Riding in the Lane with Diamonds
Commuting on a motorcycle
Survival hints for the rush hour crowds by
C.K. Haun
Ravenware Industries

One of the benefits of motorcyle riding is that most states allow you the luxury of using the commuter/carpool lanes in the mornings and evenings. You on your metal steed get to cruise past the solo cagers, looking cool and getting to work on time even though you woke up late.
It's not quite all peaches and cream. Riding a motorcycle during commute time can be dangerous, and there are many little things you should be aware of, pay attention to, and keep an eye out for. This column will look at a few of the ones I've enountered most frequently in nearly 20 years of motorcycle commuting on California freeways. If you have additional tips you'd like to share, email them to me at valk@ravenware.com

Attitude Kills
First and formost, before we think of any riding activities, think of the attitude of many of the people you're sharing the road with in the morning or evening.
They are Not Happy.
They're not happy about going to work. They're not happy about coming home late. They're not happy at all about moving 10 mph on the freeway. They hate their car. Their coffee is already cold. They're going to be late if this stupid traffic doesn't let up. All of this adds up to reduced judgement. What they would never consider doing on a Saturday when they're breezing along at 65 mph they will do to gain 10 seconds on Monday morning going 7 mph because the boss is going to give them hell if they are late again.
And amazingly enough, some of them hate you! You are doing everything they want to, you're riding without stop and go, you're going to get to work on time, you're on a motorcycle instead of in a 5 year old Kia. They resent you.
The first step in taking responsibility for your safety in the commuter lane is recognizing the attitude of many of the people around you. They are not at their best, and they will do things that can kill you.
Most deadly time.
The worst time for travelling in the carpool lanes here in Northern California is 10 mintues before 9 until 10 minutes after 9, 9 being the time the carpool lane opens for general traffic. Adjust accordingly for your area.
As soon as it's within 10 minutes of carpool open time, the people who haven’t set their clocks right as well as those who think an addition single minute in the carpoool lane will speed theit commute start sneaking over the line and into the carpool lane. Since many of them think they are sneaking, they tend to jerk into the lane and rapidly accellerate, often taking you by surprise.
Of course, at 9 everyone in every lane thinks Gosh, the carpool lane is open now, I’ll get in it and get to work faster!. So half the people from all the other lanes try and cram into the carpool lane at once, trying to obtain some unrealistic advantage of being the first into an empty lane. Of course, 50% of the rest of the people have the same idea, so the carpool lane generallly jams more completley than the middle or right lane.
One other thing that makes the 9 O’Clock hour deadly is the on ramps. The metering lights generally go off at the same time the carpool lane opens up, and there are usually a solid mass of automobiles jamming into the right lane at each on ramp. Each ramp area backs up solid, and with almost no warning if you're aproaching. Avoid this time at all costs. Plan to be off the freeway before 8:50, or just delay to get on after 9:10. It really won't make any time difference since the traffic will be snarled anyway, and it might save your skin and chrome.
Suprisingly enough, there is not (in my experinece in NoCal and SoCal) a similar frenzy in the evening. The ramps dump, and that causes problems, but the rush for the carpool lane is not as severe.
Slam Dancers
Slam dancing happens when a problem develops rapidly on the freeway.
Everyone is cruising along at 65-80, traffic is smooth. Then ,a distance ahead brake lights begin to appear, and traffic begins to slow, or in some cases comes rapidly to a stop.
At that point you have to be very careful and aware of slam dancers. Slam Dancers will react to a sudden need to reduce speed, or brake lights ahead. They don't react like a reasonable preson would by, well, stepping on their brakes and slowing down in anticipation, but instead they will jerk their car sideways into the carpool (or other) lane, usually without looking or signalling. Slam dancers tend to delay this manuver untilt he very last instant, as if they want to see how close to the last car in the jam they can get before swerving. Why? I have never figured this out. Many times I see slam dancing without an incursion into the carpool lane, but just into another one of the stalled lanes, as if the driver thought that by getting out of this lane the other would magically open up.
If they were stupid once....
Keep this as an ultimate truth: If they were stupid once, they will be stupid again!
Might not always be true, but thinking it is might save your life. Watch ahead or to the side of your path. Look for stupid or silly things that a car does as it enters the freeway that is coming up on your right. If a driver enters the freeway in a careless or dangerous way, by the time you catch up with him and he's worked his way into the left lane, he might just continue the careless behaviour right into your path, or your side. People don't get careful all at once, nor do they get stupid all at once. Constantly scan the traffic ahead of you watching for questionable behaviour! The person executing that behaviour will be right by your side in a minute or two.
The Black Spot
Learn to read the roadways. A large black spot on the pavement up ahead? Probably a dip in the road that has shaken one drop oil off thousands of crankcases, and left a warning to you that you will have to hold on to your handlebars tightly soon. Different color concrete or asphalt ahead? Expect a seam and a sharp bump. Expansion cracks looking darker ahead? Probably wider apart than normal, just waiting to grab your front tire and twist steering away from you. Spend time watching the road surface and matching what you see to what you feel through the handlebars, you can learn to anticipate challenging roadways before you hit them.
Where do you want your collision?
This is one I argue with myself about all the time. Once I've identified an idiot driver on the freeway, where do I want her? DO I want that car ahead of me so I can stay back and see when the accident happens and be safely back? Or do I want to overtake and put the problem behind me so I won't be affected?
I've tried both ways and they both have their pluses and minuses. Having the idiot ahead does get you ready, but then again I have had the misfortune of being pelted in the hands by stray plastic body parts when the accident does occur, almost causing me to lose control (yes I thought I was far enough back, but apparently there isn't a far enough back). Keeping the idiot behind makes it even more nerve-wracking, you're now watching for potential idiots ahead and keeping a close eye in your mirrors for a known idiot behind. Ultimately I think distance ahead is the winner, but there is a period of risk in that, just passing isn't enough, you must get miles ahead to be clear.

They Can't Hear You
OK kids, let me be blunt: Some of you think your honr is some magic sheild and weapon with vast power, by pressing the magic button all autos will hear you and heed the warning, and the path will magically be open and safe (for you open pipe Hog riders, same thig but substitue potato-potato noise for horn).
I got a secret- They can't hear you!

Every sit in a contemporary mid-range auto with the sound system up? And a cell phone pressed to your head? You couldn't hear the wimpy horn most motorcyles have even if you knew it was sounding. On the freeway your horn is useless!
Head Counting
You're in the carpool lane, right? Anticipate who else will join you there. As you pass every on ramp, look at the cars joining the freeway and count heads. More than one? If so, then that car is aimed for the carpool lane, anticipate it! Around on ramps it's an obvious technique, but combine it with Slam Dance alertness. If all the lanes are clipping along at 65, many carpoolers will not be in the carpool lane, they will be in the right or center lanes, they don't need to be in the diamond lane. But when a slam starts to develop, they will quickly migrate left. If you've been consistently counting heads, you will have some idea of which cars will be joining you soon.
Don't forget to count the little heads, too, since for some absurd reason one adult and one 1 day-old infant make a carpool.

The most dangerous mile
Where is the most dangerous stretch of roadway when the traffic in the non-carpool lanes is stop and go? Experience shows that it is the mile of roadway 1/2 mile after an onramp. Not right at an on-ramp, a full 1/2 mile or more afterwards.
Picture the scenario from the automobile side: You've entered the freeway in a stop-and-go right lane. You must crawl along for some period of time (seems to be about a 1/2 mile), all the while trying to push left closer to your carpool lane goal. Finally someone lets you into the left lane. Now you have to poke along in the stop and go left lane, looking at the car ahead of you and trying to keep an eye out for a gap in the carpool lane that you can fit in. That seems to take between a tenth of a mile and a full mile, then the jump into the carpool lane. So don't easy up on your extra vigilance until 2-3 miles after the last on-ramp.

Speed doesn't kill, differential speed kills
Don't be a dope. If the left lane of traffic is going 5 MPH, don't blow by them at 85 MPH. The speed difference between the carpool lane and the regular lanes can result in deadly situations. Take the previous point: If the left lane is stop and go at 5 MPH, and a carpool eligable car moves from the left lane into the diamond lane, the fastest he can be going at that point is 5 MPH, while you are barreling in at 85. Game over.
Think about it, even if she did see your light in the distance, he made the decision to merge based on assumptions about your speed. And probably poorly executed assumptions too, even if you were doing 65. But at least at 65 you might have time to see and react, but over 65 you probably won't, and you'll be into the weeds or worse.
When that left hand lane is stop and go, you must assume and act as if any car will be pulling out in front of you without warning.

Split 'em or don't
Lane Splitting. Up to you. Some contend that it's the stupidest thing in the world, some (like the California Highway Patrol) think that between lanes is the safest place for a motorcycle in stop and go traffic (they really do think that, look up the CHP temstimony to the state senate anytime some sourpuss wants to make lanesplitting illegal).
Some states don't allow it, but many (like California) do. BTW, if you're ever stopped by the CHP, you were lane sharing not lane splitting. The loophole in California law that allows this is that the vehicle code does not give a maximum number of vehicles allowed in a lane at one time.
Lane splitting is great for those stop and go freeways that don't have diamond lanes. But please, be smart about it.
Go back to the last section, and think about differential speed. If you're splitting at more than 15 miles per hour above the cars you're splitting, you have no time to react to a car changing lanes, some moron flipping a cigarette butt out the window, and so on. And try and be polite about it. I personally have a problem with my antennas, since I always ride a big old tourer. I have wacked quite a few sire view mirros with my CB antenna when I lane split, and people get very grumpy about that.
One huge caution about lane splitting: Be careful when it rains! Here in California,and in many other states, lanes are differentiated by Botts Dots, raise ceramic dots epoxied to the roadway to give a audible and vibrational warning when you are crossing a lane boundry. Most of the time these are unnoticable. But when the dots get wet in the rain they are the slickest things out there. I have had my front wheel thrown violently sideways hitting a wet Dot in the rain, where I never notice them in dry conditions.

Note: Many have found that section challenging. I ain't making it up, kids. The CHP has even moderated their language somewhat and they are actually calling it splitting now. Here, for all of you who think that it can''t be legal, from the CHP web site: " Lane splitting is permissible if done in a safe and prudent manner"

Light 'Em Up!
We motorcyclists use engine braking much more than automobile drivers do. We can change our speed quickly, 10-15 MPH, just by closing the throttle up. Cars can't do that. If you want to slow down 3,500 pounds of automobile, you have to hit the brakes.

That means that most 4-wheelers are conditioned to think that the only time someone is slowing down is when their brake lights go on. So? So, that means that when you slam your throttle closed with a flick of the wrist and shed 10 MPH, the guy behind you is suprised, doesn't know you're slowing down, and slams into you.

My recomendation is to learn when your brake light comes on. How much do you have to pull in the brake handle? You want th lgiht to come on, but no actual brake application. Practice it, then get used to flicking your light on when you roll the throttle closed.

You don't even need to keep the light on. Just flash it, and the cager behind you's little brain will associate "light=slowing down" and not ram into you.

Practice it, you should be able to light up your brake light with a feather touch on the brake lever or brake pedal. Use language car drivers are used to, lights going on and off, to keep from being rear-ended.

Reserved for Your Tip!

Copyright © 2004, C.K. Haun and Ravenware Industries

9 Mar 2004