By March 12, 2011

Driving a car like a motorcylist

I haven’t been on my motorcycle since October of 2010. I went from riding my motorcycle every day during the work week and not owning a car to wondering if I should sell my bike and spend my immediate future in a cage.

The temperature here in Minnesota is well within my riding range. However, the constant threat of snow and the presence of salt and debris makes riding too risky even for me. My co-workers who ride said that we’ll have to wait until late April or May when the snow finally stops and the rain and street sweepers take care of the roads.

Meanwhile my motorcycling skills continue to degrade. I remember the clumsy acclimation I had to make when I got my FJR back after a month of electrical problems. I’ve never spent this much time off of a bike since I started riding in 2005.

I am worried that if — if — I get back on the FJR that I will have lost not only the physical part of motorcycling, but the mental awareness necessary to keep me safe.

Here’s what I’ve been doing in the meantime.

Drive your car like you’re riding a motorcycle

No, I don’t mean leaning over inside the cab of your SmartCar to turn more effectively. I mean things like:

  • Not sightseeing, and concentrating on what is immediately in front and around me. As I told my friend Stilts a long time ago, “Ignore it if it won’t hit you or write you a ticket it.”
  • Watch your six o’clock. This actually gets used a lot out here right now. I have driven to work many days when the roads were slick with snow, ice, crap, or a combination thereof. Getting rear ended is a real threat. I drive my car like a motorcyclist by keeping my MazdaSpeed3 in gear and watching my mirrors until the car behind me is at a complete stop. I also leave room between my car and the car in front of me in case I need to scoot up or try to escape.
  • Some of the principles for merging onto and off of a highway still apply to cars. Ever since motorcycling I’ve noticed how little automobile drivers are aware of their surroundings. Some motorists pull onto the highway without looking. I haven’t decided if it’s more annoying when someone signals and cuts off another car. On one hand, it’s nice that they hit their flashers. On the other, a blinking yellow light isn’t a force field that protects you from a nearby car.
  • I still scoot my car to the edge of my lane when I get near a car that seems “off.” I wrote about this technique in how to avoid a lane incursion. The effect isn’t as pronounced in my Mazda because a car takes up so much more of a lane than a motorcycle, but the principle is still the same: when you’re going highway speeds, even an inch or two may give you enough time to react to a bad driver.
  • I believe that anticipation is the #1 survival characteristic of a motorcyclist. Anticipating trouble and reacting appropriately trumps agility and skill. You can’t always react fast enough once a situation begins to unfold — you have to have anticipated it before it began.

    In this respect, motorcycling is a lot like personal defense. You may get lucky and get out of a self-defense situation once you’re in the act of being mugged or assaulted. However, it is a lot easier and more effective to avoid being in that type of situation in the first place. Monitoring situations consistently and anticipating the actions of others applies equally to riding a motorcycle or traversing the streets on foot. I pay particular attention to groups of cars or people in unexpected places.

    Why is traffic slowed in the middle of the highway devoid of any on-ramps or off-ramps? Why is there a cluster of people on the sidewalk? Who knows, but it makes me more aware of what’s going on.

There isn’t much I can do about the physical aspects of motorcycling. The fine motor skills required for throttle and brake control are going to have degraded. My immediate plan is to take at least a day off from work and ride the bike around town. I’ll go after rush hour, and get home before the evening commute begins. I am particularly nervous about cornering, so I am going to practice on some of Minnesota’s terribly designed corkscrew on- and off-ramps.

I know a lot of riders take this same amount of time off every year. I know that some of them get lucky and avoid accidents. I also know that the spring marks the most dangerous, deadly time for all two-wheeled riders. This is partially due to the influx of newbie riders. It is also due to existing riders buying new motorcycles and learning their intricacies. I know that it is also due to dusty experienced riders finding their “bike legs” again. Motorcycle fatalities are always higher in the spring, and I am not sure there is much one can do when they live in a region that doesn’t allow for persistent motorcycling.

Stay safe out there, and keep the shiny side up.

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4 Comments on "Driving a car like a motorcylist"

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  1. Andrew says:

    Anticipation + no sightseeing is 80% of my riding strategy. If I see a cluster of taillights ahead, I force myself to track it while looking around for the next thing that’s going to go wrong. I’m less worried I’m going to be hit by someone involved in the cluster ahead than by someone behind or alongside me who decides to get creative (sloppy) with his evasive maneuvering.

  2. Brice says:

    I’m up here in Montana. Today was the first day I’ve gotten the bike out since September. Don’t worry about corning. It’ll be a minimum of a month before enough gravel has been removed from the road to make any turn safe enough to actually turn like a motorcycle. As for mental awareness, I’ve never had a problem. You feel so much more alive on a bike, the natural high really helps increase my awareness of my surroundings.

  3. Andrew says:

    I live in Chicago and finally got my bike out of the garage for first time since November. All I can say is: Ride within your limits; and acknowledge that your limits have changed.

  4. DrFaulken says:

    Andrew, very true — a bunch of my friends who also live in colder climates have had some … not awesome … experiences this spring.

    I’ve taken it pretty slowly, especially in the corners and intersections. Some of my co-workers, who ride even less than I do now, excitedly discuss “bombing the twisties” during the weekend. Guess I’ll be abstaining from the group rides with co-workers :