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You Are Still Invisible

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Every 3.5 years (we are a little late), we re-publish the “Being Invisible” article first published by MD on Janaury 28, 2007. Feel free to comment if you have other suggestions, or simply disagree with our thoughts on how to stay safe. Note that the article was not meant to address gear (helmet, jacket, boots, etc.)

I went street bike riding with my youngest son (at the time this was written, 17 years old) the other day. Although he has been riding dirt bikes since he was 4, this was his first time on a street bike. Before we took off, I had to give him my little speech about how to stay safe.

My speech is probably not too unique. Nevertheless, I thought someone out there might benefit from hearing my “cardinal rule”. On the street, you are invisible. You must always be aware that you are invisible.

Never assume that automobile drivers see you. If an automobile is in a position to hit you, plan an escape path in advance. Try to make eye contact with the driver, if possible.

In the day time, ride with your high beam on. Scan ahead, and take in as much relevant information as you can. Be aware of every car that might turn into your path, and particularly aware of a few common, dangerous situations.

If you are traveling down the road and there is an automobile in the left turn lane facing you, slow down a bit, cover your brake and plan an escape route. It isn’t uncommon for an automobile to turn left in front of a motorcyclist, and the results can be fatal. Once again, try to make eye contact with the driver, and even move to the right of a single-lane road or the right lane of a multi-lane road — giving you a bit more time to react.

Do not rocket away from a stop light when it turns green. Make sure you look for cars that might be traveling through the intersection trying to make that fading yellow light.

Don’t ride in the blind spot of an automobile in an adjacent lane, unless you are moving through that blind spot. You may be “invisible”, but give yourself a chance to be seen.

Dogs and other animals (even small cats) can make an automobile driver sad in a collision. These animals can cause a motorcyclist to crash. Be alert for dogs and other small animals when you see them in a position to cross your path.

Motorcycles are very fast. They accelerate much quicker than most automobiles. New riders have frequent trouble entering corners too quickly. Their entry speed surprises them, and they are not comfortable leaning the motorcycle enough to complete the corner. Instead, they stand the motorcycle up and go straight off the road (or into oncoming traffic). New riders should be conservative about their corner entry speed and get all of their braking done before leaning the bike into the corner.

Pay close attention to road surface conditions. New riders may assume they will always have traction (automobiles do most of the time). Gravel, dampness, and even leaves have been known to cause motorcyclists to lose traction mid-corner, or while accelerating too hard or getting on the brakes too hard. Particularly when entering blind corners, you should be scanning ahead for road surface conditions and traction issues.

Whenever possible, learn how to ride a motorcycle in the dirt (everyone in my family did). You should be intimately familiar with the basic motorcycle controls before riding on the street. Use of the clutch, the gear shift lever and the brakes should be intuitive. You will have more than enough to think about without learning how to use these controls on a busy highway.

These are just some of my thoughts on street safety. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of things new riders should be concerned with, and it was not my intent to even discuss safety gear (helmet, gloves, boots, etc.). I have to recommend here that new riders consider taking a formal course on safety, such as one given by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Some states require these courses for new riders, particularly young ones.

Finally, don’t forget . . . you are invisible.

61 Comments

  1. pj says:

    I’m an optometrist with 40 years exper on motorcycles. I started on the dirt within miles of Wash DC on a motocross bike, because of rapid development in the area of my youth riding motocross on the street was an unavoidable thrill as was the inevitable need to avoid cops. I believe motard and the dual sport was targeted for folks like me.

    That said the folks that believe eye contact will save the day are dead wrong! You can make the love connection in eye contact and they will pull right out in front of you. As suggested tech is a game changer you no longer have just gender diff of visual perception to deal with along with sleepy, drunk, and angry drivers you have the digitally impaired who far out number the rest.

    BTW there is only one thing more irritating the high beams its those flickering beams. They are irritating beyond belief wether oncoming or behind. before you folks consider adding such a feature consider this. Folks that have had a concussion, traumatic brain injury , PTSD. Can experience considerable visual spatial perceptual confusion when exposed to high frequency flashes. Not something I would want to trigger in folks I’m sharing the road with!

    Along with all the other great suggestions let me add you can tell a lot about folks around you based on head and body position, patterns of movement, humans by their nature are unpredictable but you can improve your odds by being aware of who your sharing the road with.

    I scan behavior ( speed & lane stability, aggressiveness, ) in front behind and beside. In intersections Im a full back and I’m looking for a trustworthy line man to clear a hole.

    I could go on but suffice it to say whether car or bike its all about being engaged in the task at hand. Every trip is a race of survival and a thrill!

    Id also suggest especially if you have an ABS equipped vehicle whether car or bike. PRACTICE emergent braking. ABS engagement can scare the shit out of the un initiated causing them to let off the brake.

  2. skybullet says:

    I just bought another All Black Aerostitch suit. Why Black? It does not show dirt/bugs/grunge as bad and is less susceptible to fade. It also makes you INVISIBLE!
    Answer, a Day Glow Orange T-Shirt with Velcro in front from neck to waist. It also has Silver Reflector Tape sewed on for night visibility. Available wherever Construction Workers shop. Be super Conspicuous!

  3. MotoMike says:

    Police and other drivers be damned, high-beams in the day time always. 35+ years of street riding with no tickets (for high-beams anyway) and no accidents. And 40+ years of dirt riding experience has certainly helped.

    • Glenn says:

      I’ve heard people say that they have smoked 2 packs a day for 35 years and they still aren’t dead. Your anecdotal evidence is absurd. I never run my high beams in the day time, have 30+ years of street riding without a relevant incident, and I have managed to NOT piss off countless other drivers. Anyone can create an argument to suit their own point of view. Starting your comment with “Police and other drivers be damned…” reminds me of a phrase from a David Gilmour song: …thinking that we’re getting older and wiser, when we’re just getting old. Rather than sharing such a nonsensical point of view, why don’t you find some research that supports your belief. Then you can share that point of view without looking like an idiot.

  4. Gronde says:

    We all think we’re going to live to be old men while riding motorcycles every day. Truth is, the more you ride the less the odds are in your favor. Most of us that ride every day tuck the knowledge away in the back of our minds and convince ourselves that it’s not going to happen to us. It’s what I’ve done since 1976 and was recently brought back to reality when 2 acquaintances that I considered to be very careful riders were killed on their bikes by no fault of their own. Irresponsible drivers were to blame in both cases.
    I suppose you can increase your odds of surviving by following the advise mentioned here in the forum, but the odds of surviving on the street decrease every time you throw a leg over your motorcycle. It’s just the nature of the sport.

    • Tori Zimbalas says:

      The law of averages applies to everything my friend

      Look up National Geographics “top one hundred ways to go”

      Heart attack..stroke…cancer…car accident are top 4 (1 in 84 chance in fact) motorcycles are 1 in 1020.. way down the list

      Bottom line….be smart..aware and safe….but remember even the most enthusiastic motorcyclist puts more miles on in his car hence the numbers

      • Tori Zimbalas says:

        It concerns me when riders refer to car drivers as idiots and the term “they” actually is “us”..we all drive cars too and can be just as guilty

        The car offers up more blindspots..music…phone..rear view mirrors to see how pretty you are and a plethora of other distractions…as well as a overy relaxed mode of transport..to be properly aware at all times….

        • Gronde says:

          As motorcyclists when tend to be a little more conscience of motorcycles on the road. I usually leave a little more of a gap between myself and motorcycles when in my car and gi

          • Gronde says:

            Continued… and give them a break when changing lanes, etc… Some drivers are just the opposite and tend to tailgate motorcycles and treat riders as a nuisance and no quarter is given. I think that as motorcyclists we tend to be more understanding of riders when we are driving.

  5. roadrash1 says:

    I love my high-viz yellow Roadcrafter suit. Many of my friends wouldn’t be seen dead in this type of gear. That’s exactly what I’m trying to prevent!

  6. George says:

    When I was a teen, beginning street motorcycle rider, my mentors always told me “assume you are invisible to 80-90% of the drivers out there, and the 10-20% that do actually see you are actually TRYING to run you over or off the road”

    45 years later, the rule still holds true.

  7. John says:

    The big thing I always tell new riders is don’t participate in group rides until you are experienced. Trying to stay with a group of riders- especially a large group- can be very dangerous, even for a seasoned rider. Running lights, pulling out in front of traffic and speeding are common with large group rides- don’t do it!

  8. Jeremy in TX says:

    I tend to move around a lot if traffic permits. Even on a two lane, I’ll change my lane position often. Not in a manner that makes me look like a drunkard or squid, but enough that on a multi-lane freeway I am repeatedly putting myself in the rear-view and side-view mirrors of as many drivers as possible. I even give a short little “tire-warming”-style wiggle around intersections and in front of left turners or even stand on the pegs sometimes.

    My hypothesis is that (since the eye detects motion better than any other visual stimulus and the brain naturally tries to fill in patterns) if I am moving around and not following the obvious pattern of going straight that drivers are more likely to take notice of me in the first place and pause and question my speed and direction rather than assume to know. I don’t know if it works, but it sure seems to.

    There are a lot of bad and dangerous drivers out there, but I bet that most accidents are caused by otherwise good drivers who simply made a bad assumption / judgment call or got distracted or lost focus for a split second at just the wrong time. There are a couple of times in my past that the only reason I didn’t cause an accident was because the other driver was more alert than I was. We probably all have our moments. Stay safe everyone.

  9. Jmess says:

    Always a good topic and great to share experiences with other riders. My biggest tips that kept my alive over 20+ years on a streetbike are:

    (1) Assume everyone with their hands on a steering wheel is a complete idiot (this rule supersedes all rules and will keep you safe as most are and if they’re not they are distracted to the point of driving like an idiot)

    (2) Use vehicles as blockers for intersections without hugging their blind spots too long. If you don’t have a blocker you should slow and anticipate the worst of all: the left turn in front of you.

    (3) Do not go fast on unfamiliar roads (my only time down).

    I feel I have had everything thrown at me; I even had a guy try to force me over a cliff once — he tried twice so I know it was no mistake. Awareness and caution have prevented many disasters.

    Stay alive, God bless.

  10. Curly says:

    I’m celebrating a half century of riding this summer and have had only been hit once, 44 years ago while in college. I lost a tooth and collected a big enough settlement to pay for my last year’s tuition but also learned to be even more vigilant and predictive of what drivers can and will do. You’d be right in thinking I have had more than a few close calls but I’m still up and riding. The other benefit of being convinced that car, truck and bus drivers don’t see us is that I’m a better car driver too and have never had a collision. Knock on wood but stay alert!

  11. David Duarte says:

    I’ve been struggling to teach my now 9 year old how to ride a bike for years. He’s so close, and he actually got up and started pedalling, but he ran straight into a light pole. I had told him before to look where he wanted to go, that he was experiencing target fixation. Thank God he only got a little scrape. We’re going to try again this afternoon after I get out of work. I need to figure out some kind of gear for him to wear to shield him from bumps and scrapes.

    I wear a high viz yellow suit, black helmet with lots of white reflective tape on it, boots and gloves. ATGATT, because I’d rather sweat than bleed. Speed by and large doesn’t cause accidents; proximity does. This is why I actively avoid being close to other vehicles. I ride as if everyone on the road is out to get me, so in many ways it’s like playing a very high stakes video game.

  12. Denny says:

    Good to see cardinal part of motorcycling: the safety. Without it we are in perils. It is everyone’s responsibility; do not expect authority to ‘take care of you’ – except funeral home.

    • Denny says:

      To add on visibility: it is part of safety, but not all. Another one is position on the road and having space to escape into in case of contingency. Riding is constant planning for safety. Consequently one can say: and where is space left for fun? I know, its kind of pathetic, but it is reality. It is not about being scared, it is about being AWARE.

  13. Bob L. says:

    Thanks for the refresher….all good info!

  14. Magnus says:

    “Everyone is trying to hit me”. That is what I tell myself every time I ride. No one has hit me in 32 years, they have tried very hard though.

  15. CR says:

    Mostly good, but a few points of disagreement:
    Using high beams constantly is a poor riding practice as noted by TimC, and is illegal in several states as noted by Tank.

    No mention was made of the critical need for looking where you want to go, and looking far enough ahead to be able to process input adequately.

    This brief pep talk did not include basic and extended motorcycle education and training. IMHO, giving a new rider a copy of David Hough’s Proficient Motorcycling and following up with them would be worth far more that this little speech. There are lots of good training programs, books, videos, courses, etc, but PM is a terrific core.

    As Keith Code put it, there is Destructive Advice, Friendly Advice, Useful Tips, and Real Technology. This article falls under the advice and tips category.

  16. Norm G. says:

    re: “Pay close attention to road surface conditions”

    pay close attention to OBJECTS IN YOUR REAR VIEW MIRROR (for they are closer than they appear). check your SIX. good luck with eye contact in this situation.

    once upon a time when you were at a stop/turning lane, the threat of “ASSPACK” came primarily from the septuagenarian/octogenarian, yes…?

    well guess what, it’s the 21st Century and nana’s got nothing on hormonal 19 year old Jenny (OMG) texting her BFF how Billy is a “total jerk” for breaking up with her.

    put’s a whole new spin on the term “emotional wreck” (pun intended).

  17. Blackcayman says:

    Rather than constant HighBeams…I flash high low three times approaching an intersection and I keep flashing when a car is waiting to turn left in front of me.

    Every time I get on the bike I say to myself “HYPERVIGILENCE”, while I sit on the bike waiting to launch – which is my keyword that means everything in this article

  18. xlayn says:

    Some other points
    -Depending on your country your streets may be paved with holes instead of pavement so if you know the street is in less than good condition do not ride between cars, in the aim to avoid a pot they can hit you
    -Do not ignore the speed & corner topic (I almost crashed with the first “medium speed open long corner)
    -Again, depending on your country (some of these actions are forbid in the US) decrease speed when you are going to pass any vehicle higher than you can see (e.g. busses and trailers), someone may cross in front of them (yeah I know, not very good idea) and you will have close to 0 time to react
    -Do not never overtake a big vehicle on curve (even if you are on your own lane), if they need to brake inertia plus mass concentration will make them go out of their lane.
    -Avoid the type 2 of blind curve… the one of altitude change: you go up and then down, if the slope if way to drastic and a car comes from the other way on your lane you will crash front to front with it
    -watch out for dirt or gravel on street
    -adendum to dirt on street: learn to brake on those situations, has to become second nature to let the brake go and then apply again gently
    -Do not brake with the front brake going down a slope, do it with the rear brake
    -Learn to recognize different types of pavement, e.g. overpass pavement sometimes is made of very smooth concrete, this in wet conditions can be very slippery
    -

    • xlayn says:

      -Do not brake with the front brake going down a slope, do it with the rear brake ***in wet conditions that’s it***, extra care when carrying a passenger

      • xlayn says:

        -Do not brake with the front brake ***hard, in case of need do it softly*** going down a slope, do it with the rear brake ***in wet conditions that’s it***, extra care when carrying a passenger
        wow, two erratas in one post, personal record…

    • George says:

      “Do not brake with the front brake going down a slope,” is an old wives tale myth.

      If you can’t use the front brakes properly, smoothly, safely, while going down hill then you need to improve you braking skills.

      The front brake has much more braking power than the rear brake has and is easier for most people to control since most people have better hand fine muscle coordination than they do foot/toe coordination.

      • xlayn says:

        I did a second edit that did not appear.
        and you are totally right.
        the conditions for this is:
        very pronounce slope
        slippery road (like the shiny cement)
        wet
        as the bike has it’s weight pushing down, locking front wheel can cause it to flip (turn or cross over making you fall), locking rear wheel will make you slide rear wheel.
        This of course just works for a very period of time as rear brake can fade really fast

  19. Marc says:

    I always tell people when asked how I stay safe commuting 100 miles round trip every day ” I ride knowing half the cars on the road can’t see me and the other half are aiming for me”. Seems to have worked so far I am approaching 10 years without owning a car.

  20. Michael says:

    My philosophy is that all Trucks and cars are a vicious animal and if they see you , they will at some point try to kill you.
    28 years riding, never been hit.

  21. Honyock says:

    Water that has been in a gutter or other drainage channel, especially the concrete strips at intersections, grow an amazing ecosystem of algea that completely eliminates traction. A motorcycle that crosses this scumline while leaned over in a turn will experience an instantaneous washing out of the front wheel, followed immediately by a hard lowside. Fear the gutter slime.

  22. Wayne says:

    This is a great piece that I have shared with other new riders, including my wife when she took up the sport. I strongly disagree with the concept of “eye contact” though. Beyond about five feet (less with tinted windows, glare, or sunglasses) there is no way to ensure that a person who appears to be making eye contact is actually doing so.

    Remember, you are invisible. The driver that appears to be looking you in the eye may really be looking past you at another car farther away, thinking to themselves “I’ve got time to make the left turn before it gets to the intersection.”

    Whne you end up on the hood of a car, smashed up against the windshield after you’ve made the mistake of thinking you had eye contact with a driver, then you probably will make real eye contact.

    • George says:

      Wayne, you are correct. I think the part left out above is that even though you see the other driver’s eyes in your direction, STILL assume they did not see you.

  23. david says:

    Great article and right on Dirck! I commute daily to work and always tell myself that no one is seeing you so being proactive to look out for myself. Planning escape route, ready to brake, headlight on, never assuming other motorist seeing you or saw you in the mirror. But I found riding on freeway is mostly safer than in the local streets. Luckily I use my bike for commute and out to mountain roads. For getting around locally, I use my cage!

  24. LC says:

    Buy a WHITE helmet! The difference in visibility is remarkable.

    • Norm G. says:

      but then the “risk” is looking like Gazoo from the Flintstones.

      • LC says:

        You know, a some point you reach a certain mindset where you just don’t give a damn what other folks think. Besides, my Nolan N43 ain’t that bad.

  25. MGNorge says:

    Pretending one is invisible is a good way to look at it. It should put the rider into full defensive mode. But is it enough? Perhaps stealth mode until engaging the enemy and then switching to combat mode where one actively removes themselves from harms way? If I find myself surrounded by inattentive drivers I look for a way to remove myself from them. It’s not always possible but I will try to either speed up or slow down some to allow the swarm to be to themselves and me further from harm’s way.

  26. Jeremy in TX says:

    I am a big proponent of dirt riding as education and training for street riding. That is how I learned, and I still probably spend 40% of my “street bike” riding off-road with big adventure bikes. Running up on and managing traction limits is just part of the game when your in the dirty stuff.

    I have also become fond of the race track. I don’t get to go that often, but I have learned a lot about finding the limits of a bike (or of its rider to be more accurate) and how to improve. The lessons I learned in the dirt definitely help me keep my cool as I push the envelope at the track, though, which is half the battle.

    • MGNorge says:

      “I am a big proponent of dirt riding as education and training for street riding.” True dat!

    • Hot Dog says:

      I believe you are correct. I didn’t grow up in the dirt but my brother did. He’s a much better technical rider than me. We did ride a lot of gravel roads in the early days and this has helped me a bit but I wish I’d have done lots more dirt bike back then.

    • George says:

      There are many many skills that can be learned in the dirt that translate to much better control in the street riding.

      I’ve seen riders with many years of street riding experience learn many new things in the dirt that helped their street riding skills.

      Learning the basic motorcycle operations in the dirt is far and away the safest easiest way to learn.

  27. Tank says:

    I always tell new riders about the use of the front brake and how to counter steer. It’s surprising how many riders (including experienced) do not know anything about counter steering. I tell new riders to use the front brake every time they brake so that it becomes automatic. The front brake provides 3/4 of the braking. Some riders tell me they will use it only in an emergency. In an emergency you don’t have time to think, it has to be instinct. I had a friend killed a few years ago because he did not know how to counter steer. He hit a truck head-on trying to negotiate a turn. I think these are the two most common things that get riders killed or injured. Be safe my friends.

    • todd says:

      I’m sorry to hear about your friend. Sounds like he “locked up” like most people do when getting into a turn too hot.

      Understand it or not, and whether they realize it or not, people already counter-steer. I don’t think you can actually turn a motorcycle without, at first, steering the wheel in the “wrong” direction.

      Really, you are actually turning the bars into the turn but, yes, by applying pressure to the bars in the opposite direction of your turn gets the bike to lean in. As soon as the bike leans into the turn you steer the wheel into the turn. Too much turn in causes the bike to fall to the outside and again you correct by steering the bars the direction the bike is leaning.

      It’s easier to see when you look at a first-person video of someone riding a motorcycle. You can see the bars steer into the turn and you cannot feel the pressure being applied on the bars in the opposite direction.

      • Magnus says:

        My first accident was due to the lack of counter-steer knowledge (decreasing radius corner). I had ridden bicycles and motorcycles for years before I learned what counter steering was. I then practiced, a lot. Every time I went around a corner I counter steered with intent. My panic reaction now is to quickly push the bars “the wrong way”… or brake hard with the front brakes. Doesn’t work the same in the dirt…

  28. TimC says:

    “In the day time, ride with your high beam on.”

    This is one of the most widely-distributed pieces of misinformation propagated by well-meaning, safety-conscious motorcyclists out there.

    This blinds people – it makes it harder for them to judge your distance and speed (or even to see you – sometimes people just blank out what they can’t process). And it irritates them to boot. A winning combination.

    • Tank says:

      In Texas you can get a ticket for having high beams on within 500 ft. of an on coming vehicle. My girlfriend just got one and she works for the DPS.

    • Brian says:

      Maybe I’ve only encountered motorcycles with abnormally dim headlights, but of all the ones I’ve seen obviously running their brights during daylight hours, I’ve never felt “blinded”….but I’ve definitely noticed the bikes earlier.

    • Tori Zimbalis says:

      Agreed … also important to note that the concept of most modern bikes with a single lamp dedicated for low beam only….was first developed for the Ducati 916 and it was to prevent the problem of dual headlamps……that is from a distance two headlamps at relatively close range mimic a car at a greater distance…..the driver pulls out and the result was a accident…….

      putting your high beams on negates this…and puts extra wear and tear on your stator and rectifier

      and is also blinding

  29. TF says:

    “learn how to ride a motorcycle in the dirt”

    Amen! Even if you did not learn to ride by riding off road, go back and learn how to ride off road. You will learn to recognize the limits of traction under acceleration and braking and how to control the motorcycle when you exceed those limits.