Distracted Rider Awareness Month

Distracted Ride Awareness Month

April is national distracted driver awareness month, which you’d know if you didn’t spend so much time on your phone…  Anyway, let us counter steer away from that to think for a bit about – distracted riders.

As motorcyclists, we are all used to keeping a swiveling head and sharp eyes on the lookout for distracted drivers.  The parent dealing with kids, the careless person about the make a left turn or lane change, the ditz reading the paper or drinking coffee or shaving, and the masses ignoring the laws and statistics about texting while driving.  They’re all out there all the time.  Your eyes and alertness are your only defense, assisted by your fingers at the ready on the brake lever and, if needed, the likelihood that you can probably out-accelerate the perpetrator.

I once avoided an accident by noticing the driver’s shoulder begin to flex as he began a lane change.  I am sure you have similar stories if you’ve been riding for any length of time.

Things have become an exponentially worse in recent years as cars add more and more control options, many of which can be accessed on the fly.  Even my VW Tiguan has more choices to make than I’m happy with, and one of my reasons for purchase was that it had less than many competitors.  I can scroll through many screen options, adjust the mirrors for angle and heat, set the wipers for intermittent or full on – front and rear, move the seat in several directions, adjust the heat on each side of the car, radio or CD, or the nav system showing, and on and on.

As technology hurtles us toward the debatable benefits of autonomous vehicles, distractions will only increase. My brother in law has a company car that speeds up and slows down by itself on the freeway while maintaining a safe distance to the vehicle in front. It also can parallel park itself. He has already noticed that his driving skills are atrophying. He no longer has to be aware of what he is doing a pretty good percentage of the time, and no longer has to know how to parallel park. Skills that are not practiced evanesce, and may take related skills with them.

But what about us?

Distractions for motorcycle riders can come from two sources. One is ourselves, and these days the other is our own motorcycle. 

A few decades ago, a motorcycle was pretty simple and offered few if any distractions. My first motorcycle was a Yamaha YDS-3.  It had a 250cc engine, clutch and brake levers, and shift and brake pedals. The instrument cluster told you what speed you had attained, more or less, and the rpm of the engine.  That was it.  There were not even turn signals on a 1965 Yamaha.  I used to wear white leather handball gloves at night. Not much for protection, but more easily seen when I stuck my left hand out or up to signal a turn.

Contrast that to today.  Have you looked at the controls layout of a modern luxury tourer, for example?  The display of buttons on a recent Honda Goldwing looks like the flight panel of a jet passenger plane.  I was working at a BMW dealership when the first BMW 6 cylinder tourer came in.  We had a customer demo ride the next day. The owner told me that I could ride it, and so could the salesman going along (just to start the break-in process), but we should not let customers sample the excellence of the bike because he did not want any customer to ride it before having a 15 minute talk by a trained salesperson on how the myriad of options and controls could be understood and tailored to taste.  I always thought it was amusing that he did not seem concerned about the salesman or me riding the bike, as we knew nothing more about it than the customers.

Even a motorcycle as simple as either of my two Triumphs offers a lot of distractions. There are multiple screens on the instruments I can stroll through.  I can set the engine parameters on the Bonneville for road or rain, and on the Thruxton for road, rain, or sport.  The Bonneville also has three levels of heated grips accessed by a small button that you have to look at to locate.  I can also turn off the ABS, or access the four way flashers.  And these bikes are simple!

However, the real distractions are now to be found on the handlebars or in the rider’s head, assuming he or she is wearing a helmet. If the rider is not wearing a helmet, she or he is probably not reading this.

You can now purchase a helmet that will allow you to talk to another rider, accept and maintain a phone call, or listen to music.  And more! On the handlebars you can mount your phone or other device with GPS, or perhaps the motorcycle has that in the instrument panel.  All of these can be distractions, and all of them can and occasionally do lead to disaster.

I was working at a large multi-make dealership when GPS units that could be mounted on the handlebars became available. I recall at least three customers who crashed because they were looking at the GPS instead of where they were going.

Music systems are even worse, for a few reasons.  In this state (Washington), the use of one ear bud is legal, but two is not.  What minion of the law can check for that under the rider’s helmet?

When the first BMW S 1000RR came out, customers could take the demo bike I had broken in out for a test ride, but only with me leading them on a second bike.  I had two or three routes I could use, and in the first few miles I made the choice of route based on what I was seeing in the rear view mirror. 

One customer asked if we could stop so he could use a bathroom. No problem. In the parking lot of the gas station he pulled off his helmet and pulled the two ear buds out of his ears.  He was riding a brand new motorcycle with more power than he had ever experienced while listening to music.  I tried not to stare as he explained to me that he knew I worked for the dealership and had to be reasonable, but it would be OK with him if I picked up the speed.   He went into the bathroom as I tried to keep the smoke from venting out of my ears. To get that far we had ridden ten miles up a freeway known as a daily hunting ground for state patrol officers looking to hand out “performance riding awards.”  How much faster could I have gone?

As we resumed riding I gave myself a stern lecture to not try to run away from this guy on the R 1100 R I was riding, as crashing because this guy had gotten to my ego was too horrid to contemplate.  We got to the one twisty road I had decided to allow this clown to experience. Usually deserted, it had several nice corners, and ran steeply uphill, which reduced the chances of an incident.  To allow him some space to enjoy the S 1000RR I accelerated with gusto up the hill and arced through several corners.   At the top I looked in the mirrors and was frightened that he was not there.   No worries, he was simply about 30 seconds behind me.  On a motorcycle with over twice the power, better brakes, and etc.

Idling through suburban traffic on the way back to the freeway, we paused at a stop light. He turned to me and said “Wow, this is kind of snatchy in stop and go traffic, isn’t it?”

“What mode do you have the engine set to?”


Once back at the dealership, I took the time to look at the bike he’s parked in the lot. A clapped out Suzuki GSXR that had been crashed a few times and taped back together, and a rear tire that was bald except in the middle.  Where the cord was.

After that learning experience I always tried to check out the customer’s own motorcycle before the ride.

Now for the best distracted rider story ever! I knew a fellow who was riding a dirt goat track on his BMW GS.  He pulled over for a drink of water and a rest.  A friend of his slid to a stop next to him on another GS and asked if he wanted to ride together. The first guy could tell that the friend had been riding a lot faster, so he declined and urged his friend to go on ahead. He roared off into the distance.   A few miles later the guy was sitting on a rock by the side of the trail.  His BMW lay on its side, oil spewing from a hole in the crankcase. His helmet was off and the ear buds straggled down his chest.

“Highway to Hell?”

“How did you know?”

The problem with street rides is similar.  You’re bombing along a winding back road, listening to your favorite music. By golly, the road seems to be in the same rhythm as the song as you speed along. However, what you fail to realize is that the engineers who laid out the road were – not listening to the same song!  Suddenly, a tight hairpin occurs where it should not be, as it does not fit the music in your head.  Your entry is too fast because you’re distracted by that great song, and a curve should not have appeared.  But it did, and now you are going to pay for your folly.

Another way to look at this is to imagine you get the opportunity to bat against a really top-level pitcher, either baseball or fast pitch softball.  If it is baseball, the pitcher will be 90 feet away and the ball will come at you at 90mph per hour or more. If it is in the strike zone you should hit it. If not, let it go. If it is at your head, you should duck.  You have a fraction of a second to decide. If it is fast pitch, the ball will be bigger, but it is arriving from only 60 feet away.  Worse, it is released down by the pitcher’s knee, and will appear to be rising and heading right for your face.  Same drill – decide to swing, let it go, or get out of the way. In this example, or in any other sport you can think of that involves speed and reaction, would you be wearing an earbud and listening to music?

An athlete who intends to succeed wants to have every advantage to increase her or his level of performance.  That is how you win.  Riding a motorcycle is an athletic activity that may call upon your sight or hearing or muscles or reflexes or a combination of several of these.  At any moment.  Do you want to win the ride?  Why would you give away any of the human capabilities you might need?

As for all the other things that you can stream into your helmet, I have never understood why you would want them.    One of the joys of riding for me is that there are no phone calls, no e-mails, and no reminders of meetings.  Just the ride.  As for GPS, when you’re taking a break at a rest stop, go ahead and check things out.  But en route, let yourself relax and see what you can see.  I have never made a wrong turn and gotten lost on a ride that did not turn out to improve the ride at the end of the day.  Ever.

I wrote a column for a magazine article a long time ago railing against the use of GPS on a motorcycle.  There was some negative response, as you might imagine, but then I got an e-mail from an Army combat helicopter pilot who agreed with me. He explained that he had started his career in Cobra gunship helicopters, which did not have GPS.  (They are also one of the most frightening things ever created, to my mind.) He was proud of his ability to fly a complex route and arrive “on station” at the assigned time.  Now he and all the younger pilots were using Apache helicopters with full GPS and a lot more. His younger colleagues were quite used to bombing along at a high rate of speed just a few feet above the ground, as the technology would take care of the helicopter. Worse, he could feel his ability to know where he was and where he was going eroding, because there was much less reason to look around.

You have a certain innate ability to know where you are and to formulate a good idea of where you are going.  Why let that atrophy?

 If you look in Wikipedia under ‘motorcycle safety’ you’ll find a quote by me.   “When the helmet drops the bullshit stops.”   I think I did originate that, but I can’t be sure.  I used it in a book, so therefore it is mine.  Evidently.  You need to leave behind all of your daily cares, worries, petty arguments, bills, life concerns, etc. I just looked for the quote and could not find it, so perhaps it was removed for inappropriate language.  Still holds true, however.

At the end of the day you are riding along on a great road. You’re enjoying the meshed capabilities of two wondrously complex devices – a motorcycle and your own body.  Your brain and nose and ears and reflexes and sense of touch are fully engaged, and you are using both of your hands and feet separately and together in a wonderful ballet of coordination.   You can smell your surroundings while your eyes keep transitioning to new views of the road and scenery, and your brain is spinning with calculations of grip and cornering angle and speed and brakes.  Your ears are taking in the rush of wind and the melody of the engine.

That is enough.

Copyright 2018                    David Preston


About david

I am a 69 year old motorsports nut who lives in Bothell, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I have been married forever and have two grown children. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Bonneville T 120 , a Triumph Thruxton, a Fiat 500S and a VW Tiguan. What else would you like to know?
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6 Responses to Distracted Rider Awareness Month

  1. Patrick says:

    Good one Dave…

    Complacency when driving any motor-vehicle is a fail in many ways… Especially, on a motorcycle, no matter how experienced or confident our sensibilities may be on any given day…

    Ego is something very difficult to quantify and evaluate in one’s perception about one’s motorcycle riding acumen. Hubris will put one at odds with reality… Ignorance is relative to one’s hubris in a dynamic range of good to bad judgement, but generally to the negative-side, in my opinion. This presents a bit of a conundrum, as the act of riding a motorcycle at speed is a risky proposition to begin with and there are traits of the ego that elevate the sense of persona that makes us want to twist the throttle.

    I think you pose an existential question in this article… What is motorcycling?
    When you are out by yourself it’s one thing and when you are out riding with others it’s another… Judgement is something that you hope is more commonsensical than not, but good judgement is never a given, especially when you are riding with a group or in general traffic. There is a level of trust in one’s own judgement and this is something that we accept the consequences of, however, none of us want to be at the mercy of another’s sense of their own judgement in situational circumstances when riding… Isolation bubbles like earphones, etc, feed the complacency and present a question about one’s judgement and situational awareness.

    Motors make music and motorcycling is a dance with our existentialism… Riding on any given day gives us a chance to escape the tyranny of extraneous technology and dance to that existential experience of being a motorcycle pilot, accountable to no-one but ourselves and the physical and metaphysical realties of the universe in those moments.

    This is the way I see it…
    I don’t even listen to the radio in my car anymore..

  2. horngary says:

    I’m a 60 year old who’s beginning his fourth year of riding. I feel like I need all of my faculties to ride safely in the Twin Cities metro area, so I don’t listen to music. When I think I’m lost, I pull over and pull the smartphone out of my jacket. I agree with you; I think it’s exhilarating to give my full concentration to the ride. However, unlike you, I will wear ear plugs when I plan to ride above 40 MPH. I can still hear the wind and the engine anyway. Thanks, David.

    • david says:

      thank you for the comment. I grew up in Minnetonka (MHS Class of 1965) and moved the day after I graduated from the University of Minnesota. By then I had realized that my passion for riding motorcycles was not going to play well with Minnesota winters

  3. Patrick says:

    I recommend these filtered hearing protectors for motorcyclists: https://www.alpinehearingprotection.com/earplugs/musicsafe-pro/

    These earplug filters will provide wind-noise rejection while allowing for detailed perception without complete isolation from the world around you…

  4. Patrick says:

    This is their motorcyclist-centric product, but the musician-centric has more attenuation flexibility:

    • Patrick says:

      So… the motorcyclist-centric hearing filters are designed for a more comfortable fit in with a helmet and may be preferable to the musician-centric filters and seem to have have a bit more attenuation at relevant frequencies when riding… Noise-fatigue is something that does not get much lip-service, but it is a real thing and no joke…

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