How To Crash

This is a story about what happened to me in my car yesterday, but there are some lessons for motorcyclists within it.

It rained all night, but the ground was cold because it’s winter, so it was extremely icy in the morning.  Even worse, they hadn’t sanded the road in and out of the complex I live in.  I saw an email from a neighbor warning that the curve on the hill at the exit was extremely slippery.  Forewarned is forearmed – I’d take it very slow driving down that hill.

On my way to the exit, I was flagged down by another one of my neighbors.  He warned me not only of the ice, but also that his car had slid off the road at that corner and was partially blocking the road.  Again, forewarned is forearmed.  It’s a left curve, so I knew he’d slid to the outside of the turn, on the right, so I would crawl down the left side of the road around his stuck car.

I had all kinds of warning.  Like a rally driver with his co-driver’s pace notes, I knew exactly what was around the corner before I could even see it, set myself up for the turn accordingly, and proceeded at literally walking pace.  The one thing I didn’t know was that the ice on that corner was as slippery as the most slippery frozen lake I’d ever been on, and since it was on a hill there was almost nothing I could do once I started sliding, which inevitably I did.

Once the car started understeering toward the outside of the turn, I immediately realized that my fate would be the same as my neighbor. If his car wasn’t in the way, I might have been able regain grip in the snow on the grass, make the turn, and gone on my way.  (I later saw tire tracks in that area indicating that some people had done exactly that.) But his car was directly in the way, I was already sliding off the road, and the only thing I could do was choose where and how I was going off. If I decided it was time for some thrilling heroics to save the slide, there was an excellent chance I’d hit my neighbor’s car. So I ditched the thrilling heroics, locked up my brakes (I was going so slow, ABS couldn’t tell the difference between 2mph and lockup), and chose to slide straight off the edge of the road instead of curving around toward the other car.  There was a stake at the edge of the pavement.  I went straight toward it, hit it, and came to a stop in the snow.

The only damage was to my ego (and the stake).  That damage was promptly repaired by another neighbor (also a biker) saying that considering my racing and motorcycle experience, seeing me slid off the road was rather like Mike Tyson saying that a bar fight was getting a little rough.

But I was stuck, since my car is rear wheel drive, and my rear wheels were still on the super icy road.  Any attempt I made to rock the car or back out resulted in a little wheelspin, which caused the back of my car to start sliding down the hill toward my neighbor’s car.  I gave up my extraction efforts until the sander truck finally showed up and we got his car out of there, at which point I simply backed up and was on my way.

What does any of this have to do with motorcycling?  Plenty.  When most people realize there’s nothing they can do to avoid having an accident, they either panic or give up, which are effectively the same thing.  They resign themselves to the fact that the vehicle is heading off the road or directly toward a solid object and just let it happen.

No, no, no.  Even when you can’t avoid an accident, you often still have a choice of HOW you’re going to have an accident.  In my case, I chose to lock my brakes and slide straight off the road instead of continuing to struggle to regain control and likely hit my neighbor’s car.  Yes, I got myself stuck because of it.  But getting myself stuck fifteen feet up the road from my neighbor’s stuck car is much, much better than crashing into my neighbor’s car because I’d given up and allowed the car to slide wherever physics would take it, or – even worse – because I was trying to bravely maneuver around it and failed miserably.

On a bike, where in an impact with pretty much anything you’re going to lose, it’s vital that you not give up control even after you realize you can’t avoid a crash.  It drives me crazy when I hear stories of motorcycle accidents and the rider says, “I had to lay the bike down.”  No, you didn’t!  By laying the bike down, you leave yourself at the mercy of the laws of physics.  An object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.  A bike and rider sliding down the road on their sides can only go in that one direction that was committed to when the bike was laid down until either friction stops them, or more likely they hit something solid.  If you don’t lay the bike down and ride it all the way to the crash, you can at least have some control over the nature of that crash.  Would you rather slam into a bus, or into some hedges?  Chances are the hedges would at least cushion your fall a bit, and they certainly wouldn’t run you over.  And besides, the rubber of your tires has a lot more traction and can get you slowed down more quickly than the metal or plastic of your bike.

Remember four years ago when Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenburger made an emergency water landing in the Hudson River in New York City?  Rather than give up and let the jetliner crash when he lost both engines, he controlled the plane all the way down to the water.  Out of 155 passengers plus the crew, there were five minor injuries and no fatalities. A lot of people would’ve died if he’d given up and let it crash.  We don’t typically carry 155 passengers on a bike, but the idea is the same.  Even if you’re definitely going to crash, use what control you still have to minimize the severity of the crash.

And another thing. While you’re trying to maneuver your way into the least bad accident you can, don’t stare at the object you’re trying to avoid.  If I’d stared down the road at my neighbor’s car, thinking “Don’t hit that car, don’t hit that car, don’t hit that car…” I probably would’ve hit my neighbor’s car. That’s called target fixation. It’s natural for your brain to try and steer toward where you want to go.  It’s what you do all the time anyway – you look where you’re going.  It’s instinctive.  So use that to your advantage.  I didn’t look at my neighbor’s car. I looked at that stake by the side of the road, and doggone if I didn’t smack it precisely with the center of my front license plate.  That, too, was target fixation, but in this case I was intentionally using it to my benefit.  Look where you want to go.  Don’t look at the obstacle – look at your way around it.  Find the hole, and go for it.

Aside from motorsport events, where I’m intentionally pushing the limits and hit cones quite regularly, this is the closest I’ve come to an actual accident in many years.  I’m fortunate that things worked out the way they did, and that my instincts have been trained to drive through the crash and look where I want to go.  All that was really at stake was a bit of sheet metal, and no injuries at that speed, but I’m glad I didn’t have that hassle.  I’m moving during the next couple of weeks and I need that car to pull trailers, both for my stuff and for my bikes.

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