Surviving the Devil Drivers

Okay, maybe they aren't devils but you should steer clear of the mistakes drivers can make

Surviving on a motorcycle in sea of cars
Being a motorcyclist among drivers can be dangerous so stay safe from the red-light runners, stop-sign runners, or those drivers who cross the line—literally.Illustration by John Breakey

If you ever watch those “America’s Most Bone-Splintering Police Chases” shows, you may sometimes ponder, as I do, about what might happen to a motorcyclist who finds himself in the path of one of these psychopaths. When a chase ends because a looney-tune scorches through a red light and T-bones a soccer mom in her SUV, I cringe at the thought that it could have been her husband on his Virago.

It doesn’t have to be a fleeing felon who punches your ticket. According to an article I read recently, the kinds of accidents where one party displays a blatant disregard for the safety of other drivers or an apparent unawareness of basic traffic rules are on the rise. Motorcyclists love to talk about drivers who turn left in front of us, but there are three other situations that can be just as deadly.

Red Light Runners
The most common type of reckless neglect for traffic requirements and the safety of others comes from those who run red lights. Maybe they are testing their luck, talking on cell phones, or blinded by glare, but a growing number of drivers are killing others by running red lights. Certainly some do it knowingly. I have observed that many drivers, who enter an intersection just after the light turns red against them, get on the throttle just after the light changes, perhaps believing that less time in the intersection reduces the chance of an accident or observation by law-enforcement. Because Red Light Roulette is becoming more popular and the results are so frequently devastating, there is increased enforcement with traffic cameras (which have apparently led to some abuses on the other side like shortening the yellow to create more tickets) and heavy insurance or license-points penalties for this particular transgression.

Most motorcyclists know or have learned that they should look both ways when they enter an intersection just after a light has turned green in their favor. This has saved me on a few occasions. In one instance, a driver approaching from the left was a substantial distance from the intersection, but coming fast. She may have been focusing on the train rail bed just before the intersection and the bumps it presented. In any event, I saw her coming possibly too fast to stop for the light. She was on the gas almost until the moment that she struck the truck that had been waiting next to me. It started across the intersection a few moments after the light changed. I like to look a distance down the cross street to be sure that there is no one approaching at speed before I go.

Though the seconds just after a light changes are the most dangerous, people also run red lights long after they change. Frequently these people seem to be completely unaware of the lights. A few years ago, I was sitting at a red light behind a van. The street we were waiting to cross was a divided four-lane thoroughfare. Without warning and for no reason that I could see, the van decided to go. He didn’t collide with anyone, but a car approaching from the left had to hammer on its brakes and was struck by a car behind it. The van driver continued down the road without stopping. I ran him down and told him what had happened and that he had caused the accident. He did not go back. Police who investigated believed he was probably an illegal alien. It was a company-owned vehicle, which they located, but they could not find the driver.

I’m not sure how you can positively avoid having this happen to you, though you can assess the situation as you approach an intersection. If there is more than one lane going each direction on the cross street, and cars are stopped at the front of each lane, you probably won’t have to deal with approaching drivers who just run through the light without slowing. Watch for a driver who moves forward a little bit, since that may be a sign he is about to go or cause the driver next to him to think it is time to go if he isn’t actually looking at the light. Be aware that drivers facing a low sun may have trouble seeing the traffic light. The folks who did the famous Hurt Report suggest using a truck or other large vehicle to run interference for you. Ap­proach­ing cars might not see you, but they will see a semi.

You may be able to identify places on your regular routes where drivers may respond to miscues. I’ll use a problem intersection near my house as an example. The city’s first attempt to reduce accidents was to install stop signs, which people weren’t expecting and didn’t see, especially on the larger of the two streets. This led to some bad crashes. Even after traffic lights were installed, the same thing happened. I ride through this intersection every day and treat it with great respect. There is another intersection near me, with two streets coming in from opposite sides about 50 yards apart. The way the intersection is arranged, the more distant light for both directions is the first to turn green (with a green arrow). But drivers waiting at the red and looking down the street rather frequently react to the change to green of the distant light and start into the intersection where the light controlling them is still red. This puts them in conflict with the opposing left-turners who have a green arrow. I have never seen an accident or a scary near-miss there, but the potential exists.

A related kind of deliberate transgression seen frequently around Southern California is the left-turner who bolts across the intersection the moment the light turns green, hoping to beat opposing traffic. He is gambling that none of the drivers waiting at the front of the opposing lanes will be as quick on the draw. This is one more hazard to watch for when you are first in line at an intersection.

You don't have to make a mistake to have an accident. But you can steer clear of the mistakes of other drivers.

Don't-Stop Signs
Similar events occur at stop signs. One day a few years ago, I was riding down a two-lane country road when a car with four people in it blasted across my roadway going at least 40 mph, although there was a stop sign. He never slowed down for the stop sign at the point where he reached my road, which had no stop sign. Although I was several seconds away from the intersection, which was fortunately clear of other vehicles, it was still scary. I have no idea if it was deliberate or not. Because of foliage around the intersection, there was no way that the driver approaching at that speed could tell the intersection was going to be clear when he got there. Unfortunately, there was also no way I could have seen him approaching until a second or two before impact, making evasion difficult.

Stop signs seem to be easier to “fail to observe” than traffic lights. The ones most likely to be missed are those obscured by curves, foliage, parked cars or other conditions. Be extra cautious in these situations, especially if the road that crosses yours is larger, which might give crossing drivers a sense that they have no stop sign. Things like a setting sun to your left or right may cause problems as well. At four-way stops, make sure that crossing traffic really is stopping before you begin to roll. Ease out slowly at first to be sure they recognize that you are taking the intersection.

Another situation that can cause problems for motorcyclists is where an intersecting roadway comes in at an angle. If the driver waiting to turn on to your roadway is pointed somewhat in the direction you are, you may be in a blind spot. Since the driving populace is aging, it is probable that turning their necks to check for traffic back at their eight o’clock position is more difficult. They may rely on their mirrors, which gives enough field of view to see an approaching car, but they forget that a motorcyclist occupies a smaller space. You can help yourself by moving to the far side of your side of the street, which puts you out where a stiff neck still might be enough to see you. If the driver has not turned and definitely seen you coming, slow and be prepared to brake-swerve-honk if there is a hint that the car is beginning to move.

Wait, I'm Using This Side!
The third and most terrifying right-of-way transgression is the oncoming car that crosses into your lane as you approach. This seems to happen due to one of five reasons: 1) the driver doesn't realize he is crossing the center line; 2) the driver doesn't see you; 3) the driver doesn't think you are so close; 4) the driver simply doesn't care that you will be in trouble; and 5) the driver gets forced across the line. In any event, with a closing speed that can be as fast as 150 mph, this isn't the time to wait and see what happens.

I once had an experience of the first type. The driver was leaning over with his head below the dash to do something (at first I thought the car had no driver). I moved to the very edge of the shoulder and was kicking up dirt and wondering if I should try to ride through the ditch, when his head popped back up. These days the person who wanders beyond his lane is usually impaired by a cell phone, but it could be caused by any number of events, including falling asleep. The problem here is that if the driver isn’t aware that he has left his lane, he probably also doesn’t know you are approaching. Your first reaction should be to try to move as far to the right as possible. Hopefully, the driver will realize his folly, but if not you will have to decide in the split-seconds available whether to turn back and pass to the left or take your chance riding off the road. In some places where the roadside is wide open, the off-road excursion might be manageable, but in forested areas, hitting a tree at 55 would be almost as bad as becoming a hood ornament.

Dressing to be conspicuous and using your high beam during the day are the best ways to be sure you are seen. Even an elderly driver who lost his glasses should see your high beam, which also makes you appear closer than a low beam—the best solution for scenario number three. Bright helmets and jackets can help, but be aware when glare, traffic or other factors may obscure you.

The driver who sees you and pulls out anyway might actually be the least of your worries—providing you see him and have time to react. Unless he actually is homicidal, he expects you to pull over and get out of his way and will anticipate that you will use the shoulder to do so. I have encountered a few of these guys on a long (150-mile), heavily travelled, two-lane road I use frequently. They tend to ease out and see if you’ll move over so they can start passing. You can challenge them and retain your position, but that’s a bet I’m not usually prepared to make.

The fifth scenario may be the most dangerous because the driver is not prepared to accommodate you. He didn’t plan to be on the wrong side of the road but swerved for an obstacle or went wide exiting a turn, usually because he was speeding. This is something to be wary of when you approach a corner. If it is a right-hander for you, an opposing driver may cut across the centerline in the corner to straighten out the corner. He will presumably have calculated the distances correctly and can get back into his own lane. However, the guy who exits a corner wide as you approach a left-hander (for you) probably doesn’t have any recourse. Trying to brake or pull it back down into his lane may cause him to lose control completely, which probably won’t help you either. A friend and I were riding in the Southern California mountains some years ago when two riders, apparently racing, emerged from the left-hander we were approaching, and both came across the center line. My friend was forced off the road and the riders bracketed me, one passing on either side, but still in my lane. If it had been a car, we would have collided. Approaching the corner wide and staying wide until you can see well into or through the corner is the best way to address this issue. It may be harder to prepare for the driver who suddenly swerves across the centerline on a two-way street. If you are attentive enough though, you may detect the problem before opposing traffic has to react to it.

Special Victims?
Motorcyclists may feel that we are more likely to be the victims of drivers who commit these sorts of transgressions, but that's not necessarily true. As with left-turners who violate others' right-of-way, these drivers are more likely to harm the occupants of other cars. But motorcyclists are more gravely hurt when it happens to them. The standard strategies—scanning ahead, staying alert and predicting what is developing, but also making yourself conspicuous—will help you avoid the damage done by drivers who ignore even the most basic of traffic conventions.