What is Risk?

In the last tip I added, I talked about risk. It's worth discussing what we mean by risk and how far we can decide how risky an exercise is.

First let's define safety:

Safety is defined as the "absence of risk".

So is riding a bike safe or unsafe?  Neither. Since it is impossible to ride without risk, we have to talk about relative safety and relative risk.

So can we define risk a bit more clearly? We can say something like:

Risk is the chance something might happen multiplied by the effect of it really happening

Clearly we need to talk about management of risk. To maximise safety we want to take as few dangerous chances as possible.

To do that we have to be able to recognise what is and isn't dangerous. Some activities are often considered highly risky - overtaking on a blind bend is likely to lead you to collide head-on with an oncoming vehicle, braking or cornering hard on a slippery surface is liable to leave you sliding down the road beside the bike. The chances of something going wrong in either case are high, multiplied by the effect on you if it does go wrong suggest that either situation is likely to have very serious consequences.

But if you think a little harder, not all overtaking on a bend is dangerous. If you have a clear view of the road ahead, it might actually be quite safe. Equally if you know your road surfaces, you may found your wheels are actually on Shellgrip, which is just as grippy in the wet as it is in the dry, allowing lots of brake use. In other words, "bend" does not automatically mean "dangerous overtakes", and "wet surface" does not always mean "reduced grip" - managing risk means you must think beyond the basics - we need to consider "view" and "surface characteristics" too. I was chatting with a friend recently and he told me the following story about a ride with another rider.

"...I was following the other rider quite closely. In a straight line, he did a a number of swerves to avoid riding over a drain cover. Really sensible! And the best bit was that a couple of the outrageous swerves only served to take him into a second offset drain with some silly lean angle on, on a straight road."

Unfortunately, this is a half-baked application of the theory that manhole covers are slippery. Leaving aside the obvious comment that he has not looked ahead far enough or planned ahead early enough (if he had he would have moved smoothly round the covers rather than swerving), the problem is one of incomplete comprehension. The rider concerned has clearly been told or believes manholes are slippery and therefore to be avoided at all costs, but has quite simply failed to make the next leap - attempting to calculate risk:

    are they slippery all the time?
    are there more dangerous things he should be worrying about?
    are there additional dangers attached to swerving?

If the drains are dry and flush with the surface, if you are riding at moderate speeds, and if you are upright or at a gentle lean angle then you and I know they are not a big problem. Even when wet, unless you are braking or cornering hard, the worst that is likely to happen is a small slide.

It's a question of grading hazard and prioritising your actions. I would look for more important considerations:

    visibility
        what I can see of the road ahead (potential hidden dangers for example)
        am I in a position to be seen by other road users?
    conflicts with other road users
        oncoming cars to the right
        pedestrians and cyclists to the left.

In the dry I would not compromise any of these to avoid running over a manhole cover. The chances of losing control of the bike are remote.

In the wet a smooth riding line becomes more important, and although the cover will be much more slippery and I would look for a safe line that took me clear of manhole covers, most likely I still would not avoid one if it meant making a sudden manoeuvre. If avoiding a manhole cover took me into a potentially dangerous position of conflict with another vehicle, I would certainly slow down and ride over the cover, and accept the small slide as the much less risky option.

When you start to think of your riding in these terms, you can start to make informed choices about what you do and don't do.