How do I improve my defensive
motorcycle riding skills?
Riding tips | Road safety | Motorcycle accidents | Observation | Zig-zag | Escape route
Road safety and motorcycling
There was a time when no one thought very much about the concept of defensive riding. Way back when, you simply straddled your bike, set off down the road and "took care". Or "watched out". Or crossed your fingers. The word "defensive" when coupled with the word "riding" didn't really enter the lexicon of the average biker.
Then sometime around the 1980s (as best we can figure it), the phrase was coined and it slowly spread as an antidote to the disease of stupidity commonly seen on British roads. And today, most motorcyclists are at least passingly aware that in order to stay safe on the roads, being passively aware and alert isn't enough. Not if you want to stay out of hospital, if not the graveyard. Instead, you have to be actively aware. And that's a very different mindset.
At Sump, we're not the first word in road safety, and we're certainly not the last. But we've been around for longer than you might think, and we've picked up a few tips and tricks and habits. Moreover, we're probably slightly more paranoid than the average biker. So we've thrown together a few words that might help others looking to improve their chances of staying shiny side up.
Just remember that everything we say is simply what we think. We're not experts. We're not accident investigators. We've conducted no exhaustive scientific research. We've just been around the block a few times. So check this out and see if you agree with our views. But we think our advice could save your life, and we don't feel that any of it will do you any harm.
1. Observation and being seen. That's the first rule of defensive riding. You have to not only look, and look again, but actually see. There's a profound difference there. And the inverse is that you have to ensure that you're also being seen.
All of us routinely gaze at stuff seen in the street or on TV or in the shops, and we automatically filter most of the uninteresting stuff. We have to. If we walked into a high street store and started mentally logging everything that comes into focus, we'd be overwhelmed with data. Same thing on the road. You have to filter information, but it has to be the right information. The essential information.
Defensive riders, therefore, are constantly selecting and re-selecting objects and situations on the road that are a potential threat. Or an asset. Those threats have to be catalogued and rated depending on how imminent the danger is. So the priorities are changing every second leading to endless questions.
Use your mirrors constantly. Keep scanning all compass points. Who's in front? Who's behind? What's that car doing at the junction ahead (especially at junctions)? Who's straying over the centre line? Who's on a cell phone? Who's too close? Who's not obeying the right of way on this roundabout? Etc.
Road riding is analogous to a chess game where you constantly ask yourself who's on the board? Who's immediately "in play"? And who's creeping up slowly and getting ready to make a move? So defensive riders watch everyone. They plot everything. And they prepare countermoves. Just remember that everything is always in a state of flux. And remember this too: when road accidents happen, they invariably happen suddenly with only seconds to react.
As for being seen, that's not just a matter of wearing bright clothing or daytime running lights. Both can be an asset, and occasionally a liability. Multicoloured clothing, for instance, can sometimes obscure your outline and effectively camouflage you. At least, you might well be seen, but it might be harder for drivers to assess your speed and direction. Daytime headlights can have the same effect.
Above all else, being seen means putting yourself in positions where traffic can see your approach and work out your intentions. So think about car blind spots (and motorcycle blind spots). Think about the view from that truck driver's perspective. Just because you're on the road in clear weather, that doesn't mean others will automatically see you. You have to force your presence on them in some way, or alternately stay well clear of them.
2. Trust no one. If only ten percent of drivers/bikers are stupid or careless or reckless, it means that every tenth car or bike is, on average, being driven or ridden by a pretty stupid person. So ride a few miles almost anywhere in the UK and you'll pass a lot of stupid people. That's our feeling, anyway.
Trouble is, there's no reliable way to spot them—and there's little warning regarding how that stupidity, carelessness or recklessness will manifest itself.
Some road users, for instance, still think that using a cell phone on the move is safe "as long as you're sensible about it". Some think that the odd alcoholic drink actually improves their driving (and "certainly doesn't impair it"). Some think that speed isn't a factor in road accidents (tip; motionless vehicles don't collide). Some road users harbour all kinds of thoughts and ideas and behaviours that can soundly kill you.
Good drivers don't always drive nice cars. Bad drivers don't always drive old and battered cars. Consequently, you MUST treat everyone as threat until they've passed by and vanished from your radar. Then prepare for the next danger that's headed in your direction.
3. Escape route. This can be a tricky exercise to implement consistently, so just do your best. But having an escape route on the road means that as you progress, you're constantly looking for protective zones to duck into it.
That usually means constantly repositioning yourself, and that takes mental energy. But after a while it becomes second nature.
So if you're on a motorway riding, say, along the inside lane, and if a vehicle approaches rapidly (or just steadily) from behind, you need to check the hard shoulder as an escape route—and maybe also check the centre lane. You need to keep these "avenues" open and mentally rehearse your escape should the vehicle threaten to rear-end you.
Then the car passes safely, you relax a little (but only a little), and then another vehicle moves up on, say, the centre lane. So you plot this vehicle too, rehearse your next move, and so on, and so forth.
In the built-up urban environment, this is often harder to do. But you can still prepare to duck in front of parked cars if you see a threat approaching from behind, or ahead.
Or when a threat is coming at you, you can look to the pavement (sidewalk) for a safe zone. Or if you've got an antagonistic vehicle on your tail, you might consider carefully shifting ahead of the car in front and create some distance—and possibly leap-frogging further along until you've got space all around you. Space to be seen, and space to manoeuvre.
Meanwhile, when oncoming traffic is causing your concern (and all oncoming traffic should cause you some concern), you might move into the "shadow" of the car in front which in the UK means moving towards the left. But not too far. Gutters can be dangerous too. You just need to get your bike out of the "line of sight" of oncoming vehicles. But what if that "shielding" vehicle suddenly brakes? Have you plotted an escape route?
Overall, just look at what you're doing when on the road, and ask yourself this: Where do I run and hide to if something goes down right now. You can't always find that safe zone. But anything you can do to improve the odds is better than riding blithely through a hail of threats. And yes, sometimes you have to quickly move into a zone that's also a little risky, but is the lesser risk. It's a question of balance.
4. Watch people's eyes. Hardly needs explaining, you might think. However, pretty much every day we see drivers and bikers passing us with their eyes fixated on the road directly ahead of them, but without any obvious indication that we're "safely" in their field of view.
Many of these road users are simply not really looking. Just seeing. Glancing. That's why watching oncoming drivers and checking that they've noticed you is vital for defensive riders. Cars with tinted windscreens, or with indicators built into their door mirrors, or dirty windscreens present a special problem, of course. It's not always easy to see eyes in these circumstances. And driving into headlights is a new world of risk. Just do what you can to check out who's looking at you, and who's not. If you're not sure that they've seen you, wake them up a little. Flash your lights. Sound your horn. However, many road users get irate at any kind of warning and respond in kind, tit-for-tat. Be alert, and plot an escape route should an oncoming driver make a threatening move. That happens occasionally, and you need to be quick.
5. Emergency services. These drivers are usually pretty good. But when their blue lights are lit, they're on a mission, and when they're on a mission they're often focussed more on the job ahead rather than where they are at any given moment.
And naturally, they tend to be speeding across junctions and overtaking lines of vehicles and swerving around. Your concern as a rider is to (a) watch doubly closely at whatever emergency vehicle is coming in your direction, and (b) watch out for other vehicles who are not responding appropriately to the blue lights. Some drivers, remember, suffer mild panic in such situations. That's likely to cloud their judgement. Our advice? Pull over at the first opportunity and let the situation resolve itself, then pick a suitable moment to re-engage with the traffic—or, better still, just wait until the road is clear.
6. Keep it rolling. This means never coming to a rest. For instance, you see a junction ahead. You need to turn across oncoming traffic. But if you stop in the centre of the road and wait, you could have traffic ahead and traffic behind moving up quickly. And to many of these drivers you're just an obstacle in their path. A nuisance even. So if one of them makes a mistake when you're stationary, you could get hit.
Yes, you might see the accident coming, but you're motionless. Vulnerable. Our advice is to anticipate the right-turn junction well in advance (if you're in the UK) whilst looking for a suitable opportunity to cross oncoming traffic, and keep the bike rolling until you can safely swing into the junction. Never quite stopping. Always with a little momentum at hand. Sometimes this means deliberately slowing prematurely and giving the cars behind greater warning. And there are risks here. Motorists are impatient. Nevertheless, you should do what you can to avoid stopping in the centre of the road.
7. More riding tips. And here's a thought. You want to turn right, but traffic from both directions is too fast. Okay. Where possible, pull up safely on the left. Stay well clear. Check the traffic flow. Then wait for a clear opportunity and make your right turn move. Or if you see a roundabout ahead, you might consider using that and coming back on yourself to make a safer left turn.
Or, in another scenario, you might see red traffic lights ahead, perhaps a quarter of a mile away. So slow down immediately and try and time it so that you never queue at the light. A motionless motorcycle is an easier target. Just keep it all rolling seamlessly, smoothly, measuredly. Never be the biker sat behind a car at a set of lights gazing down at his petrol tank or into the distance waiting to be rear-ended. It happens.
And one more thing; if you wait at a junction or at a set of lights and stall the bike, or break a clutch cable or similar, you could find yourself directly in the line of fire from whoever's behind, or in front. That's another reason to do everything on the fly.
8. Zig-zag. This is a very important riding technique, and one that we rarely see. Zig-zagging is when you move between mental points in the traffic flow rather than make one long continuous flowing movement. For instance, you need to pass the car ahead, so you move into the right position. Pause. Check behind and ahead. Check the driver's mirror. Make sure he or she has seen you. Then you make sure there are no side turnings or other objects that might affect your overtaking manoeuvre. Then you indicate and overtake quickly and decisively. Then you ease up slightly and reassess you situation. Then you make your next move.
In other words, to borrow an expression, everything is "a situation". A new game. A position. As such, everything should be done incrementally. You zig to position A. You zag to position B. That might mean literarily moving at certain sharp(ish) angles. But usually, you're simply shifting from point to point and picking the next best spot to pause for the next few seconds or minute. Just don't treat your ride as one long roller coaster. Sooner or later that will lull you into an accident.
And of course there are other basic motorcycling practices that a defensive rider needs to instil in himself/herself. These include:
Keeping your distance
Not overtaking past side turnings
Clear signalling at all times
Riding within your limits
Avoiding competitive riding
Avoiding conflict and retaliation
Anticipating threats and avoiding them early
Defensively riding can sound tricky. But it quickly becomes habit. Just assume that everyone out there is trying to kill you. Imagine that they're constantly thinking up new lethal strategies; opening car doors, spilling diesel, carrying ladders across the road, tailgating, swerving without warning, using the wrong indicator, etc.
The chances of an average biker being killed on the road are significantly higher than the risk to the average car driver. So don't be average. Give yourself an above average chance.
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