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A casual understanding
can be expensive

By: James R. Davis

I receive lots of calls from attorneys who are seeking a motorcycle safety and dynamics expert. Many of them call as a result of reading these safety articles.

I recently discovered that one of those attorneys has spent a good deal of time reading our stuff here, but lacking any motorcycling experience himself, he drew some wildly inaccurate and potentially costly 'understandings' from his readings. It is one reason that we insist that all postings in the discussion forums here are carefully reviewed, and whenever misinformation, misunderstandings, or simply falsely claimed 'facts' are found, we challenge those posts until the thread is left without those problems. You could call that our 'peer review' practice.

Let me give you some background ... A young man was riding his motorcycle behind a 'tricked out' car on a highway, but he did not notice that the car's brake lights had been covered over with a black 'dulling' paint. When that car did an emergency stop, the rider, claiming complete surprise, because he saw no brake lights, and therefore a loss of valuable reaction time, began his own emergency stop. (It would be fair to call this rider's efforts a 'panic stop').

The result, the bike 'high-sided' and the lad ended up paralyzed for life. His father contacted a lawyer and explained 'the facts' of the 'accident'. That attorney was told that because of the emergency situation, 'brought upon by a lack of visible brake lights on the preceding vehicle', his son over-reacted and misused his brakes resulting in the high-side. (He actually told the attorney that the rear of the bike pitched his son off the bike). Finally, he said that had his son's bike had ABS, the accident would not have happened.

The attorney bought it. He found this site and began reading. He read about braking and about ABS. Then he called me to chat.

Here are a couple of his statements that demonstrate just how much this attorney misunderstands motorcycle braking:
  • If you apply your front brake only, and apply it very hard, you can fly over the handlebars regardless of whether you have ABS or not
  • If you do not have ABS, and you apply your rear brake (only) very hard, you will skid and lose a lot of control over your bike (maybe skidding right or left or sliding), although you will probably not go over the handlebars
  • If you do not have ABS, the safest way to brake is to apply your rear brake hard and apply your front brake just hard enough so that you do not pitch the rear wheel. The tough part is that you need a sufficient amount of experience to judge exactly where the point is where your front braking is hard enough (like you say, 0.8g, 0.9g, 1.0g or higher) to stop in time, but light enough not to pitch the rear wheel. That's why in training they teach you only to brake up to .6g, because after that there is a danger you will go too hard and you will fly over the handlebars and be injured. 0.6g is not enough in many cases to stop you in time
  • If you have ABS, and you hit your rear brake hard, you will usually not skid and still retain a good degree of control over your motorcycle
  • If you have ABS, the safest way to stop is to slam on the rear brake and gently (?) apply the front brake
  • If you have ABS, you can more easily practice your front braking in an emergency stop because you have more control over the bike (edging it up to the point where it is hard enough to stop the bike but not too hard to pitch the rear wheel)
  • Equipping motorcycles with ABS (especially for less experienced riders) reduces fatality rates.

Now I can visualize where much of that misunderstanding comes from. By casually reading here, but without any formal knowledge of motorcycling, it's possible that you could come to the conclusion, for example, that the MSF teaches a new rider to not brake with a deceleration rate more than 0.6g's (not true, of course), or any of the other 'understandings' he put forth.

He obviously tried to get his arms around the subject and for a complete layman, in my opinion, he did a respectable job of it even though he was, for the most part, quite far off base in regards to usage of the front and rear brakes.

Well, to go on ...

I explained a little about weight transfer, high-sides in general, and how ABS COULD be a great benefit in reducing the number of high-sides, but then I asked him a couple of telling questions:
  • did your client or his bike hit the car ahead of him?
  • did your client's bike leave skid marks?

When his response to both was 'no', I told him that I could not help him. The 'accident' was clearly the result of rider error in that he had grossly misused his front brake, and that it was not a high-side, it was a stoppie that caused his client to be launched over the handlebars. Finally, even if the bike had been equipped with ABS, the accident would have occurred just as it did.

My opinion, based on what he had told me about the case was that there was no case at all.

He thanked me for my time. I guess that was the least he could do since I had just saved him from making a set of expensive mistakes. It costs money to file a case and to pursue it to adjudication. With essentially no hope, in my opinion, of reaching a settlement or a win in court, that would be money down the drain.

I'm sorry, of course, about what happened to the rider. We will continue making every effort to insure that the material posted on this site does not confuse or mislead our readers. But we can't prevent fathers from hyping the story they give to their son's attorneys, nor can we handhold uninformed attorneys who take on cases that probably should not be accepted in the beginning. And, I will not accept a retainer on a case where I would have to 'spin' facts to give my side a chance at winning.

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

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