By July 6, 2009

Spring Hypothesis

Anticipating traffic behavior is vital if you ride a motorcycle on the street. It’s important to keep track on that one car that may make a left-hand turn in front of you, but the typical driving snafus that happen every day are just as dangerous. Anticipating how cars interact with each other is more important than just that old lady with her left blinker on. The more cars you add into an equation, the more random acts of stupidity can take place. If you commute to work on your motorcycle like I do, getting a feel for the ebb and flow of traffic is a key to riding as safely as possible.

I’ve developed a hypothesis for traffic patterns that help me avoid potentially dangerous situations. I don’t know if there is already a defined theory for this, but I call it the Spring Hypothesis. The concept is simple: the more “pressure” between two or more vehicles on the road, the more likely one or more of those vehicles is going to do something erratic and dangerous.

To illustrate this concept, imagine a high tension spring. The spring represents a adherence to typical traffic behavior, like proper space between vehicles, or staying in one’s lane. Your fingers represent two cars. Place the spring between your fingers and squeeze. Now start to offset your fingers a little bit. When you first start squeezing, the spring is less likely to fly out of your hands. However, when you start to compress the spring the chances of it SPROINGING off into nowhere increase. The closer your fingers get, the more violent the decompression is likely to be.

Let’s put this same hypothesis into traffic terms, again keeping it to two vehicles to make things simple.

  • Stoplights.
    Let’s say you are approaching a stoplight on a two lane road. You are in the left-hand lane. There are two cars in the right-hand lane next to you. As you get closer to the stoplight, the “spring” between the two cars to your right starts to compress. As the rear car gets closer, you have to watch out: this is when people try to dart into your lane to be “first” at the light, or get fed up with being behind the car in front of them. I don’t know why people are more likely to quickly change lanes or do stupid stuff as the spring compresses, but they just do.
  • Oh hi, I’m off my mobile phone and ready to drive now.
    You are on the highway. Let’s say you are in the middle travel lane, with traffic on both sides of you. Two cars to your left have been traveling at roughly your same speed for quite some time. The rear car hangs up their mobile phone, and after being comfortable tailing the car in front of them for several miles, decides to suddenly swerve right to pass. Right into you and your lane of travel.

    Why does this happen? I am not sure, but it happens a fair amount, and I have learned to anticipate it on the bike and have witnessed it as a passenger in cars. I think people don’t pay attention to their surroundings, and at some point “snap out” of it and realize their proximity to another vehicle. Suddenly upset to be stuck behind another car, these zombies fly out and floor it in an attempt to vent their frustration at not being alert. This is when the spring is in its most compressed state, and when you need to be on the lookout for the explosive decompression.

  • Merging on and off of the highway
    On-ramps and off-ramps are other great laboratories for the Spring Hypothesis. Folks who queue up to get on or off the highway with some semblance of safety and spacing put the hammer down and try to scoot across every lane of traffic as soon as the ramp is clear. I refuse to travel in the lane closest to an on-ramp or off-ramp whenever possible. You never know when the spring is going to shear loose and some jacknut will monster truck you in an effort to pass a ten-wheeled truck in front of them.
  • The Big Bang theory
    This is the Spring Hypothesis at its most dangerous. I travel through several highway interchanges on my commute to work. People are merging and changing lanes all over the place in an effort to get from Highway A to Highway B. If you thought the spring was bad when there were two cars, wait until you add multiple vehicles into the mix. You are traveling in the far left lane, and the cars in front and behind you are paying attention and everything is cool. The guy to your right seems okay, and you have done a good job at avoiding his blind spot. However, two cars are about to put the Spring Hypothesis to the test three lanes over in the highway interchange merge zone. Car B gets tired of being behind Car A and darts left. Car C puts on the brakes to avoid Car B, which causes Car D to straddle the lane markers with Car E. Car E freaks out and so on and so on, which pushes the car to your right — who was originally doing just fine — right into you, and next thing you know you are testing the CE approval rating on your spine protector.
  • If you aren’t looking out for the Spring, you may never know what even hit you — literally. Keeping an eye in front, behind, and to your immediate sides is not enough when you are commuting. You have to anticipate traffic pressures and react accordingly. If you are approaching a typical “high compression zone,” you may wish to avoid being to the immediate proximity of any other vehicles. This is when I typically speed up, in order to escape these areas as quickly as possible. If you slow down you don’t afford yourself any additional survivability in the event of a crash, and just prolong your exposure in the compression zone.

    There are more examples, but give the Spring Hypothesis a test of your own the next time you are on the road. Try to anticipate when pressure develops between vehicles and see if someone springs out and does something stupid.

    Stay safe out there, regardless if you’re in a cage or on a bike.

Posted in: motorcycling

1 Comment on "Spring Hypothesis"

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  1. I live in Thailand and all the points you raised are valid however here there is a much more difficult to understand the even more unpredictable occurrence where motorbikes, but not only motorbikes, will be coming at you on the wrong side of the road in your lane and even in the night with their lights on.

    When it is a motorbike it is bad enough but when it is a vehicle so two blazing headlights blaring down at you on either side of the road (the normal traffic is coming at you as well) it is a little much to take. Sometimes this even occurs on highways!!

    One more thing is that buses, trucks or generally anything bigger than something else can pass where ever they want, whenever they want and the warning is they flash their lights at you which means “get out of my way!!”

    So, in short – spring has nothing to do with it in Thailand.. perhaps that is because it is always nice and warm.