Nov 18, 2011

Why I Pulled You Over

All Rights Reserved © 2009 Thomas W. Day

"Do you know why I pulled you over?"

"My best guess is that I didn't put a foot down at the stop sign." (And, of course, you're trying to meet your quota without expending a lot of effort.)

"That's right. You didn't come to a complete stop back there."

"Yeah, I did. I even rolled backwards a little bit waiting for traffic to settle down."

"There is no way you can come to a complete stop without putting a foot down."

"I can." (If you were paying attention, you'd have noticed that I was stopped and balanced for a few seconds before we started this inane conversation.)

"I don't care about those motorcycle stunts. Tell it to the judge. I'm a police officer and I know you can't come to a complete stop without a foot on the ground. I need to see your license, proof of insurance, and registration."

So went my first minutes in Linton, North Dakota. A minute was all I'd planned on spending in Linton, but that turned out to be a pipedream. While the cop went through his routine of checking me out for warrants and past evil behavior, I thought about all the conversations I've had with cops and judges over the years regarding the things "you can't do on a motorcycle." Considering all of the false information the law has to work with regarding something as well-documented as motorcycling, it's not hard to understand why the legal system is so incompetent when it comes to dealing with complicated things like treason, corporate and bank fraud, identity theft, environmental catastrophes, and insider trading.

Anyone who's ridden or watched observed trials knows that really good riders (not me) can spend a good bit of time not moving without putting a foot to the ground. At a 1980's US national enduro, I caught up with a trio of US pro riders at a check stop. They were sitting with a leg swung over the tank, having a conversation, with no feet on the ground, and no kickstands down; just showing off their balance while waiting to get their timesheets punched. I have never been able to do that or anything close to that. But, if I'm not concentrating too hard, I can stop and stay balanced for a few seconds while I inspect intersection traffic. I feel safer and more in control of the bike when my feet are on the pegs than when they are on the ground, so I try to stay in that position whenever possible.

I did not end up receiving a ticket in Linton, so I shouldn't look that gift horse in the mouth. I'm old, well documented, wearing Minnesota Safety Center patches on my gear, and a likely candidate to be sent off with a warning. Your North Dakota small town cop mileage may vary, especially if you don't when to shut up or you are young or if you don't look familiar and harmless.

The point is, the law doesn't often reflect what the MSF trainer website calls "best practices." The law is intended to provide "guidance" for cops and beginning riders. Riders (and drivers) looking out for John Law and worrying about what might be called illegal behavior probably causes as many crashes as it prevents; if it prevents any at all. I know that every time I see a cop I wonder what half-assed, unwritten or badly written, non-existent micro-law I might be breaking and it makes me nervous enough that I make foolish mistakes in attempting to avoid whatever weird thing I've heard cops are pulling bikes over for this week. Because of their unpredictability factor, I put cops pretty high on my list of life-threatening highway hazards.

Of the instances I can remember, in my 45 year motorcycling career I've been stopped and ticketed (or threatened with tickets) by cops for:
  • "Reckless driving"; standing on the pegs while crossing obstacles (this has happened more than once),
  • "Failure to keep in proper lane"; moving in the lane to increase visibility or to avoid slick spots or pooled water,
  • "Careless or negligent driving"; not using hand signals along with the bike's turn signals or turning right on red when traffic is oncoming, about a 1/2 mile in the distance (right on red was legal, the cop just thought I was being too "aggressive"),
  • "Signals; method required"; not signaling while merging into freeway traffic (in a state where motorcycle turn signals are not required and . . . is there any other option other than turning left into the traffic lane while merging?)
  • "Driving too fast for conditions"; 3mph over the posted 65mph and at least 10mph under the velocity of the rest of traffic,
  • "Parking improperly"; not parked parallel to the curb, but with the back tire against the curb and the bike pointing out toward the street,
  • "Windshields to be unobstructed; wipers required"; seriously, I was wearing a 1970's Bell Motostar full-face which the cop deemed "too restrictive" for proper vision.

Motorcycling and bureaucracies combine as poorly as oil and British engineering. Back in the 70's, I argued with a Nebraska DMV employee that the state's license test advice for crossing railroad tracks or for hitting a pothole was blatantly wrong and downright dangerous. For that matter, the Minnesota motorcycle test's "best" lane position advice is questionable. In the 90's, Colorado's motorcycling pamphlet offered some pretty funny advice regarding the use of the front brake. California's motorcycle handbook might still have some really dumb advice about merging into fast-moving freeway traffic. In fact, the 1980's California DMV advice would regularly get you a ticket for "merging below the speed of traffic." This list could go on for hundreds of pages. [Feel free to contribute your experience with idiot motorcycle traffic laws or equally goofy enforcement.]

I consider all of this to be examples of bureaucratic incompetence, ignorance, and/or abuse of authority. Fortunately for me, so did the traffic court in every instance. Because I've had such erratic "luck" with law enforcement, it's hard not to keep two eyes out for official traffic traps and no eyes on other traffic and road hazards.

So, when I see one of those "public service" announcements that claims the HP or local cops are working to reduce crashes, I suspect the intent. If officialdom really wanted to save lives on the highway, they would do these three things immediately:
  1. Make the driving exam about 5000% more difficult and quit handing out cage licenses in Cracker Jack boxes.
  2. Drop the hammer on tailgaters; one rear end crash and you're a bus rider for life.
  3. Detach cell phone use from driving. If the phone is moving more than 3mph, disconnect the call.

All that "get tough" marketing is nothing more than justification for activity that doesn't contribute much to public safety. Once you put the fools into the flow of traffic, pretending to be protecting them with nutty traffic laws is cynical and opportunistic.

On the other hand, at the Isle of Man:

Nov 16, 2011

Speed and Power Kills (or not)?

All Rights Reserved © 2009 Thomas W. Day

A couple of years ago in his "Motorcyclist" column, Keith Code wrote an article titled, "Fast Bikes Save Lives." He argued, that the Hurt Report found that "the average speed of the 900 accidents studied was below 30 mph." He also listed statistics that found that the worst accidents on a California race track were on bikes under 550cc and pointed to another study that found 600cc bikes "were involved in far more major injury accidents" than 1000cc bikes. NHTSA statistics disagree, "Larger motorcycles are figuring more prominently in fatal crashes." The 2006-09 data found that 5% of fatal crashes were on 250cc and under bikes, 43% were on 500cc-1000cc bikes, and 39% were on 1,001-1,500cc motored bikes. (NOTE: The remaining 13% were listed as "unknown.") Since most liter bikes are actually sub-1000cc, I think Code is fudging the facts to fit his premise.

After praising 160mph bikes for their safety characteristics, Code takes a weird turn into a discussion on motorcycle training, claiming that "what statistics have also shown all along is that rider training works." NHTSA, the MSF, and a variety of training organizations actually caution us that statistics don't seem to show any particular advantage, after the initial six months post-training, for trained motorcyclists. Of course, Code wants to claim that track day participants are underrepresented in traffic fatalities, since he runs a track training program. Typically, there are no statistics to prove this statement, that doesn't stop him from stating "riders who have raced or been trained by professionals are even safer." It would be cool if it were true, but I have found no evidence that it is a fact.

I'm not a Code-basher. I actually like Keith's books and his column, but I'm not a Code Kool-Aid drinker, either. In this case, I think his reasoning contains more bias than facts.

First, the argument than "the average speed" of 30mph is proof that speed doesn't kill is a meaningless argument in defense of big motors. A police report of a 30mph crash doesn't tell us if the bike was slowing down, drastically, or winding up with the front wheel waving in the air when the crash occurred. More power means it's a lot easier to get into acceleration trouble and the power won't save you on the way back down the speed ladder. You could also argue that when a bike actually crashes into a more massive obstacle, it is at a dead stop at the moment of impact. How's that for useless data?

Anyone who's attended a regional road race could guess why the 550cc and under crowd get into more serious crashes. Most of the novice racers are on Ninja 500Rs, for starters. There are some absolute rocket racers on 250cc bikes, but most of that crowd are beginners on Ninja 250Rs. Talk about cherry picking your statistical evidence, claiming that novice bikes "cause" novice crashes is a fair stretch even for the math-disabled.

Code doesn't cite references, other than to call his source a "very complete study." I'll take the NHTSA stats over some unidentified study, complete or not.

None of Code's argument really addressed the issue of speed or fast bikes and motorcycle safety. I know that lots of RUBs and Squids think that an ability to rip by cagers at 60mph over the speed limit makes them safer, but I've never owned a bike that was particularly fast and I can get past a truck or cage as quickly as I need to. Most of the characters who make the power-equals-security claim have a nasty history of near-misses, crashes, and or mangled body parts. Squids tend to get into motorcycling with a flash of adrenaline and exit in a fog of morphine. Their long-term participation in motorcycling is mostly dependent on luck, rather than love of "the sport." Too many of the huge twin crowd are a lot more involved in posing and polishing than in actually riding. The number of for-sale 10 year old hippo bikes with less than 20,000 miles on the odometer is depressing. (Their current unsellable status is an encouraging sign, though.) Safety should be described in mile-per-crash terms, not in one-off near crash stories. Until you have at least a 100k miles under your belt, your experiences barely qualify you as a novice.

A dozen years ago, a friend who'd just become a road racer argued that his 650 SV was more bike than he could handle on the track, but that he needed at least a liter rocket for "safe" freeway traffic management. He was and is a faster, smarter, and a far better rider than I'll ever hope to be so I didn't argue the point. I just disagreed. A couple of years later, he told me he'd changed his opinion. He'd sold his big sport bike and replaced it with a much smaller bike because, after a few years on the track, he realized that he might never become skilled enough to over-ride the smaller bike. He learned that he had been substituting riding skill with vehicle power and, in an emergency situation, skill would be a more useful resource.

That has been my opinion all along. Some of my favorite motorcycles have had a lot more frame and suspension than motor and, because of that resource distribution, it is practically impossible to over-ride those bikes with the throttle. With reasonable skill, the motor will not overpower what you can do with the brakes, the handlebars, and a bit of weight redistribution. Add 40hp to the same bike and you have a bloody catastrophe waiting to happen to many excellent riders.

With that in mind, Keith Code and I will have to settle for a respectful disagreement (at least on my end of the argument). Keith is a wonderful rider. I am what I am. From where I sit, fast bikes are dangerous bikes and way beyond the skill level of practically any really good rider. If you are Kenny or Valentino, you can probably deal with insane amounts of power. If you are Joe Typical, anything more than 40hp and 70mph is probably beyond your capabilities on public roads.

Nov 13, 2011

Bikes Replaced by iPhones?

Is this really possible? Check out this NY Times article.

Is the Era of the Motorcycle Over?

Can motorcycles be a dying product? Probably