Stuntman’s Perspective on Motorcycle Safety

Question: When should an ordinary biker act like a stuntman?
Answer: When they have no other choice.

Having worked on low-budget horror films to major motion picture action blockbusters, as well as television shows and commercials, I’ve had the privilege of performing stunts and coordinating stunts throughout my 30 years in the Hollywood industry.

A Stunt Man's Perspective on Motorcycle Safety stop signWhether it’s 2nd Unit Directing helicopters maneuvering over New York City on independent films like Crossfire or Stunt Fighting in highly-profiled television programs like Sons of Anarchy, or just simply falling down a flight of stairs in “A-list” films like Bless The Child with Kim Basinger and Jimmy Smits, I’ve just about seen and done it all.

From doubling Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park for Steven Spielberg to jumping trucks through firewalls of burning corn fields for prime-time TV, much of my life has been devoted to confronting danger; but more importantly, understanding and applying safety.

Safety should always be the prime objective in anything we do that factors in risk. Without safety there is less likelihood for longevity, and without longevity our value is diminished (in life and career).

One of the reasons I (we) ride, is because of love of life, hence the significance of “safety.” But, let’s not kid ourselves; the percentage of rider fatalities is (always) too high. Therefore, following are some very simple motorcycle safety suggestions and techniques that many riders may not think about.

This is what I would like to address from a “stuntman’s perspective.”

As an avid rider, I’ve seen and read all kinds of tragic motorcycling statistics. I can rattle off many, one by one, such as: between 1966 and 2008, the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) estimated nearly 150 thousand bikers died in motorcycle accidents.

A Stunt Man's Perspective on Motorcycle Safety stuntman in actionOK, enough said about “statistics.. Point is, riding on two wheels without the luxury of being protected from all sides can be dangerous.

What can you do to avoid becoming another tragic statistical number, beyond the scope of the obviously-proposed safety suggestions, like wearing protective gear and night reflective materials?

You can learn proper riding techniques – utilizing throttle and brake manipulation for initiating turns and so forth. There are riding schools and motorcycle academies that teach you intersection strategies and the effects speed has on braking distance, where you can learn how to initiate cornering, swerve around or over obstacles and hone-in on your positioning and awareness skills.

Motorcyclist safety and training programs are easy to find in your local area and highly recommended for the novice and experienced rider. You’re never too experienced that you can’t learn something new, or refine your skills to become a safer and more responsible rider.

But other than all the previously mentioned options, what else can you do as a rider to keep yourself off a tragic statistical list? For me it’s thinking much like I do during work – always implementing an “aggressive and proactive safety plan” – a last ditch attempt to stay alive if I have no other choice, and am unable to evade an accident.

No matter how many mirrors you have or how safely you ride, there can come a time when all the rider-education and knowledge in the world won’t prevent you from becoming someone’s unintentional target.

Today more than ever, automobile drivers are distracted like never before in the history of auto-motives, with their: CD’s, DVD players, thumb-drives, Bluetooth devices, dash-cams, audio books, GPSs, cellphones, satellite radio, coffee, etc. It’s endless. The potential of a car driving into you while you’re simply stopped at a stop sign is greater today than ever before.

If there’s no other choice but to accept an impeding crash, my suggestion is to think and react like a stuntman, and embrace the collision. The odds are you’re probably already dressed like one (a stuntman) if you’re wearing a gator-back and elbow pads. So all that’s left is enacting the state of mind.

Even if you’re about to get struck by an oncoming vehicle and there’s no time or capability to execute an evasive bike maneuver, more often than not, you “will” have a fraction of a second to react. Yes, there are some accidents where nothing you do will matter due to specific conditions (lack of time, distance, speed) and you will end up as damaged goods, but that’s not the norm.

A Stunt Man's Perspective on Motorcycle Safety gear choiceOur safety is determined by what we do in three stages: “before, during, and after” an accident. With prior knowledge and mental conditioning, understanding that even if you only had a fraction of a second to react to a collision, mentally preparing for it like a stunt could potentially save you from harm’s way.

No one is saying you won’t get hurt, but you could possibly save your life. If you have the time to say, “oh, no,” then you have the time to react like a stuntman.

Thinking that every other vehicle on the road is out to get you could lead to paranoia (which isn’t totally bad), but with constant expectations and foresight of harm always lurking around the corner, you can change the outcome if and when it does come to you.

Unfortunately many riders simply do not think this way. To demonstrate my point, just think of all the riders you’ve seen sporting t-shirts and shorts, and the bikers riding without gloves, speeding along wearing sneakers. These people have zero expectations of a potential mishap, and are proof that many out there just don’t think anything bad will happen to them on the road.

When I’d perform a stunt (even if it was easy), I’d always expect and arrange for anything that I thought could possibly go wrong, and by chance if it did, I was prepared (as best I could be) because I always maintained a “correction plan.”

When I ride, I don’t just think passive thoughts of safety when I fully stop at a stop sign and canvass the area; I also maintain an aggressive mindset conscious of the fact that I could be road-kill at any moment.

Momentary thoughts of “something bad instantly happening, and what I could do to minimize my damage” is part of my approach to each stop.

Because, if a car behind you isn’t stopping, and traffic in front of you doesn’t allow for evasive maneuvering, you might as well paint a target on the back of your leather jacket if you haven’t taken the precaution of looking at your rearview mirror with a correction plan.

When approaching a stop sign, my first thought is to position my bike at the far edges of either the left or right side of my lane (thereby giving myself half a chance of being missed by any non-stopping vehicle behind me).

Stopping at the center of your lane at a stoplight or stop sign simply guarantees you’ll be struck if someone behind you is distracted with their texting conversation, and isn’t stopping.

A Stunt Man's Perspective on Motorcycle Safety SUV in actionThis “passive” safety precaution to stop at the safest section of the lane and glance at your rearview mirrors is what I would characterize as the “before” stage of what we do during the 3 stages of an unforeseen accident, to keep safe.

What if in our stop sign scenario our positioning still wasn’t enough to protect us from that distracted driver? Anticipating what could happen by changing our passive mind-frame to a more aggressive one should find us glancing at our rearview mirrors until the approaching car comes to a stop. But, if that car continues moving forward and you can’t pull away, it’s time to accept and confront the collision (knowing that you have no other choice).

Accepting the impact and taking action when there’s no choice, is what we should do “during” the accident (in our three stages to safety).

As a martial arts practitioner you learn that sometimes the safest place to be in a combat situation is as close as possible to your opponent. That’s why boxers clinch when they get hit. It’s why grapplers grab, for their own safety. With that mindset, that’s how stunt performers approach their work. You aggressively accept the gag and work within its confinements. Not against it.

In our example of the non-stopping car behind us (with no time or place to go), if you’ve glanced at your mirrors, you’re more than likely to have that precious second to react… and a second is all you need.

Studying these types of last second scenarios, one finds that most riders at their final moments before an accident are either grasping their handlebars for dear life (as a security blanket) or they take that last moment to yell or curse out loud. That doesn’t work well for stunt performers when they have to react to an unforeseen circumstance that goes wrong, and it won’t for you either.

If you have no other choice, the reality of accepting the impact while using a “Plan B” to increase your chance of survival is your best option. Your one and only opportunity should not be wasted on yelling or squeezing your hand grips, but rather to time and execute your (life saving) stunt. In this particular stop sign situation, possibly using your foot pegs to launch off the bike.

A Stunt Man's Perspective on Motorcycle Safety footpegsIt might not be pretty and the odds are you will go flapping and spinning in the air and back over the hood of the oncoming car, BUT, staying on the bike is NOT an option.

A Stunt Man's Perspective on Motorcycle SafetyNo one is saying you won’t walk away with serious damage, but the likelihood of you even “walking” away is greater than if you held on to your bike. Unless the driver behind you was in a van or truck, then your best bet is ditching your bike and propelling yourself to a chosen left or right side (and hope another vehicle doesn’t run you over).

This is what is meant by what you do after the accident (in our the safety stages). Keeping vigilant after you take action from the accident (for another approaching vehicle that can still potentially strike you) is still part of the safety equation.

Regardless of your athleticism, the “concept” is what’s important. As a rider, one of the things that’s kept me safe is expecting the unexpected and being willing to confront dangerous scenarios by thinking aggressively.

In one situation in Los Angeles (one of the worst places to ride in the United States in my opinion), I found myself riding in front of a slow moving vehicle (who’s driver was searching for an address).

As I switched on my left blinker to pass him and change to the left lane (making sure it was clear via the rear view mirror, AND looking over my shoulder), the driver in front of me began to slow down even more, and in a fraction of a second as I glanced at him while veering to the left passing lane, at the same time, an SUV from behind me decided to hit the accelerator and beat me to pass the slowing car.

The SUV driver’s lack of patience quickly placed his truck to my left side as I was veering into him. I only had a nanosecond to react. I could either evasively lean my bike to the right and get back into the right lane, or accept hitting the truck. I “chose” to hit the truck. I went against my natural instincts to move away and instead aggressively “accepted” the impact.

Why? Because the truck was so close to me during my lane change that if I had leaned my bike to the right, the bottom of my bike (foot pegs, and or tires) would have had the potential of catching under the SUV’s running boards.

The safest thing to do after quickly evaluating the situation was to allow my bike to continue leaning left (even more than normal) and I forcefully used my left shoulder to purposefully bounce off his right-side front passenger door, which helped me to maintain my upright position and keep the bike leveled until I got back into the right lane.

When the driver and I reached the next light, he rolled down his front passenger window and apologized for cutting around me (Really? After I applied my left blinker?!) and I simply nodded with my helmet. Although I was internally pissed off, I was also outwardly grateful that I was able to maintain control of the bike; all because I embraced the collision and worked within its confinements and approached it deliberately as if I was performing a stunt.

Of course every accident will be different and will have its own set of variables, but the Stunt Safety “concept” is what’s important. If you have no choice, think and react like a stuntman to the best of your abilities no matter how athletic you may be. Using your foot pegs as a launching platform to boost your-self into the air (if only a foot or two) could make the difference of whether you live or die in a particular scenario.

Knowing that you have the choice of either being dragged under a car or rolling back and over a car-hood, is a no-brainer when you only have a second to react. So, it’s always been vital to me (as in my work) that predetermining a plan of action for something as simple as stopping at a stoplight is the best way to potentially avoid the “deer caught in the headlights” syndrome.

A Stunt Man's Perspective on Motorcycle Safety pushesWithin my lifetime, I have experienced several riders who have succumbed to and have been added as a tragic statistical number, including my first Hollywood agent (who headed the Talent Bank talent agency) back in the early 1990s. He died while riding his bike on the 101 Hollywood freeway.

Although he lived after the initial impact, his death occurred as a result of what he didn’t do during the three stages to safety. He didn’t wear any protective gear (“before” the collision), and so he didn’t anticipate the accident, which limited his ability to react (“during” the crash) and then eventually he was fatally struck by another passing vehicle (“after” the accident), because he failed to realize the danger wasn’t over.

Don’t be that rider who doesn’t anticipate an unforeseen accident and who never has a “Plan B,” like being willing to detach yourself from your bike before a direct hit or in my agent’s case, keeping your wits about you after the collision until you’re completely safe and clear of harms way.

A Stunt Man's Perspective on Motorcycle Safety zimmermanOur safety is determined by what we do in three simple stages, “before, during, and after” an accident. With prior motorcycle safety education, honing in your rider skills, wearing the right wardrobe and gear, plus mentally conditioning yourself to understand the Stunt Safety concept (and being willing to apply it as a last option) you could potentially be preventing the NHTSA from adding you as the next tragic statistic number.

Remember, collisions on a film set can usually be repeated, but a dangerous crash in real life, well, there’s no second chance. So when there’s no other choice, think and react like a stuntman. Think Stunt Safety.