America might be a land filled with motorcycle riders and motorcycle lovers, but it most certainly is not a motorcycle friendly country. Just ask anyone who rides their motorcycle to work on a semi-regular basis and they’ll tell you horror stories not just about bad, rude and dangerous drivers, but also of oblivious pedestrians and cyclists who seem to have a death wish and also appear to have it in for you.
It doesn’t take bravery to ride your motorcycle in the city—it takes superior awareness, brains, an eye for potential hazards (not just obvious ones) and very good riding skills. Even if you put all these components together, there’s virtually no way to avoid at least a small accident, if not a much more serious one.
But there are those who are committed to riding in the city, whether by necessity, for the thrill of it, or both. First of all, if you choose to ride in the city—whether it’s for your daily commute, errands or even just to see the sights—there’s no need to be intimidated, but you do need to think ahead and never stop thinking throughout the ride. We’ve assembled some tips for you to ride smartly and skillfully on the mean streets of your urban jungle.
1. Make Them See You
We get that you like to dress in vintage black leather and denim when you ride your gorgeous café racer, but that’s not a smart way to protect your hide from the oblivious driving masses. Wear bright colors, especially on your helmet and jacket. If you insist on wearing your darker jacket, try a reflective vest over it. This will have you look like a crosswalk guard at an elementary school, but it might just make the difference between life and death.
2. Stay in Open Zones
Two of the advantages of riding a motorcycle are power and control. These are your assets to stay safe, not to go bonkers on the pavement. Take advantage of these by staying out of wolf packs and in the open where you can stay out of blind spots, work your way into gaps, and stay visible rather than remaining trapped in the flow of traffic where oblivious drivers won’t notice you.
3. Scan and then Scan Again
Don’t get mired in just looking straight ahead. Keep your head on a swivel and scan your environment—your mirrors, behind you, your blind spots, etc. It’s all about constant vigilance and total awareness on your ride. Save your gazing for the open road in the scenic countryside where there aren’t pedestrians with a penchant for stupidity or drivers on their smartphones.
4. Always Look for an Escape
Spend less time admiring the custom paint job on your tank and more time searching for ways out of trouble should trouble come to find you. Take advantage of your motorcycle’s size and nimbleness—relative to hulking cars. Braking hard isn’t always a great solution, especially when you can thread the needle or find an open patch of grass to stay safe instead of mangling yourself and your bike when you don’t have enough room to stop. Constantly look for escape opportunities when you’re both moving and stationary.
5. The Deadly Left
Don’t assume that the guy in oncoming traffic with his left turn signal on is going to see you. At times, they don’t even see actual cars, so your slim profile isn’t exactly conducive to visibility. Queue your high beams during the day and use your horn if need be to put them on alert. Watch for hand movement on the steering wheel and a head turn that usually occurs before the driver initiates the turn. Also be prepared to get on the gas and swerve or brake if you have the time and distance.
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6. Running Interference
You’re likely the fastest one at the stop light at the intersection, and you can get ahead quickly. But think again. Fastest isn’t safest when it comes to one of the most accident riddled locations—the dreaded intersection. On any given day, idiots blow the light like it’s their right, so be smart and let the cars and trucks run interference for you—when you’re moving and when you’re at a standstill. The vehicles surrounding you will act as your buffer and take hits instead of you should someone ignore the law.
7. Choose Your Lane Wisely
Especially on highways and freeways where traffic is fast moving and there are multiple traffic lanes. Make sure to stay to your left. Everyone on the far right or in the lane adjacent to the right will bob and weave to make their exit, and you don’t want to be anywhere near that. Merging traffic coming onto the highway is also deadly because they’re hell bent on getting to the left. Plus, if you’re to the far left, you only really have the lane to your right to contend with rather than getting sandwiched between two sides. Just remember that some left lanes have no shoulder, so keep #4 in mind (again).
8. Watch Surface Conditions
It’s nearly as important to keep an eye on the road conditions as it is to watch the vehicles around you. Things can go from good to awful in a hurry. Potholes, loose gravel, rippled pavement, etc. can send you off the bike before you knew what hit you. Give yourself space and slow down in case you need to respond appropriately. It’s also vital to stay back from cars that might kick up rocks and dirt, endangering you with projectiles and debris. Also, if you know of a bad area, just avoid it even though it might lengthen your ride. After all, it’s not just you who has to contend with the conditions, but also the other drivers who might not be as mindful as you are.
9. Maintain Signal Discipline
Unless you have auto-canceling turn signals, you have to be a bit obsessive about turning yours off whenever you can. Drivers easily assume you’re turning when you’re not and jump in front of you or try to swerve around you from behind—possibly taking you out as they get past you. Push the cancel button repeatedly and get in the habit of doing it without even looking to see if your signal is actually on or not. It’s a brilliant habit that will keep you out of trouble rather than possibly creating it.
10. Assertiveness Keeps You Safe, not Aggressiveness
(Don’t be this guy.)
We’ve seen aggressive riders, or what we like to call stupidity. You might be the fastest, but you’re also the least protected. Don’t be afraid, however, to ride with assertiveness. Use your signals, even your hands, and move confidently when it’s safe—and without hesitation. Pick your safe location in the lane and own it so drivers can see you. Move up when you need to and pull back when the purposes serve your own safety. Don’t feel you need to ride with the flow of traffic or occupy an unsafe spot in the lane because you don’t have the assertiveness to ride well. Know the difference between trying to beat other drivers and manage your surroundings.