7 Places a Motorcyclist Should Avoid In Traffic

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7 Places a Motorcyclist Should Avoid In Traffic

As motorcyclists, we’ve all had a few close calls in traffic. They serve as a reminder to our occasional lapse in vigilance and impart a lasting cognitive reminder from which we can avoid such circumstances in the future. Some of these contextual positions in traffic we know to avoid through education, trial and error, or discernment. Others are harder to spot in the daily fracas of our commute. Yet, more positions we perceive but fail to internalize, instead encountering the same issue over and over but not spotting the common connections. Here are seven places a motorcyclist should avoid in traffic.

Blind Spots

Let’s start with the obvious. We already have to contend with automotive drivers perceiving an absence of cars instead of the presence of motorcyclists. The effect seems to be compounded in a car’s blind spot. We are virtually invisible. If you find yourself in the blind spot of a car or large truck, move quickly and safely out of it. The B pillars, passenger seats, and the passengers themselves remove a lot of a driver’s peripheral vision, so assume you are not seen until you are entirely past the car. Also, avoid the common mistake of changing lanes into another car’s blind spot when you make your move.

The Center Of The Lane While Stopped

Disregard our lane-splitting brethren for the moment. What do we do when we are in one of the most vulnerable and statistically alarming situations a motorcyclist can face? We’re stopped with none of the traditional advantages we can employ and the possibility of being suddenly mashed between two much larger vehicles. We can mitigate this by staying to the outside lane and pointing our direction of travel in between cars instead of directly into cars. The theory is if one is rear ended, they will at least be suddenly forced in between the cars to pinball around rather than completely smashed between them.

Passing Without Due Caution On Country Roads

This is true on any road where you have poor sight lines on points of ingress/egress farther up the road. Be cognizant of the distance required to overtake and safely move back into your lane position. Avoid passing or speeding up as a slow vehicle in front of you brakes to make a right turn. Don’t assume that just because a vehicle in front of you is braking that it is a good time to pass. That is a common mistake many motorcyclists make and it can have heavy consequences.

Being The First Across The Intersection

This one may come across as overly cautious, but where I live, drivers do not possess a great deal of circumspection. No matter how much you might enjoy that surge of first gear as the light turns green, consider holding back a little at the front of the line. Take an extra second to confirm that everyone who should be stopping is stopping. If you miss that first indication, having cars on one or both sides could provide protection against someone blowing through an intersection.

Passing On Mountain Trips

I’ve been there. You’ve spent hours planning, weeks waiting, and you’re finally in the mountains on your favorite road. You’re just starting to get into a groove only to suddenly find yourself behind some nice people from out of state in a station wagon going exactly 4 mph under the speed limit.  Cue the double yellow lines for the next 14 miles. I’ve certainly been on roads where it seems needless, but far more have them as a legitimate requirement. You could pass them quickly, hoping that no one will be in the opposite lane around that blind corner. You could continue to follow, silently shaking with impotent rage as they pass more opportunities to pull over and wave you by. Or you could pull over, have a breather, enjoy the scenery, and think pleasant thoughts about how to improve technique when you get back on. I vote for the last option because the consequences of what may be around that blind corner are not worth it.

Bad Lane Positioning

There are a few different preferences on this so I will simply justify mine. When I commuted with a road bicycle, I found that my proximity to cars in the bike lane was inversely proportional to how close and how fast they passed me. The same seems to hold true for motorcycling, where people are more likely to give you a wider berth as they pass if you are closer to the side of the lane. An additional benefit (presumably) is keeping you away from the center of the lane where oils and fluids tend to drop from other vehicles, thus avoiding a decrease in tire traction. In other words, stay close to the line on multiple-lane, one direction roads or highways.

Where Cars Tend To Make Blind Turns

I already mentioned cars making blind turns on country roads, but it happens far too often elsewhere as well. Double safety check and quickly enter turning lanes, as drivers wanting to make a turn opposite you are often looking everywhere but where they need to be. The diagram (above/below) shows what happened to me a few times before I learned to avoid it. Often cars will back up in one lane for a turn leaving the other lane clear. Someone trying to make a left turn (the van) can’t see well past the line of cars. Since it’s hard enough to see a car, a motorcyclist will go unnoticed and the driver guns it to make it to the other side. I had some of my worst near misses from this exact scenario.

7 Places a Motorcyclist Should Avoid In Traffic

What places do you avoid? What indicators do you look for to keep you out of a bad situation?

  • 2wheelsgood

    Re: Lane Positioning – Close To The Line
    What are you referring to here. Is this multiple lanes in the same direction, or oncoming traffic ? Thanks

    • Braden

      That is a bit unclear now that I look at it. I really mean multiple lanes in the same direction rather than oncoming traffic. I’ve noticed a pattern of drivers being more cautious while passing and not hovering in my blind spot when I’m riding off center in the lane. That couple of feet to the left or right of center really seem to force other drivers to become aware of you.

  • sharper86

    If I’m on a median-separated highway with more than two lanes going in the same direction, I usually stick to either the farthest left or farthest right lane. For me, it means one less lane that I need to focus on.

  • http://www.motopraxis.com/ Aakash

    Braden, what is your perspective on highway riding when it comes to lane positioning? If I’m in the #1 (fastest) lane, I often position myself to the left-most portion of the lane to: 1. To gain a much further view of the traffic ahead and 2. To have quick access to lanesplitting maneuvers in case traffic suddenly slows.

    I can’t seen any downsides to this so perhaps I’m just restating the obvious.

    • Braden

      I quite like the logic of what you’re saying. I usually end up picking the lane closest to the left that gives a good view of the traffic ahead and around me, while still being able to continue on my route without recrossing too many lanes. It’s kind of a case-by-case basis with the way people drive round where I live.

    • Gordon Pull

      Likewise. Much rather have 6 to 7 feet on the right of me for a car to make a mistake vs. less than a foot.

      I also tend to pass cars I can’t see ahead of through their windows or around (SUV’s, lifted trucks, etc.). Freeway/commuting that is.

      • http://www.motopraxis.com/ Aakash

        I’ll move over to the left of the lane if someone enters my safety bubble suddenly. It’s a case of give-and-take, I suppose.

        • Gordon Pull

          If I’m in carpool/HOV and there is a median, I’m at the farthest left of the lane that I can go. I tend to stay as far away from cars as possible. It also allows folks that are splitting to pass with no issues. Once things start to back up in HOV, I’ll make my way towards the right portion and get set up for splitting.

          So many different situations in which lane position is important. This is something that I think MSF lacked when I went through the course years ago.

          • BillW

            Nope. I’ll stay to the right side of the left-most lane, where the cars can see me. If I keep to the left side of the left lane, my space looks like a gap in traffic that somebody in the lane to the right might move into. Meanwhile, if somebody tries to move into my spot anyway when I’m on the right side, I’ve got nearly a whole lane, plus any shoulder, to move away from them while looking to escape and/or make them aware of my presence.

            • Gordon Pull

              Agree to disagree I suppose. I tend to use my throttle to get out of a potentially bad situation more than weaving or dodging cars. If I see a car merging into my lane, I simply speed up. No need to dodge as I’m already on the far left side. Why ride next to or near these death traps when you don’t have to?

              • Nick Hawley

                If you are on the right side of the lane, your headlight is hitting mirrors and cars can see you. On the left, you look like an empty gap that people try to fill. I always tend to pay more attention after I pass an on ramp as that is when the majority of the people are trying to merge and get into the HOV lane. I ride US 101 every day for the past three years and have not had a close call. They teach you in the class to stay in the left side of the lane for visibility reasons. I’m sure they used statistics to arrive at that conclusion. Should be noted I’ve rode three different bikes during those three years, one of which had a strobing headlight and stock exhaust. My current bike has modified exhaust and no strobe. The strobe seems to work best, but the loud exhaust garners people’s attention. Having both would be ideal.

        • Braden

          I would lean towards “right-most” if I’m in the far left lane, so I’m noticeable and I’ve got space to maneuver left in case something happens. Gordon has a good argument for “left-most” so I guess it’s down to how I end up reading the traffic at the moment

    • appliance5000

      If I’m in the fast lane and traffic is fairly heavy, I’ll position myself in the third closest to the slower lane. My thinking is that if you’re on the farside, cars in the slower lane can’t see you – they see a gap – and when they have the chance they’ll swing into it fast.

      I’m not using “right/left” because it means different things in different countries.

    • andr01dm

      I prefer the left most lane (passing lane) and being in the right ‘wheel track’.. this is what I was taught during motorcycle training, as a way to maintain blocking position. However I will sometimes move to the left wheel track; for going around right hand curves and in situations where there’s a clearer escape route on the left side.

    • RyanG

      I sit in the right most part of the left lane most lane. Same reasons as everyone else says. The exception to the rule is passing a semi-truck. I know people that have been knocked off their bike due to a blown tire. NEVER EVER cruise next to a semi truck. I do my best to keep my space around them, and when passing them, I tend to move to the left side of the lane to add some space until I get around them. If a car is just sitting next to them on the road like they tend to do, I back off and make some space. As soon as the car gets past him I do to. Aside from trucks, don’t cruise next to a car in the right most part of the lane. Stay in the right most section if you want, but stay visible: far enough back that they can see you in their mirrors or just ahead of the car so they know you are there. Everything else is done with reason. Lane splitting is a privilege and should be done at reasonable speeds. Its just as dangerous as it is safe, but speeding by cars faster than you can react to them is foolish. At least those are my theories that I try and live by and suggest to people that ask me about it.

  • SniperSmitty

    I just recently moved to Tennessee. The drivers here use the center turn lane on a 3 or 5 lane road as a MERGE lane. This freaks me out in my car and terrifies me on my motorcycle. I have never seen this in any of the other 6 states I have lived in. I just slow down, but it still puckers me up.

    • Michael Howard

      Happens in my (Iowa) town almost daily and, when you express your confusion/concern/irritation of not knowing WTF they’re doing when their intention appears to be occupying your space, they act like YOU’RE the idiot.

    • ThruTheDunes

      Smitty and Michael have hit on a larger topic that would probably make a good article itself, particularly for tourers: what are regional idiosyncrasies in your area that may pose a hazard to the uninitiated. Here in Massachusetts, you would be most perplexed by the practice of banging a left.

      When I lived in North Carolina, I came up behind five cars making a left, or so I thought. The first car went left, and the other four cancelled their blinkers and went straight. Turns out there is (or was) a practice of letting folks behind you know that someone up ahead is going left.

      I have come across a bunch of these regionalisms, running the gamut from fascinating to frightening. Might make a good “ask Rideapart.”

      • SniperSmitty

        You make an excellent point. That would be a great “ask RideApart” article.
        On the flip side, I have met 8 police officers and 2 Sheriffs deputies. All in a good way though. They end up showingme pics of their bikes, and we part exchanging numbers for future rides. It seems almost all law enforcement people in middle Tennessee are riders. This is obviously a good thing, as they know and understand riders. Also, about 15-20% of car drivers will slow down/ make room for me to pass. Even on a two lane road. Gotta love southern hospitality!!

        • ThruTheDunes

          Smitty, years ago in Eastern Tennessee, I came to the top of a rise and there must have been 10 cruisers on each side of the road and 30 officers standing on the center line. They were checking the license of every driver. Never seen anything like it. After we cleared it, my friend from there said they do that from time to time looking for moonshiners, even though they call it a “license check.” Wow.

      • appliance5000

        Yeah – from Mass. too. My first trip down south I came to a 4 way stop and no-one made a move – I turned to my southern girl friend and said “What?” she said “You arrived first and they won’t go until you do.” Being a Boston driver, following laws will only cause mass confusion – I was shocked – shocked I tell you.

        • SteveNextDoor

          As a Southerner, it is actually very annoying when the other person clearly arrives first and then sits there as if they’re waiting for you to go. I understand being ‘polite’ and letting someone else go first, but most people here, at least in regards to 4-way stops (don’t get me started on how apparently turn signals are removed at the dealership) typically follow this rule closely — if you get there first, you go first. Being ‘polite’ in this situation really only serves to piss people off, heh.

          • appliance5000

            I just didn’t know. I’d like to take this time to apologize to all involved – and the state of Louisiana.

        • ThruTheDunes

          Appliance, I about laughed my beer thru my nose when I read this… share your shock.

  • zion

    The thing to remember, put in simplest terms, is be aware of your positioning. Positioning that allows you to see and be seen. It’s all fluid and changing, so you have to remember not to be lulled into complacency.

  • BillW

    I had a close call fairly early in my riding career that points out the potential consequences of some of these errors. I went on a group ride with 6 or 7 owners of the same model bike that I met online, never having ridden with them before. I rode at the back of the group. On a moderately rural two-lane road with a fair amount of traffic, they were all passing cars on the double-yellow. Well, gee, ya gotta keep up with the group, right? First mistake!

    I came over a rise and saw before me a steep dip, followed by a rise and then a right hander into a short straight. No trees, so excellent sight lines, and I could see there was no oncoming traffic. But the lines were double yellow. Still, I went for the pass of about three cars. What I didn’t see was that there was a dirt road leading off to the left from the bottom of the dip. Sure enough, one of the cars turned left into it as I was making the pass. I JUST managed, with heavy braking, to go around his back end as he made the turn. Stupid, stupid, stupid, I yelled at myself inside my helmet. There was no more passing on double yellow for me that day, and only very, very rarely since then.

  • Glenn Rueger

    “Being the first across the intersection.” Excellent advice. Often some car or motorcycle is squeezing through that red light. I always tell my kids to “watch those fresh greens”.

    • SniperSmitty

      I agree. I wait for the car next to me to pull into the intersection first. Also, I leave a Minimum of two car lengths between me and the car ahead of me for two reasons.
      1) I always have a way out and 2) I accelerate much quicker than cars, so this allows me to not have to pull in the clutch 3 times when I first pull off.

    • Mr. White

      Here in Chicago it seems that blowing red lights is sadly the norm rather than the exception.

    • Chris Hoerenz

      I even follow this advice when driving my car. In NY seems like blowing through a red is more important to people than being five minutes late

    • LS650

      Almost got T-boned in my car last winter by a 3-ton van blowing through the light maybe a good 3 seconds after it turned red. I only avoided this because I looked and saw he was coming full speed from the right. He obviously didn’t see the red and never even slowed down.

  • SniperSmitty

    Something else I’ve noticed is that when I’m on my favorite twisty road, when I move around in my lane drivers will jerk the wheel towards the side of the road, as if I’m gonna cross the center line.
    What I mean is, when I’m coming up on a blind right sweeper, I start my cornering line close to the double yellow so I can see as much of the road around the turn as possible. Some oncoming cars react by swerving towards the shoulder. I think this problem cannot be easily solved because NO driving school or class Ever addresses motorcycles or how to drive when around one. Thoughts??

    • Glenn Rueger

      I know what you mean. Especially with our counter steering it sometimes seems as if we’re aiming at them.
      But what to do? Can’t very all tell the motorists not to avoid motorcycles because many times they should. It’s a good question.

      • Guest

        If you want someone to stop tailgating your bike, start weaving back and forth across your lane like you’ve got to warm tires. :) Without fail, I get about 3 or 4 more car lengths behind me as a result. Their attention is drawn to your weaving, and they get apprehensive so they back off.

  • Jonno

    Following too close behind cars in traffic!
    Most people don’t realize how long it takes them to stop …

  • Justin McClintock

    Avoid riding next to another car. Pass them or let them pass. Don’t sit next to them. If they have to make some evasive maneuver, not hitting you is not going to be something that will even enter their consciousness.

  • Ryan Kiefer

    What do you guys advise for maintaining a buffer in front in congested traffic?

    I commute on the interstate, and far too often, I check my mirrors to find them filled with the headlights of a truck or SUV. I generally let my speed be determined more by the speed of traffic than the speed limit, but I also try to leave a good space between me and the vehicle I’m following so I don’t have to hit the brakes too hard when the inevitable slow down begins. The difficulty is that the buffer space I leave constantly merged into by drivers, which leaves me slowing ever so slightly because I’m trying to maintain a buffer.

    How does one find an equilibrium?

    • Rob

      Get ahead of a slow-poke and let them be your rear-buffer. People will be less likely to jump into your gap and they won’t stay for long.

  • andr01dm

    Where I live there are some streets where the outside lane is HOV – for buses, taxis and motorcycles during rush hour – and slowing down when passing a long line up of cars is a great way to stay alive. For in that long line of cars there will sometimes be a gap, made for a car turning across traffic to get to a side street. I’ve almost rear ended a car in front of me making an emergency stop for this, and since then I’ve slowed down and kept my eyes open and I’ve avoided becoming a statistic a couple of times.

    (Hope you don’t mine my borrowing your graphic to illustrate this.)

    • eddi

      I’ve seen those two (right semi-blind street and left turning cross traffic) often enough. Around here (Oregon) the rule is no blocking even a small intersection like that. So I know there’s going to be a gap even if I can’t see it yet. Trees and parked cars will block the normal line of sight on the right so it’s safest to slow and expect a car. The car turning left into a side street or their driveway is easier to spot but just as likely to miss seeing you.

      • Ben Mcghie

        Anytime traffic slows in a lane alongside mine, I reduce speed. Chances of someone cutting in or cutting you off are absurdly high. Especially if you’re in Russia, lol.

  • Tom

    I’ve been told that there is not a best position in a lane for all situations. The main thing is to constantly evaluate where the safest location is for that specific instance and move there.

    • eddi

      Maneuverability within a lane is one big advantage we have. Always be ready to move around to get a good look at a situation. And try to stay away from vision-blockers like campers and delivery vans. Pass or drop way back.

    • Jordan Huckel

      What I was taught was that, essentially, lane position needs to afford maximum visibility and buffer zone space. Also, obviously, never be in the middle because that’s the oil slick.

      That leaves 3 positions.

      1- Outside/ turn off’s
      2- Death slick
      3- Inside/ oncoming traffic side

      - Use position 1 when it’s a 2 way road. This buffers you from oncoming traffic.
      - Use position 3 when it’s a 2 way road with a median island/ strip/ space. This median divider buffers you from oncoming traffic and your road position buffers you from idiots entering from your left (right in the US).
      - When on a multi-lane carriageway, pick a lane, any lane and use either position 1 or 3 to position yourself closer to the centre of the carriageway.

      One last thing on road craft. Don’t even grind the line unless you’re filtering. Ride about 0.5m (~2ft) into the lane from the line.

      That’s a basic run down of road craft. I hope it helps you out a little.

  • Jack Scruggs

    An 8th place a motorcyclist should avoid is following traffic too closely. Doing so impairs one’s ability to see road debris under vehicles ahead of you — especially on the highway. Primary reason: You need time to react to debris either in the center of the lane that the car ahead of you simply drives over or dodge debris kicked up at you by their tires. I often find in heavy traffic that I have to balance this with protecting the space in front of me. In the same vein, I try to spot debris in adjoining lanes that vehicles might kick at me and adjust lane position accordingly.

  • Sérgio Oliveira

    Never, ever ride in the middle of a lane while in traffic. Always grind the median or the lane separator lines. That way you can see and avoid anything on the floor, be it a liquid, sand/dirt, living animal or car parts. Take it from someone who saw a full exhaust appear from under a van and was almost instantly high-sided :/