Safety on Two Wheels: What Motorcyclists Need to Know

Whether you ride a motorcycle for work or pleasure (or both), you’re not alone. Global interest in motorized two-wheelers over four-wheeled vehicles is growing, thanks to traffic congestion, affordability, and rising fuel prices, whilst in some countries motorcycle travel has long been the primary method of work-related driving.

But two-wheeled riding is dangerous for obvious reasons—there’s no physical material to protect you, aside from what you’re wearing on your body and head. Heavy, bulky passenger vehicles always have the upper hand, often with tragic results.

In 2016, two-wheelers were involved in 28 percent of global road fatalities  — a tragic 380,000 annual deaths worldwide that year alone. In the US and Europe, you’re up to 20 times more likely to die when piloting a two-wheeler versus a vehicle. Asia fares far worse: In India, for instance, six riders die every hour in road crashes—making up more than 37 percent of all road fatalities in 2019.

What can we do to keep our colleagues driving two-wheelers safe? A lot, as it turns out.

Sorry, Mate, I Didn’t See You

Almost every motorcycle rider has heard some form of SMIDSY, the acronym created from the line above. Although it may sound like an excuse, the fast-moving, slim profiles of people on dark-colored bikes are, in fact, very difficult to see. That’s because of how our eyes and brain process information:

  • Gaps called saccades mean that our eyes literally can’t see anything meaningful while our heads are moving. Only when our heads are still (even momentarily) can our brains register what we’re seeing. That’s why when riders and drivers alike do quick glances before turning, they may miss seeing exactly what they’re looking for, even if it’s looming right in front of them.

  • Add to this a double whammy: Our brains like to fill in these gaps with whatever we expect to see, which may be nothing, because that’s usually what we encounter—until the one day that something is there.

  • Distraction can literally blind us to the point we don’t see gorillas walking across the court during a basketball game. This “tunnel vision” has been proven in countless studies.

  • A moving entity that stays in the same position and speed relative to you (especially at an angle) can appear perfectly stationary as you both approach the point of collision because there is not enough contrasting movement for our eyes to detect.

  • This also means we’re exceptionally poor at judging the speed of oncoming traffic (such as a driver turning in front of our path, one of the leading causes of motorcycle crashes).

  • Now that you know all this, overlay other factors: difficult light contrast conditions like dusk, cloudy conditions and bright dappled forest light; the big structural pillars and narrow windows of many vehicles (look up windscreen zoning); the many things happening on city versus rural roads; and a thousand other reasons why drivers and motorcyclists miss detecting each other. These factors don’t excuse either group from responsibility, but it does mean that safety is strongest when everyone follows best practices.

One of the best videos on vision pitfalls is Invisibility Training for Motorcylists. It’s entertaining yet incredibly informative. It’s nearly 9 minutes long, but I promise it’s worth every second.

Tips for Staying Safe on a Motorcycle

As a motorcycle rider, you really are vulnerable, given the multiple-ton vehicles sharing the same roads. But adjusting your expectations and being mentally prepared is half of the battle.

  • Get in the mindset that no one sees you, anytime, anywhere. Nothing hones your situation awareness faster than adopting this attitude. It’s not about blame but getting proactive about doing what you can to see another day in one piece.

  • Expect that anything could happen at any time. Because it often does…

  • Look in the direction you want to go. This sounds obvious, but many riders don’t realize they’ll steer in exactly the direction they’re looking, especially when they’re distracted.

  • Don’t follow too closely. You need time to react and avoid a bad situation if something suddenly happens. Keeping your distance also helps drivers see you better.

  • Always look for an escape route. You never know when someone ahead or alongside you will pull out, stop suddenly, or not see you.

  • Carefully watch for changing road-surface conditions. Here’s another excellent reason not to tailgate—it gives you more time to observe, plan, and adjust.

  • Keep a bubble of space around you. That means not lingering alongside vehicles, staying out of their blind spots, and keeping far enough back.

  • Always watch the vehicle ahead of the one you’re following. And the one ahead of it, and the one ahead of it, and…

  • Make yourself the easiest being to be seen. Yes, it may seem unfair, but being righteous won’t help you much if you’re paralyzed or dead. Besides, helping others see you more easily really makes a big difference if you consider the vision and attention factors mentioned above. Wear that high-visbility clothing, keep your lights on, and “present” yourself properly in traffic to make sure others know you’re there.

  • Think twice (three times) before overtaking. A leading cause of fatal crashes, it happens in part because we have so much trouble judging the speeds of oncoming vehicles.

  • Don’t get overconfident. Countless riders have met untimely ends by carrying too much speed into sharp bends, especially on inviting rural roads or when it’s raining or slippery. Looks can be deceiving but physics never lie.

  • Make sure your bike is safe for the job. That means tires with sufficient tread for maximum grip and properly maintained mechanicals, so you don’t break down and put yourself at further unnecessary risk. Modern safety equipment like ABS can prevent dangerous wheel lockup.

  • Get to know your bike. Too often, we’re ignorant about what our machines can and can’t do until there’s an emergency—not exactly the best time to find out. Practice in an empty parking lot doing tight turning in both directions, hard braking, and clutch control. And remember that one should never ride a machine that’s too heavy for them to control.

  • Wear a helmet! You may want to feel the wind in your hair, but you’re 37 times more likely to survive a crash if you wear proper headgear. And it’s not just you that it saves—in 2017, the US economy alone could have gained a staggering 34 billion dollars in economic and comprehensive costs had all motorcycle riders been wearing helmets.

How Employers Can Encourage Motorcycle Safety

Riding a motorcycle incurs much higher risk than driving vehicles, but, whether a fatal or serious injury crash occurs for work or leisure makes no difference on the grave consequences of losing an employee, a company’s most valuable asset (see my article on the true cost of a traffic death).

Risk and safety managers know all too well that staying safe might not be what people are clamoring to learn more about. But here are some ideas to make it more appetizing:

  • Educate your colleagues. The UK-based RoSPA has published a guide called specifically for companies looking to grow motorcycle safety among employees. Regardless of what two-wheeling conditions and challenges your country faces, this guide offers excellent suggestions for getting the conversation started in the workplace and following through with concrete steps.

  • Encourage and invite people to take part in workplace safety initiatives with the support of friends, colleagues, and managers. “Soft persuasion,” for example via team mates or line managers, can be far more effective than handing down rote rules from an impersonal company handbook. A respected manager from within the company who rides can be a powerful, positive safety champion for others.

  • Conduct an employee survey on experiences around motorcycle riding to explore what issues exist and if people are receptive to company-sponsored motorcycle assessment and training.

  • If they are, bring in a professional trainer to teach a session on motorcycle skills. Organizations like IAM Roadsmart in the UK and First Gear in India offer courses that focus on safety.


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