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Don't search for 'safety', understand and avoid what's risky

When delivering my Survival Skills advanced motorcycle riding courses, one of the concepts I ensure that is covered in depth is risk, and its relationship to safety. Why focus on risk when it's so much more usual to hear motorcycle training and road safety experts talk about 'safety'? There's a good reason for this. It's because safety is defined as the 'absence of risk'. So given that it is impossible to ride without risk, it's only by understanding risk that we can begin to appreciate whether particular manoeuvres are actually relatively low or relatively high risk. Once we know that, then it's possible to begin to manage risk and thus attempt to make our riding as safe as possible.

So let's start by define what we mean by 'risk' a bit more clearly? We can say something like:

'Risk = the chance something might happen X the impact on us when it happens'

It may be a simple explanation but it makes it easier to understand how a hazard might affect us. For example, you'd probably agree that most metal access covers are potentially slippery. But does that mean they ALWAYS pose a risk?

Follow some riders and you'd be forgiven for thinking they'd been treated with teflon as they weave left and right to avoid them in the dry, but if the metal surface is relatively small and flush with the surface, and we are neither cornering, braking or accelerating, then what's the problem? We can ride over them with no fear of a loss of grip, and we can focus on other issues, such as taking a line that avoids getting close to oncoming vehicles. Even when wet, a small access cover is unlikely to result in anything more serious than a slight twitch even when leaned over. Running over it might be a better decision than shaving past an HGV coming the other way. But what if the metal plate is big? What if it's just where we're planning to hit the brakes, to avoid an emerging car? What if we're carrying serious lean through a corner? And it's wet too? Now we have a more serious problem.

What I'm getting at is we need to anticipate whether the hazard poses a threat in the context in which we are about to meet it.

One useful place to develop an understanding of risk is to examine the 'killed and seriously injured' statistics. If you do that, you'll discover there are three common crashes:

  • at junctions
  • on corners
  • during overtakes

Then we can drill down further to find out more about the risks of each location.

For example, if we look at crashes at or near junctions involving motorcycles, we find that in an URBAN environment most collisions happen when another vehicle pulls out from a side road, and turns across the motorcycle's path. Although these incidents are very common (so the risk of a COLLISION is high), the fatality rate is low UNLESS the rider is exceeding the speed limit - then the fatality rate sky-rockets.

But there's a second collision to consider - when an oncoming vehicle turns right turns across the rider's path. The risk OF the collision is low (there aren't very many) but the risk FROM the crash is high (it's a much bigger impact and far more likely to be fatal).

But once out of town, where speeds are higher, both types of collision are likely to have serious consequences, simply because the speeds are higher.

And in the same way we can find other high-risk activities. If we crash on a corner, we're more likely to survive if we fall off on a right-hander (in the UK), but on a left-hander we cross the centre line and the resulting collision is often fatal. Overtaking is almost certainly the most dangerous of all biking activities, because there is so much that can go wrong. Not too many years ago, a highly qualified motorcycle instructor told me that "done right, overtaking is perfectly safe". Hopefully, you read that and asked yourself "is that really true?". The answer, of course, is that however well-planned and executed, NO overtake can ever be 'perfectly safe'. We can try to manage the risks as best we can, but there is one element in an overtake over which we have no control whatsoever...

...and that's the other humans in the mix. We can be trying to do everything 'right' and the unpredictable actions of another human can still put us at risk.

So to sum up... to ASSESS risk, we must recognise the potential for any particular activity to go wrong. To MANAGE risk, we have to know our options, and whether we have alternatives open to us. In the case of an overtake, I could simply not attempt it - that would manage the risk pretty effectively. And when deciding whether or not I need to ride over that manhole cover mid-corner, there's another solution - I could SLOW DOWN! It's easier to recover from a slide when we're more upright.

It's amazing how long it takes riders to actually remember that slowing down is nearly always an effective risk management option.

Kevin Williams
Survival Skills Rider Training

...because it's a jungle out there


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What is Survival Skills all about?

How are Survival Skills Courses put together and taught?
The Making of a Good Instructor - musings on my Driver Education course

Would a National Standard for advanced training be appropriate?
Writing a riding tip - what detail is necessary?
What to do if you've had an accident
Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths

Improver or advanced, pragmatism or perfection?
Piling on the miles
Compartmentalisation & Practice -  the key to learning new skills
Countersteering - Question and Answer

Braking Rules and Tips
Over-confidence and Riding at the Limit
Practice makes Perfect
The Danger of Misunderstanding
Learning from your Mistakes
A Moment of Inattention
Staying Warm
Staying Awake
Don't just ride for yourself, ride for others
Filtering - what's legal and how to do it
Cornering Problems 1 - Lean or Brake?
Springing into Summer - polishing off the winter rust
Group Riding - Rules and Tips
Awareness of Risk and Risk Management
Cornering Problems 4 - Stability and the "Point and Squirt" technique
Cornering Problems 3 - Staying out of trouble! Pro-active Braking or Acceleration Sense?
Cornering Problems 2 - Staying out of trouble
What is Risk?
Avoiding Diesel
The Vanishing Point - is it enough?
Posture - the key to smoother riding
When the Two Second Rule is not enough
Riding in the Dark
Roundabouts - straight lines, stability and safety
Slow Speed Control
Aquaplaning - what it is and how to deal with it
Rear Observation - when to & when not to!
Staying upright on icy roads
KISS - 'Keep it simple, Stupid' or Low Effort Biking
Overtaking Safety - avoiding vehicles turning right
Proactive versus Reactive Riding
Living with  Lifesavers
Which Foot? The Hendon Shuffle - Question and Answer
Carrying a passenger - Question and Answer
Riding in the rain
Riding in strong winds
Sorry Mate, I didn't see you - an analysis of SMIDSY accidents
Ever gone into a corner too hot and had it tighten up on you?
The Point & Squirt approach to corners
A time to live...
Target Fixation - Question and Answer
The Lurker, the Drifter and the Trimmer
The five most important things I learned as a courier
Overtaking - Questions and Answers
Precision riding - or keeping it simple?
Wide lines, tight lines, right lines - the law of Diminishing Returns
Surface Attraction
Euphoria - when your riding is just too good to be true
Straight line -vs- trail braking
Sit back, close your eyes, relax... and hope for the best
Before you overtake, do you...?
Do you need to blip the throttle on a downshift?
Holiday Riding Tips 1 - Dealing with hairpins (a new occasional series)
Holiday Riding Tips 2 - The (drive on the) Right Stuff
Why SMIDSYs happen
Avoiding dehydration - riding in hot weather
Riding errors - and avoiding them
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - riding in fog
Where does Point and Squirt come from?
Overtaking - lifesavers and following distances
Offsiding - what is it, and why you should think before you do it!
Anger Management - dealing with "red mist" and "road rage"
That indefinable gloss
Overtaking on left-handers - experts only or best avoided?
Apex or Exit - what's important when cornering?

Developing 'Spidy Sense'

Armchair Riding - how to improve summer skills in winter

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 1

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 2

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IMPORTANT: The information on the Survival Skills website is for your general information and personal use and should be taken as a guide only. Survival Skills Rider Training provides no warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness, clarity, fitness or suitability of the information and materials found or offered on this website for any particular purpose and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this website meet your specific requirements and you acknowledge use of any information and materials is entirely at your own risk, and that neither Kevin Williams nor Survival Skills can accept responsibility for your interpretation or use of this information or materials. The content of these pages is subject to change without notice. 

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