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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.
Survival Skills Rider Training
...because it's a jungle out there
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