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
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
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.
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.
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
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.