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Common Tread

Two motorcycle deaths and ways we can avoid the same fate

Jun 14, 2023

Benjamin Cowherd was 35 and lived in Nashville. Treat Williams was 71 and lived in Vermont. They had two things in common: Both their deaths this past week got media attention, and both died when a car driver turned left into their paths while they were riding their motorcycles.

Anyone who has been riding a motorcycle any amount of time is familiar with the phenomenon. A car driver makes a turn and pulls right into your path. It's the most common form of car-motorcycle collision, so much so that it has its own name in some parts of the world: SMIDSY, for "sorry, mate, I didn't see you."

The academic term is "inattentional blindness," and I've written about it several times over the past 20 years, including this article that explains the phenomenon. Basically, the human brain filters information and drivers literally don't see what they aren't expecting to see.

Cowherd was known in Nashville as "a super-fan" of the Nashville Soccer Club, where he pounded a drum at games with other supporters, and he also worked with countless musicians as a sound technician for the "Whiskey Jam" show. Williams had a career in movies and television that spanned 50 years, from "Hair" to "Blue Bloods," and was a huge presence in local theater, which he did mainly for the love of acting. Cowherd died Sunday evening in Nashville and Williams died Monday in an Albany, New York, hospital after being airlifted from the crash scene in southern Vermont.

Investigations are continuing in both crashes, but so far, the only charges filed are for driving without a license and insurance, against the 19-year-old driver involved in Cowherd's crash.

So what can we do?

So we know that, because of the way the human brain works, drivers are literally telling the truth when they say "I never saw the motorcycle," even though we were in plain view. We know that on top of that there is more distracted driving than ever, with drivers talking on cell phones, or even texting, not to mention using touch screens in cars. And as we've seen, we can't count on advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) in cars to save us.

So if we can't count on others, we have to count on ourselves. What can we do? I think some answers are found in the many articles we've written at Common Tread over the years on safety and riding techniques.

  • First, take the attitude that if a crash happens, it's our fault for not avoiding it. Regardless of who is to blame legally, we're the ones likely to suffer the most, so we should assume responsibility. Instead, most riders look for someone else to blame.
  • While not every crash is avoidable, almost all are. We should ride as if they all are avoidable. As two street-riding instructors explained in this article, it's about constantly scanning, identifying and anticipating threats. If you're having a lot of close calls and are regularly surprised by threats on the street, you can blame "the cagers" and go on being in peril or you can take your safety into your own hands, realize you're not being as vigilant as you could be, and find enjoyment in challenging yourself to ride better, not in turning off your mind and relaxing while riding.
  • Next, we need to leverage the advantages we have, and they may not be what you first think of. Yes, our motorcycles generally can accelerate faster than all the cars around us, but only rarely is that the way out of a dangerous situation. No, we can't brake faster than cars. The big advantage we have is the ability to adjust lane position in response to threats. On the rare occasion I'm driving a car, I notice how many motorcyclists on a two-lane road are hugging the center line, and I can't help imagine how easily I could drift two feet left and kill that rider if I were a distracted driver poking at a touch screen or a phone. Yes, traditionally the left wheel track is the default position, but it's also important to switch back and forth, depending on whether the biggest threat is a potential car emerging from a blind driveway on the right or a distracted driver drifting across the center line. Personally, I've adjusted my thinking on lane position as distracted driving has increased. And I also confirmed that I'm not the only one thinking about the changing threats due to distracted driving.
  • Finally: intersections. Cowherd died at one, Williams died at one, sort of (the driver was turning into a parking lot). We've written time and time again about how intersections are where most car-motorcycle crashes occur.

I know with the Common Tread audience I'm mostly preaching to a choir full of experienced and aware motorcyclists. But one thing I've learned from taking a variety of training courses over the years is that no matter how competent we think we are, no matter how aware we believe we are when riding, there are higher levels to be attained and improvements that can be made. If one person goes back and reads some of these articles — which I honestly believe have value — and commits to becoming a more aware rider, my writing time here today will have been well spent.