Three Degrees of Separation Between You and the Ground

Your riding strategy, physical skills, and protective gear—in that order—are what separate you from the ground on a motorcycle. The three degrees of separation are as follows. Each of the three degrees can save you on its own. When combined, they form a nearly impenetrable barrier against the hazards that motorcyclists face on a daily basis.

Riding strategy

Riding strategy is your first line of defense, because mental skills, as you know, account for 90% of everyday riding. The primary keys to a good riding strategy are complete attention to your surroundings, accurate detection and perception of road hazards and risks, and sound judgment and decision making.



Attitude is also important. Taking responsibility for your own actions is simple, but because you, the motorcyclist, are more likely to suffer bodily harm in the event of a crash, you must also accept responsibility for everyone else's actions. This includes not only being aware of yourself, your bike, and your surroundings, but also being aware of other drivers, correctly anticipating their behavior, and effectively avoiding hazards before they endanger you. A skilled rider, ideally, avoids hazards before they become hazards.

Physical abilities


Your second degree of separation is your physical abilities. Though they account for only a small portion of everyday riding, when you really need them, they become 90 percent of your survival. When something penetrates your mental barrier (as any hazard worth its weight is prone to doing), instinct, self-preservation, and adrenaline must take over. If your physical response isn't correct at this point, you'll need to rely on your third degree of separation: protective gear.

Protective riding gear


In the event that your first two lines of defense fail, protective riding gear serves as a backup. When something gets past your first two defenses, what you're wearing is all you've got. Technically, it is a combination of the first and second degrees. It falls under mental preparation. Physically, it protects you from the ravages of the pavement as well as the elements, such as heat, wind, and cold, which can impair your ability to concentrate and ride the bike.

Mental strategy


In theory, your mental strategy should be able to protect you from anything. When your brain fails you, your physical skills and ability to control your motorcycle serve as a backup plan. Your riding gear must protect you from what your mind and skills cannot. Each degree of separation can stand alone, but it is far more powerful when combined with the others.


Consider the following example of three degrees of separation:


Meet Vince. Vince adores his motorcycle. He makes use of it for commuting, transportation, travel, and recreation. He likes how he appears on his bike. He enjoys how it makes him feel.


Unfortunately, Vince does not ride with a strategy, has never received rider training, and does not wear protective gear. Vince, on the other hand, genuinely believes he knows how to ride his bike. Besides, he hasn't had an accident in two years. He understands what he's doing. Right?


Vince is driving home from work one day. It's 4:30 a.m. in the summer, the sun is shining, and the traffic is typical of rush-hour. He's dressed to the nines in penny loafers, slacks, a shirt and tie, and sunglasses. He's speeding down Last Chance Avenue, an urban four-lane road with no median, stop lights every four blocks, and a speed limit of 30 mph. There is no parking on either side of the street, and the gas stations, liquor stores, motels, and apartment buildings are evenly spaced apart. Vince is only five minutes away from work and five minutes away from home.


Vince is approaching a four-way stop. He has a green light and is in the left lane. His strategy (if you can call it that) is to cruise straight through at 30 mph. A convenience store can be found on the far right corner of the intersection. A large delivery truck is parked illegally in the right lane, in front of the convenience store, with its flashers on. The truck is in the way of Vince's view of the store's exit.


Sherry Cavalier, the woman trying to turn left out of the convenience store, is also obscured by the truck. She sips her Coke, sets it down, looks left and right, sees no one approaching, and pulls out—right in front of Vince. Vince's eyes swell to the size of saucers as he panics. He stomps on the rear and grabs a large handful of the front brake. When Sherry sees Vince, her eyes swell to the size of saucers, and she panics. She slams on her brakes and comes to a complete stop directly in his path.


Vince's journey is at an end. At about 20 mph, he slides into Sherry's left front fender, both tires locked and smoking. He is thrown from his bike, vaults over Sherry's hood, and lands on his head and forearms on the blacktop.


Vince is in a coma and on his way to the hospital 20 minutes later, with a fractured skull, broken hand, wrist, and collar bone. He's got multiple lacerations on his arms and chest, as well as a healthy dose of road rash. His bike has been shattered and is lying in a pool of gas and oil. Sherry drives home with a bent front wheel and crushed fender, sipping the Coke she bought forty minutes ago, after giving her tearful statement to the police. It's still cold outside.


Was there anything Vince could have done to avoid this? Yes. He could have done a number of things:


He would have been more cautious riding through the intersection if he had been using a riding strategy. He would have known that an intersection is the most dangerous place for a motorcycle rider. He may have slowed down and covered his brakes and clutch in order to reduce his reaction time. He may have noticed the large blind spot created by the delivery truck and slowed down or adjusted his position to compensate.


If he had taken rider training, he would have known how to properly use his brakes and might have been able to stop or slow his bike enough to avoid the crash with a quick swerve.


He might have gotten up, dusted himself off, and spent the next ten minutes yelling at Sherry if he'd been wearing a helmet, gloves, and a jacket. Then he'd have spent the rest of the afternoon lamenting the loss of his lovely bike.


Any of the three degrees of separation would almost certainly have changed the outcome dramatically in Vince's favor. This accident would have been avoided if Vince had used all of them at the same time.


If you already use the three degrees, that's fantastic. If you don't, now is the time to begin: If you don't have a riding strategy, develop one. Take a safety course if you haven't already. And if you don't already have it, get some—the best you can afford.


But is there anything more to riding than the three degrees? You betcha. The three degrees of separation cannot protect you from everything, but they can keep you safe 99 percent of the time. Look for my new book for ideas on how to protect yourself from the one percenters. In RH, RS, I use the three degrees of separation as a jumping off point for more advanced riding strategies such as dealing with other drivers, choosing the safest route, vision and visibility, when not to ride, intersections, risk and hazard hierarchy, speed differential, shadowing, the soft lane change, understanding traffic flow, and group riding, among other things. As an added bonus, there is an in-depth examination of the Hurt Study and what it means today.

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