A Moment of Inattention

The following was posted in a discussion group by a friend of mine, Don Kime, an instructor in the States.

What can be learned?

"More harrowing braking experiences. This is beginning to scare me. I just got back from a ride and was on a two lane, fairly straight and wide, country road. I was following a pickup doing somewhere around 75mph. He was about four car lengths or more ahead of me. I was just enjoying the ride, as usual. Next thing I know all I see is brake lights and I am closing on his tail gate fast. Here we go again.

"I immediately get down on both brakes, and the back wheel promptly locks up. At first I am not really sure which wheel is sliding until the back end starts to wag back and forth. At this point I know I need to be squeezing the front brake harder than I am, but for some reason I am afraid I am going to slide the front wheel and loose control. In retrospect, I don't think I was anywhere near loosing traction on the front. I am in the grips of fear and (again) fixated on the tail gate of the truck.

"For a moment I am sure I am not going to be able to stop in time, but I feel like I can at least get my speed down before I impact. I continue on the front brake with the rear locked. I know I should have released the rear, but at the moment there was no way I was going to let off either brake. I managed to bear down a bit harder on the front once I realized that it was the rear that was sliding and not the front. I brought the bike to a stop about 10ft behind the truck in a cloud of smoke from my rear tire. (I flat spotted the heck out of my new Macadam!)

"The pickup had just stopped dead in the middle of the road to make a right turn (without signalling). I don't know if he had slammed on his brakes hard or if I had not seen them when they first came on. All I remember is going about 70 and seeing brake lights and a truck that had come to a complete stop right in front of me.

I made several rookie mistakes (again). First of all, I made no attempt to avoid. I fixated. I probably could have gone around, but once I locked the back wheel that was no longer an option. I don't remember if there was any oncoming traffic or not. I don't think I had time to look. Second, I did not brake the front wheel aggressively enough. My first instinctive reaction was to jam down the brake pedal which resulted in the rear wheel slide and making me panic. I think if I had used only the front brake I would have stopped much sooner. But for some reason, I can't seem to keep myself from stomping on the rear brake in an emergency. Right after the incident I did three practice emergency braking tests. I was able to bring the bike to a controlled stop all three times in a distance much shorter than what I had just done. But I was not in a real emergency situation.

Something happens to my brain when I am in a real emergency situation that prevents me from thinking clearly and braking correctly. Fear, plain in simple. Maybe I just need to practice more so it is second nature. My brain just seems to lock up in panic situations. I need to somehow learn to control my fear instead of letting it control me."

So what can we learn from this? What are the issues here? Take a moment to think about this rider's mistakes before you continue.

The rider himself identifies his braking technique as a problem. As he said he practiced three stops immediately after the incident and managed them fine. But in a panic situation instinct overcame training and he used the rear far too hard, so he obviously hadn't practiced using the brakes correctly enough. The next problem was that it took him a moment to identify the fact that the rear wheel had locked. Clearly he was not familiar with the using the brakes at the limit - practicing emergency stops after the event is too late!

It would have been much better if he had not needed to brake so hard. He said "I was following a pickup doing somewhere around 75mph. He was about four car lengths or more ahead of me". Even allowing for hazy perceptions of distance after the event (if he'd really been that close, he would have hit the back of the truck before he had even applied the brakes) it is clear he was too close. At 70mph the Highway Code states that your stopping distance in the dry on a good surface is 24 car lengths or nearly 100m! Most bikes can do better than that, but he was still far too close.

There is of course one problem with trying to work out following distances based on car lengths or metres - most people are awful judges of distance, and distances are very much more difficult to judge as speeds rise. A much simpler rule is the "Two Second Rule". If you haven't come across this, then back to school! Simply watch the vehicle in front, when it passes a clearly defined point (a change of surface or a shadow from a post) start counting - you can say "only a fool breaks the two second rule" - takes about two seconds to day it. If you reach the marker before you have reached two seconds, you are too close - drop back. If you finish talking to yourself before you reach the marker, congratulations! You are keeping a safe gap. Double it (or more) on slippery surfaces. One final point - the two second rule is a MINIMUM safe distance - not a target to aim for - there is no reason you shouldn't sit further back!

What else did he say? "The pickup had just stopped dead in the middle of the road to make a right turn (without signalling)." Not exactly an unusual situation, is it? It happens wherever there are drivers! Never assume the driver ahead knows you are there - he probably was not even aware of the following bike. Remember people do the daftest things without thinking. Drivers will stop just to look at the view or a farmer may turn into a field without warning. In town a driver may stop to pick up or put down a passenger without warning or do a U turn when they have taken the wrong turn. Our rider had failed to anticipate any of these potential dangers.

"First of all, I made no attempt to avoid. I fixated. I probably could have gone around, but once I locked the back wheel that was no longer an option." So he braked before thinking. At that distance, you're asking for trouble... the slightest inattention and anything surprising happening in front of you will kick in Survival Reactions in the way of panic braking and target fixation before the rider has time to assess the situation and decide on a course of action - he had no riding plans!

One of the things that I emphasise on the Survival Skills courses is following at an absolute minimum of 2 secs... I get a lot of puzzled looks, because everyone wants to make progress and generally get on with it but eventually the message begins to get through...
Distance = Time = Choices.

But even that isn't the main problem. He states "I was just enjoying the ride, as usual... I don't remember if there was any oncoming traffic or not. I don't think I had time to look.".

Do you begin to see the problem? We all tend to drift at times but a lack of attention is dangerous. Alertness can't be sacrificed for relaxation. He shouldn't have had to think about looking, he should have been aware of other traffic As Don says "I don't see this as a "braking" issue - I see it as a "thinking" issue".

And most worrying of all - " Here we go again" he says. Has he been in this position before? If so, why had he not learned to avoid it?

Finally let's look at Don's summary of the event.

"First, as many of you have said, unless the rider was planning on overtaking, his following distance was far too close. If he was planning on overtaking, he should have been fully aware of all traffic ahead including any sideroads or driveways or other situations which could produced just what happened. I have learned to never put myself in an overtaking posture when there could be reason for the driver to brake for an unsignalled turn, an animal, bad roadway surface, etc., etc.

"Assuming that the rider was not overtaking, it was a potentially disastrous mistake to follow so closely, but this was exaggerated by a very lackadaisical attitude toward having full information on traffic conditions ahead - together, in my opinion, a potentially deadly combination.

"I see this as 90% of the learning opportunity from this situation. Most emergency braking, in my opinion, results from this kind of failure, and I'm not sure that all the braking practice or discussion in the world assures a rider of righting this wrong. I'm not sure how any of us, including me, will react in a true "the collision is imminent" braking situation. I've fortunately not had to find out as "heavy braking" has always been enough. Nonetheless, I practice maximum braking as often as possible.

However, it is my personal preference to concentrate the vast majority of my efforts at avoiding this situation. I personally believe that this is the only right answer.

My final thought on this is that... with proper anticipation and attention to defensive motorcycle riding these kinds of situations do not have to be the norm. I don't recall when last I had a traffic situation "surprise" me. ...and I don't say this to "blow my horn" as a rider. There are many far better riders than me. I simply practice religiously a system of riding which attempts to separate me from situations at which this particular rider failed. In my opinion, this is the difference between motorcycling being a "relatively" safe, wonderfully challenging and enjoyable activity and one which can kill you very quickly. At the same time, I am fully aware that, in spite of all our best efforts, there is one out there that can get any of us. That's why I wear the gear and am very appreciative of good luck."

As another contributor said, "the old pilot axiom is that superior pilots are the ones who never get in a position where they need to use their superior skills".