The Other Guy Versus Motorcycles

He is legendary in motorcycling circles as the person responsible for most motorcycle accidents. While that no longer seems to be true, he's still out there, and you'd better be ready for him -- because he's not ready for you. From the April 2004 issue of

Although single-vehicle accidents apparently outnumber them, motorcycle accidents caused by the mistake of another driver are still a big part of the accident picture.

Motorcycles are harder to see than larger vehicles, and drivers often forget to consider our presence on the road. The easiest and most effective ways to overcome this shortcoming are to make yourself conspicuous and avoid blind spots and places in traffic where you can't be seen. (For further discussion on this topic, see "Invisible Me" elsewhere in MotorcycleCruiser.com's Street Survival section.)

But some drivers are going to be trouble no matter what you do -- the chemically impaired; the electronically impaired (by cellphones, CD players, navigation systems and other distractions, including passengers); the bewitched, bothered and bewildered; the plain old incompetent.

Whether they are drunk, lost, wireless or just clueless, the danger signs are similar: sloppy control of speed, direction or lane position; failure to attend to such basic items as turning the lights on at night or dimming them or signalling a turn or a lane change; or overlooking things as obvious as a light that has turned red or green, stop signs, well-marked dips or speed limits. These folks often don't move at the same speed as the rest of traffic, and they tend to be slow to react when traffic starts moving or begins to slow, or it's their turn to go when turning left. They are also very slow to recognize and react to changes ahead that will affect them, such as a car stopped to parallel park, and then tend to do a poor job of dealing with the problem. In the last week, for example, I have seen two drivers on cellphones who got caught behind stopped traffic. One saw what was going on too late, screeched to a stop and then honked, but he never realized that he'd have been able to change lanes and pass with no problem if he'd been paying attention. Another in the same situation with the phone to his left ear sort of tried to look left before changing lanes but couldn't really see because of the phone. He changed lanes anyway, slowing as he did so, and forced the overtaking driver (with me behind him) to mash on his brakes. But I watched the situation developing long before the errant driver realized he had a problem, so I was sitting back waiting for it.

Unfortunately, I'm not always so prescient. There is a lightly traveled rural highway I use frequently. I used to curse as careless the oncoming drivers who wouldn't dim their lights, until one night one of them drifted across slightly into my lane and then, after I'd passed, continued on across it and into a ditch on my side of the road. The driver and passenger were both pretty well sauced (but not badly hurt). Now when somebody fails to dim after I have flashed my high beam at them, I prepare for the worst. My other failure to identify a drunk was during heavy stop-and-go traffic on a Fourth of July evening. I should have been warned when he kept stopping close behind me. Finally he bumped my bike. The only damage was a broken taillight lens, but when he staggered out of the car, I realized what the problem was. Fortunately a foot cop did too, and the driver was taken out of commission. Now any little irregularity, especially at night, gets my attention.

The problem that makes the wireless-impaired, the confused or lost, those otherwise distracted and, especially, drunks so dangerous is their unpredictability. Even after you have identified them, determining what to do can be difficult. You don't want to be in front of them, but if they are going the opposite direction or overtaking you, getting out of the way isn't always straightforward. A driver waiting to turn across or into my lane with a cellphone to his ear makes me very nervous these days. I like to slow slightly (not enough to signal that I am turning or yielding to him though) and ease across my lane away from him. My tension level runs up a notch or two if I am obscured by traffic, if the cars in front of him are turning into or through the gap ahead of me, or if the sun is behind me and creating glare that might make me harder to see.

I think (but have no data to support it) that my being conspicuous helps these drivers spot me with whatever mental capability they have left over from their phone call or other distraction. The old trick of using a large car to block for you in an intersection can work too, as long as it doesn't hide you from someone who can turn in front of you.

At night, drunks are more numerous. I get nervous when a car comes up behind me that seems to be wallowing around or has its headlights off or on high beam. An overtaking drunk may follow you right onto the shoulder at night because he is target-fixated on your taillight. If you can make a quick turn off the road, he probably won't manage that. If you think a drunk is coming the opposite way, the best moves are probably slowing down, easing right and looking for an escape route. But be ready for anything. The surplus of night drunks makes it doubly important to be sure that cross traffic will actually yield when it should. Enter intersections with extra caution. And if you do have a cellphone, stop and call 911 when you see a probable drunk.

The key to dealing with the incompetent or impaired driver is spotting him early. The standard advice to scan a few blocks ahead in traffic will help you pick them (as well as other threats) out earlier and spot situations that can make them more dangerous. Looking ahead on the road and behind on the highway can also give you early warning. The sooner you see them, the more time you have to implement a strategy for dealing with them. Dressing and riding as if drivers are legally blind also helps.

_Don't bother to call Friedman, his cellphone is rarely turned on. Try email at _ Art.Friedman@primedia.com _or at _ ArtoftheMotorcycle@hotmail.com.

_For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the _ Street Survival section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

Illustration by John Breakey