The Dangerous Mundane

When the mundane suddenly becomes not-so-mundane.
When the mundane suddenly becomes not-so-mundane.

We humans are creatures of habit. Our brains are wired in such a way as to allow us to develop routines and habits, both good and bad. Routines are what let us prepare coffee in the morning while planning out how we’ll present our new idea in today’s big meeting. A daily commute on roads and in traffic that, in a strange place or otherwise out of our routine, might command all of our attention becomes…mundane.

As motorcyclists, those mundane routines can be dangerous, and even deadly. Allowing our attention to lapse as our brains shift current events to the backburner means that we might not react as quickly or appropriately as we should. And that is what likely contributed to a recent mishap I experienced on my mundane morning commute to work.

The Yamaha FZ-07's fork was destroyed in the accident. The impact bent the left stanchion and snapped the right one, spilling fork fluid all over the road--and me.
The Yamaha FZ-07’s fork was destroyed in the accident. The impact bent the left stanchion and snapped the right one, spilling fork fluid all over the road–and me.

It was a normal rush hour in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles, and I was riding along in the HOV (carpool) lane on our Yamaha FZ-07 test bike. Traffic in the HOV lane was moving along nicely, at about 40-50 mph, but the other five lanes were sporadic, fluctuating from around 35 mph to a near stop—again, normal for this time of day.

The HOV lane is “protected” by double yellow lines and a solid white line, with designated merge zones marked with dotted white lines where vehicles are permitted to merge into/out of the HOV lane. It is illegal to cross the double yellow, a rule intended to prevent drivers from trying to merge to and from lanes with such a dangerous speed disparity.

I was following a minivan, about 4 car lengths back, and was lost in thought as I went through my routine commute. My mind was on the upcoming day at work: I had a story to write, an upcoming charity ride that weekend (the Ride For Kids) and we were expecting someone to show up to pick up the FZ-07 to send it back to the folks at Yamaha (a thought that was not lost on me moments later).

Don't panic, that's not blood--it's red fork fluid. After analyzing what happened later, we decided that it might've been good that my FZ-07 didn't have ABS. While it might have allowed me to stop in time, not having it prevented me from trying to steer away from the vehicle, which could've ended with me and the bike sliding on the ground, dealing with abrasion as well as impact.
Don’t panic, that’s not blood–it’s red fork fluid.

When I saw the minivan’s brake lights come on, my first move was to simply roll off the throttle. I could see past her vehicle to the clear lane ahead—no stopped traffic—and we were in a section of the HOV lane with a double yellow line, so she couldn’t be trying to merge into the nearly stopped traffic a few feet to our right.

Right?

Wrong. As I realized that her brake lights indicated she was going from 50 mph almost to a stop, my brain suddenly decided this was most definitely not routine, nor mundane, and every instinct I’ve developed in my 19 short years of riding motorcycles sprang to its feet. I squeezed the front brake lever hard and gave the rear brake lever a good push (although the guy behind me said later that I was stopping so hard that my rear wheel was in the air), and simply aimed to the left of the minivan, some cognizant part of me realizing that if she was able to get over, that would be my best escape route.

Her opening must have closed, however, as she simply came to a dead stop in the lane, her right wheels just over the double yellow lines. And I understood that I wouldn’t be able to stop in time. As the flat tailgate grew closer and closer, I braced myself for impact.

The Arai helmet I was wearing took the brunt of the impact, and I didn't even have a concussion. My iXS jacket did its job as well, the CE-approved shoulder armor absorbing the blow entirely. My only injury was a lower leg laceration requiring 4 stitches, but oddly enough the AGV Sport riding jeans I was wearing didn't have a mark on them.
The Arai helmet I was wearing took the brunt of the impact, and I didn’t even have a concussion. My iXS jacket did its job as well, the CE-approved shoulder armor absorbing the blow entirely.

My gear likely saved my life, or at least saved me from a world of hurt. My helmet-clad head and armored right shoulder hit first, after the bike’s fork likely absorbed much of the impact, bending both legs and actually snapping one. Red fork fluid sprayed on my jacket. As I fell to the ground, I remember thinking “Today, of all days, really?? What am I going to tell the people at Yamaha?”

The distraught driver ran to me, almost fainting when she saw the fork fluid and thought it was blood; she was apologetic and kept repeating, “I didn’t even know you were behind me.” Of course, it wasn’t just me behind her. There was another motorcyclist behind me (on an ABS-equipped Yamaha XSR900) and a guy in a black car behind him, both of who gave witness statements that cleared me of blame.

But the painful truth is, I’m not entirely blameless. As we all tend to do, I was not giving my surroundings my full attention. I was lost in my mundane routine. It’s said that even the best racecar drivers and MotoGP riders suffer from lack of focus at times. After all, they’re in their own routine, lap after lap after lap, and part of the mental challenge of racing is learning to control your mind and focus.

We normal, everyday motorcyclists should also practice focusing, even as we go through our daily routines on familiar roads. It’s important to take riding skills classes, but we should also drill ourselves on staying alert and be ready to put those skills to use. Because you never know when the mundane will become anything but.

For an interesting piece on why drivers don’t see motorcycles, check out this story by Jack Baruth for “Road & Track.”

15 COMMENTS

  1. ” both of who gave witness statements that cleared me of blame.”

    I’ll grant that the minivan driver was a knucklehead and was trying to accomplish something that was illegal. But, at the most fundamental level, she merely came to a stop in an inappropriate place. I’ll further grant that this is extremely aggravating and dangerous.

    From a liability standpoint I’ve always thought that the driver ahead has a legal option to stop for any (or no) reason. And that driving into the back of them almost always indicates a failure to maintain a proper following distance and/or a lack of attention to circumstances. So, I’ve always considered that if you hit someone in the back…you are at fault.

    Your article doesn’t appear to put you in the blameless category.

    So, my question is…….Is the insurance of the minivan driver going to cover damages to the bike and the minivan? Did they get a ticket?

    • You’re correct, under most circumstances. The fact that she came to a stop on the freeway to illegally change lanes across a double-yellow line was what put her at fault, and the witness statements further cleared me of blame in that I wasn’t speeding, following too closely, etc. To answer your questions, yes, her insurance covered everything and I don’t know if she got a ticket. The police report didn’t mention it, only that it was determined that she was at fault.

      Could I have stopped safely if my reaction time was better? I don’t know. The guy on the bike behind me said his ABS kicked in and that’s the only reason he was able to stop in time. If I’d been riding in the left portion of the lane rather than the right, I could’ve gotten past her. So many what-ifs…but I can tell you that I’m much more aware of the unpredictability of drivers now.

  2. There is a little room to the left of the van, but if you are in the middle of a stoppie, it would take too much time to switch from braking to maneuvering. Lowering speed was your best limited option to minimize impact. I’m glad you made it.

  3. Sounds reasonable.

    I had an accident on the I-35 in Austin once. Saw a driver who was very erratic enter the freeway and he eventually went “two wheels off” on the right shoulder. I was 6 (count em) lanes over in the far left thinking that he wouldn’t affect me.

    But I should have known. When a car has two wheels off in the dirt (with almost no traction), the common reaction is to brake and steer back to the road. Wrong choice! When the right front wheel finally gets back on pavement, the amount of traction available to turn the car doubles. At almost any speed over about 30-40 MPH, most cars snap spin…which this guy did. He crossed all 6 lanes and ended up sideways in front of me. I managed to slow enough that the airbags didn’t deploy…..but I still kick myself for not seeing it coming.

    Legally, the other driver was clearly at fault. But, it was avoidable if I’d been more attentive.

    • Wow! It’s amazing he didn’t take anyone else out in his spinning trip across six lanes of traffic. I’ve witnessed multiple rear-ending accidents on my daily commute since starting at Rider back in March of last year. Sometimes the commute feels like a game of Russian Roulette…the best we can do is be as attentive as we can and wear our gear.

  4. In my jurisdiction, you’re at fault even if retard stopped for no good reason or no reason observable by you, or to make an “illegal” lane change or whatever..

    ABS guy stopped, the guy behind him stopped, otherwise, you would’ve been run over! Horrifying I know, I’ve been to those collisions too.. and one where the MC rider went threw the back window of the minivan and landed between the front seats.

    Bottom line, had YOU been at a safe and appropriate following distance for the speed YOU were travelling, YOU would’ve been able to stop in time, slow down enough to manoeuvre to pull out to the left to avoid a collision. Doesn’t matter what the reason for the stop is, YOU must be aware at all times and YOU must be able to bring your motorcycle to a safe and complete stop.

    Sorry to say but you would’ve been charged had I responded to the call, and the van driver as well. We’re all responsible for our own actions. Harsh I know, that’s life.

  5. I was a Police officer for 25 years, now retired from that, and a graduate of Northwestern University’s Traffic Institute. I am now a state licensed driving instructor. I have to agree with Steve above. By your description of the events (we don’t have the mini-van driver’s story) the mini-van driver may have made a bone headed move. Was she making an illegal lane change by not signaling and looking to insure that it was safe to do so before executing her maneuver? Or did she hit her brakes hard because a deer, a dog, or a child just ran out in front of her? Or did cargo just fell off the back of a truck ahead and she was boxed in by traffic preventing her from maneuvering around the hazard (as happened to me back in the 70’s on the Delaware Memorial Bridge. But I avoided a collision because had a safe following distance). But, the way the law in Pennsylvania reads, and what I tell all of my young students and my experienced drivers in the older driver and violators classes, is that it is the driver of the FOLLOWING vehicle who controls following distance. So in the case of a rear end collision it is going to be the following driver who gets the citation for “Following Too Closely”. In this case you were “Cognitively Distracted” and “Following Too Closely”.

    PA Vehicle Code 3310. Following too closely:

    (a) General rule.–The driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of the vehicles and the traffic upon and the condition of the highway.

    • I expected a lot of armchair quarterbacking when I wrote this. In fact, I did a lot of it myself in the days and weeks after the accident. I replayed the events over and over in my head, and identified what I could’ve done differently and all the “what-ifs.” But rather than jump to the old, “you’re wrong and here’s why,” which the internet seems to encourage, I would ask that you take a look at the facts first, and the message and purpose of the story second.

      First, the facts are that the mini-van driver performed an *illegal* maneuver when she slammed on her brakes in an attempt to cross the double-yellow line to move from the HOV/Car Pool lane into the next lane over. She admitted to this to me as well as to the police officer. Her reason: she was taking her kids to school and was running late, so she didn’t exit the HOV lane at the legal exit, she waited, trying to get further ahead before merging into the stopped traffic next to us. Her insurance company didn’t even try to argue it, in fact they contacted me promptly and reimbursed my medical expenses within a matter of a couple of weeks. Also, per witness statements, I was not following too closely, nor was I speeding, so *legally* I was not at fault and she was.

      Okay, now there’s the painful part, which I admitted to in the story and which was the whole reason I wrote it. I was not 100% on my game. I was in my mundane daily routine, commuting to work, and did not have my mind fully on my surroundings. Would that have made a difference? Probably, maybe, maybe not. I just wanted to use my experience as a talking point for others to think about the next time they get on their bike, even if it’s a routine run to the store down the street–always be on your game. Always be aware and focus. It’s when our attention lapses that “bone-headed” moves like the mini-van driver’s go from annoying to dangerous. I learned from my experience, I’ve increased my following distance even more and I now slow way down when I’m in the HOV lane and traffic next to me is slowed or stopped (much to the frustration of the impatient drivers now tailgating me, which is a whole other problem). So rather than point fingers, let’s discuss how we can make ourselves better and safer riders. 🙂

      • “So rather than point fingers, let’s discuss how we can make ourselves better and safer riders.”

        I think that discussion is exactly what we’re having. Legal liability may vary according to the state and circumstance….but despite the fact that you had a favorable outcome, you could have been a better and safer driver.

        I could tell you “tomorrow morning you’ll be riding on the same road and the person in front of you will do the same thing”. If you believe me, I’m pretty confident that you won’t end up making contact with their vehicle this time. Because you’ll be doubly forewarned of the potential for them doing the boneheaded maneuver….and you’ll take action to avoid the possibility of a collision if/when it does. I suspect that action would involve allowing a bit longer of a following distance as well as being more attentive.

        Regardless of fault…..you came close to disaster. Good gear and your reaction (once things went bad) made this a story rather than an obituary. Add an extra car-length or two in between you and the miini-van and the whole thing would have would been a non-event.

        • And believe me, I am adding extra space after the accident. I think we could ALL do things to make ourselves better and safer, my post was simply a way to make people think about it…since my experience caused me to think about it. I think after long periods of time in which our rides are incident-free, we do tend to become complacent.

  6. If you were unable to react to avoid the vehicle in front of you wether it be stop in time or drive around it , even if it was because you were not paying attention you were simply following too close.

    • Yes, apparently I was, despite what I, the other drivers and the police thought. Since the accident, I’ve increased my following distance and I slow down a lot more than I used to when the car pool lane is moving much faster than the other lanes. Live and learn…and share the story so others might learn as well.

      • An excellent acknowledgement of what happened and why. I throughly enjoyed your article and the message behind it for all of us. None of us ride “perfectly” all of the time, whatever that may mean to you. Sometimes we get a wake-up call and it’s important to our safety to be able to acknowledge what contributed to the problem. Thank you.

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