Street riding strategies for dealing with distracted drivers

Adapt or die. It’s not just for dinosaurs. Though it may sound extreme, as street motorcyclists we also have to recognize that our habitat is changing and we must change with it.

What am I talking about? A few months ago, in a short piece on trends in traffic fatalities in the United States, I talked about how I’ve adjusted my emphasis on where I position myself in the lane, based on my perception that distracted drivers had become so much more common. That sparked a discussion that has since grown to more than 300 comments, including a lot of good advice from our Common Tread readers (who continue to impress me as an engaged and intelligent audience).

My comments were little more than speculation, however, so I promised to follow up by consulting a real professional. So I called up Eric Trow, owner and instructor of Stayin’ Safe Advanced Rider Training and the Riding Well columnist for Rider magazine.

CT: Is it just me or has the environment changed? Have you adjusted the curriculum of your training courses because of an increase in distracted driving?

ET: The answer is “absolutely.” The people coming into our courses are asking about it. It’s definitely on the minds of riders.

It’s a relatively new phenomenon. If you go all the way back to the Hurt Report, rear-end collisions were so underrepresented it wasn’t even really a factor. In the presentations I do, I talk about how motorcycles only crash for a handful of reasons and riders just continue to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Well, now you can add another one to it. Now, for the first time, something that’s not totally in our control but we have to adapt to.

CT: In my article, I wrote about how I had adjusted my thoughts on lane positioning, by putting more emphasis on being in the right tire track instead of the left tire track in traffic because of a concern that distracted drivers may not maintain lane discipline.  But it seems you’re putting more emphasis on the rear-end collisions.

ET: Without a doubt, we are putting more emphasis on picking up on the behaviors of drivers overall. You don’t even have to see the driver to be able to pick up on whether that driver is engaged. You see that slight weaving, or drifting out of the lane and back in, or driving more slowly than the rest of traffic.

What you’re talking about is taking that right wheel track position to give yourself a space cushion. Another one of the things we talk about is trying to spend as little time beside them as possible. If they’re going slowly, get past them. But unfortunately, many times if they’re going slowly, they’re hanging in the left lane, too, if it’s a multi-lane road. Avoid being in that red zone, that danger zone beside them. A lot of times when drivers are distracted, they’re slowing down, so you can’t just follow them and if you’re in front of them you’re more at their mercy, as well.

Eric Trow

CT: What other signs do you look for to spot distracted drivers?

ET: Another odd thing that is one of our observations – I don’t have facts to back it up – has been, strangely enough, that often times distracted drivers also tend to tailgate. I don’t think it’s a deliberate thing, because if you move, we’ve found they’ll just hang in their position. They’re not necessarily in a hurry.

You just have to try to get out of their way, but the problem is, out on the roadway, there are so many distracted drivers that you kind of end up moving from one to the next.

CT: Intersections have always been the most dangerous spot but now that has gotten worse.

ET: You still have the left-turning vehicle coming from the other direction and you still have vehicles pulling out from the sides, but now a big factor is what’s behind you. You have people who are beyond distracted, they’re just completely disengaged, so they’re not seeing things developing in front of them.

One thing we’ve always done is emphasize having riders consult their mirrors. When you see that something is potentially happening ahead of you, even if it’s just approaching an intersection, consult your mirrors to see what’s behind you. Now, we’re modifying our curriculum to assume there’s someone back there who’s distracted or disengaged and then factor that into your strategy.

What we’ve found is that distracted drivers will respond with you. If you slow down gradually, they’ll slow down gradually. But if you hold your speed and slow down quickly when the light changes to red, there’s a higher chance they’re not going to be able to react to you and they’ll just slam into you. So a lot of our strategies are about managing the traffic behind us and coming to a stop gradually, so that every time we’re anticipating problems ahead, we’re actually working on behalf of the traffic behind us, too.

CT: What other tactics are you teaching to “manage traffic” around you?

ET: Anything we can do to get their attention, anything that can break that gaze from a cell phone or whatever it happens to be. Flash a brake light or maybe do a slight weave side to side. As you recall in our classes, on our first day of training, we work on riding smoothly so that you’re not using the brakes. But what we’re now saying is that even though you’re not braking, give that little flash of the brake light just to let that driver behind you know that you’re slowing for the curve, or slowing for a hill crest.

I was just working with a guy in a one-on-one session who had an interesting idea. What he does is he puts out a hand, and just that movement of the hand out to the side is another tactic for being able to draw attention to yourself from somebody who is disengaged.

CT: The other side of the story is that we motorcyclists can become distracted, too, with the proliferation of entertainment systems, electronic rider aids, smartphones mounted on the handlebar, etc.

ET: I’m glad you brought that up because it’s very easy just to say, “Those car drivers…”

Riders using their GPS is a big one. And now with all of the touch screens and onboard computers it’s much more like a car dashboard. With all the gadgets we have and the more farkled out we are, the more risk there is of us being distracted and being engaged with those things. That’s one more thing that takes our attention off the road and even if that’s for a second or two, or a few seconds, that can be a big, big deal in traffic. It’s becoming a real issue.

I think the challenge for us as riders is, you know, the technology is wonderful. We’re not saying don’t use the technology, but it’s a matter of being disciplined and knowing when it’s safe to do that. Being in the middle of traffic is not the time to start playing with the dashboard. If you’re on an open straight, perhaps. Better yet, pull off, make the adjustment, do what you need to do and then get back on the road. It doesn’t even have to be technology. I’ll tell you one I’ve caught myself doing. How about trying to zip up a vent on your jacket? It was easy to open but it’s tough to zip back up and I’m fiddling around with that and I wonder, what am I doing putting all my attention on this jacket?

There’s one thing I especially want to encourage riders not to get sucked into. On the back roads, riders will tell us they’ll look at their GPS to see where the road is going to go. I want to tell riders not to rely on that. First of all, it doesn’t tell you if there’s gravel in that corner, if there’s a car coming, sometimes even whether there’s another intersection. And it certainly doesn’t tell you if it’s blind because all it’s telling you is a line on a screen. You have your eyes looking in the wrong place, no matter what. There’s no substitute for getting eyes up and taking in the big picture.

CT: What’s the last word?

ET: One thing I can’t emphasize enough. There’s so much talk about having skills and technology to get us out of trouble. The key is doing everything we can to stay out of trouble in the first place. That means being able to read traffic, read the environment, pick up on behaviors and predict what is going to happen so we can respond to it and have time and space to work with.

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