TOTW: Practice all three of your obstacle options

The riding tips on these pages are my personal opinion about matters related to motorcycle riding. They are not the official position of any organization, and are for your consideration only. They are not hard and fast rules, they should not necessarily be applied in all circumstances, and they should not be applied without thinking. Always use your judgement and take all current safety factors into account while riding. You are responsible for your riding, not anyone else (especially me). These tips were originally published by a motorcycle riding course, called “Tip of the Week” (the reason for the TOTW in the titles).

What’s The Problem?

You will occasionally be faced with an obstacle unexpectedly appearing in your path. A car that pulls in front of you; a 2×4 that falls of the back of a pickup truck; a cow on the road around a blind corner; a speed bump or oil slick you didn’t notice sooner.

Without training and practice, most riders fall into the habitual use of one emergency response technique — usually braking hard. But no one technique is always the best response to an emergency situation, and collisions or crashes can result from using the wrong technique, even if it is used well.

Solution

It’s easy to enumerate all of your options when faced with an unexpected obstacle. You have only three.

1.
Stop before you hit it. With proper training and practice, you can stop your motorcycle very quickly. Assuming you see the obstacle soon enough, you can come to a rapid stop in front of it. However, this isn’t always the best option.

If there is a vehicle behind you, chances are it can’t stop as quickly as you did, and you will be hit from behind. Even when your rear is clear, hard braking can cause control problems if your wheels lock or if you are in a low-traction situation. And hard braking can cause extra complications in curves, such as moving you out of your safe lane position as the bike’s path straightens out.

2.

Swerve around it. Your motorcycle can change direction very quickly and accurately, if you have the skill to control it properly. With practice, you can swerve around many obstacles and avoid some of the risks associated with rapid braking. (Swerving requires a specific turning technique, called countersteering, which we’ll discuss in a future tip.) However, swerving also has its risks.

Once you begin a swerve you are committed. If you have second thoughts and try to correct by going in the other direction or braking you will likely hit the obstacle or crash. Braking and swerving do not mix. Furthermore, swerving obviously requires that there be a clear path around the obstacle, and you can’t always count on that. Less obviously, you must train yourself to  look at the clear path, not at the obstacle. Staring at the obstacle (“target fixation”) will usually cause you to hit it. Finally, swerving can be hard on passengers or cargo.

3.
Drive over it. If you can’t brake safely and have no room to swerve, you’re going to hit the obstacle. With proper training and a suitable obstacle, you can sometimes  drive right over it with no harm or loss of control. This takes practice, as it must be done properly to avoid damaging your suspension or wheels, or losing steering control. We’ll discuss a specific technique for smoothly driving over obstacles next week.

Your Best Option?

The moral is that there is no consistent right response when faced with an obstacle. More often than not, swerving around an obstacle is probably your best choice (to avoid the danger from following vehicles that braking presents), but only if you have practised swerving enough to do it automatically and with confidence.

You should practice all of these emergency options so you can execute them instinctively and well.

You can get help by taking rider training, and you should practice constantly on your own too. In off-hours, on a parking lot or an empty street, pick a manhole cover or a mark on the road and swerve around it — both sides. Stop hard for a stop sign or light (empty streets only). Drive over sharp speed bumps with proper obstacle technique.

Another good swerving practice is to find a street with marks like the regular gap-filling tar and wait until you are following a car with no one behind you. Swerve round the gaps alternately, but now you have to wait for them to appear from under the car in front of you, so it is more difficult to prepare in advance.


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