We humans are creatures of habit. Our brains are wired in such a way as to allow us to develop routines and habits, both good and bad. Routines are what let us prepare coffee in the morning while planning out how we’ll present our new idea in today’s big meeting. A daily commute on roads and in traffic that, in a strange place or otherwise out of our routine, might command all of our attention becomes…mundane.
As motorcyclists, those mundane routines can be dangerous, and even deadly. Allowing our attention to lapse as our brains shift current events to the backburner means that we might not react as quickly or appropriately as we should. And that is what likely contributed to a recent mishap I experienced on my mundane morning commute to work.
It was a normal rush hour in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles, and I was riding along in the HOV (carpool) lane on our Yamaha FZ-07 test bike. Traffic in the HOV lane was moving along nicely, at about 40-50 mph, but the other five lanes were sporadic, fluctuating from around 35 mph to a near stop—again, normal for this time of day.
The HOV lane is “protected” by double yellow lines and a solid white line, with designated merge zones marked with dotted white lines where vehicles are permitted to merge into/out of the HOV lane. It is illegal to cross the double yellow, a rule intended to prevent drivers from trying to merge to and from lanes with such a dangerous speed disparity.
I was following a minivan, about 4 car lengths back, and was lost in thought as I went through my routine commute. My mind was on the upcoming day at work: I had a story to write, an upcoming charity ride that weekend (the Ride For Kids) and we were expecting someone to show up to pick up the FZ-07 to send it back to the folks at Yamaha (a thought that was not lost on me moments later).
When I saw the minivan’s brake lights come on, my first move was to simply roll off the throttle. I could see past her vehicle to the clear lane ahead—no stopped traffic—and we were in a section of the HOV lane with a double yellow line, so she couldn’t be trying to merge into the nearly stopped traffic a few feet to our right.
Wrong. As I realized that her brake lights indicated she was going from 50 mph almost to a stop, my brain suddenly decided this was most definitely not routine, nor mundane, and every instinct I’ve developed in my 19 short years of riding motorcycles sprang to its feet. I squeezed the front brake lever hard and gave the rear brake lever a good push (although the guy behind me said later that I was stopping so hard that my rear wheel was in the air), and simply aimed to the left of the minivan, some cognizant part of me realizing that if she was able to get over, that would be my best escape route.
Her opening must have closed, however, as she simply came to a dead stop in the lane, her right wheels just over the double yellow lines. And I understood that I wouldn’t be able to stop in time. As the flat tailgate grew closer and closer, I braced myself for impact.
My gear likely saved my life, or at least saved me from a world of hurt. My helmet-clad head and armored right shoulder hit first, after the bike’s fork likely absorbed much of the impact, bending both legs and actually snapping one. Red fork fluid sprayed on my jacket. As I fell to the ground, I remember thinking “Today, of all days, really?? What am I going to tell the people at Yamaha?”
The distraught driver ran to me, almost fainting when she saw the fork fluid and thought it was blood; she was apologetic and kept repeating, “I didn’t even know you were behind me.” Of course, it wasn’t just me behind her. There was another motorcyclist behind me (on an ABS-equipped Yamaha XSR900) and a guy in a black car behind him, both of who gave witness statements that cleared me of blame.
But the painful truth is, I’m not entirely blameless. As we all tend to do, I was not giving my surroundings my full attention. I was lost in my mundane routine. It’s said that even the best racecar drivers and MotoGP riders suffer from lack of focus at times. After all, they’re in their own routine, lap after lap after lap, and part of the mental challenge of racing is learning to control your mind and focus.
We normal, everyday motorcyclists should also practice focusing, even as we go through our daily routines on familiar roads. It’s important to take riding skills classes, but we should also drill ourselves on staying alert and be ready to put those skills to use. Because you never know when the mundane will become anything but.
For an interesting piece on why drivers don’t see motorcycles, check out this story by Jack Baruth for “Road & Track.”