TOTW: Use the car ahead to increase your line of sight

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?

Many motorcyclists develop a preference to be in front of traffic rather than behind it, so their vision is unobstructed, and therefore develop a habit of passing (safely) most vehicles they overtake. This habit does not always work in your favour — sometimes having a vehicle in front of you actually improves your vision.

Solution

Vision

The driver ahead can see things you can’t seeThere are few factors as important as your line of site when riding a motorcycle. You need to be able to see far enough ahead to plan for and react to any threats. Also, when riding through curves, you need to be able to see as far through the curve as possible in order to smoothly follow your selected path. But hills and curves often restrict your vision, hiding important information from you because it is around a corner, in a gully, or over the crest of a hill.

If you are following another vehicle with a good driver, at an appropriate distance, this can have the effect of increasing your line of sight. You can watch the behaviour of the other driver, who can see farther ahead than you can, and get information from their reactions.

For this technique to succeed, you must pick a good escort vehicle, follow it at an appropriate distance, and know what signs to look for.

Picking a good escort

If you’re going to follow another driver to extend your sight distance, you need to follow someone moving at an appropriate speed. Most likely, they are going slightly more slowly than you (or you would not have overtaken them); but if they are going too slowly you will only feel frustrated and have difficulty staying an appropriate distance behind them. You may also wish to use a vehicle going slightly faster than you, by speeding up slightly to keep them in sight after they pass you. But, if they are going faster than you are comfortable riding safely, trying to keep up would be dangerous and unwise.

Next, you need to pick a front escort vehicle that is being driven well. The idea is to take cues from the behaviour of the driver in front of you, so you want a driver who appears alert and in control, smoothly adjusting their speed and lane position to account for what is ahead of them. If they are having trouble controlling their vehicle, driving erratically, or being distracted by telephone, passengers, food, etc., they will not be a good escort.

Appropriate distance

Once you have found a good escort vehicle, you need to stay an appropriate distance behind them. Since you will be using their behaviour to give you early information, the farther ahead of you they are, the sooner you will get this information.

However, you can be “too far” behind. If you are constantly losing sight of them around curves, or if the gap is so large that the information they are sending you is out of date by the time you get there, close the gap somewhat. You can also be “too close” – you don’t want to give the escort vehicle the impression you’re trying to pass them; you want them comfortable as the lead vehicle so you don’t distract them. (Besides, if they’re seeing things almost the same moment you do, you may as well be in front where they are not in your way.)

As a general rule, keep a gap between you that is several seconds larger than your normal safe following distance.

Read your escort

Now that you are an appropriate distance behind a good escort, add observation of their behaviour to your general scanning of the situation around you. (Don’t stop scanning — you don’t want to miss other important information or make an error because your attention is focused on your escort.)

Is your escort braking hard, or for a longer than usual time, as they enter that curve ahead? Maybe the curve is unusually tight, or maybe there is a hazard ahead that you can’t see yet.

Did your escort brake or swerve as they reached the crest of that hill ahead? You should assume something significant is going on on the other side where you can’t see it.

How deep is that gully ahead? Did the top of your escort’s roof remain visible, or disappear? If it disappeared, for how long?

Warning: humans ahead

Remember, your escort vehicle is just a source of information, and it’s being driven by a human. They may be sending you incorrect information, or they may miss something.

If you see your escort reacting to something, it’s a good idea to assume there is something ahead that you’ll have to react to as well, and prepare. However, if your escort is not reacting, that’s not a guarantee of safety. They may have missed something, or made a bad decision, or judged a situation differently than you would. Or maybe they’re just pulling into their driveway. Ultimately, the responsibility for riding safely is still yours.


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