The Value of a Close Call

Had a close call on my motorcycle recently. You?  If you’ve never had a close call either A.) Good for you or B.) Shame on you for being a liar!  Not my place to go all moral preachy on you, but perhaps it’s safe to say that most people who ride motorcycles have had a close call once in awhile – hopefully once in a great while.

I’ll define a “close call” as a set of circumstances which result in you almost experiencing a crash, collision, or other dire situation, but through luck or skill or both, you avoid any serious consequence.

Can this be a good thing?

Sort of.  In a way.  Maybe.

Let’s look at a few classifiers:   the types of close calls, the frequency of close calls, and the amplitude of close calls.

We’ll start with amplitude, because it’s the most unusual word and therefore least likely to be understood by most. By “amplitude” we mean a combination of frequency and time.  In other words, the close calls I suffer today come along with far less frequency and are of lesser magnitude than when I first began to ride motorcycles. 

This is because:

  1. The motorcycles I ride now have almost unimaginably better handling and brakes.
  2. I’ve had significant amounts of training by excellent instructors.
  3. I have 46 years of experience.
  4. I’m not the idiot I was then.

Not necessarily in that order.

If you have what you self-define to be close calls on a more or less regular basis, and if the severity of these close calls seems to be ramping up, then you have real cause for concern. Your riding habits are sending a memo to your brain, and you really should pause to take it in.

For one bad example, when I was first riding I wanted to be fast. Oh how I wanted to be fast!  I was fortunate in retrospect to have a motorcycle that was not particularly fast. 

When I first dragged a foot peg (close call #1), I was elated.  By golly, I must be fast!  Then I began to drag to foot pegs often (close calls #9 – 98 – others close calls were mixed in).  It did not occur to me that this might lead to trouble. Then I learned that if I dragged the foot pegs and kept going, they would fold up (close calls 123 – 142). Wow!  I must be even faster than I thought!

One fine day I folded them up so far that they ran out of fold, the foot peg support jacked the rear wheel off the ground, and I attempted to dig a hole in a ditch at about 65 mph with my shoulder – after what was probably a pretty spectacular somersault while the motorcycle disintegrated beneath me.

I had experienced a lot of close calls and ignored all of them in my folly. Both the frequency and the severity of the close calls ramped up – the amplitude increased – and the message did not sink in until I had a summer with my arm in a sling to think about it while the broken shoulder healed.

There are a myriad of stories about the young and dumb things we did on motorcycles. hey make great campfire chats, but being older and wiser should equate to fewer close calls of less severity.

It is difficult to break this down in an analytical way because the conditions we ride in are always changing, and for the most part for the better.  When I first began riding, motorcyclists were few and far between, and were thought to be of borderline intelligence and probably planning mischief or crime at all times. Both this reputation and the relative paucity of motorcycles did not engender respect on the road. Ever had someone try to run you off the road for “fun”?   This happened to me and many others back then. More than once.

Equipment has also changed.  The obvious improvements are in brakes and especially ABS brakes, but overall handling improvements have made motorcycles relatively safer, and large increases in horsepower (for non-Harley brands) can be a good thing at the right place and time. We also forget that motorcycles at one time did not have turn signals, and there was no commonality in terms of which side the rear brake and shift levers were to be found.

If you mentally delete improvements in technology, standardization, the increased visibility of motorcyclists through sheer numbers, and better gear in bright colors, you can sort of “data drill” down to your own riding.

How are you doing?  Where do you ride and under what conditions? How often do you have what you feel is a close call, and is there a common thread to those close calls you can focus on?

If you occasionally find yourself entering a corner too fast, for example, and suffer that momentary panic jolt in your brain, there are a few probable causes, and all of them should be addressed immediately:

  • Perhaps you are riding too fast for the road, or not braking early enough – but there could be other causes.
  • Perhaps your line of entry into the corner is faulty. A “late apex” approach as covered in most of David Hough’s books and most riding classes will make corners so much more predictable, and in my experience just as “efficient”  (a nice word when you do not want to admit to “fast”) as the “pure racing” line approach.
  • Perhaps you are not confident of your riding position, or not able to alter your body position to help you by moving your shoulders to the inside of the bike (which is not the same as ‘hanging off’ at all) or cocking your hips toward the turn, etc.

Once you’ve thought about the cause(s) of these close calls you can take the proper corrective action, which might come from within, from a book on riding techniques, or by enrolling in one of the cornucopia of riding and cornering classes available. The Pacific Northwest, for a variety of reasons, is blessed with an amazing array of riding courses through several companies, and this is a resource you should not ignore.

If you find yourself in situations where you have to stop with more force than you planned, there could be reasons beyond the basic idea that you were going too fast. Perhaps you’ve never had instruction in the several different ways available to slow down on a motorcycle. Perhaps your eyes need to be checked. Perhaps the braking system or tires on the motorcycle need to be examined.  Perhaps your technique could be improved.

Again, there are lots of solutions, once you recognize the problem and resolve to fix it.

You may notice a theme emerging here. All of these ideas come down to a thoughtful and pro-active approach to your own riding. Think about what happened on each ride, and search out areas where you need to improve, before the need for improvement is made painfully obvious.

If and when a close call does occur, as it did to me last week, use the opportunity to think more about your riding. How did you get into that situation?  I was three blocks from my house, and carving around a corner I have ridden for 35 years.   I was not going too fast for the road or for me, but too fast for someone still “stretching out” mentally and physically into the ride, and too fast if a neighbor decided to back his van into the street without looking.

Since then I’ve been reviewing my approach. Here’s a technique I have not seen mentioned elsewhere (perhaps it has) but which I’m finding very useful.

Pretty much every riding course encourages you to look up and look ahead and always be preparing a “plan” to deal with the unexpected.  I have amped this up a bit to imagine an actual unexpected event in concrete detail.

As in literally – what would I do if I came around this corner and there was a concrete block in the middle of my lane. Could I stop?  Could I slow drastically and then swerve around it?

What if a mattress had been dropped in the road and was flat on the pavement at a 45 degree angle to my line of travel? Stop? Swerve? Slow down as much as possible and then hit it straight on?

And last – and this is modeled on life experience – what if there’s a dog in the middle of the road that was chasing a car and did not expect me to be coming around the corner?

In real life I was on a winding back road in a pouring rain chasing a friend – both of us at a goodly pace.  The dog was a German Shepherd that raced into the road as my friend’s Norton arced by.   The dog was astonished to see me right behind the Norton, and sat down on his haunches as I rode by with the back wheel sliding because I had locked it up in the wet. Our eyes met and I could read the dog’s thought in his eyes – “What in the HELL are you doing?”  A lucky escape that is an amusing memory now because I learned from it, and no harm, no foul.  I wonder how long the dog remembered it?

Playing mind games with a pretend dog, concrete block, and mattress has occupied by head for several days now, and that is a good thing.

My close call also reminded me to practice hard braking at low speeds with more frequency than I do, along with almost everyone else.

I used to enjoy riding with a local HOG Chapter. Lots of lovely people, and the most organized group rides put on by anyone, anywhere. Lots to like there. 

However, over the years I noticed that many of the participants were not actually riding a motorcycle.  They were sitting on a motorcycle that was moving, which is not the same thing at all.   The structure of HOG rides actually exacerbated the problem. You have a person leading the group and another serving as the “sweep.”  Both of them have ridden the same route on a check-out ride recently. There may be other “road captains” scattered through the group. Frequent hand signals passed back from rider to rider alert you of hazards, or when the group is to ride single file, etc.  There’s so much thinking done for you in the name of safety that the thinking required of each rider in the group is reduced to almost none – which to me is not safe.  To be fair, my views are not shared by most members of HOG leadership and other groups that conduct group rides with this standard protocol.

On the rides that I lead, there is very little “group discipline,” other than to request that people not pass on the right, always ride at a pace that matches their own comfort level, and leave lots of room to all sides. I do not want the group to be in one clump, and really prefer that several groups evolve on the ride.   I do not mind if a sub-group splits off and takes a different route, and I am not even all that worried if the directions I have handed out prove to have an error.  All of those “mistakes” or changes will force thinking, and thinking is safe.

So when and if you have a close call,  congratulate yourself on your skill or good fortune, and then turn on your brain and get to work to make sure that particular close call and as many others as you can string to it do not happen again.

Copyright 2012                                                     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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2 Responses to The Value of a Close Call

  1. Robert (Bob) Okrie says:

    “A man’s got to know his limitations” – Harry Callahan – Magnum Force.

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  2. tony b. says:

    I remember my first close call: just on the other side of an intersection with a traffic signal, all the cars came to a fast stop because someone was held up from making a left turn just down the road. I didn’t have a good view ahead due to the monstrous SUV that was in front of me. I did snap on the right amount of front brake while modulating the rear while the other half of me was downshifting nicely. The first thought was F*** ya, the first emergency stop and I did it right.

    Of course, I’d practiced emergency stops many times before that but was worried that in a situation I would cross up the clutch and brake lever from so much bicycle riding.

    I do like the amplitude analysis. I didn’t have a term for it previously, but I did think about my riding this way in the past. Late summer, nice weather like this tends to bring out the hooligan know that the rain is coming. The rational side is fighting the hooligan because the corners are going to be cold, wet, and slow for the next 6mo.

    Have a good one,


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