TOTW: Spot-check your lane position

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?

On a multi-lane highway, you have a choice of several lanes in which to travel. Furthermore, since a motorcycle is a narrow vehicle, you have a choice of positions within your selected lane (left part of lane, centre of lane, etc.). What lane should you be in, and where in that lane?

There is no fixed correct answer. The best place to be depends on circumstances, and varies with time; often rapidly.


You must not let your choice of lane be arbitrary (“This is the lane I ended up in when I made that a left turn 20 minutes ago, and I guess I’m still here.”) Instead, you must consciously choose the best place to be based on what is happening around you right now. Furthermore, you should develop the habit of mentally questioning your lane choice every few minutes as you ride. This mental “spot check” can easily become automatic, and will keep you actively thinking about and participating in your safety, rather than relying on chance.

Here are some examples of quick mental “spot checks” you might have while riding in a variety of circumstances.

On the freeway

Heavy traffic. “There are cars everywhere, with many changing lanes. I want to be in one of the outside lanes so that threats only come from one side. I have a long way to go, so I’m using the left lane to avoid the congestion that happens in the right lane near exit ramps. I’m in the right third of the lane to discourage centre-lane traffic from drifting into my space.”

Light traffic. “Ordinarily, I use the left lane to keep traffic on one side. Right now, however, traffic is pretty light. I’m going to use the right lane for better access to the exits. But I’ll stay alert for cars entering or exiting on the ramps, and move out of their way if necessary. I’m in the left third of my lane to discourage centre-lane traffic from drifting into my space.”

Passing exit ramp. “That car to my left might decide this is their exit at the last moment — I see people swerve across the right lane all the time, so I try never to be between a car and an exit ramp. I shouldn’t be in this lane, but my exit is next and I don’t want to have to race across traffic. I’m going to accelerate to pass this ramp well before my neighbour does.”

Passing entrance ramp. “I think there’s an entrance ramp just past that overpass ahead. From here, I can’t see if there’s traffic entering the freeway. I’ll switch to the centre lane in case there is. And I’ll be prepared to move again — I often see cars swerve from the entrance ramp right into the centre or left lane. As soon as I can see clearly, I’ll move out of this lane because I prefer not to have traffic on both sides of me.”

Nearing my exit. “That’s my exit approaching, so I need to be in the right lane, and prepared to slow. I must make sure I’m not beside anyone, especially in their blind spot, who may decide to exit at the last minute. I’m going to use a centre lane position, but must remain alert. Someone to my left may anticipate my exit and try to claim my lane position. But if I’m too far to the left, that car behind me may not realize I’m exiting (even though I’m signalling), and may try to squeeze by me on the right to get into the exit ramp sooner himself.”

On city streets

Flowing traffic. “Traffic is moving pretty smoothly on this double-lane roadway. I’m using the left lane to be more conspicuous and to avoid the traffic entering from side streets. I’m in the right third of this lane to discourage cars from drifting into my space from the other lane, and to slightly increase my distance from the oncoming lane, in case someone drifts across the centre line.”

Clogged traffic. “Ordinarily, I prefer the left lane around here. But right now, there are a lot of cars stopping to make left turns across traffic, and I’m more concerned about being cut off than about the traffic entering from the right, so I’m carefully occupying the right lane. I’m occupying the left third of this lane to protect it from left-lane “drift-ins,” and to maximize my distance from side-street threats.”

At a red light. “I prefer to time myself to arrive at intersections when the light is green so I don’t have to stop and become a target. And when I do have to stop, I try to be at the front of the line with a car stopped safely behind me as a shield. This time, neither of those were possible. I inspected the stopped traffic as I approached and changed lanes because I realized I would be easier to see behind this white car than behind that dark-coloured cube-van in the other lane. I’m watching my mirrors intently to ensure that car coming up behind me is going to stop, and I’ve left a couple of bike lengths in front of me so I have room to move if I feel threatened.”

Side activity. “That guy on the sidewalk ahead looks like he just left that pub, and is looking for a cab. Is that a cab in the oncoming lane? I’m watching closely to see what is going to happen here: will that cab U-turn in front of me, or is that pedestrian likely to run into the street? I can’t think of a safe lane position until I have more information, so I’m going to stay where I am but slow down and remain alert.”


Even the above examples should not be taken as a prescription for where you must always be or what you must always do. The point is that you should not be driving “on auto-pilot.” Instead, you should remain an active participant in the situation, continually adjusting to minimize threats and maximize options for your safety.

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