Thursday, May 10, 2012

Road craft not rhetoric

There have been at least two serious motorcycle accidents today in Melbourne.  Once again people will cry for something to be done, and I am one of them.

Right now I am not interested in apportioning blame.  It does not matter to me whether it was a driver or a rider who caused the accident.  What matters is that the rider lacked the skills to prevent the accident from happening in the first place.

There are steps that can and must be taken as soon as possible.  Motorcycle safety is the result of effective policies that focus upon Separation and Preparation.

Separation:  wherever possible, separate motorcyclists from other traffic.  Things that can be done immediately:

  1. Conduct an interim review of the Hoddle St Bus Lane trial, and if the results are promising, extend the trial to more bus lanes.
  2. Investigate allowing motorcycles to use the emergency shoulder of freeways when it is used by buses, taxis, and VHA/C vehicles.
  3. Contact authorities in London and California where the practice of filtering is legal and ask for whatever data they may have regarding the safety outcomes for motorcyclists derived from this practice.  If these results are promising, explore the feasibility of trialling or implementing legal, sanctioned and supported filtering.
  4. Investigate the safety and feasibility of lane sharing bicycle lanes.
(Please note I do not pre-empt the findings of any investigation into the above suggestions, nor do I personally support or endorse any of the above in the absence of appropriate research and data.  However they present themselves to me as possibilities that can be examined and implemented or discarded, in an effort to separate motorcyclists from other motor traffic.)

Preparation: at a time when young drivers are told they need 120 hours of supervised driving in all weather conditions and times of day before they are ready to drive on the roads alone, one can get their motorcycle learners permit in a single day, and then legally take to the road.

There are two aspects to safe motorcycle riding on public roads: rider skills, and road craft.  In order to pass your learners permit test, you require the bare minimum rider skills.  For all practical intents and purposes, road craft is not addressed.  This more than anything else is the gap in rider safety that needs to be urgently addressed.

This is no easy thing to achieve.  To an extent, road craft is more art than science; something that must be learned rather than something that can easily be taught.  I have spent some time condensing my approach to road craft into something that will be easy to remember and easy to explain; this is far from perfect, but this is what I have: V-SPACE
  • Maximise your Vision
  • Preserve your Space
  • Choose your Position
  • Maintain your Awareness
  • Evaluate the Conditions
  • Plan your Escape
Vision.  If you can’t see what’s coming, you can’t prepare for it.  Position yourself for maximum visibility: start wide on the corners so you can see further around; don’t ride directly behind a vehicle that you can’t see over, around, or through - drop back, change lanes, or if safe, overtake; keep scanning with your eyes - the road, the distance, the side streets, the sides of the road & shoulders, your mirrors - just keep looking; where you look is where you go - if you spot a hazard, look at your escape route and track the hazard with quick glances or your peripheral vision.

Space.  Preserve a safety buffer around you, it’s the closest thing you have to an air bag.  If another vehicle is driving erratically, get away from it; erratic drivers (or riders, or pedestrians) are difficult to anticipate, so take the initiative and get away from them.  Don’t pull up too close to cars at the lights, especially if the road is an incline; lots of cars roll backwards when they pull away at the lights, and if they roll back a bit too far, you can’t just drop your bike into reverse.

Position.  As a single track vehicle you get to choose where to position yourself in your lane, so make a conscious choice that maximises your vision and safety; don’t stop at lights in the middle of the lane, that’s where car and truck engines drip oil, so keep to the left or right tyre tracks.  On the freeway, the left-hand lane is constantly being merged into and out of for people entering and exiting; you are safest in the right hand lane providing you are overtaking & not holding up traffic behind you.  Country roads with gravel shoulders should encourage you to stay in the right tyre track unless there’s a reason not to be there.  Loose gravel on the road can upset your bike’s grip on the road, not something you want to happen at lean, no matter what speed you’re going.  Riding in another vehicle’s blind spot is asking to be taken out.  Choose your lane position to improve your visibility to other road users: if there are oncoming cars stopped waiting for a gap to turn right into a side street, riding in the left hand tyre track might make you appear to be the gap they’re waiting for, so position yourself in the right hand tyre track so that they can see you in the flow of traffic.

Awareness.  Know what is going on around you.  Keep a ‘mental map’ of the vehicles around you.  Be on the lookout for hazards and dangers: side streets and driveways that vehicles or animals / children could come out from unexpectedly; bus stops that inspire other vehicles to merge into the right hand lane (with or without looking); vehicles that might want to leg it through the orange (or red) light into your path; pedestrians stepping out from between parked cars; pedestrians who cross ‘small streets’ like Little Lonsdale St where it intersects with Swanston St (my personal favourite) without looking at the lights or the traffic.

Conditions.  Monitor the conditions and adjust your riding accordingly.  Check the obvious things like road surface, weather, but also consider how the conditions affect the vehicles around you: the setting sun behind you can obscure your light for oncoming traffic, and can obscure your brake lights and indicators for vehicles behind you; riding into the setting sun can completely hide you from vehicles following behind you as they lower their visors; fog not only reduces visibility but it muffles sounds as well, be prepared for the fact that you can ‘sneak up’ on traffic, or that drivers can head-check but still not see you.  Conditions that are more demanding are more demanding to drive in - expect other road users to be less observant and less patient in rainy and other tricky conditions.

Escape.  Always have an escape route.  Always.  Every potential hazard you identify, plan what you would do to avoid it as soon as you see it.  If that car pulls out in front of you, will you swerve behind it, or will you emergency stop?  If that kangaroo beside the road jumps into my path, how will I avoid it?  If the car behind me isn’t going to stop in time at these lights, where will I go?  Planning your escape route in advance makes it a little bit easier when you’re confronted with an unfolding hazard.

These things are difficult to teach; like chemistry in high school, some practical work is required in order for the lessons to sink in. But this difficulty should not excuse us from not attempting it in the first place. The rhetoric of "slowing down won't kill you" is no substitute for knowing where to position yourself in your lane to maximise your visibility to other road users, or to maximise your own field of vision so that you can be prepared for potential hazards ahead.

Inexperienced and returning riders need road craft skills, not rhetoric. It's as simple as that.


  1. Very well written Ross. You're right too- it is as simple as that.

  2. Couldn't agree more, and it is precisely this approach that I am trying hard to improve in my own riding. :)

    Now if only the authorities in question were actually interested in listening to advice like this...