The Anatomy of a Crash

Officers of Singapore's Rapid Deplpyment Troops crash on a motorcycle When I first started this blog, one of the things that I always thought I would shy away from was being a “Monday morning quarterback”, as my American friends would say.

It’s all too easy to sit in the comfort of your home, and pass judgement on others’ riding, and what they could have done better. I don’t want to be “that guy”, and I know that we all make mistakes, and suffer lapses of judgement.

However, this has to be weighed against the learning opportunities that can be gained from the analysis of the many videos which abound thanks to the prevalence of dash cams and helmet cams.

Well, I just came across this video, which, in its mere twelve seconds, contains a wealth of learning opportunities. It also demonstrates my premise that crashes don’t often come about due to one single circumstance, but are almost always the result of a “perfect storm” of circumstances combining to set the field for the resultant crash. I feel this is too good an opportunity to miss those those learning opportunities, and am relieved to know that all riders and passengers sustained only minor injuries.

So, let’s delve into the details of this incident, and see what we can learn from it.

Before I begin, notice that I never use the term “accident”, for rarely are crashes an “accident”. They are usually the result of one or more person’s mistake. They are usually the result of compounded mistakes and circumstances which conspire together to create that “perfect storm”.

Because these multiple circumstance combine in this way to set up the incident, it follows that eliminating just one of those circumstances can turn a potentially very bad incident into a non-event. That is the purpose of our training—to eliminate all, or at least some, of those circumstances. If you think of it in that way, we have more of a chance of preventing a crash than we do of being involved in it. That sounds like good odds to me!

This short video comes from Singapore. The riders (and the passengers) are no newbies. They are members of the Singapore Rapid Deployment Troops, which is a branch of the Singapore police, tasked with rapid response to terroristic incidents. They ride 800cc bikes with off-road capabilities, and the riders are trained to get quickly to an incident—whether that incident occurs on surface streets, or off-road.

Let’s take a look at the video:

Let’s Talk About Shoulder Checks

We are all taught, in basic training, the importance of a shoulder-check before performing a manoeuvre such as changing lane, or making a turn. They are so important that many people refer to them as the “life saver”. This is the way that I was taught when I was first learning to ride a motorcycle.

Many years later, when I entered advanced training, I was expected to have such acute awareness of my surroundings that shoulder-checks were sometimes unnecessary. I often recount being debriefed at the end of a ride, and being asked the colour of a certain car at a certain time of the ride. Or of being taken out in a car, and the observer putting his hand over the rear-view mirror, and asking me the make of the second car behind me.

If you manage to develop your awareness to that level, a shoulder-check can sometimes prove to be little more than a comfort act—but there are far worse errors!

However, there were times that I was actually admonished for doing a shoulder-check. I was even admonished once for checking my mirrors! How can this be? Well, if doing that shoulder-check takes your attention away from a developing—or potentially developing—situation in front of you, then that shoulder check can be counter-productive. (Incidentally, the admonishment for the mirror check was that my eagle-eyed observer noticed that I checked my mirrors in the middle of a junction. There were far more immediate hazards requiring my attention than what was behind me!)

Let’s take a look at the shoulder-check performed by the second rider at the seven second mark:

The first thing that comes to our attention is that the shoulder-check was moot. The rider was already changing lane. Either the rider did not know that the lane on his right was clear, or, just as likely, he thought it was, and the shoulder-check was a comfort move. In fact, that shoulder-check was looking for the crash as a result of his move, rather than having looked before starting it.

You can witness the stress building up in the rider by the way that his head snaps back to the front after the nominal shoulder-check. He knew that a situation was developing. His stress was compounded because he knew that he had changed lane too close in front of the car on his right. The car (with the camera) braked. Remember that if your manoeuvre causes any other road user to take action—whether that be slowing, swerving, or even gently changing lane—any action at all—then that manoeuvre was not legitimate.

So, What Are We to Do?

You may have read my earlier post on Signalling on a Motorcycle. In that post, I talk about the acronym “MSM”, which stands for: “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre”. In a nutshell, the MSM procedure should be performed before we undertake any manoeuvre. That manoeuvre can be anything from simply braking, stopping, or—as in this case—changing lane. Part of the procedure for changing lane can incorporate a shoulder-check.

But what if we don’t have time for the full “MSM” procedure?

Then, certainly in the case of a lane change, we don’t perform the manoeuvre. There are usually options. In this particular case, there were. The rider had the option to not change lane. There was plenty of time to brake, slow down, or stop.

In fact, here is what I would have considered doing in this circumstance: I would have performed MSM, slowed, and considered moving towards the left of my lane. The reason for this becomes apparent when we consider the subject of:

The use of Observation Links is a subject I cover in some detail in Motorcycle Mastery, but, in its simplest form, it is the art of predicting what may happen in the future, according to events that are developing, or may develop, around you. In this instance, there is a perfect example of failing to take notice of an observation link.

The following rider could see that the first rider was braking quite hard to avoid going into the back of the car in front. The most simple observation link would tell the following rider that the bike in front was highly likely to change lane—and rapidly at that. As the rider in front was at the right edge of the car, it was obvious that such a lane change would occur to the right. What would be the very worst place to occupy? the very worst place to be? Right where the rider in front would be if he made that lane change.

Hence, my favoured reaction would have been to MSM, slow, and consider moving towards the left of my lane, so providing an escape route to the left of the silver taxi—should that prove necessary, and to distance myself as far away as possible from the developing situation in front.

So, the following rider missed multiple opportunities to mitigate this situation. He performed a questionable lane change with a “comfort” shoulder-check which achieved little except to take his attention away from the situation in front, and then—having executed this lane change—continued to ride in the very position that a most basic observation link would have told him would be occupied shortly by the rider in front.

So, it was the second rider’s fault?

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not interested in passing judgement on the riders, or apportioning blame. I’m more interested in the education opportunities made available by such videos.

More importantly, the best education is to be gained from observing—from a real-life situation such as this—that most crashes are the result of compound errors by the one rider/driver, or errors by multiple parties compounding.

Clearly, the first rider performed a rapid lane-change without a signal, a shoulder-check, or knowledge that his way would be clear. Those errors speak for themselves. What I find more interesting are the multiple opportunities to mitigate this—missed by the following rider.

In considering this phenomenon of multiple circumstances nearly always contributing to a crash, let’s try to outline all the changes that, if only one of them had not occurred, would have prevented this incident:

This is not to mention all the other extraneous circumstances—beyond the riders’ control—which could have changed. The major point being that we have a lot of opportunity to avoid the crash. In fact, we have more opportunities to avoid the crash than there are opportunities to take part in it!

Our job as riders interested in our roadcraft; riders who are interested in our safety, is to train ourselves to watch for these signs, these observation links, play the “what if” game, and tick off at least one of those opportunities, without which the life of the burgeoning crash can’t sustain.

Until next time, let’s be safe out there!

Motorcycle Mastery - Advanced Techniques for the Smart Rider I hope you find these posts useful. If you do, please consider supporting, while gaining access to all this information, and more, by purchasing: Motorcycle Mastery - Advanced Techniques for the Smart Rider. It's available for all e-readers and in print.