Part Five


Emergency Situations

In previous articles, I have pointed out the various potential hazards and how to avoid them. In this, the last article in the series, I will discuss emergencies and what to do when you get into one.

Now matter how proficient you are, no matter how observant you are, no matter how careful you are, sooner or later you are likely to get into an emergency situation. Prevention may well be better than cure, but sometimes the luck is just not with us and we end up being in a jam. The most likely flavour of the jam will be a solid object in your way – be it a vehicle, a pedestrian, an animal or a barrier. You basically have two choices in this situation: brake or avoid. Of these, avoidance is often the best option if traffic conditions allow, hence my emphasis on an escape route. As I previously said, by ‘escape route’ I mean somewhere else you can go if your intended route is unexpectedly blocked.

You should constantly consider possible escape routes while you are riding – just ask yourself: “If one the car in front of me suddenly does a lane-change and I don’t have time to stop, where will I go?” The small size of a bike often allows you top take the tiniest of gaps, so keep your eyes peeled for gaps you can escape into. There are various possible escape routes, depending on where you are: at an intersection it may mean turning with the crossing traffic (see illustration below), on a freeway it may be the emergency lane, on the open road it may mean leaving to tarred surface to escape via the road shoulder of even into the veld. In the latter case, the risk of a puncture or falling is preferable to the risk of a collision.

If you don’t have a possible escape route and you have to brake, there’s a right way to do it. The key to emergency braking is to stop as quickly as possible without locking a wheel. If you lock a wheel, you lose directional control. First of all, be careful the rear brake in emergencies – the sudden weight-shift forward under braking will reduce weight on your rear wheel, which translates into reduced grip, causing the rear wheel to lock up quicker. As my science teacher explained to me when I was in school (back in the days when Noah was the Chief of the Navy), rolling resistance is greater than skidding resistance – when the rear wheel locks, it will be moving faster than the (rolling) front wheel, and try to overtake it. This will cause the rear end of the bike to break out, in turn causing the bike to turn sideways.

At the same time, I don’t want to advise you to ignore the rear brake altogether – the braking power of two wheels is greater than that of one wheel only. The technique I use is to start braking with the front brake, and gradually add rear brake if I need more stopping power. This helps to combat the ‘stomping’ reflex in the first split-seconds of an emergency situation – you apply the rear brake as a conscious decision, not as a reflexive response. A good trick is to keep two fingers on the front brake lever at all times when you’re in tight traffic – it will save valuable time in an emergency.

To avoid skidding the front wheel, apply your front brakes firmly but smoothly. Should you feel the front wheel begin to skid, release the brake briefly to re-establish traction. It takes a lot of courage to release your brakes in the face of an imminent collision, but you’ll stop quicker that you will with a skidding front wheel. Obviously this doesn’t apply to ABS, which does the job for you – if you do have ABS, consult your user’s manual for braking techniques.

One of the reasons why I see braking as the last resort in an emergency, is the threat of being hit from behind. Bear in mind that a bike, weighing less, can stop in a shorter distance than a car can. It’s fairly pointless hitting the brakes to avoid hitting a pothole if it results in you being run over by an 18-wheeler doing 120km/h barely a metre behind you (in the image above, escaping in the direction of the green arrow is a better option). If you’re in tight, fast-moving traffic, this risk becomes very real. This takes me back to what I said about situational awareness earlier in the series: if you have an idea of what’s behind you and the emergency situation doesn’t allow you the luxury of looking in your mirrors, you’ll be in a better position to make an informed decision.

This, I think, is as good a place as any to conclude the series. I hope you have found this series helpful (and perhaps entertaining), but more than anything, I hope that I have contributed in a small way to safer biking. Be careful out there, and remember – getting there alive is more important than getting there first.


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