Watson On: Near Misses



Watson On Near Misses

It was sort of like a first date. We had definitely seen one another and the closer we got the more personal it became. We had achieved eye contact of sorts. At one point I could even see the type of jewelry the woman was wearing. But at the very last moment she clearly had a change of heart and accelerated her car directly out in front of my motorcycle only to then pull up at a stop sign less than 20 feet up the road.

I, on the other hand, thought I was definitely going to go across her hood and perhaps head first through her windshield, while my motorcycle was going to head off in the opposite direction spinning down the road on its side.

As it turned out my bike and I luckily came to an abrupt and somewhat dramatic halt. I needed a few minutes to compose myself and thank whoever is watching over me for letting me ride away that day. It was a very near miss.

I’d like to say I am that guy who can spot when an accident is about to happen and can “lay my motorcycle down” in time. But I have a nagging doubt about this and know I am never ever going to be able to predict when I’m going to a crash and plan accordingly. Nor do I possess super human skills, which can allow me to choose where, and when to drop my bike in such a way we part company and both avoid the thing we were destined to hit. It’s never going to happen. Well not to me.

At best I am hopeful that I’ll be able to slow my bike down a little and maybe, depending on what it is I’m about to make painful contact with, I’ll comprehend what is about to happen. After that, the rest is in the lap of the gods.

Here’s the thing. Around the world, there are reports after reports and statistics after infinite statistics about the safety of motorcycles. Here in the U.S., the Department of Transport’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) publishes an annual survey, which covers a myriad of reasons as to why riders fall off motorcycles but doesn’t actually come to any firm conclusions as to how to prevent this from happening in the future

Not one of these reports has put me off riding. Not because I don’t think it will never happen to me. Other riders have constantly told me it’s not a case of if but more case of when my motorcycle and are going to have an accident. So I accept that every time I get on my bike I may not be riding it home. I also acknowledge that each time I come home safe it maybe bringing me one step closer to the time when I will go down (again).

What made me think about of all of this was a report published in Europe a few years back (A Study of Motorcyclists in Northern Ireland, Southern Ireland & Great Britain 2009) but which I only got a chance to look at recently. It covered all of the usual suspects of speed, lack of experience and size of the motorcycle, but the one thing that made me sit back a bit and scratch my head was a section entitled ‘Near Misses’.

Admittedly the survey sample size of the riders being questioned was in the low hundreds, but the thing that caught my attention was that in any of the near miss situations close to 70% of all the riders interviewed felt that they were not to blame in any way at all.

Only 9% of all the riders interviewed said that if they got into a difficulty and were lucky to ride away from a potential crash then the fault probably lay with them. This left a bemused 21%in the survey who were not sure about anything at all, or why it had happened.

The great majority of riders in the survey, who found themselves having a close encounter of the painful kind, simply blamed other road users, or said their motorcycles had skidded because of poor road surfaces or loose gravel. One person said that a near miss accident they had encountered was caused by an insect or bird, but could not be any more specific.

Overall, the feeling among all of these UK and Irish riders was that near miss accidents were simply caused by other road users and to a lesser extent the conditions of the road. Very few felt they were in any way to blame at all.

Now, I am never going to say that I am a perfect rider, however, I think that I know my capabilities and realize where I need to improve. So, if I find myself in a tight situation I will always question myself afterwards as to what I could have done to prevent it. To my mind, an accident definitely takes a minimum of two people to make it a crash.

With respect to the woman I mentioned at the outset, I certainly should have slowed down a bit and accepted there was a strong chance she really had not seen me and very likely was going to pull out in front of me.

That was my contribution to the situation and I should have been better prepared. I am though not responsible for other road users, but I am responsible for my own actions and for doing everything I can to keep myself safe. For that reason alone I have to share some of the blame.

What do you think? Should the individual on four wheels take all the blame or do riders need to look within a little more when it comes to the cause of a crash?

  • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com/ Nathaniel Salzman

    It’s been said many times here on RA (I believe mostly by Wes) that as riders every accident is our fault. The onus is on us to be where we should be and also be prepared for what other road users might do. While reality is obviously more nuanced than this, I think the philosophy is spot on. Not only have I chosen to do this dangerous thing (riding a motorcycle), but I’m choosing when and where I ride, my speed, my location in the flow of traffic and how much attention I’m paying to the other vehicles on the road. There can always be a situation where there’s no escape, but part of building my skills as a rider is recognizing those situations before they form and avoiding them in the first place. If I’m not willing to take responsibility for myself and my safety, then I shouldn’t be riding at all. Likewise, these near misses are learning experiences, or at least they should be. Even if “the other guy” is 100% in the wrong in terms of the rules of the road, that incident should add to my library of situational awareness.

    • jgroszko

      Spot on. I’m much more interested in what I can do to prevent a crash than who’s in the ‘right’.

      • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com/ Nathaniel Salzman

        Especially since “right” or not, you’re still hurt or worse!

        • Scott Otte

          Like my Dad says. You’ll be “dead” right.

    • zedro

      Except in Quebec where overpasses tend to fall on peoples heads through no fault of their own.

      • Michael Love

        That’s why I moved to BC.

        • AHA

          Tut tut. He didn’t signal before pulling over.

      • Piglet2010
        • chris ordanez

          He kept it upright like a champ!

          I would like to buy that man a beer.

        • eddi

          Some days the gods are bored. And it’s your turn.

          • Piglet2010

            Imagine if he had been wearing a doo-rag and wife-beater instead of a full-face lid and proper moto jacket.

    • notfishing

      I find it interesting how when it’s a motorcyclist the onus is on the motorcyclist but when it’s a pedestrian, jogger, bicyclist, skateboarder, horseback rider it is not (well maybe except the skateboarder because we all know what anarchists they are).

      • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com/ Nathaniel Salzman

        I’ve done all of these things and not getting hit by a car was always still my responsibility.

      • Justin McClintock

        Tim and Nathaniel both pretty clearly pointed it out….from a purely legal standpoint, it might very well be the other guy’s (or gal’s) fault. But that doesn’t mean that we, as a motorcyclist, pedestrian, bicyclist, skateboarder, or horseback rider shouldn’t be going above and beyond the letter of the law to ensure we all come home in one piece. Making the assumption that nobody else is ever going to run a red light or that everybody will always see you when you have the right of way is a good way to be legally correct…and dead.

        • notfishing

          Agreed, and I have to thank Ride Apart for mentioning “not being first” through an intersection. It’s something that I now practice in all modes of transportation.

          Still I’m lamenting the Hooligan typecast of the motorcyclist and the prevalence of attitude to excuse the Car/Pickup because they are more common.

          • Piglet2010

            I am often first through an intersection, but always check for late yellow-red runners just before the light changes.

            N.b. I am in an area with generally light traffic – I understand this would not work in typical large metropolitan area traffic conditions.

          • artist_formally_known_as_cWj

            Who’s excusing anything? Take responsibility for thyself – that’s the message.

            As human beings are, any other person in an accident will almost always assume they were “in the right”. We even manage to convince ourselves of the fact if we initially think we are not. The mode of transportation does not matter – this includes motorcyclists.

            As a bicyclist, I have run the gamut from defensive rider to offensively indignant. This past year, I began to see how much the indignation was starting to affect my judgement. I had been angrier in general, it was making me an angry rider looking for reasons to get to take on cages.

            Fortunately, I realized this before purchasing a motorcycle (or getting hurt on the bicycle). I have felt it bubbling up while on the Suzuki, but I breathe a little and decide whether it’s worth it. I certainly notice how often others make mistakes around me, but I know I make them as well – and how the frequency of my mistakes increases when I’m cursing cagers out inside my helmet.

      • DogDayz

        that’s because idiots are too stupid to accept personal-responsibility.
        You can’t reach them with that argument, it’s pointless to even try and it gets you nowhere, so it won’t solve the problem.

        It’s like blaming deer for getting hit by cars.

    • DogDayz

      It simply can’t be the case that every accident is the riders’ fault, but clearly there are times when the rider could reasonably have done more to prevent an accident, yet did not do so.

      • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com/ Nathaniel Salzman

        By all means, please take this statement as literally as possible and don’t, under any circumstances, think about the underlying concept.

  • Michael Howard

    A near miss should serve as a wake-up call that you’re not paying enough attention and are allowing yourself to get into dangerous situations. I say that as a rider who has way more near misses than I should. I ride too fast. I go through intersections too fast. I put too much trust in other drivers obeying the law. But if ANYTHING happens, it’s MY fault for not preventing it.

    • hunkyleepickle

      how very honest of you to admit your flaws, most people don’t even go that far. I get flack from my friends for being a ‘slow’ rider. I say that in parenthesis because i generally do the speed limit, slow down to go through most interactions, and adjust my speed so i have a space around me between fast and slow traffic. I actually have had very few near misses in my 5 years riding. Sometimes this makes me more nervous, thinking ‘the big one’ could be coming, and sometimes i think i’m just making good choices. Either way, ride the way i do because i want to ride the rest of my life, for me and my family!

    • mms

      My brother has been hit by cars (while on foot) so many times it sounds ludicrous and made-up. He blindly steps into intersections where he has the right of way because he trusts the order of the universe as manifested in traffic law compliance. Poor guy had a collapsed lung and a cracked skull last time. Car and truck drivers all too often suck, but I am responsible for myself, and to look both ways, and to trust no-one but myself to behave in a way that is predictable to me.

      • http://metabomber.com/ Jesse

        I trust no-one to pay attention, nor to obey laws, nor to posses that illusive common-sense thing. I’ve found that paint on the ground doesn’t do much to save people. It’s best to just be aware, be predictable, and stay alive.

  • brittonx

    I agree! I consider it my responsibility to anticipate all the possible actions of all the vehicles around me. Like that car coming the opposite direction. I always assume they will turn left right into my path. I try my best to be ready.

  • 200 Fathoms

    I always try to assume that (1) no one can see me and (2) everybody is going to do something stupid.

  • Braden

    I cannot think of a single near miss I’ve encountered that wasn’t at least partially (if not fully) my fault. There has always been something I should have been doing or been doing better. Near misses have been great learning opportunities for me. Was I distracted? Going too fast? Target fixating? Poor situational awareness? Was I tired? The best part of near misses is that great post-miss surge of adrenaline that helps to cement corrections to my riding habits after analyzing what exactly I did wrong.

  • http://www.bikething.co.uk/ Jonathan Ward

    I believe that near misses should serve as a warning to yourself as a rider, you failed to spot an event occurring. Now that doesn’t mean I agree with the philosophy that all accidents are the riders fault, you wouldn’t hear a car driver saying that after all, but I believe responsibility lies around the 50/50 mark. Partly the responsibility of the other road user (who caused the near miss) and partly the responsibility of the rider for allowing that situation to occur. I never think “maybe I won’t make it home tonight” when I get on the bike. I don’t think about anything in regards to safety really, I just concentrate on riding (unless Radio 4 has something really interesting airing, of course, then I might concentrate on that for a bit!) which I find has served me well so far.

    As a rider I don’t consider myself to be exceptional, I know my strengths and weaknesses. I rarely have near misses, and I haven’t had an accident or dropped my bike in over four years. Overall I think I’m pretty average for an all season rider. Getting too carried away with thoughts about how good you are leads to mistakes and miscalculations – something you can’t safely accommodate when riding a bike on today’s congested roads. It’s best to take a more realistic approach.

    I agree with the statements of fellow commenters, near misses are ideal learning opportunities. Analyse the situation – what happened, how could it be avoided etc. Very useful for your development as a safe road user.

    • Michael Howard

      A rider has to accept responsibility for their own safety, no matter who “caused” the accident or whose “fault” it was. Practically every near miss I’ve ever had since first riding on the street 30+ years ago was actually “the other guy’s” fault. But I allowed myself to be in those situations. I allowed things to happen the way they did. So they were ultimately MY fault because, if I’d been paying more attention, if I’d been riding in a safer manner, there wouldn’t have been a near miss. Putting even partial blame on the other person — even if it was 100% their fault — doesn’t keep you alive and well.

      • Dave Mason

        Agree 1,000%. A bike will lose against a car 100% of the time, therefore it is my responsibility to stay alive every time I swing a leg over the bike. Fault matters not to the dead.

      • http://www.bikething.co.uk/ Jonathan Ward

        As you’ve probably established from my comment above, I disagree that motorcyclists should blame themselves entirely for near misses. Although I do agree that a near miss is a fail on the biker’s part for not noticing a potentially dangerous event occurring.

        In regards to car drivers and other road users in general, they should take responsibility for their actions too. From an idealistic standpoint admitting blame for everything sounds good, but in reality do you really see it that way right after an incident has occurred?

        In the European Union there’s been an argument over whether hi-viz jackets should be made compulsory. Essentially, this suggests motorcyclists are at fault for every accident because we didn’t make ourselves visible. An assertion that I believe is dangerous (not only from a liability point of view) but also from a practical point of view. I am against taking a one-sided view on blame during near misses for this same reason. Just because we chose to ride a bike – a legal method of transport – doesn’t mean we’re at fault.

  • appliance5000

    Here’s a very interesting article on how people see (by people I mean car drivers, motorcyclists – everyone) http://motoress.com/readarticle.asp?articleid=730

    And if you really want to blow your mind see thei: http://michaelbach.de/ot/mot-mib/index.html

    Visor down has a rant about the uselessness of Hi Viz – the argument went – it doesn’t work but somehow even though it doesn’t work it’s annoying to drivers.

    While I get very pissed at texting and talking drivers – I also see this going on with bicyclists and motorcyclists. A woman bicyclist was wrapped around an 18 wheeler tire near my place – everyone was at a stoplight and when they started she somehow got nailed – she had an earphones in her ears and was distracted.

    We’re all human and we all need to be alert and also have an understanding as to how the brain works. For example – after reading the above mentioned article I always try to be moving towards the car waiting at the cross street. i shift lane positions if I’m behind a car for some length of time because the mind renders objects in the same place as invisible. etc.

    • 200 Fathoms

      Last sentence was quite interesting. Never thought of that.

    • Piglet2010

      Motorcycles in general are annoying to cagers.

      When I drive a cage I always give people on two wheels a lot of extra room (unless it is a loud pipes idiot who wants to merge in front of me – I cannot stand the noise even in a cage with the windows rolled up).

      • appliance5000

        Sure -I give as much room as I can. I was really commenting on the aspect of why – beyond distracted drivers – we sometimes seem invisible. It’s because we actually are.

  • Lee Scuppers

    Yeah, I don’t mind spending a few months in rehab as long as I can claim it wasn’t my “fault”.

    Nonsense. You can be both right, and dead, at the same time. But only one of those two conditions really matters. Guess which.

    BTW this logic does not apply to drunk girls in bad neighborhoods late at night, so don’t even think it.

  • Jack Meoph

    Stop scaring people. The last group ride I was on, the car in front of me turned on his right blinker, went towards the right, and then turned left. By that time I was already going around him, and even though I anticipated him turning the other direction (because they do it all the time around here in tourist land) the car came closer to me than I was comfortable with. Totally my fault for expecting an idiot to do the the thing that they 100% indicated they were going to do.

  • Dave Mason

    I personally believe it is important, along with vigilant situational awareness, to train oneself to vary their speed and trajectory when in heavy traffic. As much as possible at least. I believe that riding in lockstep with traffic is part of what makes us invisible. Use all of your lane, and ride agressively.

    • Piglet2010

      Heck, I would do that even in the cage when I had the misfortune of a daily commute on urban freeways – particularly when someone was mindlessly following too closely.

  • Vitor Santos

    I totally agree with this philosophy of riding. I always thought this way driving a car before i had a motorcycle licence and never had accident involving other vehicles. Well i had one, but i was stopped at a red-light in my car and some guy failed to stop because he sneezed and while cleaning is noose didn’t see the traffic stopped. But because of that experience and some others (the video of that guy getting hit by a tree comes to mind) i know that sometimes there’s just nothing you could have done.
    I am not saying that i will never crash. Like everyone who rides should know, its not a question of if, its a question of when… I just hope i can live past it. I try to learn as much as possible about this subject and i truly think that most accidents can be avoided if you read the signs correctly. A accident its not a single event, its a series of factors that aligned led to the tragic outcome. All the near misses i experienced were definitely partially my fault and always try to learn something from then.
    If you stop taking responsibility and start relying your safety to other people actions you are going to have a bad time… Trust yourself and always be wary of others…

  • eddi

    The only person in a near miss situation that you have control of is yourself. You have (hopefully) some training and maybe experience to rely on. You have no idea what the people around you, not just the amateurs on 4 wheels but pedestrians, bicyclists, and folk in the big vehicles, are thinking or doing. All you can do is think and look ahead. Be pessimistic, Drivers are not evil, they are just worse at controlling a car than they think. Drifting across four lanes of traffic minus any signal is almost normal for them. It’s a chess game in a minefield. But you are aware of that. If not, stop now and re-think your position. After 30+ years of riding, near-misses are a warning I’m distracted, badly. I just pull my head out and get back to riding instead of whatever the heck I was doing before I nearly kissed that passenger door.

  • Guy Simmonds

    I think I get what’s being said here – the near miss was the other person’s fault, but if it’d escalated into a crash, then it’d be the rider’s fault.

    OK, for example, the number of times that I indicate to turn, do all the correct checks, blah blah blah… and then the driver at the junction starts pulling out across me even though I have priority. I take avoiding action, sound the horn to get their attention, all these things, and avoid them… if I’d failed to avoid them, then it was my fault for not taking every step available to me to do so. But the fact that they started pulling out into the path of a bike was their fault not mine.

  • RyYYZ

    Some riders (and drivers) live in denial of the contribution of their own riding style to accidents and near-misses. For an example of this, I have on a number of occasions seen riders express outrage over the fact that a car driver pulled out in front of them, while at the same time admitting that they were going way faster than the speed limit. Well, if you’re doing double (or more) of the speed limit, it’s quite likely that an driver seeing you coming will judge just by distance and the speed they expect vehicles to be coming on that road, and go ahead and pull out based on those assumptions. Even if the driver was partly at fault, the rider also definitely contributed.

    That’s just one example, I’ve seen many others, done some of them myself. It always comes down to the same thing in the end: as a motorcyclist your safety is largely in your own hands. Not every accident or near miss is avoidable, but most are.

  • rkfire

    Why on earth is there a paragraph devoted to the notion of “laying a bike down” as if it’s a viable option? The tires have way more traction than plastic, metal, or textile, leather, or skin. Laying it down is nothing but an excuse made by those who lock up the rear tire and low side. The plan ought to be, brake as hard as possible, and either you’ll stop short of the crash OR at the lowest impact speed possible. That’s of course when lateral movement isn’t an option.
    Years ago I hit a left turner. The first notion that I had was, how did I allow her to take me off guard. I vowed never to allow that again. There are plenty of strategies available to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

    • Michael Howard

      It’s kind of an ongoing thing to make fun of riders who actually DO consider it a viable option. Here’s the article that pretty much got the ball rolling:

  • William Connor

    Accidents suck. Each party in an accident can probably do more to avoid an accident, but there is definitely a point where complete fault can be placed on one party or the other. We can do more to be seen and we all need to ride defensively to stay visible. Here is my take on blame. Motorcycles are registered vehicles with the same rights to the road as any other vehicle. If an accident occurs then the entire process should be the same as any other accident scene. Blame is applied to the party who failed to follow the rules of the road. Being on a motorcycle is not an excuse for the other driver. Failure to yield, see us etc is a cop out and would not work if you missed a car, so it should not work with a bike. If the bike is at fault same rules and penalties, no more, no less.

    • Michael Howard

      I don’t think all that would fit in a rider’s obituary.

  • Ryan Carman

    good article!

    i’ll just leave this here: http://goo.gl/3EaN9y

  • Bones Over Metal

    Hey What gloves are those in the title picture??
    They look good, but can’t make out the text on them.

  • Stuki

    The vast majority of time, noone is “to blame.” In any even half complex environment of independent actors with limited knowledge, there is always some probability that something unforeseen happens. And not because some specific subgroup of others did “something wrong.”

    If you choose to enter such an environment as a rider, you know (or at least should know) that the consequences to you of any of those little low-probability events, will likely be direr than to a driver. Hence, a simple cost-benefit calculation should dictate that you show just that much care, pay that much more attention, and take that much more responsibility for your own well being, than someone who is at less risk to begin with. It’s similar to riding a dirt bike. If you’re 50 miles out in the desert with limited water and no tube, patchkit nor tools; you ride a good bit more carefully, than you would if you carry sufficient supplies and equipment to handle possible unforeseen eventualities a bit better.

    The whole culture of “figuring out who to blame”, that drives anything from what is described above, to mandatory “at fault” liability insurance schemes, to closing down an entire freeway in order not to move useless wreckage off the road until some “expert” can ascertain “blame”, is nothing more than a racket to allow lawyers and other useless busybodies to dig their fingers even further into productive people’s pockets than they already have.

  • Mr. White

    I’m still a noob, I’ve only been riding since May 2013. Thanks to having to brave the mean streets of Chicago every day, I’ve already encountered multiple near misses. I attribute avoiding those situations to my riding course and what they drilled into our heads, “Always ride like you’re invisible to others.” I also remember what my driving instructor back when I was in high school taught in driving school, “Always have an out.” As in regardless if you’re in a car or on a bike, always anticipate trouble and always look for ways to avoid the unexpected.

    • Michael Howard

      That’s a good attitude to have, though I prefer to think of it as other drivers CAN see me and are going to try to take me out when I least expect it.

      See that car stopped at the side road up ahead? He’s going to wait patiently as you approach and, right when you get there, is going to hit the gas and come shooting out on a collision course. Are you gonna be ready for it?

  • Ben Mcghie

    Excellent article. People, myself included, are very hesitant to place blame on themselves. I can’t remember the statistic, but it was something like 65% of people polled described themselves as “better than average” drivers? Hmmm. :)

    If I slip on gravel, it’s my own fault for going too fast to corner on said gravel. Or fail to see it before entering the corner. eeeek no fun.

    Take charge of your riding by taking ownership of your mistakes.

  • toni796

    i regurarly blame myself for the near misses, i think of it as a sport so when near miss happens i look to improve myself like you would if you had a bad game…

  • ThinkingInImages

    Assigning “blame” is after the fact. I live in a congested area. It would be nice if everyone would make an effort to just pay attention to their surroundings. Seeing is just one part of awareness. There’s no easy answer here. We all have to care that we get where we’re going in one piece and without drama.

    • whyioughta

      sure there is an “easy answer”.

      Don’t get hit.

  • Dan Thomas

    This is actually really interesting – my instructor told me he never wanted to hear I’d had an accident that didn’t involve more than two things going wrong i.e. if you hit diesel and fall off, diesel is not the only reason, your speed and attention probably contributed. If someone pulls out, did you fail to notice them and thereafter lose the ability to adjust accordingly, we’re you riding like a mad man? It’s not an exact science, but I see UK accidents from a civil courts point of view every day – there are an awful lot of split liability/fault judgements. That might be down to the Judiciary (and other factors) but it’s certainly possible that it could also be attributed to some riders not admitting there own flaws and working to correct them. But then we ride bikes so we’re pretty much perfect anyway aren’t we? ;-)

  • whyioughta

    “In any even half complex environment of independent actors with limited
    knowledge, there is always some probability that something unforeseen

    …and you should ride in a way that accomodates that without your getting into an accident.

    • whyioughta

      If you can’t ride without crashing then you shouldn’t ride at all.
      Damm this stupid system, it put the pic in 4 times…really…

  • William McLaughlin

    Just last weekend I laid my bike down for the first time (after owning it only a week) in a very small accident. I am new to riding and was following a friend around. It was a right turn yield onto a service road, I saw no one coming on the street so assumed my friend would go. I looked left to make sure no one was coming so then I could immediately follow.

    I glanced back in front of me and my friend had stopped. So I panic braked, locked the front wheel, and fell on my right side, hit my knee pretty bad, but the bike was mostly spared save for some scrapes.

    I got over-confident and lost my focus. Knee is still bruised and hurts, and I just rode again today. I knew it was my fault though, so hopefully I Can learn from the accident and move on.

  • Blake Harrison

    One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed about myself, is that. If I haven’t ridden in a while (for me a while is a week) I notice that I will be less aware of a lot of dangers for the first half day or so back riding (commuting really). I notice my minds likes to wonder more. Like I’m still in a cage driving and sitting is a “safe” environment. That being said I wonder how many near misses and wrecks have recurred do to the change lag in mindset change from a rider switching back to riding? I mean there are a LOT of fair weather riders. I am not one, so I can’t imagine taking a month or half of the year off due to weather/winter weather.

    I wonder how much the numbers would change if that mindset could be more set before even leaving the house? Just a thought.