Editor's note: This article was originally posted in August, 2012, but the same principals of riding safety and road hazards apply today. Find more articles about motorcycle safety and technique in the WRN Riding Right section.
Identifying Road Hazards
We all want to mount up on two wheels, feel the wind in our face, and enjoy the open air around us. We also want to have a safe ride. To help you have fun on your motorcycle and feel safe while doing it, here are five of the top hazards all motorcycle riders should be on the lookout for while traveling out on the road.
1. Blind Spots
Be sure not to ride in any vehicle’s blind spot—that is, the area around a vehicle that is not visible to the driver using his or her mirrors. It’s bad enough when a car driver doesn't turn and look when changing lanes in front of another car. Now think about that happening when the other car is a motorcycle. If you think you're riding in that gray zone, either speed up and get past the vehicle or slow down to allow the vehicle enough room to change lanes.
2. Uneven Road Surfaces
Road construction is a pain, but we all get stuck riding in it. If the lanes are uneven, try to stay in the same lane until the uneven lanes end. Also be on the lookout for divots in the road. These are often caused by a large truck dragging something from its undercarriage, leaving a depression in the road—sometimes for a good distance. Getting your bike caught up in indentations like these may cause your tire tread to “catch,” possibly leading to a loss of control.
3. Debris, Gravel, Oil, Sand, Slick Surfaces
Need I say more? Riding on two wheels is all about stability, and it doesn’t take much to lose that precious stability when riding on sand, gravel, oil, ice, or debris. If you're not careful when riding through these materials, you can easily lose traction, causing the bike to slide. If you can, stop and evaluate the surface. If it looks unsafe, find another way around. If you must ride through one of these road hazards, do so carefully and at a slow, steady, safe speed. Avoid leaning, and most importantly, don't brake or accelerate quickly or suddenly.
4. Side Roads
Why are side streets a road hazard? Because they're everywhere, and vehicles are turning out from them and in front of us constantly. Always look ahead to side roads, where you may see a vehicle waiting to enter the road in front of you. Expect that vehicles will not always see you, and plan your reaction. For example, you might think, “If that car pulls out, can I move to the left lane? Should I slow down in case they do?” Swerving is sometimes unavoidable but can be a hazard if there is a vehicle in the next lane or it isn't performed correctly. Don’t overreact, but be ready to react!
Intersections are arguably the most dangerous road hazard for motorcyclists. After all, intersections can involve all four road hazards listed above. In an intersection, you need to be on the lookout for vehicles changing lanes around you (even though they're not supposed to), while also watching for debris, gravel, and oil in the roadway. You should be conscious of uneven surfaces, but you also need to watch for vehicles turning left in front of you and turning right into your path of travel. Traffic-light changes also necessitate that you be aware of vehicles stopping quickly or not stopping soon enough. Are you feeling overwhelmed yet? Don’t. Just take a deep breath and a big look around.
Intersections can combine many hazards into one, but having a plan of action and keeping a clear head will help you navigate through any hairy situations you may encounter.
The best thing to do in intersections—and every time you saddle up and ride—is to play the “What if...?” game in your mind. Think, “If a car pulls out in front of me, what will I do? How will I react?” The main thing is to be prepared and to avoid overreacting.
I have seen many crashes where a motorcyclist assumed a vehicle was not going to stop and their quick overreaction was to grab the front brake or slam on the rear brake, causing a skid (loss of traction.) Wrong move! Practice proper emergency braking so that you will automatically use good braking techniques when necessary.
Instead of panicking, always be sure to look ahead, assume vehicles don’t see you, and have your plan of action ready. If you see a vehicle approaching the intersection (or stop sign, yield sign, etc.), slow down and move to the opposite side of your lane. For example, if a vehicle is approaching from a side road on your right, move to the left side of your lane. This allows you more room to react and move if you need to. Soon enough, it will become second nature.