Saturday, June 24, 2017

Designed for Failure

It had been a while since I'd messed up that badly.

It was because I was rushing, of course, because catastrophic failure often happens when you're in too much of a hurry to do things right.

There I was, on the Beltway, and it was 100 degrees, heat pouring from the eight lanes of tarmac.  I was on my motorcycle, and traffic was grinding slowly towards the American Legion Bridge.  I was not wearing my riding boots, but instead, a pair of shoes.

With shoelaces.

The protocol, correctly observed, when riding with long shoelaces on a motorcycle, is to tuck them in.  I knew this.  I have known this for thirty years of riding.  But I was in a rush, and hot, and distracted.

So there I was, stopping and going, sweating in the heat, surrounded by an endless column of cars. I put my foot down.   Then moved forward ten yards, my foot coming up.  I put my foot down.   The cycle repeated, over and over.

Then I moved forward ten yards, and went to put my left foot down.  But my laces had wrapped around the shifter pedal.  The foot would not go down, not without bringing me and five hundred pounds of motorcycle down with it.

So despite a wild, desperate flailing effort to counterbalance, down I went.

I got disentangled and up quickly, as one does when in encounter with burning hot asphalt, and before I could set my back into the bike and lift with my quads...that, I'd not forgotten...a good soul in a pickup next to me helped me right my scraped steed.

I restarted the bike.

It was then I realized my clutch lever (left side, on the handlebar) had been snapped by the impact. Without it, I could not shift.  But it had...fortune of fortunes!...broken high on the lever.  There was still enough lever remaining to engage the clutch and shift gears.  Had there not been, I would have been left standing in eight lanes of Beltway traffic with an unrideable motorcycle at the height of DC rush hour.

What good luck, I thought.

Only it wasn't, or so I realized when the replacement lever arrived.

The folks at Suzuki had designed both their clutch and brake levers with a cutout in the metal, right at the point where the lever had snapped.   Because people drop bikes all the time.  Perhaps you're a new rider, and your balance is uncertain.  Or you hit a patch of oil or wet leaves or gravel.  Or you're just being a distracted, rushing idiot.

So they'd factored that in, making it much more likely that a low speed drop would still leave you with a ridable motorcycle.   It was meant to break manageably, meant to fail in a way that was recoverable.

Which is how you design a system, when you actually care about the people who use it.  When you don't want one mistake or moment of misfortune to be catastrophic.

I just wish American society was set up the same way.


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