Experience the Ride, Ride for Experience

A lot of people own motorcycle(s). Not a lot of people have experience riding motorcycles. More people have motorcycles stored in their garages, covered with all kinds of things, than ride motorcycles. In a similar neglect, there are those people who take their motorcycle out occasionally but never really put the miles or hours on the bike. This means that most of the people that have registered motorcycles do not get a lot of “seat time”. This issue leads to collisions involving motorcycles that should not have happened for more than one reason. When it comes to collision reconstruction and investigations, “ride to live” takes on a whole different meaning. Experience in motorcycle operations and maneuvers can make a difference when it comes to safe travels.

According to Statista.com, in 2018 there were 116,972 registered motorcycles in South Carolina. This is compared to 1,830,186 registered cars, SUVs, and light trucks. That means there is a 15 to 1 ratio of cars to motorcycles. With the average household having two cars and 2.5 people, chances are most people are driving their cars to work, shopping, and other places. A motorcycle is not a family outing machine unless you have a sidecar or a three-wheeler (a blog for a later date). Add to that weather conditions. As most people are fair-weather riders, and you can remove approximately 1/2 of the months because no one likes to get cold when riding. Precipitation factors are a little more difficult to control, but cold and wet is out if it can at all be avoided.

To obtain a motorcycle license, South Carolina requires that a person meet certain requirements, found at SCDMVonline.com, which includes a written test, beginner’s permit, and a riding test. You can search other states online. Though in some states it is a requirement, in South Carolina a motorcycle safety course is not mandatory for an applicant. A newly licensed rider may be more alert and attentive when they take to the highway, compared to a seasoned rider. The newly licensed riders have studied, learned about rider safety, and believe they are prepared to operate their machines; however, they are new to the lifestyle and may even be scared of the motorcycle. Sand, gravel, wet roads, and sharp curves can cause a motorcyclist to tense up and not maneuver the motorcycle properly, crashing because of a fear of crashing. Though they understand the concept of what to do, application of the action is not second nature to them. They lack experience and may make mistakes, hopefully not costly ones. Experiences learned on their own or from other riders can improve their skills and abilities. With seat time comes a knowledge that cannot be learned from books, which is why the riding courses require more riding time than they do class time.

Owners may ride regularly when they first get licensed, but then things change. Motorcycles are more of a hobby to their owners, and with reason. They are not versatile vehicles to own. They cannot haul a weeks’ worth of groceries and taking the family of four out to eat is difficult. Motorcycles are taken out on pretty, sunny, warm days. They get a few miles on them riding uptown to a local pub, with a buddy around town, or maybe logging 20 or 30 miles riding in some charity event or poker run. Then they are put away until the next urge to ride, at a convenient time of course. Few people ride frequently or long distances. Quick, short, seasonal runs are the norm. This means limited riding experience. For some, they spend more time cleaning the bike than riding it. To add to the lack of experience, they may mix in a beer or three during their limited travels. Lack of experience combined with impairment is a bad mix.

Riding a motorcycle is like anything else; the more time you spend doing it, the better you become at it. It is more than just being comfortable with your abilities; it is being comfortable with the machine and knowing what should or should not be done when situations present themselves. For example, leaning into curves and turns. Most people do not trust their ability to lean into a curve or turn and utilize the ability of the motorcycle to take the curve or turn. This is noticeable in the wear on the motorcycle’s tires and the lack of scratching on floorboards or pegs. Riding experience further teaches a driver how to properly apply their brakes combining the proper balance of front and rear application. Too much front brake is problematic and can cause the bike to go down or an endo (where the motorcycle comes up on its front wheel and the driver/rider is potentially thrown across the handlebars). Being alert to what is going on around and ahead of the motorcycle and looking for ways to avoid the problem is important. Thinking of escape routes during the ride prepares the mind for making that maneuver should there be a need to avoid a hazard. Scanning around and looking for potential threats then running the scenario of what to do should the potential threat become an actual threat prepares the driver for what could happen. These scenarios and many more require the driver to have an experience that gives them a plan of what to do. In the words of an old coach, “We play like we practice!” If we can try to anticipate what may happen, we can respond better than if we make an unprepared maneuver.

A recent case had a combination of factors showing a lack of riding experience which contributed to the motorcycle crash. A vehicle turning left did not recognize an approaching motorcycle to be a hazard; however, just as they crossed inches into the opposing lane, they realized their mistake, that the approaching motorcycle was coming on fast, they could not safely complete their turn, so they quickly stopped. Though they crossed into the motorcycle’s lane, they only obstructed a small portion of it leaving over 10 ft of open roadway. The motorcyclist, traveling above the speed limit, locked up the rear brake and applied too much front brake causing the bike to go down on its left side and slide on the roadway. The two vehicles never collided. The motorcycle came to rest before reaching the area where the threatening vehicle entered its lane. Traveling at or below the speed limit, slowing upon observing the vehicle intending to make a left turn, covering the brake to prepare for a potential roadway obstruction, proper brake application, or even recognizing the vehicle stopping before obstructing the lane and maneuvering through an escape route would have avoided the injury and damage. Though the sequence of events was sparked by the other driver, the motorcyclist had a lot of fault in the crash.

The key to safely riding a motorcycle is a blend of all the talents involved in the action. Knowing your abilities and what the bike can do while operating the vehicle safely and being prepared for whatever comes up on your ride can make a difference in arriving at the intended destination or crashing. Being familiar with a sports bike and driving a cruiser can be a drastic change. Add in a passenger and things change too. Another moving person changes the handling of the motorcycle and their actions can be counterproductive to the driver’s intentions. Just as a driver has experience, a passenger’s experience level should be considered. For a person to become an experienced motorcycle rider or passenger requires them to have experience riding a motorcycle, so let’s ride!
Aaron (Al) Duncan II, ACTAR, is a senior vehicle reconstructionist with Warren. He can be reached at 803-732-6600, and aduncan@warrenforensics.com. Reprinted with permission from Warren Forensic Engineers & Consulting.