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April 04, 2011  |  Lessons from a near miss on the motorcycle  |  39868 hit(s)

I had a near-miss on the motorcycle the other day that gave me some food for thought. I was traveling down 148th Ave in Bellevue, which is two lanes in each direction, with a wide island between opposite directions. In fact, this is exactly what it looks like (thanks to maps.google.com):

At one point, I'd been in the right-most lane, but I'd noticed that it was not moving very well. I peered ahead and saw that there was someone about 5 or 6 cars ahead of me who seemed to be slowing down and putting on his blinker, but then not turning, then speeding up, then slowing down, and so on. Basically, an erratic driver.

I swung into the left-hand lane. It was still during rush hour, so there was a fair bit of traffic, but in my lane, at least, things were moving pretty smoothly, so I was able to move up a bit. As I was getting close to the erratic driver (ER), tho, the car that was immediately behind him started moving into my lane, apparently fed up with ER and intending to get out from behind him. Like this, allowing for my primitive drawing skills:

I was forced toward the island, obviously, but thankfully, the impatient driver did notice me and jumped back into their lane.[1] I'm not perfectly clear on possible outcomes, but I think there was a chance that the car would have hit me.

This was a classic motorcycle hazard. It was bright daylight outside, and it was dry (at that moment). I was wearing a high-visibility helmet and even my bright-yellow rain jacket. The motorcycle has a loud exhaust. And yet the driver apparently did not see me. In the UK and Australia, motorcyclists know this as the SMIDSY problem ("Sorry, mate, I didn't see you"). There's a YouTube video of bikers telling their stories of not being seen.[2]

For me there were three lessons in this:

1. Stay out of people's blind spots. Or if you can't help that, at least be on super-sensitive guard. As truckers say, if you can't see their mirrors, they can't see you. Same for cars.

2. It's particularly dangerous when there's a big difference in the speed of adjoining lanes. If everyone is going happily in the same direction at the same speed, unexpected things are somewhat less likely to occur.[3]

3. If people are frustrated, they'll do impulsive things. Like impatiently jump into another lane. I know this phenomenon as a car driver, and when I'm in the HOV lane on freeway, I watch like a hawk for people lurching into that lane in order to get moving. I should have realized that the erratic driver was not just piling up cars behind him, but piling up increasingly agitated drivers who might do something unexpected.

And a kind of fourth lesson: someone reminded me that you should watch the front wheels of cars to anticipate what they're going to do. Good tip.

So, valuable lesson. I'd like to think that it doesn't take periodic near-accidents to keep me alert to this sort of thing. One of the biggest safety factors in driving a motorcycle, I think, is a combination of low-level fear and general distrust of others. Need to keep those things fine tuned.

[1] And stayed well back for the rest of our joint journey down 148th; projecting how I would have felt, I imagined one very shamed driver.

[2] There's an interesting article (PDF) on the possible causes of SMIDSY.

[3] I am amazed at people who will do, like, 70 mph in the HOV lane when the traffic in the lane immediately next to it is at a complete standstill. Those folks must really trust their brakes.

Seth   05 Apr 11 - 1:54 PM

Good tips (even for those of us in cars).

Glad this did not result in anything more painful....