In response to a Facebook friend’s recent posting of a video showing drivers supposedly blindfolded when moving among motorcyclists, I replied with my Three Rules for Riding: 1. Nobody’s looking out for you. 2. Even if they’re looking right at you, they don’t see you. 3. Even if they see you, they don’t care! It’s a reminder that drivers don’t understand the vulnerabilities of visibility and stability that a motorcyclist faces, and so it’s my job as a rider to watch out for them and stay out of their way. If I get into an accident—any accident, including being hit by another driver, skidding on a patch of oil or gravel, or running off the road—it’s going to be my fault.
This is part of what I call my “doctrine,” which is a loose and uncatalogued collection of rules and reminders that clicks into place every time I swing a leg over the saddle. One example of the doctrine is what to do if something darts out from the side of the road. In the split second between visual contact and collision, when the SIPRE process starts up,1 I have to decide how to weave so that my line of travel passes either in front of the moving object or behind it, based on its speed, my speed, and other characteristics. Behind is usually the safest choice, because that minimizes the potential for collision by separating the object’s observed trajectory from mine. And even if I miscalculate and hit the object broadside, I’ll be impacting with only the force of my own momentum and not adding the object’s momentum to the equation. If the moving object is a big shape, like a deer or a car, my doctrine says to steer so as to pass behind.
But if the object is small and light, such as a ball or a dog, the doctrine changes. Depending on location and time of day, such as a residential neighborhood and midday or evening, then any objects moving into the street have a high probability of being chased by a human being: a child after his ball or dog, or a mother after her toddler. In those cases, the doctrine says to steer in front of the moving object—and either brake sharply or speed up, depending on velocities—so as not to hit either the object or the person chasing it.
My riding doctrine has many pieces and parts like this, covering dozens of issues such as when to brake or accelerate in an emergency; how to treat any visually dark patch on the road, which might be a pothole, a piece of shredded truck tire, or a patch of oil; mirror checks and head checks when traveling straight, passing, and changing lanes; how much of a safety margin to maintain around the bike, including the “two-second rule”2 and when it’s safe to lane split;3 and so on.
Thinking ahead, being prepared for potential problems, and taking responsibility for your own health and safety, as well as for those around you, applies to more than just motorcycle riding.
I take the concept of margins seriously. This means providing extra space, time, or some other measurable dimension to allow for the unforeseen. In making travel plans, I always allow a time margin to account for extra traffic, an accident, or simply my “running late” before leaving. The thought that, in most cases, nothing will happen and I will arrive early, to be left kicking my heels at the airport or some other venue, does not deter me. That is why I have music and an ebook reader on my iPhone. Being a respectful sort, I would rather arrive early and then waste my own time waiting than arrive late and inconvenience other people—or perhaps miss the flight.
My work in publishing, technical writing, and corporate communications often involved projects on tight schedules. Again, I would build a time margin into my planning to allow for delayed interviews, extra review cycles, and breakdowns at the printing press. Sometimes I would also plan a dollar margin into the budget for these things, but budgeting and accounting were usually outside of my control. Because I had these time and cost margins built in, I often finished my work ahead of schedule and under budget. And that’s always a good place to be.
Taking responsibility for your life and actions—as well as any accidents that might occur, on the presumption that most accidents are foreseeable and therefore avoidable—means that you live carefully. In my life, I have generally known where I was going and made an internal, if not entirely formal, threat evaluation of my next moves. I know there are places which are not safe and avoid them unless pressing business takes me there.
Understanding that future events might sometimes take me into dangerous situations, I took martial arts training at the university.4 I have carried a serviceable pocket knife since I was twelve and transferred to heavier models with at least one locking blade in my early twenties. At about that time, also, I inherited a couple of pistols from within the family and have since added a few more over the years, preferring .45s to lighter loads. It’s not that I’m much of a skilled fighter anymore—doing the martial arts more for exercise and coordination than for battle readiness—and I was never formally trained for knife fighting. I always practice with a new pistol at the range, so that I’m reasonably accurate with it. And I know how to clean, maintain, and store such a weapon safely. But I would not take any pistol outside the house on my daily travels without a concealed-carry permit, and those are difficult to the point of impossible to obtain in California.
The point of all this training and weaponry is not that I plan to attack anyone. But I will not be made a victim, powerless to defend myself, at least in my own mind. If I end up going into uncertain circumstances and being attacked and hurt or killed, I want it to be elective on my part—a failure of will or nerve, for which I will take responsibility—and not because I was foolish and unprepared.
In the larger picture, I try to examine and assess the moral or legal dimensions of my actions and consider their consequences. In my view, integrity depends on doing the right thing, guarding against waste and loss, and living in a way that protects yourself and your family and friends while not endangering or damaging other people. Integrity also means living on good terms with the people around you, your neighbors and fellow citizens, while making as few enemies as possible. Everyone gets a fair shake. Everyone receives as much as possible of what they want and need. Everyone goes home safe at the end of the day. I can’t take responsibility for the entire world, but I can try to ensure that the pool of karmic events surrounding my life remains calm and safe.
Taking responsibility for yourself and your actions is the core of being an adult in this society.
1. See SIPRE as a Way of Life from March 12, 2011. Briefly, SIPRE is the acronym for a defensive driving mechanism by which we see, evaluate, and take action against threats: See, Interpret, Predict, React, Execute. It’s in the React phase that an ingrained rule or reminder kicks in to direct the Execute phase.
2. The two-second rule describes the proper distance for following a vehicle. Pick an object along the side of the road—such as a signpost or even a piece of trash—and start counting when it passes the rear bumper of the vehicle ahead: “One chimpanzee, two chimpanzees …” If the object comes into alignment with my front tire before “two chimpanzees,” I’m following too close to the car ahead—although in California freeway traffic I’ll take one and a half chimpanzees as an acceptable margin. This rule has the beauty of simplicity, doesn’t require you to estimate car lengths, and works at any speed.
3. Lane splitting is a contentious issue among riders. I see some motorcycle riders diving between lines of cars moving at 50 miles an hour rather than slowing down even a fraction and staying in their lane. In order to make splitting worthwhile, you have to be traveling 15 or 20 miles an hour faster than the cars in the lanes on either side. This means that, with the cars traveling 50 miles an hour, you have to maintain a speed of 65 to 70 while trying to look far enough ahead, judge distances and the gap widths between cars, and be extra alert for cars that are signaling or moving around in their lane—a sign the driver is not wedded to his or her choice—or lunging out of it. Since I ride a large bike equipped with saddle bags—meaning I take up even more of the gap width—I will only split if traffic is totally jammed and just creeping along. I’m gambling that it’s safer to be between cars and doing 15 miles an hour than fuddling along in the lane—clutch in–foot down–throttle off, then throttle on–foot up–clutch out, time and time again—and risking getting run over by a careless driver texting behind me. At 15 miles an hour, if someone makes a sudden lunge into the next lane, I might go down; I might be injured; the bike will probably be trashed. But I won’t be thrown under another car or truck going 60 or 80 miles an hour and killed.
4. I used to say that, after four years at Penn State, I graduated with an honors degree in English literature and a black belt in Isshinryu karate. However, I admit that part of my motivation for the latter was the craze for James Bond–style secret-agent movies at the time, which made stylized fighting seem cool to a nerd like me.