Part One



“But isn’t that dangerous?” That’s probably the question I hear most often when people learn that I have been commuting with a bike for most of my working life.

Most people see bikes as rolling death-traps, and if the statistics are anything to go by, they are right. But statistics only tell a part of the story. They tell the part of people on bikes doing incredibly stupid things like driving under the influence and speeding where it isn’t safe to speed. They tell the part of inexperienced riders riding on machines with mind-boggling performance, and of young riders who still believe in their own immortality.

So, when I reply: “Yes, it’s dangerous, but you can manage the risks”, members of my audience often shake their heads at what they consider to be my delusional nature. The thing is, I’m not delusional. The dangers are very real to me – I’ve come perilously close to an abrupt ending of my biking days (and of my life, as well) on several occasions. And I have walked away from  those occasions badly shaken, and deeply grateful to still be alive. Over time I came to realise that there was something to learn from each of those close shaves, and I began the practice of analysing each mishap to learn from them.

In a world in which there is an increasing tendency to shift blame and avoid responsibility for one’s own actions, I took the road less travelled. Every time I came close to being in an accident, I tried to determine what I did wrong, or what I could have done differently to avoid the situation in the first place. Yes, the motorist ignored the stop sign, but if I had slowed down while approaching the intersection, I would have had more time to react. Yes, the motorist changed lanes without indicating, but if I had anticipated his intention, I wouldn’t have had to brake so hard to avoid hitting him. I realised that shifting the blame would not solve the problem, and solving the problem could keep me alive. I wanted to be in control, not to trust my life to the hands of some unknown motorist whose driving skills are, at best, questionable. And to do that, I needed to assume responsibility for my own safety.

Yes, the risks are real – riding a bike is dangerous. I said previously that the statistics tell only part of the story, but it’s a part we had better pay attention to. So perhaps we should take a moment and listen to what the statistics tell us, in the form of a study in 2001 by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Per mile travelled, say the statistics, a motorcyclist is approximately 16 times more likely to die in a crash than an automobile occupant and three times as likely to be injured. What the statistics really say is that you are totally unprotected on your bike, and that should an accident happen, chances are you won’t be able to walk away alive. Your best chance is in trying to avoid dangerous situations in the first place, because once you’re in them the odds are against you.

You will note that the emphasis in this guide is on defensive driving, on predicting danger and avoiding it. That is because I believe that on a bike, unlike Lord Nelson’s oft-quoted maxim, the best defence is in fact defence. This guide is not intended to be an advanced motorcycling course in condensed form; it merely points out some of the risks that I’ve identified while commuting, and some of the techniques I’ve developed to deal with those risks. I hope that it will be of value to you, and that it will help you to make your commuting trips safer. And if perhaps one day, only one person can say: “I am alive today because of what I’ve learned from reading your guide,” it will have been worth all the hours I put into writing it.

Situational Awareness

I’m going to start off by talking about something that is not just important when you commute, but whenever you are on your bike (or in your car). The term is situational awareness, and it originated in the US Air Force. In combat aviation, situational awareness effectively means knowing where the other aircraft in your airspace are, in which direction they are moving, and whether or not they are a threat to you.

It isn’t difficult to figure how this can apply to riding a bike. Unless you’re out on a leisurely Sunday drive with little or no traffic around you, having a constant mental image of who is around you and what they’re doing could be a huge benefit in an emergency situation. So, how do you achieve it?

I’m most likely not going to be telling you anything new here – if you have a bit of commuting experience, you’re probably already doing it automatically. But just to make sure we’re on the same page, here goes: look around and remember what you’ve seen. The trick is to take a ‘mental snapshot’ and update it every time you look around. Remember the white car on you right-hand side? Is it still there, or has it dropped back? If it has dropped back, is it still in the same lane or has it changed lanes? And the red one on the other side – where is it now?

If you do this all the time, you’ll soon begin to form a complete and constantly updated picture of the traffic. Having such a picture has three direct benefits:

  • In an emergency situation, when there is little or not time to check the traffic before taking evasive action, you’ll have a fair idea of who is where.

  • In tight traffic, such as when you’re lane-splitting, it can reduce the number of times you have to take your eyes off the traffic ahead for valuable seconds to check your mirrors.

  • It helps you to cover your blind spots. If you check your mirror and the car which was back there a moment ago has now gone missing, chances are it has moved into your blind spot.

Don’t get me wrong, situational awareness is not intended to replace observation. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to look in your mirrors anymore. It is just one more arrow in your quiver to use in your battle with the dragon called Rush-Hour Traffic. Developing situational awareness takes a bit of practice if you’re not used to it, but it is a habit well worth acquiring. Apart from the other benefits, it will also help to build your confidence in dealing with extreme traffic conditions.

But above all, it might save your life one day. It is better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.



© Dries van der Walt, 2008. Click on 'About' to see copyright information.