How to Ride a Motorcycle in Traffic


Whether you ride a motorcycle for fun, for long distance travel, or for commuting, you will be riding in all sorts of traffic situations from bumper to bumper freeway traffic to congested city streets. Mixing and mingling with automobiles puts you at greater risk of an accident, so it’s important to stay alert. Here are some tips on how to safely ride a motorcycle in traffic.

One tip that applies to riding in traffic in all situations is to try to anticipate what other drivers are going to do. This takes a certain amount of mental alertness. Always scan your environment for potential obstacles. Cars can enter the roadway from driveways, side streets and intersections and you should always assume they don’t see you.

Another general tip is to avoid riding if you are angry or upset. If you’re commuting home from a really lousy day at the office, take a few minutes to wind down, breath deep and relax before you jump on your motorcycle for the ride home. Maintaining this relaxed nature and attitude while riding in traffic will help get you home safe. Once you’re home, you can pour yourself a drink, let it all out and vent all you want.

Freeway Riding

Freeways, highways or interstates are actually some of the safest places to ride, although new riders seem to fear it the most. It’s safer because everyone is going the same direction at relatively the same speed. There are no traffic lights or people trying to turn in front of you. But, you still need to practice certain skills to ride safely on the freeway.

Your choice of lanes and your lane position can help keep you safer. When you enter the freeway, move over to the far left lane as soon as it is safe to do so. Stay in the far left lane, closest to the center divider, commonly known as the fast lane or the number one lane. Here, you only have to worry about traffic to the right of you and you only need to check one mirror instead of two. There is a reduced risk of someone swerving in front of you to catch an exit. And, you’re less likely encounter someone merging into you when entering the freeway from an on-ramp.

Stay out of a driver’s blind spot. Position yourself so that you can see their face in their sideview mirror. That means they can see you when they look in their mirror. Don’t linger and ride beside a car or truck if you can help it. If you find yourself riding alongside another vehicle, accelerate ahead of it to avoid a collision if the car decides to change lanes and they don’t see you.

Large, big rig trucks will have a much harder time seeing you on a motorcycle. You should assume they don’t see you at all. If you’re passing a big rig, accelerate past it quickly and do not move in front of it until you are at least a few car lengths ahead. Truck drivers can’t see you when you are riding directly in front of the truck. That’s one of the most dangerous places you can be. So, when it comes to big rigs, pass them when necessary, but stay clear of them as much as possible.

Use the high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes or car pool lanes. Motorcycles are allowed to use these lanes without a passenger, so take advantage of it. The congestion in these lanes is often less. Keep in mind that some cities have designated entrance and exit points for HOV lanes and drivers, including yourself, are not allowed to cross over into the HOV lanes outside these designated areas. However, since there are no physical barriers to prevent people from doing so, cars don’t always obey those lines and there is always a risk of someone entering the lane in front of you.

Position yourself on either the left side or right side of the lane. This part of the road is generally cleaner with less debris and oil. It also allows you to swerve out of the way if traffic stops suddenly.

Never follow a vehicle too close. Increased following distance is not only to prevent you from slamming into a car’s rear end when it stops, but to also be prepared to react if the car runs over an obstacle. A car or truck can easily run over debris in the roadway, such as a board or a piece of tire tread. But on a motorcycle, this obstacle could be a disaster. Leaving yourself ample room will give you more time to react in this situation.

City Streets

Riding on busy city streets can introduce a whole new set of fears and anxiety. Tall buildings towering over head, busses and taxis merging in and out of traffic, and the confusion of one-way streets can put any motorcycle rider on edge. But, many of the same safe riding techniques used on the freeway can apply in a busy city.

While it’s difficult to maintain a safe distance behind cars in a crowded city, try to keep a safe distance based on your speed and position yourself to one side or the other of your lane to avoid being hit from behind.

Be extra aware of your surroundings and try to anticipate what drivers are going to do. Look at a car’s front wheels for signs of changing lanes and watch for turn signals. If one lane is extremely congested, but the other lanes are clear, you can be certain someone from that crowded lane is going to jump over into the clear lane. If there’s a truck blocking a lane, you can bet that the car behind it will want to change lanes to avoid it. When you start recognizing these potential behaviors, you’ll be in a better position to avoid them.

One-way streets can be tricky, but they can also be a blessing. Riding in the center lane of a one-way street helps reduce encounters with turning cars or parked cars pulling out. Look for traffic signs that will tell you which streets are one-way and which direction traffic flows. One clue, if you don’t see a sign, is to look at how the cars are parked. If they’re all parked in the same direction on both sides of the streets, then it’s a one-way street.

Downtown city streets, especially cities with subway systems, will often metal grates on the road. Be aware that these metal grates can be slick if they’re wet. Keep your motorcycle straight and upright when riding over them, and keep your grip relaxed.

Be careful when riding alongside rail road or trolly tracks. Not only can they be slick when they’re wet, they can upset your front wheel if you get it caught in the rut. Especially at slow speeds, this can cause your bike to go down. If you need to change lanes over parallel tracks, do so at an angle as much as possible. Get your front wheel past the tracks at an angle, and the fatter, rear wheel will follow.

Large cities with bus transit systems often have designated bus lanes. While it varies from city to city, motorcycles are usually not allowed to travel in these lanes. You can enter the lane to make a turn or to pull in and out of a parking space if necessary, but they are reserved for buses, taxis and emergency vehicles. So, while it’s tempting to take advantage of the open lane, it could cost you a ticket.

Suburban Streets

Riding in the suburbs is like a combination of city riding and highway riding. The main roads are often two or more lanes wide with signal lights at the intersections. There are often business driveways where cars are pulling in and out. On these roads, it’s best to position yourself in the center of the roadway, away from the edges, giving you more time to react. If you see a car waiting to pull out onto the road, assume it doesn’t see you. Rest your fingers on you brake and clutch levers and have an escape route ready.

Watch out for the dreaded left hand turn lane. This is one of the most common causes of motorcycle accidents; a car turning left in front of you. Do everything you can to stay visible to oncoming traffic wanting to turn left. Be aware of your surroundings. Is there a car next to you? Can you maneuver out of the way in time? Cover your front brake and horn and be ready always assuming the car does not see you.

That’s a lot to think about when driving on suburban streets and going through intersections, but those thoughts happen in a matter of seconds and with a little practice they become second nature.

When riding in residential areas, keep your speed down as there will be more activity in the streets, especially in summer when kids are out playing. While going a measly 25 miles per hour may seem daunting, it’s safer and better for our reputation as riders.

If your daily commute takes you past a school, be extra cautious. Parents will be pulling in and own of the school parking lot dropping off their kids. Other kids will be crossing the streets and, believe me, they are NOT paying attention to traffic. So, it’s up to you to watch out for them. If traffic builds up in front of a school, don’t get impatient and zip around the cars. You never know when a kid is going to jump out. If a school zone slows you down and gets on your nerves, consider changing your route to avoid it.

Do Loud Pipes Help?

There is a common belief that loud pipes save lives; that loud pipes will alert cars that a motorcycle is close by. There is a lot of debate about this and riders will generally take one side or the other. However, there is no proof that this concept makes you safer. Let’s look at a few reasons why.

  • There’s no guarantee that a car driver will hear you if their windows are up, music is playing, or on the phone.
  • Exhaust pipes are facing towards the back of the bike, so the sound travels behind you, not in front of you. A car won’t hear your pipes until you are right up on it.
  • Sudden loud noises can startle some drivers and cause them to swerve, unintentionally towards you.
  • Use your horn. The horn is a forward facing sound that will do a better job at alearting cars to your presence.

Lane Splitting or Lane Filtering

Lane splitting and lane filtering are actually two different things. Lane splitting is when a motorcycle rides between the lanes of moving traffic. Lan filtering is when a motorcycle moves between stationary cars to get to the front of the line at a stop light, for example.

In european and asian countries, lane splitting and filtering are not only legal, it is expected. Riders do it all the time and car drivers are used to it and accept it. However, in the United States, for some reason there is an absolute disdain for lane splitting. Drivers hate it, cops hate it (ok, not all drivers and cops hate it, but still…). It seems like the U.S. has yet to catch up with the rest of the world to see the benefits of lane splitting.

California is the only state that legally allows it, however, there are some states that allow it even though it is not officially on the books. Those states, as of 2018, are

  • Montana
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Oklahoma
  • Arkansa
  • Missouri
  • Mississippi
  • Ohio
  • Kentucky
  • North Carolina
  • Delaware

Why U.S. drivers have a hard time with motorcycles splitting lanes is a bit of a mystery. Could it be that drivers are so agitated being stuck in traffic that they feel a twinge of jealousy when a motorcycle zooms by? Could it be that irresponsible riders tarnished our reputation by splitting at dangerous speeds? Who knows. But the truth is, lane splitting is safe when done properly. It reduces the risk of being rear ended and has resulted in 30% fewer deaths in California compared to other states that don’t allow lane splitting.

Splitting lanes can be a little nerve wracking at first, but with a little practice, it’s the best way to avoid traffic jams and do your part to keep traffic flowing. There is actually a lot more room between cars than you might realize. But, there are a few thing to be aware of when lane splitting. The California Highway Patrol has posted guidelines to help you do it safely.

  • Evaluate the entire area, all of your surroundings.
  • Do not split at more than 10 miles per hour faster than the traffic around you.
  • Do not split if traffic is moving faster than 30 miles per hour.
  • Be aware of road conditions in between lanes. Sometimes there can be wide cracks in between lanes that can catch your front tire causing you to swerve.
  • It’s safer to lane split between the #1 and #2 lanes.
  • Do not split between large trucks or wide vehicles. If you can’t fit, don’t split.
  • It is illegal to ride on the shoulder, and doing so is not considered lane splitting.
  • Try to anticipate what a driver is going to do. Look for turn signals, turned tires or changes in a driver’s head position (are they looking back to check for clearance?). This could mean they are changing lanes.
  • Keep two fingers on the brake and clutch levers as well as a thumb on the horn. This will keep you ready to react if needed.

No Road Rage – Let it Go

Riding in traffic also requires a little extra patience. At one point or another a car is going to cut you off, turn left in front of you, or be a complete idiot. If you have a close call, it’s better to just let it go. Don’t let yourself get a case of road rage, which can cause us to ride more aggressively. I know, we’d all love to smash that guys side mirror, but doing stuff like that will only escalate an issue and cause more problems.

Anticipating what a vehicle will do comes with experience; the more you ride, the better you get. And, as always, never ride if you’ve been drinking, and always wear your gear.

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