Riding defensively isn’t the only approach you need in traffic
For thirteen years I worked full-time for Petersen Publishing Company and commuted by motorcycle into Hollywood, California, from the San Fernando Valley in what can be described as “insanely heavy traffic.” Though I’m no longer in California, I still ride and drive in heavy traffic occasionally, and last week in the middle of Las Vegas rush hour I was reminded of the most dangerous commutes from the magazine era.
Ask the general public and they’ll equate “dangerous” with fast and too much speed and aggression, so when I write “dangerous commutes,” some will think they happened on the days I was late and rushed and hurried. But in fact, the most dangerous days were just the opposite.
The most dangerous days were days when I thought: I’m gonna be mellow today and just cruise along, go with the flow, take it easy. Those were the days I almost got hit. The decision to take it easy often came after a speeding ticket or after we (the speed-addled magazine staffers) had been stretching time and space, but that decision put me right in the middle of traffic and at their pace.
Few of us need to be reminded of the generally poor driver training most car drivers have undergone, and when you decide to hang around in the same general vicinity of these drivers, their poor training and decision making become immediately obvious. These “mellow” days taught me a lesson and I’ll put it this way: Go Rider Go.
Motorcyclists must learn to move through traffic in a slightly aggressive manner, always trickling through slightly faster than surrounding traffic. We need ride through traffic, not with traffic.
You will notice the italicized slightly in the above paragraph because blasting through traffic too fast will get you cited, and it should because big speed in heavy traffic areas is a leading cause of our deaths. I’m writing about moving gently but consistently through traffic during commutes or heavy freeway traffic, always pushing forward and rarely if ever riding along in the flow of traffic.
You are the aggressor because it allows you to be in better command of the situation. You are acting upon the other cars, rather than them acting upon you. You are jumping through blind spots rather than riding in them. And you are less worried about cars approaching from your rear because you are moving slightly faster than most of the traffic, which allows the majority of your focus to be on your next move ahead of you, rather than a car’s next move as it approaches you from behind. Don’t be in a position of hoping distracted and poorly trained drivers will pilot their way around you. Please take a share of my cynicism on the subject of driver performance and don’t be around when the mistakes are committed.
Some interesting things will happen when you do. You will find pockets in the traffic where you have no one around you and you will sit and enjoy these pockets. As the pockets close, you will move forward again. Your friends will notice that you ride at the flow of traffic when there’s nobody near you, but slightly increase your pace as cars come close. You will begin to drive your car like this too, and be safer for it.
Your riding will become less reactive because you aren’t just sitting there hoping everyone sees you and makes good decisions around you. You will be approaching traffic from behind and judging the vehicles, imagining what they might do and where they’re going to be in a few seconds. You will be more in control of your future because you’re helping to create it, not just let it roll over you. Literally.
One last example to help you understand the mindset: Last month I booked a shuttle from the airport to my parent’s house, and the driver’s habits had me squirming in my seat. His top priority in the fast-moving traffic was the speed limit, and cars and trucks flowed past us left and right.
His adherence to the speed limit constantly placed us in awkward positions as he peered in his mirror looking for an opening, or got dive-bombed by someone exiting or entering the freeway. I was scared. We were forfeiting control of our health to others because they were catching and passing us, making decisions on following distances and passing tolerances. I like it the other way around and encourage you to match a successful rider’s defensive techniques with enough aggression to have you move smoothly through traffic. Go Rider, Go.