November 14th, 2007


On Vox: San Francisco vs. Steve

I've decided that I'll start chronicling my near death experiences while navigating the deadly streets of San Francisco on two wheels. I do write one or two of them down here from time to time, but I think I want to be more diligent about it, and tag them all with a common tag, so I can go back to them whenever I want. The goal will be to write up every time I nearly collide with another vehicle while riding in the city. You'll be surprised at how many times it happens. The tag will be "close calls".

One quick disclaimer before I start with this morning's close call: I ride somewhat aggressively in the city when I'm not carrying a passenger. I believe that in San Francisco, riding a motorcycle satisfies the need to cut down on congestion and emissions, get from point A to point B more quickly than any other means, and take some of the soul suckage out of my commute by making it fun. My existence could be a bit more secure if I were to slow down a bit, and drive a bit more cautiously, but then it'd take longer and wouldn't be nearly as exciting. Also, I think it's good to have these frequent reminders that I need to stay on my toes and be constantly paranoid. I wonder if perhaps driving the way I do makes me more safe than if I drove old-lady stylee? One to ponder, I guess. Anyway... this morning...

I was on Oak street, eastbound, approaching Octavia. Octavia is the road where one turns right to get to the freeway. Initially, the approach has one right turn lane, with cars parked in the other. As you get closer to the corner, it becomes a no-parking zone, thus creating two right turn lanes. Even at the uh... leisurely... hour that I am typically on my way to work, this intersection gets backed up with people making their way to the freeway. It's a no-turn-on-red intersection, so it's a little frustrating and anxious.

A typical motorcyclist trick in this case is to use the space between the parked cars and the number two lane to bypass all the backed up cars in that number two lane, eventually getting you to the no-parking zone. If you time it right, that zone/lane is free and you can be first in line for when the arrow changes. That's precisely what I was going for this morning. As I approached the sweet wide-open no-parking zone, though, a blue SUV decided to bail out of the stacked up number two lane and in to the lane I was going for. She didn't signal, nor did she check for my presence. She went from a dead stop to gunning for the lane. At the time she went for it, I had about one car length between me and her.

There was a parked car to my right and a car to my left which was easing itself forward in to the space she was leaving. Even if I could shoot the gap just perfectly to drop in to her old spot, he'd hit me for sure, and it'd be my fault for cutting him off. My only recourse was to slam on the brakes hard. I was on the Suzuki, which is the only bike I own that's not older than me and is the only one with a decent set of brakes. They're anti-lock as well, which means that instead of just locking up and skidding, they pulse hard when you really wail on them.

This was the hardest stop I've ever made and the force of it caused the bike to get a little squirrely. I almost dumped it, but I managed to save it with my feet, giving myself a nasty charlie horse in my right calf. Another bike was behind me and riding my wake through the open space. He was a 70s Honda, and somehow had enough space to stop without hitting me or shitting himself (I assume). The SUV driver mindlessly continued on, and I dropped in behind her, opting to go around her once I got on to Octavia.

So what could I have done differently? Well, my mistake was not anticipating this behavior. Any time cars are stopped in a long line, they're going to look for a way to gain a couple of positions. I should have looked at that line of cars and expected that one of them would go for the open space. The other mistake was not adjusting my riding style for a situation where I had no out. What I mean is this: There are basically three directions of travel: forward, right, and left. If, at any given time, two of those three become blocked, then you have no out should the third also become blocked, and you're sort of fucked. With cars on my left and right, I should have slowed up a bit, covered the brakes, and made myself become hyper-aware of anyone that could possibly block me. By doing that, I may have been able to react more quickly and not come so close to dumping my bike.

So, that's it for today's edition of "San Francisco Is Trying To Kill Me". Stay tuned for more exciting tales of my near-death experiences!     

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