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"Urban Guerrilla"
Motorcycle riding tips for in the city

Ten years ago I signed on at Motorcyclist magazine and began commuting to work on a motorcycle over the busiest freeways and streets of Los Angeles. In those 10 years of commuting, two staff members had commuting accidents, neither of which caused significant damage or pain. That's five to seven editors riding to work every working day for 10 years. If we were the survey panel, the conclusion would be that commuting on a motorcycle is an extremely safe way to get to work. And with the proper skills, it can be.

Experience is a great teacher, but an often painful one. To help shortcut experience, we've compiled five basic steps to existing in traffic to help get commuters out of their cars and onto motorcycles. You'll save time (one of the few nonreplenishable resources we have!) and reduce parking problems, and your work day will begin and end with less stress and more pleasure. One thing we know for sure: That sport bike in your garage isn't just for Sunday mornings.

URBAN GUERRILLA STEP ONE: TRUST NO ONE

This missing mirror lens blinds the driver to your presence until you are alongside and is a detail you must learn to automatically recognize and avoid as you scan traffic.

Learn to rely on one person, and one person only: yourself. Be paranoid. When you see a dented, dirty or neglected car, be especially paranoid. Dents are a rolling history of mistakes, and you don't want to be involved. Dirt and neglect show disinterest, and that disinterest probably bleeds into their driving as well.

Experience has taught us to watch for particular car types in addition to neglected cars. Volvo works hard to promote the safety of its cars, and that means some owners of Volvos buy them because they know they're going to be in an accident. Sure, it's an unfair generalization of Volvo owners, but it's an observation made after a decade in Los Angeles. Watch for minivans. They're usually purchased to carry the kids, so the driver is often dealing with much more than the road. Beware of high-performance cars in a hurry; a modern car can accelerate and change lanes surprisingly quickly, so give them room if they're driving aggressively. Give four-wheel drive pickups some room because (another unfair generalization) they're often driven by aggressive young men who believe that might makes right. What car types can you trust? None.

URBAN GUERRILLA STEP TWO: AVOID BLIND SPOTS

How other drivers interpret your actions has a great deal to do with urban riding skill. If this rider uses his turn signal to show his intention to make a right turn on the upcoming street, the Volkswagen driver exiting the 7-Eleven may assume the rider is pulling into the 7-Eleven and mistakenly accelerate directly into the bike's path. In this case, the rider must stay in the left side of the right lane and signal his right turn immediately before the street-and keep a close eye on the VW.

If one thought rules your urban riding, let it be this: Stay out of blind spots. If you can't see the driver's face in the car's mirror, that driver can't see you and you simply don't exist. Place blind-spot avoidance on top of your priority list for urban survival. Use acceleration, deceleration and lane position to "ride in the mirrors" of the cars around you. Develop a blind-spot warning buzzer that blares every time you approach a blind spot. The Highway Patrol teaches its riders to constantly move through traffic, to ride slightly (slightly!) faster than traffic and move through blind spots rather than sitting in them. Good advice.

Of course, just because you're riding in the mirrors of a car doesn't mean that driver will use that mirror before changing lanes into you. Position yourself so that if the driver fails to see you in the mirror, you still aren't in danger of getting tagged. You will know when you're riding well and staying clear of blind spots because you are no longer using your horn to warn encroaching drivers of your presence; they've already seen you in the mirror, alongside or ahead. In fact, our response to "loud pipes save lives" is "get out of the blind spot."

URBAN GUERRILLA STEP THREE: BE DEFENSIVE, BE AGGRESSIVE

By predicting this car's last-second freeway flop, this rider has made plenty of room for the expected mistake. Avoid passing on the right, and never pass immediately before a freeway exit, intersection or driveway; give the driver a chance to drive poorly without your involvement. Accelerate ahead or fall behind.

Combining defensive tactics and aggressive riding will create a riding portfolio that will weather any storm. The secret is knowing when to use each of the tactics. After all, blasting aggressively down Main Street is an open invitation for trouble. Conversely, creeping slowly down Main Street invites different but still deadly trouble, putting you at the mercy of other drivers' skills-or lack thereof.

Defensive riding means being aware of your space and maintaining that space by positioning yourself in surrounding traffic. Riding defensively is a way of looking at traffic to predict its effect on you, and making sure that effect is minimal.

Riding aggressively is much less a way of riding than an applied technique to be exercised only occasionally. As motorcyclists, we must put ourselves in view, and sometimes that means a bit of aggressive throttle use to come up even with a driver's window. Simply put, sometimes slowing down is extremely dangerous and some aggressive acceleration or lane changing is called for.

Correct lane positioning will allow you to be seen and keep you away from danger. This rider approaches the cab in the right side of his lane so the cab driver will see him in the cab's mirrors. As the rider approaches the cab's blind spot, he moves left to gain valuable space in case of a sudden lane change.

Create your own traffic destiny. Put yourself in a position with an escape route if your worst-case predictions come true. Look for traffic patterns and try to move through traffic, rather than sit within a knot of traffic. The time you become lethargic will be the time somebody parks a Suburban in your lap at 60 mph.
 

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Continued: PT2

URBAN GUERRILLA STEP FOUR: MAKE ROOM FOR OTHERS' MISTAKES

In case you haven't noticed, drivers make mistakes. Dozens of them, from no turn signal to last-minute freeway exits to locked brakes at a yellow light to-well, how long a list do you need? America's current driver's training programs aren't going to correct America's drivers in the foreseeable future, so the secret is to plan on and predict the mistakes and make sure you're not affected. In other words, give 'em room to screw up.

A car's blind spot varies according to the vehicle, mirror size and mirror adjustment. Anytime you're parallel to a car, truck or van, you're in the most dangerous spot on the road. Learn to move through this Death Spot aggressively; don't ride in a blind spot, even for a few seconds.

Understand this: You won't change the mistakes being made out there, but by recognizing and giving them room to happen, you won't be negatively affected by them either. There's no reason to get upset, violent, aggressive or reactionary; once you begin to make room for mistakes, it becomes almost humorous to watch the stupidity around you because you will no longer be taken by surprise or put in danger.

URBAN GUERRILLA STEP FIVE: SLOW DOWN IN TOWN

Speed itself doesn't kill, but it sure makes those sudden stops painful. Basically, too much speed makes us unreadable. The car driver looks down the street, sees a headlight approaching at what he guesses to be the speed limit, and proceeds through the intersection. Unfortunately, the bike is doing double the speed limit and slams into the side of the car. Whose fault is it? Not the car driver's. Slow down to be seen; slow down to avoid being misread.

An ugly chain reaction can be started when a car squeezes into the right lane of a crowded freeway, and you'll be affected if you don't take action. Predict possible outcomes and place yourself safely in surrounding traffic. Often that means safely accelerating ahead of the mess.

Slowing down allows you to stop before becoming involved in someone else's mistake. Even if you're the Kevin Schwantz of braking, it takes more distance to stop a bike from 50 mph than it does from 30 mph; that extra distance usually isn't available to urban guerrillas.

Slowing down gives your brain a chance to notice things and more time to react. Your peripheral vision widens and you relax enough to read and predict traffic. Try walking down the supermarket aisle and reading labels, then try running down the same aisle. Now imagine all those soup cans are about to jump into your path and you'll see how slowing down affects your perception. There are plenty of places to go fast, but in and around traffic isn't one of them. If you can't slow down in town, put me in your will.

URBAN GUERRILLA BONUS STEP: PRACTICE

Intersections are our toughest challenges. This rider is moving into the right side of his lane to gain and give the most unobstructed view possible, a good idea since the car waiting to turn left is all but blinded by the UPS truck. Slow down, cover your brakes, and use your lane to position yourself for maximum conspicuity.

When everything goes wrong and the above five steps fail to keep you in safety's arms, you'd better be a good motorcycle rider. Get to an empty parking lot and practice braking; take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Experienced RiderCourse. Experiment with flicking lane changes. Become intimately familiar with the effects of countersteering, experimenting with differing pressures on the handgrips. Practice quick glances in the mirrors and hurried looks over your shoulder, as if you were initiating an emergency lane change. Use your turn signals in all conditions so that you'll remember to cancel them when things get stressful. Know the route you and your neighborhood commuters take on the way to the freeway and study the mistakes being made; when you're not on your bike, watch traffic patterns and instances that would get a rider in trouble.

All this is practice, and it's just as important for the urban guerrilla as it is for the expert-level roadracer. You can't win a trophy with your commuting prowess, but you can step out of the car or bus and add two irreplaceable things to your life: time and enjoyment.

This article was originally published in the August 1995 issue of Sport Rider By Nick Ienatsch
 

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Continued: PT2

URBAN GUERRILLA STEP FOUR: MAKE ROOM FOR OTHERS' MISTAKES

In case you haven't noticed, drivers make mistakes. Dozens of them, from no turn signal to last-minute freeway exits to locked brakes at a yellow light to-well, how long a list do you need? America's current driver's training programs aren't going to correct America's drivers in the foreseeable future, so the secret is to plan on and predict the mistakes and make sure you're not affected. In other words, give 'em room to screw up.

A car's blind spot varies according to the vehicle, mirror size and mirror adjustment. Anytime you're parallel to a car, truck or van, you're in the most dangerous spot on the road. Learn to move through this Death Spot aggressively; don't ride in a blind spot, even for a few seconds.

Understand this: You won't change the mistakes being made out there, but by recognizing and giving them room to happen, you won't be negatively affected by them either. There's no reason to get upset, violent, aggressive or reactionary; once you begin to make room for mistakes, it becomes almost humorous to watch the stupidity around you because you will no longer be taken by surprise or put in danger.

URBAN GUERRILLA STEP FIVE: SLOW DOWN IN TOWN

Speed itself doesn't kill, but it sure makes those sudden stops painful. Basically, too much speed makes us unreadable. The car driver looks down the street, sees a headlight approaching at what he guesses to be the speed limit, and proceeds through the intersection. Unfortunately, the bike is doing double the speed limit and slams into the side of the car. Whose fault is it? Not the car driver's. Slow down to be seen; slow down to avoid being misread.

An ugly chain reaction can be started when a car squeezes into the right lane of a crowded freeway, and you'll be affected if you don't take action. Predict possible outcomes and place yourself safely in surrounding traffic. Often that means safely accelerating ahead of the mess.

Slowing down allows you to stop before becoming involved in someone else's mistake. Even if you're the Kevin Schwantz of braking, it takes more distance to stop a bike from 50 mph than it does from 30 mph; that extra distance usually isn't available to urban guerrillas.

Slowing down gives your brain a chance to notice things and more time to react. Your peripheral vision widens and you relax enough to read and predict traffic. Try walking down the supermarket aisle and reading labels, then try running down the same aisle. Now imagine all those soup cans are about to jump into your path and you'll see how slowing down affects your perception. There are plenty of places to go fast, but in and around traffic isn't one of them. If you can't slow down in town, put me in your will.

URBAN GUERRILLA BONUS STEP: PRACTICE

Intersections are our toughest challenges. This rider is moving into the right side of his lane to gain and give the most unobstructed view possible, a good idea since the car waiting to turn left is all but blinded by the UPS truck. Slow down, cover your brakes, and use your lane to position yourself for maximum conspicuity.

When everything goes wrong and the above five steps fail to keep you in safety's arms, you'd better be a good motorcycle rider. Get to an empty parking lot and practice braking; take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Experienced RiderCourse. Experiment with flicking lane changes. Become intimately familiar with the effects of countersteering, experimenting with differing pressures on the handgrips. Practice quick glances in the mirrors and hurried looks over your shoulder, as if you were initiating an emergency lane change. Use your turn signals in all conditions so that you'll remember to cancel them when things get stressful. Know the route you and your neighborhood commuters take on the way to the freeway and study the mistakes being made; when you're not on your bike, watch traffic patterns and instances that would get a rider in trouble.

All this is practice, and it's just as important for the urban guerrilla as it is for the expert-level roadracer. You can't win a trophy with your commuting prowess, but you can step out of the car or bus and add two irreplaceable things to your life: time and enjoyment.

This article was originally published in the August 1995 issue of Sport Rider By Nick Ienatsch


Thanks. I need this info.
 

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During the warmer months, I used my bike on Fridays to commute. Not one trip goes without some kind of incident and riding defensively is the only way to stay alive. One thing this article doesn't mention, probably because it was written in 1995, is to look out for drivers texting. They swerve all over the bloody place.
 

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My favorite is the visor down with the mirror light on....and some whore putting her make up on.


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Nice to see what's said sums up how I tend to ride, but I would add this:

I'd say a slow vehicle is also potentially dangerous & the one I'm most cautious around. The driver may be stopping, opening a door, turning without signalling, etc.

You should always know what's behind you - use your mirrors, or look over your shoulder when about to make a manouver. I wouldn't only practice emergency manouvers in a car park. When you know nothing is behind you, practice! - Flick your lane changes fast on the highway, brake hard when pulling up to traffic lights and turn corners sharply when it's safe. When overtaking, do it fast so you're beside the car you're taking - the least time possible.

Years of practice will make emergency manouvers something you do well without having to ever think about it, or worse - panicing. Panic is losing control and that's not something you want to do on a bike.
 

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Great reading, pretty much everything I have had to use to survive riding all over Europe, we also ride between traffic. I always assume people are going to do something stupid, pull out in front of me, cut me off, run into the back of me etc etc....

I leave the bike in gear and only one foot down at lights, i'm always ready to go and assume everyone is trying to kill me. People are way too casual at stop lights and it only takes one person to be on the phone, texting, arguing or applying makeup to forget you're there as they miss the light while running into the back of you.

I really agree with the defensive but aggressive one, I don't get excited about other peoples stupidity, I either let them go WAY ahead or leave them WAY behind. I also weave but not like I stole it, assertively, I always have my lights on and a loud bike.

Just my two pence for a great thread. The practice one I will be off to go do on this bike, my old one (ZX14) I could throw all over the place like a 600 but this one is a completely different ride and I need to learn its idiosyncrasies and build a trust relationship.
 

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When splitting lanes, my biggest fear is other motorcycles flying thru in between cars, I do split lanes only when traffic is stop or at a crawl. There is no other place like New York City for riding, it will change you.


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Avoid idiots trying to play an acoustic guitar while driving. They're a little distracted. :rolleyes:
I also saw a lady changing her baby's diaper at a red light. Probably a good idea to give her a wide berth. :p
Neither of these sightings were while I was riding my bike, but still...
 

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The one we see most is people text messaging. Dead giveaway is they weave all over the road and drive slowly whilst doing it...
 

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The one we see most is people text messaging. Dead giveaway is they weave all over the road and drive slowly whilst doing it...
Same here....douche canoes that do that are going to end up killing someone one day.:rolleyes:
 

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You forgot all about the ONE most important thing! Learn to shoot left handed....

I commute everyday in Southern California, pretty much lane splitting all the way 60 miles. I see bonehead cager moves EVERYDAY, something maybe I did not see above is (while splitting) alert your self to any openings big enough for a car to change lanes into, ASSUME they will , several months ago on my commute an adult rider not speeding but splitting lanes had a car do a non signal from #2 into #1 he glanced off the car and over the railing 50ft to his death on the road below. I also use both brakes, cover the brakes and try to never daydream or worry about bills and stuff.

Great Post,

Be safe friends


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Nick is a great moto journalist & this was one of his great writeups. A must read.
I'd just say that one shouldn't get emotional over some car driver's mistake. That's a no no.
And daydreaming or worrying about something & not paying 100% attention to the road is a Death Sentence, waiting to be carried out.
 

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