Proper Lane Positioning 101: Side or Middle?

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What’s so complicated about proper lane positioning, anyway? If you aren’t running over those little idiot bumps, then you must not be an idiot and everything’s going to be OK, right? Oddly enough, in most cases, yes. Chances are that on a typical day, your ride will pass uneventfully and you will make it home in one piece regardless of your attention to best practices of traffic positioning. Then there are those times, which every biker experiences sooner or later, where riding just a few inches to the left or the right end up being the difference between a near miss and a direct hit.

So don’t you just keep away from those scary cars on either side of you and ride down the middle? No, you do not. Despite being the one portion of the road that you virtually never want to ride on, it is common to see even experienced motorcyclists riding down the middle of a lane all the time. Let’s take a look at why this is a bad idea.

In the event that something does go wrong up ahead, the middle of the lane is NOT the place that you want to be (As shown in the images below). First of all, you may not be in a position to see around the vehicle ahead of you. Riding directly behind the car/truck in front of you impairs your ability to recognize and avoid objects that might be in the road, slowing traffic or an accident occurring up ahead. Granted, this is not a big problem if you are tailing a Mazda Miata, but with the preponderance of trucks and SUVs clogging the freeways these days, if you can’t see around them, you won’t be able to react until after they react. And that might be too late.

For example: In the presence of a hazardous situation, the driver in front of you will often hit the brakes and decelerate rapidly, meaning that if you don’t want to run into the back of the slowing vehicle, you need to react and decelerate even more rapidly. This may be made more difficult by the fact that motor oil, radiator fluid and other slippery substances are more likely to be present in the middle of a lane. Have you seen the build-up on most streets and highways? Just look down, and you’ll see the dark stripe along the center of any heavily used road. It accumulates real-quick at intersections and parking lots too.

Assuming that you are able to brake in time, and avoid hitting the rear of the vehicle ahead of you, you are still in danger of being rear ended by a vehicle behind you. Should you elect to swerve into the lane next to you in an effort to avoid the car in front or being rear-ended on your bike, you are now dealing with a maximum lateral distance of travel in order to get into the clear. A car or truck is roughly six feet wide so you have quite a distance to make your move. You also run the risk of being hit by traffic in the adjacent lane that you will not see until you have completed the evasive maneuver. If you had been riding off to the side then you could, in theory, already have hatched an escape plan before it became a panic situation.

There are many ways in which you can help to prevent accidents from happening and increase your chances of avoiding them if they do. Some of the factors within our control are the ability to see and be seen by other motorists (brightly colored riding gear), hazard avoidance (paying attention) and creation of a buffer zone or emergency escape route. Under most circumstances, riding to the side of the lane, in one of the tire tracks of the car ahead of you, is the ideal strategy. Doing so addresses most of the factors mentioned above because it allows you to have a better view of what's going on around you. Let’s revisit the previous incident from the point of view of a rider traveling at the side of the lane.

Imagine for a moment that you’re riding northbound on the freeway in downtown USA. The road you’re on eventually merges with an eastbound and down interstate which is where the fiasco ensues. A car lunges suddenly to the right trying to force its way into the crawling lineup of cars exiting the east. The driver doesn’t have enough room to jam all the way in, so with half of their car is still protruding into your lane. Traffic behind him has to slam on their brakes and begin piling into one another amidst squealing tires and crumpling bumpers.

Because of your position at the left side of the lane, you have the ability to visually identify this situation as it developed, and with a small, swerve are able to move the foot or so necessary to clear the rear bumper of the car ahead as it collides with the vehicles in front of it. You merely split the lanes without needing to so much as touch the brakes. Had you been traveling in the middle of the lane, it would have been much more difficult to (A) See what was happening before it because an incident. (B) Make the lateral move around the car in front of you and (C) increased your chance of colliding with the other vehicles. That additional foot of lateral travel would have required you to move four feet to avoid the rear bumper.

Remember, that not all situations are avoidable but what you are trying to do is increase your chance of avoiding it. So keep to the sides of your lane. According to a motorcycle officer that we recently interviewed, it’s the most fundamental thing that you can do to increase your chances of avoiding an accident.

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