If Intersections Were More Dangerous,
Would They Be Safer?

Three days ago, not 500 yards from my front door, the flashing red and blue lights of several police cruisers reflected from the chrome pipes on the downed motorcycle lying in the middle of the intersection, an unsettling reminder to all passersby that just a few moments before, a motorcyclist had had a very bad day.

By the damage evident on the front right bumper and headlight of the car, it looked like the classic car-turned-left-in-front-of-the-motorcycle accident. I hoped the rider wasn’t seriously hurt.

For motorcyclists, intersections will be the most frequent high-risk situations encountered. The problem is that 99.999% of the time, nothing happens. So, although we know that intersections are dangerous, we subconsciously view them as high-risk/low-probability. As a result, we become complacent. Why?

First off, what qualifies as an intersection? Any crossroad, with stoplights or stop signs, counts. T-junctions count. Off-set junctions count. Any intersecting highways, streets, alleys, or any combination thereof, with or without stoplights or stop signs, count. And what about entrances to suburban malls, factories or businesses? Heck, even someone pulling out of a gas station or backing out of their driveway creates an intersection-type hazard, to wit, a vehicle travelling across our path that can cause a collision. The point is: We ride through hundreds of intersections. And what happens? For most of us, almost all of the time nothing. That’s why! We ride through hundreds and thousands of intersections, and nothing happens. But, when there are other vehicles present, intersections will always be a high-risk hazard for motorcyclists, and we can’t afford to become complacent.

I wondered: If intersections were even more dangerous, would riders stay more alert, making themselves safer. Probably not. Apparently, even soldiers in combat zones need to be constantly reminded to stay vigilant.

Complacency Kills is a phrase often posted around military bases in combat zones. Lose your edge and lose your life. Overconfidence in your ability and underestimating the risk leads to a false sense of security. Complacency leads to diminishing vigilance. These are ideas discussed with soldiers so that they will stay alert. They equally apply to motorcycle riders. The problem is, ride through enough intersections without incident, and it’s easy to get a false sense of security. And we don’t have posters and commanding officers to constantly remind us, we need to remind ourselves.

Over the coming year, we will discuss several strategies to reduce our risk in intersections. In this post, we will address just one: SPEED as it pertains to STOPPING DISTANCE.

The most common hazard in an intersection with stoplights is when a car turns left in front of a motorcyclist. The following chart shows how our stopping distance is affected by our speed.

What can we learn? If we reduce our speed by 20 per cent, our stopping distance reduces by 30 per cent. Conversely, if we increase our speed by 20 per cent, our stopping distance increases by 30 per cent. The rider who slowed down for the intersection can stop at just over half the distance of the rider who sped up.

Let’s apply this to an intersection scenario. A car turns left 20 meters (approximately 20 yards) in front of you in an intersection. Here is what it looks like. (Although we used meters and kilometres here, the meaning we can draw is the same.)

In this scenario, only reducing your speed and increasing your level of alertness will keep you from having a crash. I write about this stuff and I don’t always do that. The other interesting thing to notice is that once the total stopping distance determined by your speed (the distance to react plus the braking distance) exceeds the distance to the offending vehicle, only a brake and evade maneuver will keep you from impact. Good emergency braking technique will reduce the speed at which you impact.

So, reducing our speed and covering our brakes are two tangible things we can do to reduce our risks in intersections, but we can’t eliminate the risk we face in intersections entirely. At some point we become committed and if the car decides to go all we can do is try to stop or swerve to miss the vehicle. For this to be successful, you must know what’s around you. But that’s leading into another topic which we’ll cover later.

The purpose of this piece is to get you thinking. It isn’t to suggest that we have the last word on this (or anything, in fact) and we are not suggesting what you should or shouldn’t do. That’s for you to decide. We’re just throwing some ideas against the wall with the hope that, at the very least, it will be interesting, and at the most, it might help you become a better rider.

That’s all for now. Get out there, ride safe, and be seen.

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