Crashing Sucks

by Duncan MacKillop

There’s a strange moment of peace as you sail over the bonnet of the car that’s just pulled out in front of you. You have left the horrible splintering, crunching sound behind leaving just the faint whistle of the wind around your helmet as you begin to contemplate the next few seconds of your existence. You know that from this point on there is absolutely nothing you can do to affect what’s going to happen next and that whatever does happen is going to happen according to the immutable laws of Newtonian physics. I had plenty of time to see that it was the bonnet of a Hillman Avenger that I sailed over in what I eventually learnt was called a SMIDSY, but it was the fast approaching, hard and unforgiving Tarmac in front of me that really caught my attention. When the landing did finally happen it wasn’t what you would call elegant in any way. First to hit with a sickening cracking, crunching sound was my left shoulder followed in short order by the crack of the rather low-tech Stadium helmet I was wearing and then I can’t really remember much after that.

Consciousness returns in dribs and drabs and brings with it the realisation that the day has perhaps not turned out as well as you had hoped. Lots of concerned faces peering down at me as I struggled to make sense of what had just happened. The hideous sensations of pain that started to grab my attention, the dawning realisation that I would have to explain to the boss how I managed to destroy a brand new Honda and the fact that I might miss my planned visit to the pictures that evening. Nothing makes much sense after an accident and as you wait in A&E for the nice Doctors to fix whatever’s broken you start asking yourself what happened and why, how come I was just on my way to work one moment and the next I’m having a high speed ride in an Ambulance?  This time I was lucky, or at least that what’s the Doctor said. A possible small fracture of the collar bone, two large holes in my knees which were caused by them hitting the Honda’s indicator and light switches, general bumps, bruises and contusions and a possible concussion. This time I was lucky, but what about the next time?

Roll on a few years and the little Honda is replaced with a snarling Moto Guzzi Le Mans, one of the most desirable bikes to own back in the late 70’s. This time I was trundling down the promenade in Douglas IOM just after a visit to Padgett’s to replace a broken wing mirror when WHAM there’s that moment of peace again. Once again the sickening crunch of a human/Tarmac interface, the ride in the Ambulance and the nice Doctor explaining exactly which bits of me might be damaged. This time the injuries were a bit more extensive. A broken wrist, broken collar bone (the other side), cracked kneecaps (light switches again) and very badly damaged nerves in my left lower leg. The bike was a in a sorry state when I went to look at it in the Police Station yard. “You were lucky son” said the Copper, “if you hadn’t been riding a Guzzi with its sticky-out cylinder heads the car that hit you would have taken your leg clean off!”

Being an analytical sort of chap it was at that point that I resolved to find out why it was that on two separate occasions, two perfectly normal blokes going about their perfectly normal business would end up smashing into a completely innocent rider who was clearly in plain sight and who was also just going about his normal business.

On asking around it seemed that nobody had any answers for me apart from saying things like “they just didn’t look” or “they just didn’t care” etc, etc. The engineer in me was certain that none of these explanations was anywhere near good enough, but where do you start looking for the answers?  It wasn’t until many years later and once I had finished with work that I resolved to re-visit the problem and see if I could find out a bit more about the why’s and wherefore’s of these accidents. Luckily my work as a designer of man-machine interfaces and my hobby as a light-aircraft pilot had given me a significant insight into what are generally called human factors and limitations or the study of error. One thing I did notice was that not much had changed in the years I had been away. Cars were still pulling out on riders with monotonous regularity, people were still saying “they just didn’t look”, riders were admonished to “take more care” and it was clear that nobody had learnt a single thing about these accidents and what happens and why was still a complete mystery.

It’s funny how when you start to ask questions about something that information about the very subject seems to start popping up in newspaper articles and books that you just happen to stumble across. So it was when I started my research into SMIDSY’s as information just made itself available when and where I wanted it. Needed to know about the eye and brain, well there was an interesting snippet about eye’s and brains in the paper. Wanted some information about camouflage well there’s a camouflage expert on the telly talking about his craft. I gradually acquired tons and tons of information about perceptual problems, but sadly very little of it came from the world of motorcycling with the notable exception of some very interesting articles written by Kevin Williams of Survival Skills and Keith Code at CSS.

All this research eventually led to an understanding of how and why SMIDSY’s happen and the human factors that conspire to cause them. The findings were published along with a possible solution to the problem in a paper published by Dr Elaine Hardy of the Motorcycle Action Group entitled How Close is Too Close?  What I learnt from that study was that the accident ‘process’ is knowable and that the human errors and omissions that form part of that process can be eliminated to a significant degree. What I also learnt was that the estabilished procedures for investigating accidents and incidents failed to look at accident processes and human factors, preferring instead to stick to the historical methods. It seemed that the default setting was with encouraging people to ride like the experts ride. If, as the reasoning goes, an expert rides like this and doesn’t have any accidents, then if you also ride like an expert then you too will not have any accidents. This seemed to completely miss the point that even if you were able to create experts from ordinary riders, even experts can get it horribly wrong sometimes yet there was no desire to find out why that should be so.

There are just five accident types that a motorcyclist will typically have; the rural bend, the SMIDSY, the nightmare overtake, the shunt and the loss of control. I reckoned that if it had been possible to work out what the process failures were that led up to the SMIDSY then it should be possible to work out the process failures for all the other accident types as well. By identifying and understanding these process failures it would be possible to start working out ways of reducing their effect on riders and other road users and start to reduce the number of crashes that happen as a result.

Although there is still a long way to go, our little group comprising Alf Gasparro of Helibikes, Kevin Williams of Survival Skills and me feel that we have made a very good start on solving the accident problem once and for all. We have based our project on the simple observation that if there is no surprise, then there can be no accident. You can have lots of surprises when you’re out on the road and not have any accidents, but you can’t have an accident without being surprised. With this forming the basis of our fundamental theory of road accident causation, we believe that many riders might be able to avoid that ‘moment of peace’ that got me started along this road in the first place.