BY TOM BATCHELOR….FLORIDA
Signs are everywhere on the roads and highways we ride, incredibly important input cues of the visual, audible and olfactory type, all funneled to the brain for interpretation and usually some form of reaction. Yes, we are discussing those type of signs, not the kind Five Man Electrical Band sung about in their 1971 song Although the physical billboards and road signs of travel and of life are a constant, “blocking out the scenery, breakin’ my (or your) mind’ as the song goes, we’ll leave those signs for another time.
The signs I’m writing about in this month’s safety column are a product of experience or time in the saddle. These signs are not exclusively visual, they may be sounds and smells, maybe a “gut” feeling from each or any; hairs standing on the back of the neck, whatever the cue may be. This sign recognition skill is a continuation of what I wrote about last issue, where initial rider education in concert with rider Con-Ed training provide the safety fundamentals to recognize these signs. Experience then provides the “programming” to translate these into absolute; or relative hazards. Said another way: training gives the ability to properly react, experience teaches the signs of what conditions require – or may require — such reaction.
Visual – we all watch for traffic or vehicles failing to yield or encroaching upon our safety zone. Visual signs aren’t just the ever-obvious swerving distracted drivers, eating while driving, grooming, texting, you get the drift. They can be many things. Here’s one you might not have thought about. Say you are riding behind a vehicle which is driving more slowly than normal for that particular road and under good road and weather conditions. We’re all in tune with seeing recklessly fast drivers, but going too slow? Is that really a sign? The first impulse would be to pass. But first ask yourself, why? Are they about to stop – or flip a U-Turn? Maybe, they are lost and are about to make that last-minute brake-slam-turn. If it doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Also, it’s quite possible that the driver, just isn’t all that good skills-wise. In any case, this cue of “why’s the driver going so slow?” is a sign. Other visual cues that sometimes are overlooked are trailers. They are commonplace everywhere, with people working jobs hauling power equipment, tools, debris. Have you ever followed a truck pulling a trailer, such as a yard service or construction? Immediately, that cue should be recognized by expecting something to fall off. Ask yourself what’s on the trailer and how is it secured. Many people haphazardly load trailers and flatbeds without any regard to losing cargo. For example, concrete blocks, framing wood and motorcycle wheels don’t play well together.
Here are two visual signs I watch for every time I ride. First, when a car or truck is looking to pull out as I approach on the motorcycle, I watch the wheels of the vehicle, exclusively – not the vehicle itself. Reason is, at a distance, the sight picture and depth of field of the vehicle against the background often blend; that is, you may not clearly see the vehicle move against that background. Wheels, however, are very easy to see independent of the vehicle to any other fixed visual reference. If they start turning even the slightest bit, that sign causes me to anticipate they are going to pull out. Second, while travelling behind a vehicle offset one lane either left or right (typically on a “four-lane” road or highway) I watch the driver for signs. Any even slight movement of the driver’s left arm (possible turn signal activation) sometimes with a quick glance over the shoulder suggests they’re looking to shift lanes or turn. 9 out of 10 times, the vehicle does changes lanes (or turns), with or without a turn signal. Other similar visual signs include, drivers reaching for an item (swerve, control fail); many kids crammed in a vehicle (possible distraction); a clearly visible GPS or phone mounted from a windshield or dash (sudden hard-brake and turn during navigation) and of course, the vehicle horrible condition with dents and damage all over. I ask myself, why is that car so banged up? We must assume a driver of less than good skills or attitude is at the wheel. Add your own visual examples here and think about which ones you have noticed regularly.
Smells – one major advantage of motorcycle riding is the smells, we ride in the environment, not drive through it. This asset can be used to detect signs of potential danger. Riding backroads, you smell freshly cut grass. That should immediately cue you into the possibility of grass clippings on the road, just around the next curve. Another example: interstates generally smell nasty (being generous) with the combination of exhaust and asphalt but what if you suddenly smelled burnt rubber? Is a truck up ahead losing a tire? That means road debris are very likely immanent or even projectiles coming your way. Additional smells which can be signs include, the sweet aroma of engine coolant, the unmistakable odor of raw diesel fuel or raw gasoline or virtually any chemical smell which should not be there. If you’re riding past a refinery or a chemical plant, maybe. But scooting down an interstate or country highway at speed, any of these smells signal trouble with possible traction issues. Diesel is essentially fuel oil; thus, riding through it will be an adventure in traction control management.
Sounds – Many riders use hearing protection worn under a helmet. One might think that this scenario doesn’t sound (pun intended) like a valid safety cue but they absolutely are. True, the sounds which penetrate barriers are not as “loud” as normal hearing, meaning, normal for the individual, but the unwanted or unimportant noises (junk noise) is likewise reduced (filtered). Remember, even with hearing protection we can still audibly analyze the outside world. With experience, riders who regularly use hearing protection learn to adjust their sound recognition skills accordingly. In other words, while riding they now “search” for sounds at this lower, filtered, somewhat muffled level. What the rider searches for is sounds that are not supposed to be there or are not typical or appropriate for that specific moment in time. Vehicle horns sounding, bangs, pops, tires breaking traction (“screeching”) are examples. On the interstate, sometimes we miss a vehicle in our mirrors slowly overtaking from an adjacent lane. Even with hearing protection, that sound can be picked out and recognized. In addition, hearing protection often increases a rider’s ability to concentrate and react to danger by more easily recognizing the actual danger sounds; reducing the stress of riding due to prolonged loud noise; lesson overall fatigue and enhance the efficiency of evasive responses. Net-sum, the junk noise we want gone, but the important sounds – as a safety cue – are recognizable and definable even with hearing protection in use.
In conclusion, these are just a few examples of signs which can suggest a dangerous condition may exist. The take-home message is to keep developing your own intuitive situational awareness skills and pay attention to details. Small signs sometimes suggest big problems ahead. You may ask, what is the response and how do we react when signs are present. In general, use your training, taking appropriate evasive action and anticipate a hazard or safety issue that signs are suggesting. Indeed, you are using signs (seen, heard, smelled) to predict a scenario and prepare. That scenario may play-out, it may not. Trust your gut instincts, believe your intuition. I can’t tell you to slow down or speed up; or swerve this or that way. I can tell you that signs out-of-the-ordinary are a key index of suspicion and to be on guard. Your eyes, ears and nose and instincts are more important than your helmet and armored ensemble. Recognizing and reacting to signs may avoid having to see just how good your protective gear really is. Ride safe.