On Balance  

Our duty to accommodate

I’m a bit grumpy. It’s raining again. Even though I’m one of the fortunate minority who has a lawn and a lawn tractor, on days like this, the joys of marrying the two between the deluges elude me.

I’ve had a lot of days like this on the bike, too. Even though it’s a wonderful thing to have a bike, a licence, and the cash to get on the road, some days the road just gets on my nerves.

This is why I’ve written fairly often about the concerns for motorcyclist safety that revolve around the fact that we have to cope with a lot of well-known unnecessary risk.

This is on top of the fundamental risk of balancing and manoeuvring an unstable and highly reactive vehicle, which provides zero crash protection.

The core level of risk, which is much higher than the challenges faced by operators of other road vehicles, is what makes me want to think about the problem through an old lens, a perspective from a previous life.

In workplace health-and safety-courses, which I had the privilege of delivering, we deal with a concept called the Duty to Accommodate.

This usually comes up in the context of workers who have sustained an injury or illness that prevents them from now being able to do the work they used to without some type of assistive modification.

This can take the form of changes to the work process, the work environment, or both.

In these situations, the idea is that people have a right to continue with gainful employment, disability notwithstanding, as much as they are reasonably able.

Employers who make the necessary modifications so that this can happen are undertaking their duty in law to accommodate workers’ disabilities, or differential abilities, and keep them in the workforce.

Consider this the first way that this principle applies to rider safety: we’re at extraordinary, and unacceptable, risk in road traffic situations that aren’t adjusted to accommodate our disabling conditions (two missing wheels, for a start).

To see the second way this principle applies, we have to consider that the duty to accommodate extends beyond just the folks who have had some work-related illness or injury.

It also applies to groups of people who are protected, by human rights legislation, from discrimination.

These are people who would never get a chance at paid work, or decent-paying work, without some legal requirement that employers accommodate their “difference,” or perceived unsuitability/incompetence.

This is where “equal opportunity” and “equal pay for equal work” campaigns come in. Employers aren’t allowed to exclude or discriminate against people who aren’t their own flavour of colour, gender, or religious affiliation.

It is a fact that motorcyclists, however otherwise privileged (and many, if not most of us, are), can be perceived and discriminated against by some as being unacceptable for proper society.

Too weird, too bad, probably dangerous. Also smelly.

So, no restaurant service, no hotel room, passed over for promotions or pay rises, and so forth. Sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle, but the message is the same: Get lost, stinky.

How does this fit with rider safety issues?

Blatant government failure to uphold their duty to accommodate, that’s how. Oh, sure, there’s all those nice, helpful messages about the need for more rider safety, and how everyone should look out for motorcyclists, but:

  • Roadside barriers are designed to work for cars, but research elsewhere has proven that this very design makes them lethal for riders. Better engineering and design exist, but not implemented here.
  • Slippery surfaces may be easily manageable on four wheels, with the help of a caution sign. Again, and unnecessarily, extremely dangerous for riders. And again, the better alternatives are well-known in engineering circles.
  • Along those lines, literally — vinyl pavement markings, like crosswalks, are an induced, artificial hazard occurring at turning points, precisely the motorcycle’s most unstable moment.
  • Crash-and-injury prevention technologies and engineering are proven, required standards in the automotive world. Nil for motorcycles. Available, relevant, and proven, but not required.
  • Research-proven injury prevention standards exist for rider gear; none apply in the Canadian market to jackets, gloves, or jeans sold as “protective” here.
  • Roadway and intersection configurations, and traffic control systems, exist which are proven to be particularly effective in reducing the risks that motorcyclists experience.

My point is this: our governments, at all levels, have a duty to accommodate the exceptional risk aspects of the motorcycle, and as well a duty to avoid discrimination against motorcyclists. The fact is, however, that they routinely and utterly disregard these duties.

That brings us to the image at the top of the page. Road authorities have a duty to accommodate motorcyclists’ safety needs, but: it is a duty that is equally met by the rider’s duty to undertake reasonable measures within our abilities to protect ourselves, and to ride safely.

Just like at work.

None of us will enjoy safety parity if some of us insist on riding as if our lives don’t matter.

Don’t lean into oncoming.

Ride. Make a difference

It seems that more than just my wife and I have been reading these columns. Amazing. For those of you who have joined us for one or another of the rides, I want to say thanks for taking the time, and for the company.

Going a little different route today, following the thought pattern of rider safety being best found in the best reasons to ride in the first place.

The things I enjoy I’ve learned to do with reasonable safety, so that I can enjoy them again. That fits very well with the main reason most people use the motorcycle most of the time: recreation. Havin’ a laugh.

This safety approach has the side benefit of preventing me from having to do some of the things I really hate, like sliding along on pavement on bare skin. Or losing fingers to the table saw. Same deal. Best to avoid, I say.

I also mentioned last time that most people seem to ride as a form of social recreation, and that this aspect has its downsides.

We’re better at getting each other into trouble than out of it. Get caught siphoning the teacher’s gas, you’re on your own, Buckeye. We weren’t here.

Beware of peer pressure on group rides, and about riding in general. But that really isn’t anything like the whole story about the social nature of motorcycling, so here’s another angle on that dangle.

Cue music: Riders On The Storm, The Doors.

There’s a motorcycling “Ride To Work Day," and campaign. You can look it up: http://www.ridetowork.org. The premise is that we should be helping each other by joining forces and becoming a more visible (numerous) presence in traffic at times when most people are on the road, instead of when they aren’t.

There are flaws in the website’s presentation materials. However, there is the central point, which is that road safety for motorcyclists works in some important ways like it does for cyclists and pedestrians.

We fare better when there are relatively more of us in the social mainstream of day-to-day traffic.

When there are more riders on the road, at peak times, other vehicle operators are more attuned to our presence. Perhaps more importantly, the pressure of numbers makes the managers of roadway infrastructure more attuned to the need to ensure that roads are engineered and maintained for rider safety.

Instead of hiding out and waiting until all the cars and trucks go home before we roll Blacky out of the barn, Ride to Work (and I) propose that we should all get to work and back in the saddle.

Arrive with a grin on your face, having made a difference for fellow riders’ safety, and see if it doesn’t improve the work day too.

Monday, June 21. International motorcycling Ride to Work Day. Have a laugh, go to that meeting in your leathers.

And. The fun committee’s work doesn’t stop there. Lots of us have figured out how to get some social mileage by making good things happen for people who need help.

Fundraising rides are a whole thing out there. People will actually give you money if you tell them you’re crazy enough to risk your life riding a motorcycle in aid of worthy causes.

Most years, riders get pledges, get together with a bunch of other riders, go for a hoot together, and then grab a burger and a prize at the afterburner. COVID’s pretty much screwed that up for us, but the fun’s still on.

If you were the one who read the previous column, you’ll remember the notion presented was to ride your own ride, instead of in a pack, then get together with your buddies at the pie stop.

Turns out, fundraisers have settled on a plan that’s pretty similar. So, whether you’re going with the Ride For Dad, or the Ride To Live, or both (for prostate cancer supports and research), you can do that on your own between May and September, having registered with them first and organized some pledges.

“Ride Alone Together” is the Ride For Dad tag line, which works so well on so many levels, I wish I’d thought of it first.

Should mention that one of the national medical advisers for the Prostate Cancer Fight Foundation, the charitable arm of the Ride For Dad, is Dr. Juanita M. Crook, of UBC Kelowna. Studies a form of treatment you really don’t want to know about, until you need to know about it. And I really hope you miss that bus.

Unlike one of the very best friends I’ve ever had, who’s on a ride from hell with it right now. So far, some of that leading edge research is helping, so thanks for the fundraising.

Raise some money, go for a ride, make a difference — here’s a very short list of some options to consider:

So you can still have a laugh, be social, and raise safety, awareness, and funds, riding alone. Together.

Together now – but apart

So that was Mothers’ Day. We went with buying hanging flower baskets from the local nursery, instead of the more artistic option of planting our own in retired helmets.

Granted, the old farmhouse porch looks good with the baskets, but I still feel like it lacks some flair, the “riders live here” statement that the helmet posies would have made.

Thing is, we do like to find ways to connect with other members of the riding community, don’t we? Consider the “Rider’s Wave.”

We don’t wave at everyone else driving a pickup truck. But on the bike, we do wave a Hello! to other riders, because motorcycling in this country is a very social activity.

Riding’s something people choose to do as a way of belonging, more than just a way of getting from here to there.

I had to get used to that when I got involved at the teaching level. At the beginning of a course, because personal motivation is central to the learning process, we ask students:

  • Why are you here?
  • What’s your purpose for learning to ride a motorcycle?

The answer, to my surprise, is very typically: “Because Fred rides,” or “my buddy's/girlfriend's/family friends ride,” something along those lines.

I was expecting way more stuff about the actual riding, the exhilaration of being on two wheels, the immediacy of the human-machine interface, that sort of thing. Or maybe even hating golf.

But, no. It’s the social interface that people emphasize. A lot.

Foreign concept for me. I ride to be on my own, getting somewhere I need to be, on two wheels. Which is pretty much like breathing, it’s so key to how I function.

And doing stuff alone, well, always have. Never occurs to me to phone somebody else and make a date to cycle, ski, run, hike, or ride a motorcycle. I just go.

From a safety perspective, though, there are problems with this. There’s a real potential for falling unobserved on one’s brain and not getting rescued for a week or two. These can be bad things.

Instead, for safety’s sake, we discourage people from following my example, and encourage them to do what apparently comes more naturally for most folks. Do outdoor risk activities socially.

Safer motorcycling, then, looks like it should result directly from the very reason many, maybe most, people ride in the first place. Shared adventure.

And, on the face of it, this would seem to be so.

Scanning media reports, and trolling through statistical summaries and crash causality analyses, what you find plainly indicates that crashing a motorcycle is directly related to riding alone.

“The motorcyclist” who stuffed his front wheel between a truck’s rear duals, or “the motorcyclist” who lost control and left the road on a corner, “the motorcyclist” who collided with a turning vehicle, and so forth.

“The,” singular, only the one guy on a bike here. No other riders around.

Clearly, and for good reason, the crashed/injured rider is the predominant focus of media reporting, crash investigation, data collection, and causation analysis. This has the effect, though, of creating a body of information that strongly suggests that bad things happen only to soloists.

This is pretty heavy support for riding as a social activity.

However. Data analysis, done well and thoroughly, demands the asking of a critical question:

What’s missing?

What’s missing from the picture above is that riding is predominantly a social activity, not an individual one. People ride in pairs and groups.

We rarely ride to commute, or for other individual purposeful trips. Around three percent of motorcycle trips are that sort of ride. The rest are recreational, and when we recreate, we tend to do it together. Like golf.

The failure, then, of so much of what is considered about how and why things go wrong for riders, is that the broader picture, the social context, of the ride is lost in the description and the later analysis.

The other riders who were with our crashed rider are not reported, nor considered, as having even been there, let alone as having had a significant influence on the circumstances and outcomes.

But they were there. And that influence is known.

Turn to page 21 of ICBC’s “Learn to Ride Smart,” the official study guide for riders. The section’s called Personal Strategies, and the focus is on avoiding impairing factors. One of which is Peer Pressure.

The guide correctly states that other riders will, one way or another, encourage us to take bigger risks than we can safely manage. Long, tiring rides, and high speed, aggressive riding are well-known group sports.

People get hurt because of them, but that factor disappears from the later analysis.

Let’s put it back in. Riding socially, we exercise our duty of care to each other by dealing with the red mist up front.

  • Separate the group.
  • Relax the schedule.
  • Get together at identified rests or destinations.
  • Leave each other road space and time to look after our safety first.
  • First one to the coffee shoppe, not the last one, buys the pie.

On the road, space from each other makes the heart grow much fonder, and beat longer, indeed.


Left at the crossroads

Music for today: obviously, the old classic, Crossroads Blues, with Mr. Clapton on the frets.

And slightly less obvious, a bit on the creepy side, but oddly both compelling and popular, Every Breath You Take. Thank you Sting.

About that title. We have problems with crossroads.

In fact, our biggest problems seem to be with crossings (intersections) and corners, and in both cases those issues have a lot to do with vision and sight lines. And with kind of being stuck on our own.

It’ll help if you know the lyrics.

But we tend to talk about those difficult environments in very different ways. “I” is for intersection and invisibility. “C” is for cornering capability.

Meaning, we seem to look at intersections as being mostly about them - other drivers, their bad habits and failures to see “invisible” riders. Whereas we seem to look at corners as being mostly about us - our skills and techniques for managing the dynamics and opposing forces.

Without going all Zen and the Art metaphysical here, I believe this to be a dualism that gets in the way of safety by separating, instead of combining, critical patterns of observation, thought, and action.

About intersections, we’re lectured to a fault that the main problem for motorcyclist safety is that, because drivers of other vehicles don’t see riders (or, more recently, that they “see and forget” riders) they turn left when it’s unsafe. Collision necessarily results.

Let’s take that apart. The main elements of the “not seeing” argument are that:

  • Drivers aren’t looking for motorcycles (inattentional blindness
  • Motorcycles are difficult visual targets (small, narrow, and thus hard to locate in traffic and hard to assess in terms of approach speed).

In either case, the concern is that other vehicle operators are both more focused on the larger vehicles they see and deal with more often, and more able to focus on them.

These are important, well-developed, and logical positions. They’ve resulted in a major emphasis on riders making ourselves more conspicuous in traffic, and on drivers making themselves more careful to consciously look for riders.

Hence the high-visibility yellow stripes, jackets, and helmets, the additional running lights, the headlight modulators, and so forth. And, the international efforts to include motorcycle/scooter awareness in driver training systems, as well as the giant highway signs imploring drivers to “watch for motorcyclists.”

However, Sager et al, and others, have pointed out that, after decades of this conspicuity and hectoring, the results are in, and they’re bad.

Other vehicles are still turning left at the crossroads, at the wrong time, and riders are still whacking them with very ill effect. The traffic fatality stats for motorcyclists, unlike for drivers, are not significantly improving, and have not improved for decades.

Yellow, as it turns out, is the new black.

With all due respect for the excellent “drivers don’t see/notice/care about riders” argument, the fact is that it’s turned out to be something of a blind alley in motorcyclist safety.

Consider, for a moment, a different perspective on the problem. Riding toward an intersection, we’re faced with two potential cross-traffic hazards:

  • Approaching vehicle, opposing traffic, may turn left across our path. It has only three options: straight, right, or left. So high probability of left.
  • Approaching vehicle, cross traffic, may continue straight, or turn left, across our path. Again, highly probable hazard.

In either case, the hazards are clear, regardless of whether the approaching vehicle is moving or stopped.

  • The vehicles are familiar, frequently seen objects, so we’ll notice them readily. No inattentional blindness argument.
  • They’re large enough, and in positions, to be seen readily. No conspicuity argument.
  • Their movement, given their size, is easily tracked for both direction and approach speed. No approach estimation error (“he came out of nowhere”, or “there wasn’t enough time…”)
  • Their road position makes the potential cross-traffic hazard both obvious and probable. Nobody with any traffic experience at all is unaware of these patterns.
  • Traffic pace and timing is evident. For example, the status of the traffic control light: if it’s amber, the oncoming driver is much more likely to risk a “last moment” left.

If we accept any, or all, of the arguments that are used to explain drivers crossing the path of oncoming motorcycles as “the cause of the crash," then, what do we say about the rider who collides with crossing traffic?

The hazard for the rider is known and predictable, much more obvious, and more extremely life-threatening:

  • multiple vehicle, motorcycle involved collisions result in serious injury or fatality in 80% of cases.

When we consider motorcycle involved crash causation from this, rather than solely from the “other vehicle fault” perspective, the questions change dramatically.

  • Approaching a visible, familiar, understandable, extreme hazard, why does the rider not fully and proactively take necessary preventive steps?
  • Shouldn’t those steps be slowing, positioning, and looking for, expecting, hazards, as we do when cornering?
  • Are the skills and techniques for managing opposing forces not precisely applicable?
  • Was Sting talking about other vehicle drivers? “Every move you make, I’ll be watching you”.

We’re on our own at the crossroads. We need to use the tools we’ve got, not expect to hitch a ride on other drivers’ good will.

More On Balance articles

About the Author

Bill Downey is a retired professional social worker in support programs for people with congenital or acquired physical and cognitive challenges, who was also a volunteer firefighter and a BCGEU health and safety advocate.

For many years, he has been a motorcycle riding coach/instructor with Kelowna Safety Council who spends too much time studying international traffic safety research and not enough time doing all the outdoor things a boy from the Okanagan should be doing.

He has lived a very large portion of his life on two wheels as a commuting and travelling cyclist, but, for the extra challenge, he is also as a motorcycle commuter.

By nature, he has a balanced approach to all things.

[email protected]https://kdsc.bc.ca

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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