Taking Charge: How a Motorcycle Rider Can Stay on Top of Traffic Threats

Strategies for keeping the traffic situation in the motorcycle rider's control. From the October 2001 issue of _ Motorcycle Cruiser _ magazine. ** By [Art Friedman

"I never speed," a motorcyclist told me somewhat indignantly a few months ago, after I'd mentioned that a motorcycle he asked about was glass-smooth at 70 mph. "It's well documented that speed kills. I always keep it a few miles per hour under the speed limit. I don't even use the fast lane unless I absolutely have to," he continued.

"In other words," I responded, "You completely surrender responsibility for your safety to the SUV driver coming up behind you who is talking on his cell phone while balancing a cigarette and cup of coffee and may have even noticed you and your motorcycle."

We talked for a while longer, and though he seemed to absorb some of what I said, he appeared unlikely to change his position that mild speeding, lane-splitting, black leather and full-face helmets were bad for motorcycling because they make motorcyclists "look like criminals."

It must be the criminal wannabe in me, because I usually speed when I'm on a motorcycle -- at least in traffic. I don't go 20 or even 10 mph faster than traffic flow, but just fast enough so I am overtaking the bulk of traffic around me. Ideally, one or two cars in the vicinity are going faster than I am. My velocity has little to do with haste but a lot to do with managing the threats from traffic around me.

You see, when you are going faster than traffic, your primary threat zone is narrowed down to a wedge out in front of you. You spend little time in the blind spots of cars and should be aware and can choose when you are there. Except for those occasional faster vehicles, the obstacles that concern you are located where you can see and track them. You can concentrate on surveying the situation ahead and minimize the brain time needed to deal with traffic approaching from behind or beside you. There is a point of diminishing returns in this strategy, though. If you are going significantly faster than most traffic, any gains you make in narrowing your threat zone are countered by the dangers of greater closing speed and reduced reaction time. The advantages are also lessened when the road is slick or there is little traffic. Still, I believe that "speed kills" is an oversold concept.

Speed, or at least acceleration, can also be your ally when the light changes. After you scan for crossing traffic and other potential intersection threats, accelerating hard from an intersection (easy to do on any motorcycle) can get you clear of the clump of cars plodding away from the light. You can linger in these open pockets away from the threat of people driving with their cell phones. Just be sure to look before you leap.

Getting clear of traffic is one of the rationales for lane-splitting, that is, passing through lines of slowed or stopped cars. You split to the front of a line of stopped cars then sprint away when the light changes. In Thailand, where there are hordes of motorcycles, this strategy is furthered with two limit lines at some signal-controlled intersections. Cars have to stop at the first line, but motorcycles can go past to the second one, approximately 10 to 20 feet further along the road. This helps motorcyclists get the jump when the light goes green. In major intersections in Bangkok, sometimes dozens of bikes will filter up to the front of the line by the time the light changes.

In general, lane splitting gives you greater control of the situation when traffic is stopped or slowing. Instead of dealing with the erratic stop-and-go of traffic and wondering if the guy behind you is going to stop, you put yourself in a position to choose the rhythm of your movement. You decide when it's safe to advance, and when to be wary. You are advancing into an area that you can see clearly and, again, keeping threats mostly in front of you.

Picking your lane position can also give you greater control of the situation. You can line up where you're able to see more clearly around cars or other obstructions ahead or nearby, where you are further away from threats and other drivers can see you better. This usually requires moving left or right. Sometimes this means slowing down or speeding up to make yourself more visible than other vehicles.

Of course, the biggest part of getting the upper hand in traffic is mental. You must be focused on the situation you are riding through. This requires a mind free from other concerns and one not distracted by matters which aren't pertinent. A fight with a spouse or a crisis at the office can be as dangerous as a couple of drinks if it keeps you from concentrating on the traffic situation during your commute. On the other hand, many daily commuters say riding is an opportunity to clear their minds of these concerns, and focus on something immediate, manageable and, ultimately, more important.

In any event, you should acquire a picture of not only the traffic around you, but also what is developing ahead. This means tracking the vehicles in your vicinity, and also what's going on for the next couple of blocks (which lanes are jammed, the cycle of traffic lights, cars waiting to turn, construction, emergency vehicles, slow vehicles and anything that can cause the cars around you to change their patterns). You should be positioned so your view of the road ahead is not limited by tall vehicles or other objects and in a position where you have enough room to react to what you can predict will occur as a result of the situation.

In fact, it is good to have a plan for the next three to five things you are going to do or react to. For example: That guy a block ahead is slowing down and easing to the right, so he is going to turn into that parking lot, but there are vehicles there in the driveway waiting to turn onto the street, so he probably will be blocked before he gets off the street, leaving the vehicle just ahead and to the right of me with the choice of moving into my lane or slowing down. Judging from his past actions, he will move over. I need to pull ahead of him, but that means I need to speed up as I approach that SUV waiting to pull into my lane from the left. I will reach him just as opposing traffic clears, giving him the break he has been waiting for to turn into the lane I will be in. I also need to be careful because that truck is likely to turn left at the following intersection, which will create vision obstructions and make the SUV driver prone to moving over into the right lane, which I plan to be in. I need to slow down and move well to the right as I pass the truck because it will block oncoming traffic's view of me. I need to be sure the SUV driver, who will be behind me, doesn't think this means I am turning right and tries to pass me... You get the picture. It sounds complex, but riders who successfully ride in traffic every day do it almost subconciously.

I enjoy reading other drivers and trying to predict what they will do, especially when the situation is complex. I like knowing what the driver in the car next to me is going to do even before he does -- because I am focused on traffic, and he is tuning his radio.

_Art Friedman
_If you have questions or comments about this article, email the author 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