Superstitions can kill you

The UKBike Blog is always on the prowl for bikers who are willing and able to put their bike experiences into words as regular guest writers. We have a few riders on board already but the more the merrier! If you are interested in submitting articles or would like to know more about the blog, please get in touch - the e-mail address is

Our first guest article comes via Malcolm Palmer, a motorbike instructor based in Newbury, Berkshire. Malcolm runs his own blog that specialises in rider safety and the latest news, which is well worth a read.

Superstitions can kill you

A colleague recently asked me whether I'm superstitious? Simple answer: 'No'.

That's "No, not in the 'Friday the 13th' sense" - and I certainly don't believe that stepping on the cracks in the pavement will allow the monsters to get me (well, not recently...).

But there are superstitions which make sense. Walking under a ladder, for instance, can be unlucky for you if the person 'upstairs' drops their hammer... so some superstitions are a bit like stereotypes and cliches - there may be some 'real' reason or 'truth' behind the belief.

Similarly, superstitions are often supposed to involve 'luck' - but it can be possible to swing that luck in your favour. I don't walk under a ladder unless I've looked 'up' first - and from some way back. Indeed, a friend says there are two types of luck: good and bad.

Many riders believe they're 'unlucky' when they're involved in crashes - but I can't help wondering whether they've relied on 'luck' rather than choosing which luck they'll rely on - like the quick check up before walking under that ladder. Indeed, the way some riders rely on racing leathers and a bright headlamp to keep them 'safe' you'd think they've discovered the biking equivalent of a 'lucky' rabbit foot - and they were never lucky for the rabbit...

Biking has its cliches and stereotypes as well as talismans, as riders tend to have the same basic types of crash again and again:
- Junctions: the well-known 'SMIDSY', or RoWV (Right of Way Violation)
- Corners: usually crashing at speeds where the bike could have got around, but the rider failed to achieve it
- Overtaking: often passing a group of vehicles in one move, without checking 'why' the group is moving slowly

None of these types of crash are big secrets. Indeed, there are even more detailed 'cliche' bike crashes that continue to catch riders out - the 'taxi does a U-turn' is a classic example.

So if riders have the same types of crash, over and over, involving the same basic situations, why is there surprise that the crash has happened, why are they considered 'bad luck'?

More importantly: why don't riders take the effort to reduce their reliance on good luck? By looking at the situations you're riding towards, and then either influencing the situation, or altering the way you react to it, you can change the 'luck' and put it in your favour.

Let's change the wording, rather than 'luck', let's use a more 'modern' set of terms: Why doesn't the rider use 'Risk Assessment' and 'Risk Management'? Look at the road ahead, and start to take control - rather than sitting and waiting to see what happens. Instead of trusting to good or bad luck, use another more modern term: change from 'reactive' to 'pro-active'.

Each of the three main types of bike crash has its own details, its own clues, and likely effects on the rider.
- SMIDSY crashes are more likely to be urban, at slower speeds, and involve injury more than death.
- Cornering crashes are more often 'rural', at higher speeds, and more like to be fatal.
- Overtaking is usually rural, and at very high speed.

Although all three have different build-up - often by a very simple sequence of seemingly minor decisions - there are ways in which a rider can think about the situation ahead.

There are two simple questions to ask which give a good idea of this:
- "How can that affect me?"
- "What if that happens?"

In traditional 'Roadcraft' terms, this is using 'Observation Links': finding a small detail, a clue, and using it to 'link' to a likely outcome. This is hazard perception, but not in the form used within the DSA's Hazard Perception Test where you're marked only on reacting to 'developing hazards' (where you must change speed or direction), instead we're looking at risks, seeing potential danger before you must take urgent action.

Of course, it isn't really as simple as 'pro-active versus reactive', it's more a matter of reacting sooner to a hint of a problem, rather than waiting for it to develop. Often your only 'early reaction' will be to notice a potential problem then keep an eye on it in case it worsens.

Then there's the extra mental step of looking for problems where they don't exist (or, at least, can't be seen). Here you're using guesswork or imagination to create a mental picture of problems likely to occur. In an odd way, you move from superstition to fortune-telling and looking in to the future! Of course, this is not so much 'end of the pier palmistry' as informed decisions.

Essentially, you're looking and planning for possibilities from 'clear, straight, road' to 'narrow, blind bend with oncoming vehicle', depending on what you can see ahead, and what your imagination tells you. In 'old Roadcraft' terms:
- What can be seen
- What can't be seen
- What can reasonably be expected to happen

Having an idea, imagined or otherwise, of what you're about to meet allows you to plan a response - or range of them. This pre-planning reduces your reaction time if something does happen, and can help avoid panic reactions.

This might seem a doom-laden, down-beat, way of thinking about your riding. Well, perhaps it is. I call it 'being a happy pessamist'! If nothing you've planned for happens, then you continue on, if something untoward does happen then it's no big deal - you already have it predicted and planned for.

Having identified actual or potential danger, there's one final action you must take, and that's to believe what you've decided enough to take notice of it! For instance: if a narrow bend has a limited view it's reasonable to expect oncoming traffic. In fact, it's more than 'reasonable' - it's essential to think like that if you wish to avoid becoming a bonnet mascot! If you've decided that, what are you going to do about it? Your planning must allow for stopping within - at most - half the distance you can see is clear, and being prepared to stop if necessary.

I used the term 'essential' to expect oncoming vehicles, and ride with that in mind. Do you agree it's essential, or do you rely on luck? When you arrive at a blind bend, can you roll a 'six' every time?

Malcolm Palmer, September 2008