Riding a motorcycle is an inherently dangerous undertaking. On a vehicle that requires a stand to stay upright while unattended, with a gas tank almost directly under the operator, and with no safety devices for rider protection, things can and do go wrong. However, the greatest threats to a biker's life and well-being come from outside forces, from the drivers of cars and trucks around them (a.k.a. cagers).
Every rider knows the following to be true: you must expect every cager to try to kill you.
While the truth is that it's rare a cager is actually trying to kill a rider, it's often a distinction without a difference thanks to their actions on the road.
Motorcycles are harder to see for most people. They have a smaller profile from nearly all angles than a cage, are challenging to discern rate-of-travel accurately, and seem to appear out of nowhere so much of the time. But, as tends to be the case with most things, it's rarely as simple as it seems.
1. Driver Inattention
“I swear I didn't see you.”The Majority of Drivers Following an Accident with a Motorcycle
I have looked a waiting driver in the eyes only to have them pull out in front of me anyway, as I'm sure many have. Most drivers can look directly at a motorcycle and still not see them. I'm sure there is a more succinct technical term for the phenomena, but basically, the size, shape, and overall form of a motorcycle don't fit into their expectations of what's on the road around them. They expect to see a large four-plus-wheeled vehicle and when they don't, they assume it's clear.
They may indeed look before merging into the next lane, but they're not looking for narrow motorcycles. Of course, that's only when they do actually look. More often these days than not, people are distracted.
There are a million and one excuses for why someone can't keep their full attention on the road at all times behind the wheel. Food and drink, children, passengers, the radio, GPS navigation, and even just stress thinking, but cell phones are quickly becoming the dominant driver distraction. Here in Texas, they're kicking off the 2022 riding season with a campaign against distracted driving due to the high mortality rate in crashes caused by distracted driving, and that's just focused on all vehicles. The rates are higher when motorcyclists are involved.
In a car on the road with nothing but other cars, the brief maneuver of changing lanes without looking is relatively innocuous. One driver slams on the brakes, there's honking, maybe some yelling, then everyone goes on about their day. Not so if the encroached vehicle is a motorcycle.
Driving is not simple. It may be easy to take control of a vehicle with the steering wheel and pedals, but the complexities of accurately controlling it on the road are too often underestimated. One must be alert at all times. Distractions in the vehicle are only as acceptable as the loss of life they can cause.
Not even your screaming baby is worth hurling thousands of pounds of metal even a single inch without your entire attention on the road around you. Not just in front, but behind and to both sides as well. The kid can be coddled later.
That text message you've been waiting on all day can wait until you're stopped. If it's really that urgent, there's always someplace you can pull off the road to handle it.
Spilled your coffee? Again, pull off the road and deal with it.
Running late isn't an excuse. Everybody is late at least some of the time, and your failure to prepare for your commute by giving yourself ample time to make it is not a justification for endangering other motorists. If you leave late, then you just mucked up. Deal with it.
I know this is all just common sense but sense isn't as common as it used to be. The consequences of a cager not following the rules of the road are easily devastating to a biker, which brings me to my next point.
What happens when a biker has to make an emergency stop because say a cager turned left in front of them on a 50 MPH road?
A skilled rider can apply aggressive braking without dropping the bike. An inexperienced rider may not. That may not be enough to stop before hitting the cage, though. While a motorcycle can outperform almost any car out there, it has very specific limitations. One of those limits is braking. Bikes cannot stop on a dime. They have less than a quarter of the traction of a typical four-wheeled vehicle, must negotiate gravity at all times, and have far more controls to manipulate for every maneuver.
If a bike's front wheel locks up during heavy braking, the most common result is the front wheel sliding out from under the bike. It's violent and immediate, and once it starts there is nothing that can be done to arrest it. A rear-wheel slide is not as catastrophic, but it can be, and motorcycle braking systems are designed as 70/30 – meaning the front brake provides 70% of the bike's stopping power, and the rear brake provides 30%.
What about the rider who leaves tons of space between them and the vehicle in front of them?
In addition to the limitation of hard-braking on a motorcycle, there is also the factor of reaction time to consider. Motorcyclists are often the most alert people on the road, but even if they immediately see the danger ahead, there is still a delay between recognizing the hazard and actually applying evasive maneuvers such as braking. At 70 MPH even a single second can be the difference between going home or going to the local morgue.
So, when a cager uses that life-saving space to advance their position on the road (a net gain of possibly 1 second on their total trip), it puts the most unprotected vehicle on the road in a situation where they must choose between slowing down the traffic behind them (problems ensue) or sacrificing the benefits of the safe following distance you just robbed them of.
That exact situation is one of many reasons why motorcyclists are generally encouraged to go faster than the vehicles around them. Cops will stop cagers for doing just 2 MPH over the limit, but on that same stretch of road, that same cop will let a biker go doing 6 MPH over the limit. Why? Because riding with the flow of traffic is dangerous on a bike. You disappear easier.
Driver blindspots are very real, and despite it being the sole responsibility of a driver to check and clear his or her own blindspots at all times, too few actually do it. Because, you know, turning your head for a second is much too difficult. A bike that is constantly moving faster than the cars around it will only pass through blindspots but never stay in one.
The same goes for cagers, too, but with a literal cage and bumpers and crumple zones and airbags, they are not afforded this same ability. They will survive a fender-bender, a biker may not.
As a cager, have you ever been waiting to turn out onto a road and see an oncoming biker swerve side to side in their lane?
The reason why is two-fold:
- Drivers expect to see the broad front end of a car or truck and absent that abundant profile may not register at all the sight of a motorcycle's skinny front end. Weaving within the lane makes the bike's profile a little larger and more noticeable.
- Because bikes are so narrow from the front, it is often extremely difficult to gauge the speed and timing of an approaching motorcycle. Bikers employ a couple of strategies to combat this problem, one of which is more and brighter lights (headlights, running lights, fog/auxiliary lights). The other is weaving. That weaving motion changes the background of a rider from the driver's perspective. The changing background provides the driver with more information to determine not only the presence of the motorcyclist but their rate of travel as well.
That said, always assume the bike is traveling faster than you think because they usually are. What you see is deceiving.
Other issues that arise on the road are cagers not understanding how turn signals are actually supposed to be used and what establishes a motorist's right of way.
Though so many drivers become major assholes when they see another driver turn on their blinker, discouraging one from giving them the chance to inflict their asshole-ry on them, turn signals are designed to indicate your next move. Turning your blinker on a second before, or worse, after beginning your lane change is dangerous.
Bikers are all about moving themselves into the best position for the situation. When a car merges in front of them, most will change their line within the lane at least. Where we are in a lane helps determine if drivers around us see us. Bikers are constantly evaluating every vehicle around them.
Who's putting on makeup while driving? Who's trying to hide their cell phone against the wheel or in their lap? Who's trying to get an ornery child in the backseat to behave? Who's laughing in conversation with their passenger?
Is the driver on the right paying a lot of attention to the left side of the road? Are they realizing they need to be on the left side in the coming moments? Is the driver behind getting irritated by the slower pace of traffic? Is that why they're tailgating a bit? Will they continue to apply pressure on a rider that can't change the speed of others or will they make a hasty move around the biker to find more space?
Those last two paragraphs are literally about two seconds of thoughts an attentive rider has on a normal city commute. Two seconds.
Rural riders may have fewer drivers to contend with but nature more than makes up for that. Is there a dog about to run out from behind that fence ahead? Deer? Is that car stopped ahead on the shoulder about to make a u-turn on this two-lane country highway? Yeah, drivers pretty much always play a part.
I once read where a guy on a Facebook motorcycle group demanded someone prove to him that loud pipes save lives. That's a thing, you know.
Sure, we like the sound too, but we also like being noticed and loud, bright bikes help accomplish that. The problem is you can't prove a negative. If I ride 20 miles to the store and back and have no close calls with cagers, one can conclude my loud pipes and extra bright lights saved my life. Is that conclusion accurate? Probably not.
What I can tell you, however, is that I've had fewer close calls with loud pipes and bright lights than I had without them. It could be coincidence, or it could be more than that.
I'm not a superstitious individual and yet I have a gremlin bell on my bike (google it). Why? Because of the litany of things that can go wrong on a motorcycle, I choose not to tempt fate whenever possible. If it doesn't work, oh well, but if it does, I want that on my side. I have watched cracks in an undermaintained road (thanks a lot, TXDoT) cause an able-bodied rider with 40 years of experience going below the speed limit to crash and die. The road jumped up and snatched him away from us. He was on a bike he bought three days earlier and it did not yet have a bell.
It's long overdue for state driver's license exams to educate new drivers on normal practices for other types of vehicles on the roads, like motorcycles and 18-wheelers.
What you don't know is more likely to kill me than not.
3. Arrogance & Ego
Regardless of your opinion on lane splitting and lane filtering, one of the biggest hurdles to enacting new laws to allow them in states other than California (lane splitting and filtering) and Utah (lane filtering) is the ego of drivers on the road.
I guess it's part of the human condition that people get competitive and spiteful. I see videos often of Cali riders lane-splitting during rush hour when a driver gets pissed that they have to sit in traffic while the biker slips through. They move to block the rider and sometimes even cause a crash. Or cagers honking when a biker filters up to the front of the line at a red light, then trying to race ahead of them when it turns green. It's stupid and dangerous and illegal.
I'll be the first to admit that there is a segment of riders out there who are the biggest perpetrators of arrogance and ego on the road. Best I can tell, it's usually sportbikes and dirt bikes/enduros more than cruisers, but there are obviously exceptions.
I myself ride Harleys. I'm not a brand-snob or biased against other types of bikes, I just prefer an upright riding position and the heritage and community of Harley-Davidsons. I've met some of the most incredible friends and family on a Harley and had experiences like riding Sturgis in 2021 that I will never forget. Did it bother me that one buddy on our Sturgis trip was riding an automatic Honda Goldwing? Of course not. I loved having him along for the ride and watching him crush the twisties on that bike.
It may be easy to interchange ignorance with arrogance when looking at the things cagers do on the road, but that's because there's a fair amount of both. Some people don't signal a lane change out of ignorance, others out of arrogance.
I'm guilty of it myself. “Look buddy, my blinker is a courtesy to you, not a request.” I've said that plenty of times on the road in my truck. Of course, I was smooth and fluid about it and didn't risk contact, but it happens. It's no different than forcing another driver to obey the concept of a zipper-merge to keep traffic flowing better.
But when there are multi-ton rolling boxes involved, especially at higher speeds, egos kill.
Don't like the bike getting in front of you at a light? Too bad. You're not usually going to outpace them, so give it a few seconds and they'll be gone. Pissed that a biker utilized a passing zone to go around your slow ass? Get over it.
You do not have the right to so much as harmlessly swerve in a biker's direction. Again, for you (the cager) it may be some aches and financial burden, but for the biker, it could be the loss of a limb, months in a hospital, or much, much worse.
Not that some bikers won't be in the wrong and deserve a little scare, but the consequences of even a scare can be deadly. It's not worth it. Even in a state where splitting is illegal, could you really handle waking up every day knowing that you caused someone's death because they were skipping ahead in traffic and you couldn't?
We ALL need to put our egos away and have more patience on the road, but bikers aren't killing many people with their 500-1,200-pound rigs.
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Whatever is going on in your life, when you sit behind the wheel of a car or truck, the safe and responsible operation of that vehicle must be your sole priority. Put down the phones, use your eyes, look twice, and avoid the nightmares of the day you claimed someone's life.
It is that important.
And for those who may be thinking something to the effect of, if you want safety, choose a safer vehicle… my choice to travel light, with a smaller footprint left behind, and better mileage than some electric cars, is not your choice.
I may be on two wheels but they are fully taxed and registered wheels with every bit as much right to the roads as your four wheels. I choose exhilaration and freedom over comfort and convenience. I choose community and brotherhood over isolation and mechanical barriers. I choose the inability to stress about life over the stress of life impairing my ability to drive.
It's not for everyone, that's for sure, but for those of us who do ride I can assure you, it's more than just a vehicle choice. We can no more easily give up motorcycling than someone can change being gay. It runs deep, y'all. It's a passion. It's a need. It's a lifestyle. It's our only means of sanity in an insane world. It's also fun af. Sorry, but not sorry.