motorcycle on impact. He broke an ankle, and lived to joke about it.)

It’s worth noting that the car driver admitted that he hadn’t seen the motorcyclist. But even if he had seen him, he had been driving down a road, meeting oncoming traffic traveling 60-70 mph. When he saw a motorcycle up ahead, he couldn’t have expected it to close at a 50% greater speed. The car driver might have turned even if he had seen the motorcycle.

I’m not blaming the motorcyclist (although his illegal speed was a major contributing factor.) But what the… This accident was completely avoidable. As a motorcyclist, you should never assume you’ve been seen unless/until you’ve made eye contact with drivers, and you should never, ever assume they realize you’re going 100 mph.

In the next regularly-scheduled Backmarker, on Sept. 18, I’ll follow this up with a useful way of thinking about situational awareness, and two mental ‘games’ that you can play while riding, that will prepare you for this kind of worst-case scenario.

In the meantime, please do me a favor and watch one more upsetting video.

 

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