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Don't just ride for yourself, ride to deal with the other road user
I originally wrote this article after hearing from a friend about a fatal collision including a rider. It seemed a car travelling in the opposite direction had come under a railway bridge on the wrong side of the road. The car had apparently been racing another bike. It brought back memories of a personal near-miss on my regular weekend route when I was working as a trainer at Cinque Ports in Kent.
It was a lovely early morning in summer and I knew the road well, having been up and down it hundreds of times. One section took in a quiet country lane, wide and well surfaced with mostly good views and few houses, farms or side roads. One section is a flat-out downhill straight, almost a mile long. It finishes with a sharp, 20mph left-hand bend which has caught numerous riders and drivers out (the skid marks tell the tale) but that's not where things got interesting. About a third of the way down this slope, where it would be quite easy to be doing three figure speeds on any modestly-powered machine, is a slight rise. It creates a blind crest with a hidden dip on the other side. I never took it too fast over the top because I knew there was a farm entrance just ahead.
But on this particular Saturday morning, at about 7:30 am, Spidy Sense kicked in. I don't know why, but I approached the crest rather slower than normal. Coming the other way, the top of a coach appeared. I slowed even more and moved to the left of the lane. Damn me if a speeding car didn't appear appear on my side of the road, desperately trying to complete an overtake!
If I hadn't reacted, our closing speed would probably have been around 120mph. But slowing down gave me just enough space to swerve right over to the nearside, and we got past each other with maybe a metre to spare. By the time I got to work fifteen minutes later, 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.
Whether the driver overtaking the coach was incompetent or took a stupid risk is irrelevant, I found him where he was and I had to deal with it. Any blind area - whether it's riding over a crest, under a bridge or round a bend - is riding into the unknown. And we need to apply some caution - "never ride at a speed faster than one that allow you to stop in the distance you can see to be clear and EXPECT TO REMAIN CLEAR" is a good the rule but we have to be aware that it's all controlled by just what we expect. If we expect vehicles not to cross the centre line, then we're not expecting a whole raft of potential problems.
I've no evidence how fast the dead rider was travelling and it seems no blame attached to him, but being completely objective, although I'm probably more cautious than nine out of ten riders, historically I probably rode over that crest a little faster than I should have done. Why? Because for "nothing had ever gone wrong before".
The trouble is, in situations like this, it's only ever likely to go wrong once.
It scares me witless when I see riders launch themselves at blind corners and junctions at speeds that give them no chance of stopping in the event of something blocking the road. We should always be thinking of the Worst Case Scenario, planning to stop or at least take evasive action in an emergency.
But ultimately, the driver who was really at fault was - in my opinion - the coach driver.
Why? He made zero effort to get either of us out of trouble. Even if he was half-asleep, he'd have seen the suicidal driver attempting the overtake, and that the car wasn't going to get back to the correct side of the road before the crest. And his higher-up driving position would have given him a sight of me a moment or two earlier than the driver could see me. If it had been me behind the coach wheel, I would have slammed the brakes on, and made as much space as possible by keeping left, hoping to give the car driver space to avoid the bike.
In the event, the drive didn't change position and 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. But more likely it was a complete lack of recognition that there was a head-on collision about to happen alongside him. It didn't threaten him personally, therefore it didn't even register as a danger.
Whatever the reason, the coach driver's inaction had committed the car driver to a single, unalterable course of action. I call it 'putting someone in jail'. The driver had no escape route and no alternative other than to keep going and hope for the best.
The point I'm making is that we might be riding along minding our own business, but by doing nothing when other road users create a dangerous situation, we still contribute to it. A good example is the rider who forces a driver to abort a turn across a main road by simply carrying on, doing nothing because "I have right of way". Or holding a wide line around a left-hand bend forcing a truck to steer to the left to avoid hitting the bike. Backing off the throttle, turning a little tighter would make life easier for everyone. So we need to b aware of everything that goes on around us, including assessing the problems other road users face, and deciding if there's anything we can do to help them out or even give them a way to get out of trouble.
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.
Some weeks later I mentioned the story and the value of keeping left over blind crests to my riding buddy Keith as we were sat on the ferry on the way to Chimay for the June racing. He was not completely convinced about the value of keeping left over blind crests. But guess what happened on the way back? A driver decided he couldn't wait any longer to get to the front of a short stream of slower-moving cars and went to overtake the lot, towards a blind crest. He ran out of space and ended up passing the final vehicle on the wrong side of the centre line...
...just as a motorcycle appeared coming the other way.
Somehow they missed each other. I don't know how, because I was already on the brakes, looking for an escape route to escape the expected carnage.
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