Don't just ride for yourself, ride for others

I heard from a friend about a rider being killed the other day. Not his fault, it seems a car travelling in the opposite direction came under a railway bridge on the wrong side of the road. The car had apparently been racing another bike.

"Jeez" I said to myself... situations like this are hard to deal with... the story brought back memories of my regular weekend route to work at Cinque Ports and an incident that occurred several summers ago.

One section of the ride took me along a quiet country lane, wide and well surfaced with good views everywhere and few houses, farms or side roads. One section is a flat out downhill straight, about a mile long with a 20mph right angle bend at the end... about a third of the way along (by where it would be quite possible to be doing well over 100mph on the FZ or the Gixxer) is a slight crest with a hidden dip on the other side. I never took it too fast over the top because there was a farm entrance just ahead on the right, but still at a fair clip.

One Saturday morning sixth sense kicked in, I didn't accelerate as hard as usual, and as I approached the crest the top of a coach appeared coming the other way. I slowed down and moved to the left... and damn me if a speeding car didn't appear over the crest alongside the coach desperately trying to complete the overtake!!!

If I hadn't slowed, I'd have hit him head on at an estimated closing speed of around 120mph at the top of the crest... As it was I had 30-40 yards warning and was able to hit the brakes and squeeze right over to the left and we got past each other. By the time I got to work I had stopped shaking.

I hadn't thought about this for ages, till I received Steve's e-mail, but it brought it all back and I sat down to think about it again. Who's fault is a situation like this?

Clearly in neither case should the car have been there. Driving on the wrong side of the road into an area you can't see is incredibly dangerous, not only for yourself, but also for the guy coming the other way, like the unfortunate rider Steve told me about. Car drivers do stupid things, but riders should know better - so why do I see so many bikers making foul-ups of overtakes?

Was I or the other rider at fault in any way? Whether the car driver was just incompetent or took a stupid risk is irrelevant, he was there in front of me and it was a situation I had to deal with. Riding over a crest or under a bridge into a situation you can't see clearly demands some caution - "never ride at a speed faster than one that allow you to stop in the distance you can see to be clear" is the rule.

However, we all bend that rule or there would be some places you'd be riding at walking pace, and we generally ride at a speed that allows us (or we believe allows us) to cope with a normal situation, like a bicycle, horse or a slow moving tractor in the country, or perhaps a car stopping or turning unexpectedly or a pedestrian dashing into the road in town.

Being perfectly honest, how many riders (myself included) would actually predict a car making such a foul up of an overtake approaching a blind crest? Only the most cautious. I've no evidence how fast the dead rider was travelling and it seems no blame attached to him, but for myself if I am completely honest with myself, I used to take a bit of a chance and ride just a little bit faster over that crest every morning than I should have done because for months nothing had ever been coming the other way. But I am still probably more cautious than 9/10ths of riders. It scares me witless when I see riders take corners or launch themselves at blind junctions at a speed that gives them no chance of dealing with any single one of the above situations. And I see far too many... you should always be thinking of that Worst Case Scenario, planning your riding to take a course and speed that allows you to stop or take evasive action.

But in my opinion, the driver who was really at fault in my incident is the coach driver. Why do I think this?

Assuming he was even half awake, he would have seen the suicidal car driver attempting the overtake. He should have been able to see the car driver wasn't backing off out of the overtake nor was car going to make it past before they reached the top of the rise. It doesn't take a huge mental leap to imagine there might be a vehicle coming the other way or the possible consequences.

Furthermore, from his higher up driving position, he would have seen me a moment or two before the car driver and should have seen exactly what was going to happen. All this evidence should have been screaming at him to slow down and let the car in. So why didn't he? In the event, as far as I could see he didn't even touch the brakes! Bloodymindedness? Possibly, truck and coach drivers are loath to lose speed because it takes them so long to build it up and there are always gits out there who take a delight in making things more difficult than they need be. More likely it was a complete lack of recognition of the problem - it didn't threaten him, therefore it simply didn't register as a danger.

Whatever the explanation, the coach driver by his inaction had committed the car driver to a single, unalterable course of action. I call it "putting someone in jail" - he had no escape routes and no alternative other than to continue.

The point I am trying to make is that you might be riding along with no danger to yourself but contributing to a dangerous situation involving other road users simply by doing nothing, either because you haven't recognised what going on or you are simply ignoring it. Be aware of everything that goes on around, work out what problems other road users face, consider what mistakes they might make and what help you might be able to give them to get out of trouble in a potentially dangerous situation - in short always be proactive as you ride - not reactive.

Is there a parallel in the other incident? The car shouldn't have been on the wrong side of the road racing the bike, but maybe the second rider didn't think about the possible consequences to other road users as they went under the bridge side by side...

I often wonder what gave me that premonition... did I in fact spot the coach and car in the far distance before they vanished? I don't remember seeing them, but it's possible I clocked them subconciously. I don't give myself any credit for getting out of a highly dangerous situation alive where another biker didn't... I'd rather it was seen as a reminder that however careful we are, to some extent we depend on other drivers and riders help out in moments like this, and it's up to us as thinking riders to actively look for the problems affecting other road users, be aware of their mistakes and help them out too.
 

POSTSCRIPT

I mentioned this idea to my friend Keith on the ferry on the way to Chimay this June (2000)... he was not completely convinced about the value of keeping left over blind crests. Then what should we witness on the way back? A driver at the back of a short queue of cars ahead of us, saw us coming up behind him, decided he was going to get the the front of the queue ahead of us, and went to overtake the lot. He ran out of space and ended up overtaking the last vehicle over a blind crest - just as a motorcycle appeared coming the other way. Somehow they missed each other... I don't know how, because I was on the brakes and looking for an escape route, convinced there was going to be a big accident. Scary.