Friday, December 01, 2006

Why am I here?

Happy Harry's finally off work and riding home. A driver on his right tries to use some of Harry's lane to go around a slower car. One of the main streets in town Harry rides on has some pretty heavy traffic. Literally and figuratively. There's a lot of vehicles on this stretch during rush hour. Anytime, as a matter of fact. Quite a few of those are big trucks since this is a straight shot to the freeway. Suddenly Harry sees the brake lights of a truck in front of him come on brightly and solidly. Looking to either direction Harry sees he has no place to go. Somehow as he's been thinking about something that happened at work today, he's gotten a little too close to the truck. There's a car in the left turn lane next to him. Harry narrowly avoids rear-ending the truck. With a nervous giggle Harry wonders if the truck driver would even have noticed the impact.

Now Harry's behind a pickup with a canopy. A car turning left almost hits Harry. He wonders why the driver didn't see him. Harry chalks it up to the fact that bikes are invisible to car drivers. Harry lives just outside of town. There's a short stretch of rural road to get to his house. Another large truck looms. This time it's coming towards him from the opposite direction. As the truck goes by a huge wind blast hits Harry. It's enough for him to clutch the handlebars harder in a near panic.

Harry parks the bike and goes into the house. With his nerves twitching a little from the ride, he thinks about his journey home. Was it possible that he could have done things somewhat differently? Harry wonders about his lane positioning, for instance. He's heard other riders tell him to always ride in the left third of the lane. These riders tell him it's so they can avoid the grease spots in the middle of the lane. Other riders tell him to strictly ride in the middle for various reasons. Still others warn that he should stay far away from traffic so the right part of the lane is best. Harry's confused about the issue and wishes he had some answers that would help keep him safer on the road. Is there one best place to ride?

The good news is that there are strategies for lane placement. As a rider navigates their environment they need to ask this question: Why am I here?

Here are some answers to that question. There are certain things we need to accomplish with our lane position. If we can do these things we're in the right place. If not, we need to move. These aren't necesarily listed in order of importance. It was just a handy system for me.

Goal number 1: See and be seen.

Here you see the view from the bike. In the top picture we're over to the right. Guess who we can't see? On the flip side, who can't see us? There's two cars coming the other way. Car #2 might be deciding to pass car #1. All the driver sees is an empty spot behind the pickup. Surprise! In the bottom picture we've moved more to the left. The world around us looks much different from this position. More importantly, we now see the things we need to in order to make better decisions.

This is common at intersections, as well. If we're behind a vehicle that blocks the view of oncoming drivers it's no wonder they think it's ok to go. Rigs like motor homes and delivery trucks can hide us from other drivers. I know, some drivers are just oblivious no matter what. It's our responsibility to look out for the idiots. Don't unthinkingly hide in traffic or rob ourselves of the chance to get vital information early. See the zombies before they cause you harm.

In accidents where a car and a motorcycle collided it might interest you to consider this fact. 75% of the time the car came from between 10 and 2 o'clock to the rider. In other words, the car that hit the motorycle came from right in front of the bike. Blows you away, doesn't it? Make sure you have the best chance to see and be seen at intersections. Use your lane position to your advantage.

If this was a freeway and all the cars were going in the same direction, I'd be more to the left to see down the alley. Remember, how soon do we need to get critical information like brake lights, etc? Real soon, you say? Bingo. Use your lane position to See and be seen!

Goal number 2: Maintain a space cushion.

Sorry for the fuzziness of the pictures. It's a first attempt at this kind of work. You see the bubble around Happy Harry, our rider. It could also be Happy Harriet! Our rider's got an equal cushion around them. Since the truck's an obvious hazard, our rider's moved to the right. Things fly off of trucks, tires rupture, and road debris gets launched. Not to mention the wind blast from the truck itself. Moving away from the truck's a wise move. Remember that the worst buffeting is often found at the rear of the truck.

The air is splitting pretty cleanly at the front of the truck. Right behind the truck is the vacuum left by the movement of the vehicle. Air that's running down the sides of the trailer's boiling into this empty space. After passing a large vehicle hang on just a little longer. That's when you'll likely get the most forceful blasts.

Once past the truck notice how our rider's positioned themselves back in the middle of the lane. Now they're ready for whatever's next. Why not stay to the right for the next time?

Go back to the See and be Seen rule. Besides, is the left side the only direction hazards can come from? You got it. Hazards can come from any direction. Being in the middle provides sort of a compromise. There's no clear hazard at the moment but our rider's got space all around from which to react.

Goal number 3: Maintain an escape route

Here lane positioning also involves where we put ourselves in relation to other traffic. Keeping an adequate following distance combined with an awareness of where the other cars are gives the rider on the left three choices for an escape route. That's an ideal situation. In the middle picture our rider's gone off on a daydream and finds themselves in a bad place. If the trucker suddenly slams on the brakes, our rider's got nowhere to go. That's a real bummer!!

In the picture on the right our rider's a little too close to the truck but has managed to keep an open space to the left. It's not ideal but at least there's a place to go. I realize that it's frustrating to try to keep a safe following distance while riding the freeway. It can seem like there's a big neon sign that says "Dive in here!" to other drivers. It can even seem like we're going backwards! Keep the faith, folks. Don't give in. Who's responsibility is it to take care of ourselves out there? Just keep doing what you need to do.

Goal number 4: Protect your lane

Use the position of the bike in your lane to discourage other road users from trying to share. For example, if we were to ride in the far left third of the fast lane on the freeway during rush hour, guess what's going to happen? I see a lot of little cars on the freeway that I call "Rocket Ships". These little cars with small-brained drivers are continually seen dashing in and out of traffic. God forbid they should have to slow down at all! Rather, they use little spaces and gaps in traffic to whip around other cars. Some drivers aren't quite so blatant but might still be tempted to use the space you're leaving to make a pass. Don't share!

Move the bike more towards the other lane so you don't leave a big, inviting gap. What if the other driver moves over like they really want your space? Back off and let them have it! I'm not saying to protect your lane at any cost! Best to live to play another day. Use the position of the bike to create a psychological barrier in what little minds the other road users have.

Goal number 5: Avoid surface hazards

This one's pretty self explanatory. Choose a lane position that allows you to move around something in the roadway. This goes back to an earlier post, but Keep our eyes up!!! The sooner you see a hazard the more time you'll have to react before it becomes a critical situation.


Happy Harry ( or Harriet ) has done some research into how to choose a good lane position. These are the things that a rider needs to accomplish when figuring out where to ride:

Harry knows that if he can do these things with his current lane position, then SCORE!! If not, he'll have to move until he can. Now Harry knows that there's no one best place to ride all the time. His lane position's always going to be changing depending upon circumstances. Armed with good answers to the question "Why am I here?", Harry's much more confident that he'll be able to avoid some of the bad situations he found himself in on the ride home tonight.

Miles and smiles,


P.S. I know the story telling style sounds a little like David Hough. I personally find his style an easy read and very educational. David's The Man for this kind of thing. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So Dave, I "borrowed" your style. The information's mine, at least!


Anonymous said...

If Harry decides to ride in the center of his lane, he need to be aware that when rain starts he will have limited traction, especially where rain is not frequent (like west Texas). If its a frog-strangler sort of rain, it will quickly wash the road suface clean, but he still has limited traction, and he may want to ride in the track of the car or truck preceding him.

Some considerations about lane position are more geographical than others.

Steve Williams said...

Dan: This is great stuff for me and everyone else who rides. It is easy to fall into bad habits and forget about lane postioning and escape routes until something bad happens.

I need to study some more now.



Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right about the rain. It's most hazardous during the first rain following a long dry spell. What you talk about still falls into the category of avoiding surface hazards. For instance, the slick spots in the middle. It's been my experience that it's less of a factor on roads where the speeds are higher as opposed to, say, intersections, where cars sit a while. Here there are ruts on both sides of the lane that can pool water. So the middle can be better to avoid standing water. Good advice about riding in the tracks of other cars. We're still both on the same page. It's a matter of making your lane position work to your advantage wherever you're riding. Sounds like you actually reason on things. How refreshing!

Part of the reason I started this blog was to provide information useful to fellow motorcycle commuters. As opposed to just taking up space on a server for my own interests! Like thumping my chest and bragging about being a Warrior!! Having the perspective of a trainer helps me have something worthwhile to share. Glad it serves you. Stay tuned for more of these kinds of posts.

Study hard, there will be a quiz at the end!


Combatscoot said...

As far as protecting your lane, one thing I have run into many times is oncoming cars partly in my lane on residential surface streets. If I ride in the left part of my lane, they tend to get back on their side of the street.

Balisada said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post. I have been reading David Hough's book and been pondering some of it's sections.

Combatscoot: Thanks for the reminder that protecting my lane is not just for the open road.


irondad said...

Great feedback. A scooter owns their side of the street just like any other vehicle. Be proud, don't cower on the side of the road!

Good for you for reading David's books. There's some important strategies there. Riders who've survived a long while are always perfecting their application.