Survival Tips for Riding in City Traffic
My present job has me commuting about 25 miles each way into downtown Denver for work for the last 10 months. Just about everything that was taught to me by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) instructors in the basic and experienced rider courses has come into play during that time. Here are some tips that should help you too survive riding in city traffic.
First off, if you didn’t know it by now, congratulations: you own an invisibility cloak! No matter what you do to increase your visibility to others, there will always be drivers who won’t see you. You can have modulating headlights, reflective tape and jacket, and heck you can wear a spinning yellow light on top of your helmet. But, you must still ride as if you’re invisible. Even police cars, with their lights flashing and sirens blaring, have had cars pull out in front of them or been hit by unwary drivers!
One of the principles I ride by is “Be Unhittable.” What does this mean? It means ride fully expecting drivers to not see you and positioning yourself to be more visible to any driver that can possibly ruin your day.
Positioning is important: try not to ride adjacent to cars. You should always ride in the front line of vision of the driver behind you, not in their peripheral vision. Often people fail to use their turn signals, or even fail to check their blind spots, so keep alert and out of the blind spots of other vehicles. Place yourself so that if the driver unexpectedly moves into your lane, he will do so without hitting you.
Along with being aware of what is immediately around you, don’t forget to check what is seven to 12 seconds in front of you. The way I see it, if traffic events surprise you, you weren’t paying attention. Riding in traffic is not the time to think about anything but the threatening environment around you.
Do you ride where there’s an “escape lane”? Do you create options for yourself in case the car in front of you stops unexpectedly or the car behind you doesn’t notice that traffic has come to a stop?
Do you create and maintain a safe reaction zone between the vehicle in front of you and your motorcycle? (This zone is also called a Safe Following Distance.) Essentially, it’s all about giving yourself enough time to react.
A Visible Intersection
Although you cannot assume for an instant that any driver sees you, you must ride in a way that affords them the chance to see you.
A Safe Following Distance not only gives you the time you need to react to a situation, but it also serves to prevent the vehicle in front of you from blocking the oncoming traffic’s view of you. If you ride too close to a vehicle’s bumper, chances are drivers coming your way won’t see you and will try and make a turn into you after they pass the vehicle ahead of you.
In my opinion, the greatest threat to motorcyclists at intersections is a left-turning vehicle. There have been medical studies which suggest motorcycles are “not seen” by car drivers who are turning left because humans don’t perceive motorcycles as a threat, compared to the size of the car they are in. In essence, the brain appears to ignore the smaller vehicle that’s oncoming. How many times have you heard the stories where the driver of a car is quoted to say: “Honestly, Officer, I didn’t see him”?
As you approach the intersection, you must catch the eye of the left-turning driver by presenting yourself in their line of vision. By doing a slight weave within your lane, your headlight becomes an unusual moving object. This perhaps will gather more attention from that driver. Furthermore, don’t watch the driver’s eyes, but rather watch the front tire and what it is doing. I’ve had drivers look me straight in the eye and still initiate a left turn towards me. If at all possible, transit an intersection with a “buddy”: a car either to your left or right, which the left-turning driver will perceive as a threat. Always be on the lookout for escape lanes as you approach intersections. You should have a final resort if the driver happens to turn into your path. Lastly, don’t forget to double-check your turn signals after you’ve made a turn, and before you approach intersections. You don’t want to signal the wrong information!
Understanding the concept of escape lanes is imperative to being safe on your bike. Basically, you want to develop the habit of being constantly aware of available space in the road ahead, should the need arise to maneuver there. The escape-lanes concept applies to two different situations.
First, when stopped at an intersection, the car in front of you can become one third of a “meat sandwich” should the car coming up behind you fail to stop in time. Know whether you’d maneuver right or left in that situation. Also, remember to flash your brake light to attract a driver’s attention as they come up to the intersection behind you. I tend to keep a close eye on the approach of the car behind me, and only relax when I see them slow and come to a stop.
Second, while riding along pick a lane where, if necessary, you could swerve out of harm’s way. On my commute, this involves riding in the lane next to a bike path, or perhaps next to a painted median where I could possibly swerve to avoid a collision with a car. Riding next to raised medians should be avoided.
Escape lanes come and go, and you must continually look for them. One sign you’re not paying enough attention to what’s around you? A car suddenly passes you and you weren’t even aware it was there.
It’s up to you
In sum, it is up to you to ride as though you were invisible to other drivers. A bike will always lose in a collision with a car. You may have had the right of way, but do you really want to be dead right? I’ve talked about how to be unhittable, making yourself more visible to other drivers, and most of all remaining aware of what is around you and in your line of travel. The British teach their riders to always do the “Lifesaver.” What’s that? Before you change lanes, actually turn your head and look: you’d be surprised how many times you’ll find a car riding along in your blind spots.
Get to know your commute route, including the best times to travel, and the best shortcuts and traffic patterns. I’ve found that the shortest way is not the best way, and the taking the longer route can result in a lot less stress. At the same time, my closest calls have actually been on quiet neighborhood streets and not congested city roadways!
There’s a lot more to learn and practice about safe motorcycle riding, and the techniques and best practices needed in different environments. If you haven’t taken the MSF’s Basic Rider Course, I strongly encourage you to do so. I’ve met riders who, after riding for years, took the course and admitted they discovered some bad habits which required correcting. Safety on a bike is the key to ensuring you’ll be riding for years to come.
Ride Safe. Ride Aware.