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Street Survival

Group Motorcycle Riding
There is security but also risks in numbers for motorcyclists who choose to ride in groups. Here are a few things to consider before you join a motorcycle convoy. From the Fall 1996 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine. By Art Friedman.

Two Yamaha V Stars front right side view with riders
Do as I say... Here the author and Evans Brasfiedl show the wrong way to negotiate a narrow winding road as they try to cram two motorcycles onto one magazine cover. On roads such of these, you should spread out and go single file. Photo by Fran Kuhn.

Personally, I'm not a fan of group motorcycle rides. Riding with a bunch of other motorcyclists slows you down, rearranges the rhythm of riding, and gets in the way of the independence that is at the heart of why I ride.

My idea of a large group is three people. I am most happy by myself or with one other rider I know and trust. Nonetheless, I frequently find myself participating in group rides at various events and new-model introductions or in the process of producing the magazine. As a result, I am frequently reminded of the mistakes even good riders sometimes make when put in a group. Riding in a group can pose a variety of safety challenges.

The proximity of other riders, as when you are close to any other vehicle, presents a potential risk. If you wander into each other's zones, you can cause one or both to crash. I have observed riders run onto the shoulder by other riders in their group who overlooked them or wandered off their intended paths while distracted. I have been rear-ended twice by people I was riding with. And I have heard of several riders who were injured when two or more bikes in a group collided. In one case, the lead rider slowed to make a left turn, but the riders following him did not signal and then got on their brakes hard. A rider farther back in the group was taken by surprise when they suddenly jumped on their brakes. He couldn't stop and sideswiped the bike in front of him as he tried to avoid it. One rider had his foot severed by a floorboard.

Ride the Plan

Such a disorganized group of riders could only be a bunch of motorcycle journalists, who didn't go to the pre-ride briefing, assuming they knew it all. Photo by Henny Ray Abrahms.

Ideally, you know and trust the people you ride with. However, there has to be a first time for any riding companion. A pre-ride discussion of your plans, preferences, and requirements helps everyone avoid surprises. Talk about a pace, signals, details like fuel stops and routes, and make sure everyone gets to offer something. If you ride with a club, it may have a fairly detailed set of rules for group rides, with procedures for a variety of situations.

On the road, use those signals liberally and be sure that other riders are aware of your intentions so that no one is caught by surprise, which can lead to a collision like the one described above.

The group's leader should signal early and slow gradually. Ideally he knows the route intimately and has a plan to get everyone safely along it without disrupting other traffic. But if it is his first time there, he may get surprised too and have to make a quick decision such as whether to turn abruptly or miss the turn and try to find a way to get everyone turned around safely on down the road.

It's always good to have an experienced rider at the back of the group to ride sweep and attend to those who have problems. He should have a cellphone to call for help.

That's Why they Call Him Scary Harry

Everybody loves a parade. We just hope they are going real slow. The guy in the lower right, who has gotten out of line, looks like the safest one here.

If you aren't comfortable with the riders you end up riding with, give yourself plenty of margin until you discover your companions' habits. On one new model group ride, one rider consistently slowed and made lane changes into riders on his right. He didn't turn his head far enough to really see his blind spot and I think his glasses blocked his view. His loud pipes also drowned out the sounds of bikes near him. It wasn't long before this guy had a large buffer zone around him. He compounded the problem by getting upset and denying it when someone tried to point out the problem. He ended up riding -- and eating -- by himself.

If you aren't comfortable with what others in the group do, drop out before it causes trouble. A common problem is a speed differential. Slower riders often feel uncomfortable trying to maintain the pace of faster folks. They shouldn't try to. If the other riders complain that you are slowing them down, tell them to go ahead. You don't need the risk or the tickets. Problems can also arise when some group members have "a couple of beers" at a lunch stop or if they behave recklessly in other ways. Tell them to go ahead or go ahead yourself. Or take a side trip.

If you have an exhaust system that you think saves lives, other riders will probably be pleased if you deploy it at the back of the group, even if it means a loss of protection. Sidecars and trikes are also best at the back of the group or in a group of their own.

Keep It Together

When traveling with friends, you may be mutually dependent. For example, you might have one first-aid kit, one tire-repair kit, one set of good tools, and one cellular phone (to call for aid), each packed on a different bike. In this situation you probably want to stay together. The most certain way to do this is to make each rider responsible for the one behind him or her. If you don't see the rider behind you for a few minutes, signal the rider ahead if possible, then slow down or pull over and wait for the rider(s) behind you. If everyone in the group does this, you can avoid that 100 miles of back-tracking at night in the rain. However, it's still possible to get separated, such as when a rider who has fallen behind turns a different way than those ahead. To help your group get together again, use these three systems:

1. Give everyone an emergency phone number in writing to call (perhaps someone's answering machine which everyone knows the code for) or everyone’s cell phone numbers. If you have just a single number, Murphy's Sixth Law of Communication says that phone's battery will be dead when the lost boys try to call it.

2. Agree on the next stop every time you all pause for gas, grub or sightseeing. Be precise, "the first gas station on the west side of town," for example.

3. Make sure everyone knows the evening's destination, preferably in writing.

Formation Flying

This group of posers (literally) is only slightly better. They are staggered but should be much more spread out, and probably single-file on this narrow little road. Photo by Dean Groover.

The basic group riding formation is familiar to most riders. The lead rider rides to the left of the lane, with the second rider to the right and a few lengths back. The third rider is a similar distance behind the second, and so on. This staggered formation leaves room for each bike to swerve to the side and provides reaction time to brake. But you can’t change speed and the side of the lane at the same time. Riding side by side limits escape routes when a threat arises. When overtaking and passing traffic, the second rider follows the first, and the third hangs back to let the second pull in to the left to make the pass.

When roads get twisty or narrow, you should open up into a single-file formation. When you come to a stop at an intersection, tighten up into a two-abreast configuration at the stop. If you all stay in a single lane at intersections with two or more lanes each way, it gives the traffic behind you a chance to pass. While it is tempting to block an intersection so your entire group can go through, it is against the law. So is going leaving in large bunches at a time from a four-way stop. More than two (you can each say you thought the other was waiting) is also a request for citation.

One common problem I see with large groups is a failure to provide gaps for other traffic. On a two-lane road, it may be impossible for overtaking traffic to safely pass a line of a dozen or more motorcycles. Some members of the group may get run off the road if a driver tries to pass and has to pull back into the right lane when oncoming traffic appears. On a multi-lane road like an interstate, a long double column of motorcycles may trap a car on one side of it, blocking it from reaching an exit. Some riders act as if permitting a car to cross their column of bikes is a violation of their religious and constitutional rights, and can make a driver already in a panic about missing his exit quite dangerous.

Do address this problem. It's best to ride in sub-groups of four to six bikes and provide a gap of four or more car lengths between each sub-group. These groups can also be responsible for each other, taking care of other members of their group so that the entire fleet of bikes doesn’t end up trying to squeeze onto the shoulder, which can create a real hazard.

If the group is stopping, make sure that everyone gets completely off the road. If you are arriving at a destination with a large group, bikes at the front should keep moving to allow room for the one behind to pull off the road.

Stupid Passing Tricks

Motorcyclists riding in large groups consistently do a bad job of passing slower traffic on two-lane roads, which can create a dangerous situation. Typically they cut back in too close to the car they just passed and immediately slow down. This not only annoys the driver, it leaves little room for the next rider coming up behind. He or she has to wedge in even closer to the front of the car being passed. I have seen riders get locked out of the lane because those ahead left no space for them to pass. When passing a car on a road with only one lane going each direction, keep your speed up after you have completed the pass, and don't slow back down until there is a gap large enough for all the riders behind you to pull back in and safely decelerate. Stay aware of what the riders behind you are doing. If you are farther back in the group, don't begin your pass until there is a gap ahead of the car for you and the other riders in your sub-group.

Finally, though it isn't a safety consideration, there is an art to fuel stops, providing you are all willing to use one pump (Use more if it is a very large group or you use different grades of fuel) and figure out who owes what later. If one or more riders get out of line and man the nozzles, the rest can simply march through. The first riders through then get the pumpers' bikes and roll them through. This system takes about a third of the time required when each rider has to get off his or her bike and pick up the nozzle and maybe a sixth of that required if each rider pays independently. Nobody rides a motorcycle to spend time in gas stations. (If you want a record, someone can write down the total cost after every bike is filled.) Riders at the back of the line can go the restroom immediately (asking someone to push their bikes through), and riders at the front can go later after their bikes and the pump handler’s are fueled and moved out of the way.

The social aspect of group riding has much to recommend it. You have someone to share your experiences and anticipation. There is also security in numbers when the unexpected happens. Pay attention to new riding companions; you may learn something. Working through initial adjustments to each other is worth it, because when you find someone you enjoy riding with, you have usually found a special friendship too.

Further Reading

You can find additional thoughts about group riding in state motorcycle manuals, a videotape from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and some books. The web is full of discussions about motorcycle group riding. Some of those I recommend can be found at these links:
AMA Directlink
Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center
Minnesota Wings, North Metro Chapter

If you have questions or comments about this article, email the author at Art.Friedman@primedia.com or at ArtoftheMotorcycle@hotmail.com.

For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the Street Survival section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.





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