Riding Skills Series: Riding on the Highway

Usually Unexciting, Sometimes Insane.

Riding on the freeway calls for a different set of skills than we are used to-watching the other traffic and staying out of someone else's problem. Be mindful of blind spots, and choose your lane and lane position wisely.
Always pass other traffic on the left, and choose your lane position and speed so as to stay in the other vehicle's blind spot for as little time as possible.

It can be the most boring riding you'll ever do, but that doesn't mean that riding on the freeway requires any less attention than riding in a canyon or even on the track. Freeways, interstates, thruways-whatever you want to call them-are designed and built for safe and efficient long-distance travel, and for the most part live up to those goals. However, as anyone that has been stuck in traffic on the 405 in Los Angeles, I-90 in Chicago or I-75 in Atlanta can attest, they are often far from efficient. And in terms of safety, the high speeds involved mean things can go terribly wrong in a hurry. Their design lulls us into a false sense of security, often leaving us lax and daydreaming at a time when we should be our most vigilant.

There are many ways to help reduce the risks associated with riding on the freeway. While on a canyon road or racetrack we are mostly concerned with making a mistake resulting in a single-bike accident, on the freeway it's all about the other drivers. Essentially, we want to stay out of trouble and avoid getting tangled up in someone else's mess. It all begins when you first merge onto the freeway. Just as you most likely learned in driver's ed, match your speed to the flow of traffic and find a large gap to merge into. Watch for cars moving from the center lanes to what will be your lane, and don't be shy about staking your claim on a piece of tarmac.

Once on the freeway, what lane to choose? Most drivers' handbooks recommend the right-hand lane when there are two lanes to choose from, and the center lane of three. This will usually keep you out of trouble from the speeding people late for work in the left lane. Move to the left lanes to overtake; avoid passing people on the right. All that said, the leftmost lane is generally the safest, as you've only got cars on one side to worry about and you are farthest away from merging and exiting vehicles. Every freeway and traffic situation is different, however, and it's difficult to make a generalization on which lane to use. Base your decision on the flow of traffic: on an empty freeway, keep more to the right-hand lanes (although still avoid the very right lane if there are more than two). With more congestion, use the left lane to minimize your exposure to other traffic. If motorcycles are allowed in the carpool lanes in your area, take advantage of the extra safety that option offers and use the HOV lane.

We discussed lane position in a previous RSS (July '09), but the basics are this: try to avoid the center of any particular lane, as that's where oil and debris usually collects. Stay to whichever side of the lane that gives you the widest gap to the nearest cars, but again, don't be shy about asserting your space. Sometimes car drivers take that open two-thirds lane width as an invitation to take the whole thing, and in those cases you want to be on the side closer to the car to prevent that from happening. On a moderately busy freeway, the right side of the leftmost lane is the safest place to be. Wherever you end up as far as lane choice and lane position, the most important aspect is that you don't want to be in other drivers' blind spots. Keep watch on the cars around you, and make sure the drivers can either see you or know you are there. If in doubt about a particular driver, change something-your lane, speed, or lane position-so that you are either safely out of the way or well within that person's field of vision.

Remember to use your peripheral vision, and try to look past the car that is directly in front of you as much as possible. Keeping a fair distance behind the car in front will help you avoid debris in the road and other hazards. It's way too easy to be following an automobile too closely, then suddenly be surprised by a 2x4 or something in the road and unable to avoid running it over. Looking far ahead will also help you see an incident ahead more easily and help take avoiding action in advance.

In California, lane splitting is not illegal so when traffic is especially busy you can ride between lanes. While the practice is permissible, you must still split lanes "in a safe and prudent manner." This means that if you split lanes when traffic is moving at 60 mph, or weave in and out of traffic, you can get ticketed accordingly. Be smart, and you'll avoid the eye of the law as well as stay safe; split lanes only when traffic is moving slowly, and don't go more than a few mph faster than traffic. We always split the two leftmost lanes, as they usually have the fewest cars changing between lanes. Always be extra vigilant when approaching an opening between cars in traffic, as that is obviously the most likely scenario for an unexpected lane change by an automobile into your path. Even if the far left lane is the carpool lane, it's the safest choice if you are going to split lanes, just be extra careful at the entrance and exit areas. Again, be smart about it and an officer will most likely leave you be.

We use the freeways to go long distances in minimal time, but this is also a source of danger. An endless, straight road can be mind-numbingly boring, causing your thoughts to wander. Stay focused on the task at hand, and if you feel tired or overly distracted, take a break from the tedium. Remember, just because the road isn't twisty and fun doesn't mean that any less attention is required.