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Motorcyclist Asks About Drivers

This letter writer, a motorcyclist, asks the eternal question about drivers, to which the eternal answer is, "You guys are just as bad." But give him a chance to make his point.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
"I would like to know why drivers do the things they do.

"Maybe it would make me more tolerant and thus less stressed with my time on the road. Let me begin by saying I am a motorcyclist and have taken various safety courses so that when it comes down to a standoff with a car, I am going to back off, as will any trained motorcyclist. But why do cars break into a group of motorcyclists in which it should be obvious are trying to keep together?

"I don't even understand it when they are in the left lane and want to exit on the right. Didn't they know this before they tried to pass all the motorcycles? We are law abiding citizens and so obey the traffic laws.

"Because of this, at an intersection we don't try to prevent a car from turning onto the same road on which we are traveling. As a result, this will put a car into the middle of our group. Can't a car when it comes up to an intersection recognize that there is a group of motorcyclists and let them continue in a group? This has led me to figure that most drivers are totally ignorant of what is happening on the road around them. Is this the way it really is?"

I don't believe in class warfare: dividing travelers into sides, as in drivers vs. bikers, or pedestrians vs. motorists. (Though it's always a great way to generate new letters for my column.)

Can there be a good reason a driver would break into a group of motorcyclists? I can't think of one. But if it happens by accident or intent, motorcyclists should be prepared to deal with it.

Many motorcyclists I talk with are proud of their safety training. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation offers this good advice about riding in groups:
-- Keep the group to a manageable size, ideally five to seven riders. If necessary, break the group into sub-groups.
-- Avoid side-by-side formations, which reduce the safety cushion between riders.
-- If separated from the group, don't panic. Before starting, have an agreed-upon plan to regroup.

For drivers, the foundation has this safety advice:
-- Because there are a lot more cars and trucks on the road than motorcycles, some drivers have trouble recognizing a motorcycle. (They may even be looking at it, but it doesn't register with them as another vehicle. Bicyclists have the same experience with some car drivers.)
-- Because of its small size, a motorcycle may look farther away than it is, or it may disappear into a vehicle's blindspot.
-- Stopping distance for motorcycles is nearly the same as for cars, but slippery pavement makes stopping quickly difficult. Allow more following distance behind a motorcycle.

By Robert Thomson  |  October 21, 2008; 7:16 AM ET
Categories:  Driving , Safety  
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Last I checked, the individual motorcycle was the vehicle, not the group of motorcycles. Just because you want to stick together in a group doesn't mean other vehicles have no right to merge among you. Occasionally cars will try to be travelling in groups, and other cars merge between them. It's just harder to notice cars travelling in groups than motorcycles.

Posted by: DrB | October 21, 2008 8:42 AM | Report abuse

"This has led me to figure that most drivers are totally ignorant of what is happening on the road around them. Is this the way it really is?"

Yep, that pretty much sums it up.

Most people don't willfully speed through school zones, break up Motorcycle packs, shift lanes without signaling etc. They simply drive with 1/10th the brain focus as they should, IMHO. Hardly anyway to prove that, though.

Posted by: JkR | October 21, 2008 9:37 AM | Report abuse

I admit I am clueless. I'm not quite sure what the letter writer means by "group".

Posted by: This letter makes me feel like Mr Magoo | October 21, 2008 9:54 AM | Report abuse

The problem is I never see groups of motorcycles driving with the guidelines you suggest. They always drive side-by-side in one lane (which seems extremely dangerous to me), they're always in long, spread out groups of 10 or more, and they seem to have an equal disregard for the cars on the road.

I want to specifically address your scenario of needing to get over a lane in order to catch an exit. Do you know how hard it is to do that when it's only other cars and trucks on the road, let alone a long stream of bikers the length of two 18 wheelers? I regularly travel 495 from 66 (a left-hand entrance) to 123 (right-hand exit), 2 miles later. On some days the other drivers are so self-involved I can't even make it all the way over, and have to take the 193 exit another mile further.

So this isn't just you. It's merely another indication as to exactly how poor the other drivers (AND motorcyclists) in this area are.

Posted by: Matt | October 21, 2008 10:20 AM | Report abuse

While I try to respect individual motorcyclists or even groups, it's not as if they are uniquely picked on.

I used to live in Fairview Park near the National Memorial Park Cemetery. Funeral corteges would routinely get off at the Fairview Park shunt from 50 East on the Beltway to get to the cemetery - convenient and a bit easier to keep people together.

Despite a line of cars going slowly with lights on, flags attached with magnets, and/or a police escort with the hearse, you would see people try and cut into or through the line of cars. It was so incredibly rude.

You're living in DC. There will always be someone too self-important or too self-involved to be considerate of a traveling group.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | October 21, 2008 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Okay, point made and point taken, but really, you can just file this with "[pedestrians/cyclists/motorcyclists/etc.] who don't understand why [pedestrians/cyclists/motorcyclists/etc.] do the things they do".

Lots of valid points, but riding motorcycles in a group is mainly for the enjoyment of the riders, not for safety reasons or anything else. (At least that's what is implied by the MSF's group riding quick tips, by my reading.) I think motorcycles deserve extra caution on the part of drivers, but a "group" of motorcycles is no more sacred than a "group" of cars.

I'll just add that it seems to me that motorcyclists attempting to ride in a group is fine in certains types of road environments (highways are an obvious example, maybe?), but any area that has a lot of stoplights, driveways (residential or commercial), intersections, etc. is not really suitable for group motorcycle riding.

Posted by: Doppler | October 21, 2008 10:36 AM | Report abuse

Driving in a group of cars or driving in a group of motorcycles is not any kind of special right. Sometimes cars will need to break into the group in order to reach an exit ramp or something like that. Any group of motorcycles or cars that actively tries to prevent people from cutting into the group is endangering themselves, because they are likely following way too closely.

I've travelled in a group of cars before, but usually no more then 3 cars in the group. And there are some special driving maneuvers that take place when following, which I usually make sure the others in my party know. For example, lane changes. The lead driver determines that there is a need to change lanes. He puts his turn signal on. The rear driver sees the turn signal, then signals and changes lanes as soon as possible, and "holds a spot" in the new lane for the front driver. Then the front driver moves over. If someone merges in between the front and rear car, the front car eases off the gas and slows down enough to make the other car pass. No slamming on brakes, nothing agressive, just drop the speed enough so that they pull out and pass.

But really, my preferred method of "following" someone is not to follow them at all. We agree beforehand on the route and a specific meeting spot, and then just drive from meeting point to meeting point. In my opinion, that's the safest way to do it. If we have to change the route (construction or accident or something else comes up), that's what we have cell phones for. And if we have enough people to be travelling in a group, then there are enough people in each car so passengers can call each other and drivers don't have to talk on the phones.

Posted by: Woodley Park | October 21, 2008 11:04 AM | Report abuse

From the post above:
"For drivers, the foundation has this safety advice:"

Only ONE of those things was even advice. The first two items seemed to excuse the behavior.

Why aren't we teaching new drivers that cars don't own the road, and that motorcycles and bicycles are vehicles? Why aren't we teaching them that pedestrians don't have to get out of their way when they're turning into a driveway across a sidewalk, whether or not there's traffic coming?

Saying "Most motorists just don't see those kinds of vehicles" and "Sometimes they end up in blind spots" is NOT advice for drivers.

Posted by: Emily | October 21, 2008 11:05 AM | Report abuse

How stupid are these bikers that they can't figure out how to get to their destination without holding hands with another biker?

Posted by: Anonymous | October 21, 2008 12:57 PM | Report abuse

I remember a group of bikers blocking the left lane on 270, going the same speed as a car in the right lane, for miles and miles. It isn't just drivers of cars that are not paying attention.

Posted by: dkf747 | October 21, 2008 1:16 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry, I'm not really getting this -- I'm with Dr. B, above. I generally don't break into any kind of group that is obviously traveling together -- car, truck, U-Haul, motorcycles, etc. But the letter treats the issue as though cars that break in are committing some sort of cardinal sin. Sorry, no -- the vehicle is the motorcycle, not the group. The desire to enjoy a ride together should be respected whenever possible, but it's not an inalienable right.

Why might a car need to insert itself into such a group? Most often, because it's a big group, and/or the riders are spread out. I don't like to ride the left lane when faster people need to pass; if I am passing a group of motorcycles with someone coming up on my tail, and there is plenty of room between riders for me to move over safely, I will do so, then complete my pass once the other car has gone by. I do this with cars, and consider it a courtesy to the drivers behind me, so why is it somehow horrible if the person in the right lane is in a motorcycle instead?

More common is when I've been in a long line of traffic in the left lane that has been trying to pass the group for several miles, and my exit comes up -- obviously, I'm not going to start to pass a big group a mile before my exit, but sometimes you can sit in the left lane for 5 miles or more and still not get all the way by. So, again, if I'm in the left lane, I'm going to look for a break in traffic that provides a safe place to move over before my exit -- just as I would if it were a line of cars in the right lane.

Of course, I can't even remember any of these situations coming up more than once or twice -- like I said, I try to leave groups alone. And in general, I agree that cars tend to not pay attention to/respect motorcyclists as much as they should. But it goes both ways -- motorcycles don't have any greater inherent right to ride together than cars do.

Posted by: Laura | October 21, 2008 2:19 PM | Report abuse

"If we have to change the route (construction or accident or something else comes up), that's what we have cell phones for. And if we have enough people to be travelling in a group, then there are enough people in each car so passengers can call each other and drivers don't have to talk on the phones."

Motorcyclists cannot use cell phones (kind of hard with a helmet on, just one of MANY reasons). So they try to travel together to prevent getting separated. Another aspect is that a group of motorcylcists is actually much more visible than a single motorcyclist and it is, thus traveling as a group is a good safety measure (especially for those motorcyclists who may not have done very much long distance travel)

However, I don't think one car breaking into a group (be it cars or motorcycles) will cause such a problem of separation that you won't be able to rejoin your group. Just takes some awareness by yourself and by others in the group.

Posted by: Laura (a different one) | October 21, 2008 4:11 PM | Report abuse

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