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Squeezing Both Levers
Is Often Enough To Save It

By: James R. Davis

True story (husband wants to sue manufacturer) ...

The wife mounts her motorcycle while in her driveway. It is pointing towards the street. She is wearing safety gear including a helmet. She is experienced and has recently attended an MSF class, apparently not for the first time. She plans to ride the bike to the end of the driveway and make a turn into the street at the end. Her husband also has the same motorcycle and has started his bike just before wife and completed the drive out onto the street where he waits for her to join him.

Something goes wrong. Just as she starts to move the engine begins to race as if the throttle is fully open. The bike moves 58 feet before it hits the curb on the other side of the street throwing the rider off itself and becomes a total loss as far as the insurance company is concerned. The woman is only bruised and buys a new motorcycle with insurance proceeds. According to the policeman who investigated the accident, says the husband, she was traveling at about 40 MPH when she hit the curb.

It should be pointed out that BOTH the husband and wife reported having experienced their motorcycles behave in this way previously. That is, both of their bikes have, after a brief ride and shut down then restart of their engines, experienced a sudden and unexpected 'racing' of their engines. They claim to have reported this problem to their motorcycle dealership and were told there is no known problem with the motorcycle such as they describe. So, of course, according to the husband, neither of them could possibly have expected that the problem might happen again. Further, neither of them could possibly be expected to be prepared to remain in control of their motorcycles if the problem did happen again because if it did it would be totally unexpected and if it took any corrective action on the part of the rider (such as use of the clutch) within a period of two seconds that would be entirely too little time to recognize that something was wrong and do anything other than 'hold on'.

Everybody has 'attitude', including this author. When I hear about or witness a motorcycle accident my attitude includes concern for the parties involved and a desire to LEARN something from it in hopes that *I* might be spared a similar experience.

This author concludes that she actually didn't do ANYTHING (right OR wrong) other than hold on until she was thrown off the bike. Because she KNEW, based on prior experience, that her engine seemed to sometimes 'runaway' by itself, and because she did NOTHING to try to regain control of her motorcycle, it is simply not credible that the 'accident' was 'entirely' the fault of the equipment. However, the 'blame game' is best reserved for the courts.

I believe that EVERYBODY, including myself, is STUPID when on an adrenalin high and that such times are not when they should be expected to LEARN anything. It is after the fact that the rider learns, if they want to, and before the fact is the best time for everyone else. That learning necessarily involves knowing and thinking about what actually happened - and that, in turn, requires asking questions and, not incidentally, credibility on the part of the 'witness.'

The husband claimed that the accident happened in the blink of an eye - too fast to do anything. Absurd and defeatist thinking. The accident took between two and three seconds from the time the bike started moving until it hit the curb 58 feet away. If the policeman's estimate was accurate (it was too high, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt) then she was traveling at 40 MPH when she hit the curb. For any vehicle to accelerate to a speed of 40 MPH in 58 feet requires that it do so at a rate of approximately 30 feet per second per second. (That's almost ONE G and beyond the capability of almost all motorcycles.) Further, that means, assuming a constant rate of acceleration, she averaged 20 MPH during that 58 feet and was traveling at a speed of 20 MPH at the end of the first second.

(20 MPH is just over 29 feet per second. For the first second of travel she was averaging 10 MPH meaning she traveled approximately 15 feet and had an additional 43 feet to go before the crash. During the second second she averaged a speed of 30 MPH which means she traveled 44 feet for a total of 59 feet which is close enough to 58 feet to be convincing.)

Two seconds is a LONG TIME! It is NOT a 'blink of the eye'. It should be recognized by any experienced group rider that there is a golden rule about following distance: TWO SECONDS between yourself and the bike immediately ahead of you. It's a coincidence, but that just happens to be how long the wife had before she ended up thrown off the bike. It is, in other words, exactly the same amount of time deemed to be 'safe' when following another bike because it gives you time to recognize and react to virtually any emergency situation and remain in control of your motorcycle.

The lady had at least two full seconds and probably more like three to do SOMETHING to try to regain control of her bike.

Holding on is probably what most people do when their bikes go weird. But, that 'explanation' for why the wife couldn't do anything to regain control of her bike ignores the fact that in order for that to have FAILED to get the bike back under control (at least to stop accelerating) means that she did not have hold of her clutch lever. In fact, in order for the motorcycle to have max accelerated for the entire 58 means - with absolute certainty - that she had abandoned both her clutch lever and her brakes for the duration of the ride.

Any experienced motorcycle rider knows, particularly one who has attended more than one MSF class, that starting out from a dead stop involves using the clutch lever and putting it into its 'friction zone.' Had this woman begun her ride without 'popping her clutch' (or letting go of it when the adrenalin rush hit her) despite the engine attaining high revolutions the bike cannot run away from her. Further, had she simply 'squeezed both levers' no matter what kind of emergency presented itself so long as she was moving in a straight line she would have regained control of her motorcycle. She used neither clutch lever nor either brake - she was 'frozen' for at least two seconds.

Had the rider merely REMAINED in control rather than give it away by letting go of her clutch lever there would not have been an accident. For those that would argue that the runaway engine 'caused' the accident because it happened first - might it not be just as appropriate to think that because she knew first hand that her bike had a tendency to demonstrate unexplained engine runaway that the FIRST MISTAKE was that she was willing to ignore that fact and ride the bike at all?

It might seem to you that despite my having claimed not to be interested in the 'blame game' I have done exactly that in pointing out that the rider did NOTHING (right or wrong) other than hold on until the bike crashed. In other words, by whatever name I might chose to call it I was actually blaming the rider for the accident.

But as I said earlier, under an adrenalin high we are all stupid and that learning while under the influence of adrenalin should not be expected. Instead of blaming the rider in this case I would merely say 'So what?' - that was history and mistakes were made and the result was an accident. How does it help you or me in any way whether the rider was to blame or not? It is the lessons learned that matter now, not what mistakes were made but that mistakes WERE made and what those mistakes were. I maintain that no accident would have happened at all had the rider done even the simplest of things - like squeeze her clutch lever - and that, thus, the accident was not 'entirely' the fault of her motorcycle malfunctioning. If there is a need to ascertain blame I suggest that be taken up in the justice system.

As learning is not best done DURING an accident then it should be done before the accident in order to minimize the odds that an accident will occur at all. There is a need to do some things correctly before an accident as well as during it - things that have already been learned. For example, you should cover your clutch and leave it in the friction zone while beginning to move from a dead stop. Or such as understanding, in advance, that no matter what happens ONE THING you can do to regain control of a motorcycle (if it's moving in a straight line) is to squeeze both levers - maybe not the ideal solution to a problem but one which can be done by anyone with any level of experience and skill. Or like practicing the things that are difficult, not just the things that are fun, in order to build some muscle memory that allows you to react without thought or having to learn while in the middle of a crisis.

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(James R. Davis is a recognized expert witness in the fields of Motorcycle Safety/Dynamics.)

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