TOTW: Avoid being a target when stopped at a red light

The riding tips on these pages are my personal opinion about matters related to motorcycle riding. They are not the official position of any organization, and are for your consideration only. They are not hard and fast rules, they should not necessarily be applied in all circumstances, and they should not be applied without thinking. Always use your judgement and take all current safety factors into account while riding. You are responsible for your riding, not anyone else (especially me). These tips were originally published by a motorcycle riding course, called “Tip of the Week” (the reason for the TOTW in the titles).

What’s the problem?

When you are stopped at a red light or stop sign, with no other vehicle behind you, you are vulnerable to being struck from behind. Even cars are sometimes rear-ended by inattentive drivers, but the problem is much worse on a motorcycle.

First, a motorcycle has low visibility in this situation. It is a small vehicle, is not moving, has small lights, and it may be in front of a complicated moving background from the point of view of an approaching driver.

Second, a rear-end collision with a motorcycle is often a much more serious incident than a rear-end collision with a car.

Solution

There are five steps you can take to reduce the chance that you will be struck and injured in such a situation.

Don’t be there

Stop signs don’t give you any choice. If you are going through a controlled intersection, you will have to stop.

Traffic lights, on the other hand, give you an excellent alternative: arrive at the intersection when the light is green. A motorcycle can accelerate so quickly that it is tempting to rush away from every light, only to arrive at the next red one, stop, and become a target. Pace yourself to arrive at the next intersection on a green light and you eliminate the rear-end risk entirely.

(This tip applies when you are arriving at the controlled intersection with no one behind you. You should certainly not slow down to the point where you are creating a hazard, or where you are being tailgated. Besides, if someone is following close behind you, you are already protected from behind as long as you are sure they see you.)

Remain alert

If you must sit, stopped, at a red light, you should remain aware of the risk from behind and watch for problems. Form the habit of doing an immediate shoulder check every time you stop. Since you can stop much more quickly than larger vehicles, it is a good habit to always ensure the one behind you is going to stop before reaching you.

Furthermore, you should remain alert. Remember that car drivers have trouble seeing motorcycles, especially when they aren’t moving. Keep an eye in your rear-view mirrors while you are sitting there, and make sure the car coming up behind you is stopping.

Increase your visibility

While you are watching the car behind you approach, take action to increase your visibility — why leave it to chance that they see you? Rest your toe on your rear brake pedal so your brake light stays on all the time you are stopped, and occasionally release and reapply it so the light blinks. Move around a bit on your bike. Motion attracts attention.

It’s quite possible to do this without feeling foolish. For example, sitting at a light is a good opportunity to stretch your neck and shoulders a bit or straighten up and rest your back. If you do this when an approaching car is within range, the motion will greatly increase the probability that they notice you. And you can do it with motions that look entirely natural — you don’t need to feel silly by “turning and waving at them.”

Get a shield

If you will be stopped for some time, your objective should be to arrange to have a car stopped behind you, shielding you from approaching traffic. As this car approaches they are a threat, but as soon as they stop without hitting you they have become your shield.

Be ready for evasive action

As long as you are stopped with nothing behind you, you are a target. As a last resort, you should remain ready to take evasive action, so if the car you have been watching appears not to be stopping, you can move forward or to the side. There are two important facets to remaining ready.

First, leave enough room in front of you that you can manoeuvre. If you are practically touching the car in front of you, you will not be able to pull forward or to the side. If you leave a full bike length or more in front, you will have room to move in a variety of directions if you decide it is necessary.

Second, remain ready. If that threat which is to become your shield is only just arriving, make sure your bike is in first gear, with the clutch in. If you need to move quickly, you will be able to do so. If you are sitting in neutral you will still be fumbling for the clutch and gearshift when you are hit.

Should you keep your bike in neutral, or stay in gear, when stopped? There are pros and cons to each.

  • Holding it in gear produces more wear on mechanical components, but leaves you more prepared to take evasive action.
  • If you are hit from behind while in neutral, at least you can’t pop the clutch in surprise and make matters worse.
  • It is easier to relax while you wait in neutral, and fatigue is also a significant safety factor.
  1. So, if you stop without a shield, a suggested sequence would be:
  2. Sit in neutral with sufficient space in front of you, brake light on, monitoring what is happening ahead and behind.
  3. When you see a threat approaching from behind, get back into gear and use brake light flashes and body motion to ensure they see you.
  4. Once the threat is stopped and has become a shield, get back into neutral and return to monitoring.
  5. Get back into gear and ready to move off when you see the cross lights changing colour.
  6. Take your brake light off when you are ready to begin moving, but not before.

This sounds like a lot of work, but it very easily becomes automatic.

By the way, since cars can’t see motorcycles, don’t forget to allow for cross traffic, which can’t see you, running their amber light and striking you if you are too soon off the mark on your green. Timing is everything.


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