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Keeping Your Distance

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The best protection you can have is distance—a “cushion of space”—all around your cycle. If someone else makes a mistake, distance gives you two things:

  • Time to react.
  • Some place to go.


“Following too closely” is a major factor in crashes caused by motorcyclists. Motorcycles usually need as much distance to stop as do cars. In fact, some motorcycles require more stopping distance than four-wheeled vehicles.

How much distance do you need to keep from following too closely? Normally, you will need 4 seconds’ distance between yourself and the vehicle ahead. Here’s how to gauge your following distance:

(1) Pick out a marker—a pavement marking or lamp post, for instance—on or near the road ahead.

(2) When the rear bumper of the vehicle ahead passes your marker, start counting off the seconds: “one-second-one, one-second-two, one-second-three, one- second-four.”

(3) If you reach your marker before you reach “four,” you are following too closely.

A four-second following distance leaves you enough time to stop or swing by if the driver ahead of you stops suddenly. It also gives you a better view of potholes and other dangers in the road.

You should maintain a four-second following distance. This larger cushion of space is needed if your motorcycle will take longer than normal to stop (for example, if the pavement is slippery with rain) or if you cannot see through the vehicle ahead.

Keep well behind the vehicle ahead even when you are stopped. This will make it easier to get out of the way if someone bears down on you from behind. It will also give you a cushion of space if the vehicle ahead starts to back up for some reason.


By shifting from one portion of a lane to another you can keep a safe cushion of space on both sides. An experienced rider changes position within lane as traffic conditions change. Here are some conditions that require changes in lane position.

Passing Vehicles

When you are being passed from behind or by an oncoming vehicle, keep in the center portion of your lane. If you ride any closer to them, you could be hit by:

  • The other vehicle—A slight mistake by you or the passing driver could cause a sideswipe.
  • Extended mirrors—Some drivers forget their mirrors hang out further than their fenders.
  • Something thrown from windows—Even if the driver knows you’re there, a passenger may not see you and might toss something on you or the road ahead of you.
  • Blasts of wind from large vehicles—They can affect your control. You have more room for error if you are in the middle portion when you are hit by this blast than you would have if you were on either side of the lane.

Do not move into the portion of the lane furthest from the passing vehicle. While such a move would open up additional space between you and the passing vehicle, it might invite the other driver to cut back into your lane too early.

Cars at Intersections

If a car can enter your path at an intersection, assume that it will. Approach the intersection slowly, and be ready to give way if the other vehicle starts to move. It’s not a good idea to move away from the driver automatically. If they see you slow down

and move to one side of the lane, they may think you plan to turn—and they might pull out in front of you.

By holding your position in lane while you slow down, you won’t give the driver any wrong ideas about what you plan to do. And, by going slower, you have a better chance of stopping or turning away quickly if the driver does pull out . The slower you ride, the less room you need to stop or swerve safely.

Parked Cars

When passing parked cars, stay toward the left of your lane. This lets you avoid problems caused by doors opening, drivers getting out of cars, or people stepping from between cars.

A bigger problem is the car pulling out in front of you. A driver may pull away from the curb without checking for traffic behind. Even if they do look, they may fail to see you. In either event, the driver might cut into your path.

Drivers making U-turns are the most dangerous. By slowing down or changing lanes, you can make room for someone cutting in. But a car making a sudden U-turn may cut you off entirely, blocking the whole roadway and leaving you with no place to go. Since you can’t tell what a driver will do when they start to pull out, your first move should be to get their attention. Sound your horn. Then continue with caution, until either the driver makes their move or you are past the car.

Lane Sharers

Cars and motorcycles both need a full lane to operate safely. Drivers should not share lanes with motorcycles; motorcyclists should not share lanes with cars. Drivers are most tempted to lane share when:

  • In heavy, bumper-to-bumper traffic.
  • When they want to pass you.
  • When you are preparing to turn at an intersection.
  • When you are about to get in an exit lane, or leave a highway. As a motorcycle rider, you can do two things to prevent lane sharing:

(1) You can make sure you don’t try to share lanes. Don’t ride between rows of

stopped or slow-moving cars. Don’t try to squeeze past a stopped car in the same lane. Anything can happen: a hand could come out of a window; a door could open; a car could turn suddenly.

(2) Discourage lane sharing by others. The best way to do this is to keep a center portion position whenever other drivers might be tempted to squeeze by you.

If you move to the far side of your lane in these situations, you invite others to share the lane with you.

Merging Vehicles

Don’t assume that drivers on an entrance ramp can see you on the highway. Give them plenty of room, and change to another lane if it is open. If there is no room for a lane change, adjust your speed accordingly to open up space for the merging driver to pull into.

Cars Alongside

Do not ride next to cars or trucks in other lanes if you do not have to. A car in the next lane could switch into your lane without warning. Cars in the next lane also block your escape if you come upon danger in your own lane. Speed up or drop back until you find a place that is clear of traffic on both sides.


If someone tailgates you, don’t try to lose them by speeding up. You’ll just end up being tailgated at a higher speed.

The only safe way to handle a tailgater is to get them in front of you. When someone is following too closely, the best thing to do is change lanes and let them pass. If you can’t do this, slow down and open up extra space ahead of you. This will encourage them to pass. If they don’t pass, you will have left yourself and the tailgater more time and space to react in case an emergency does develop.