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Readers Respond to “Being Invisible”

The article titled “Being Invisible” published by MD on January 28, 2007 related my speech to my son prior to his first street ride. Quite a few readers responded to the article with email, including several interesting, additional safety recommendations. It turns out that use of a motorcycle’s high beam during daylight riding is somewhat controversial, and some of the initial responses pointed out that the article did not deal with safety gear (it was never intended to — and a comment to that effect was later added). Here are the email responses we received in their unedited form.

  • All good advice. My son started street riding a year ago at age 24. He’d ridden dirt bikes since he was 10. I too think that learning on dirt bikes is the only way to go. Not only does it let you master control of the bike while risking only scrapes and bruises, it also teaches you to deal with slipping, sliding, and low traction.

    One bit of essential advice you left out though, and I’ve never heard from a MSF instructor either, is ALWAYS RIDE IN THE CAR TIRE TRACKS. Never ride in the center of the lane: a) it’s greasy from engine blowby and b) if there are rocks, nails, board, bricks, or any other crap a car can straddle, it’ll be left in the center of the lane. Tell your son.

    Another good piece of advice is go to some track days. One think you don’t learn on dirt bikes is how far you can lean over on modern tires. But it’s not something you want to learn on the street.

  • I like your piece on being invisible It’s unfortunate that motorcyclists have to think that way, but certainly a necessary survivial technique on American roads. One thing I’ve always kept in mind about other driver’s blind spots is that if I can’t see their face in their mirror, then they probably can’t see me. And, although it’s technically speeding, I always try to ride just slightly faster than the general flow of traffic so I am moving through it rather than with it and am, thus, more likely to be noticed rather than just blending into the background.

    I enjoy your website very much. Keep up the great work.

  • Excellent thoughts. I have similar comments that I tell first time riders prior to mounting the bike and stradling my lower back.
    • Lean with me. Don’t fight the bike, don’t lean more than I do. Embrace one-ness with me.
    • Pay attention. You need to know what is in our near future as well. It will help prepare us in case the inevitable or unavoidable happens.
    • If I touch your knee a couple of times, I’m not flirting. It means that I want you to hold on a little tighter than you may expect.
    • If you are uncomfortable or, heaven forbid, “scared” hit me on the back of the head a few times to let me know. I’ll pull over we’ll grab a cup of coffee, and relax for a bit.
    • If you feel yourself sliding forward while we are braking (love the sportbike!), put off of my lower back.
    • Please, please keep your feet on the pegs. Burned shoe only smells good for a moment, and it’s a pain to clean off!

    Just some thoughts. I would welcome hearing similar advice from others. My rules are always tweakable.

  • I’ve always felt that dirt riding, and lots of it, helps more than anything else in control familiarization. That goes for control of the bike in less than ideal traction conditions and of the bike’s controls too. Then once out on the street the rider can concentrate more on being as visible as possible and practice street survival tactics. When able, I run away from packs of cars but when I can’t I try to keep escape routes in mind.

    Thanks for the reminder tip. It’s easy to become nonchalant when riding.

  • You missed the most important one! ATGATT (All the gear, all the time). Cause it isn’t a matter of “if you go down” it’s a matter of when.
  • I have a feeling you’re going to get a ton of email on this subject. So I might as well chime in too.

    I have “heard” that the high beam can cause depth perception issues (or rather increased depth perception issues since people tend to not judge a motorcycle’s approach well to begin with).

    I’ve only been riding for 2 years, but I still practice braking maneuvers and constantly remind myself about counter steering especially when approaching a stop light in an empty lane with a congested adjacent lane in which someone invariably darts out.

    And for the love of god, I see so many riders more concerned with who is “looking” at them than where they’re going!

    Maneuvering through a turn has got to be the best and worst thing on a bike. It is, why most of us ride bikes to begin with, however the concentration balancing act between looking through the turn to allow enough perception/reaction time and scanning the roadway for potential threats (like the dreaded flattened soda can) continues to challenge.

    The MSF course is good, but could be better in preparing new/returning riders for the rigors of traffic insanity. It just didn’t seem as stringent as I thought it should be. From what I understand, the class duration is even shorter today than just 2 years ago leaving the student to a Saturday and 1/2 day Sunday. I won’t rant on this, but could.

  • As a motorcycle driving instructor here in norway I enjoyed reading your article “being invisible”. The situations you are describing seems to be pretty much the same as I’m trying to teach my students here, so I guess they are pretty universal. But there is one thing I’m curious about: You say “In the day time, ride with your high beam on. “. In my experience this is not a good idea. Low beam is a must, but high beam is a no no. There are several reasons for this:

    – When viewing a motorcycle with high beam on from a distance, the motorcycle virtualy disapears. Thus what other drivers see is just the light. Anything behind the light is hidden. This makes it much harder to accurately judge speed and distance. Also remember that other drivers “see what they are looking for”. That means that a driver might overlook the motorcycle because he/she doesn’t see A motorcycle but only a light. Our eyes “see” a lot more than our brain registers as objects of importance. Therefore the motorcyclelight might be registrered as a “object of no imporance”.

    – A high beam is much more powerfull than low beam. Riding with friends I sometimes have stopped because I thought that the one or more of my friends had been left behind. I could not see anyone behind the bright light of the fellow behind me (they where low beam, but very bright). The rest of the group where all there when I stopped of course. This made us conclude that the one with the brightest light must ride first our last in the group and definitively not use high beam. It also made me think: What would happen if a car coming the other way wanted to overtake some slow moving vehicle. That car would likely see just the first two riders of our group, and might think the road is clear behind that motorcycle with the bright light.

    – Motorcycles generally have less light than a car. The light on some bikes are downright laughable. But a few have very powerful lights and therefore this should be considered when riding. At least when riding in a group. But it is important to know how the light is spread. A low beam is designed to be low, and should not hit the eyes of other drivers directly. A high beam is designed to spread as much light as possible and will hit the eyes of oncoming traffic directly.

    – High beam might not be bright enough for other traffic to be a problem. But it sure is bright enough for some ‘cagers’ to be anoyed. I don’t want car or truckdrivers to get mad at me. They can’t match the motorcycle for agility or power, but the sure can hurt me if they should want to.

    So my conclusion is that riding with a high beam does not make me visible, but actually makes me more invisible.

    I would be glad to hear if there has been any research into this. Of course I know that my conclussion are mostly based on personal experience. I’ve seen one experiment that concluded the opposit of my thoughts. But this was a very basic experience with 12 ordinary people standing in front of an old headlamp from a motorcycle (a cb750 i think) and the where asked if they found it difficult to look beyond the light. This they didnt. But such a test is to far removed from real life, and did not take into account the great variations in light intensity from bike to bike. So if I’m wrong, and you can prove this or convince me some other way. Please tell me:-)

  • Brilliant advice. its the truth and you covered it all. Thanks!
  • Did I miss the paragraph on wearing safety gear? I say, if you can only afford the bike and not the proper (full) safety gear, you can’t afford the bike. And usually, riding with your high beam on makes your front turn signals pretty much “invisible” – – might want to rethink that one.
  • Hi! You got most everything right but I really find it irritating to be across an intersection from a bike with its high beam on. At least go to low beam while you’re sitting waiting for the the light to change.

    Jumping to” gear ” I’ve noticed(and that’s the key word) many riders wearing bright yellow helmets even though they aren’t riding yellow bikes. I ride a red bike with a red helmet and am thinking seriously of buying a yellow helmet for visibility. Many cruiser riders are set on wearing a black helmet but they don’t show up well in heavy traffic.

  • I’ve been riding on the street for nearly all of 42 years, and that includes commuter traffic for as much of the year as possible. One of the greatest advances in safety that has occurred was when bike headlights were factory-wired “ON”. However ; even though I’m a dyed-in-the-wool biker, I become very annoyed when confronted (or followed) by a bike that has its highbeam on. How must the cage drivers that are otherwise indifferent to bikers feel about it ? The “highbeam” guy may not suffer the consequences, but the next “innocent” biker may be in for some rude and possibly dangerous behavior by that irritated cager. I feel the lowbeam being on is a BIG plus over having no light on, but don’t feel that the highbeam is a significant plus over the low beam. Not worth the hazard it could cause others.
  • I live in Syracuse NY. I currently ride a 2004 R1. We have a relatively short riding season which means I spend most of my time driving a car. I disagree with your comment to ride a motorcycle with it’s high beam on. This is very annoying to oncoming cars. I do agree with the be invisible philosophy, that’s the best way to describe it to a new street rider.
  • Well done! I hope you don’t mind that I am saving that piece in my “Great Articles” file so I can send it to folks when they buy their first bikes. I’m often asked for advice and tips from new riders (like many experienced riders are). I’m sending them your article from now on with my standard recommendation to complete the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course.

    Good luck to you and your son and (continue to) ride safe! Thanks for your great site.

  • Great article, perhaps the author could have included, when regarding left-turning drivers at an intersection, we can always slow down and motion the driver to proceed. This way, the left turning driver continues on out of our way and we are safer for it. It will take less time to allow them to proceed than it would to file an accident report. I’ve been riding 40+ years and this is the advice I’m giving to my son who will be driving soon. Keep up the good work, I love Motorcycle Daily.
  • You read my mind, we must have went to the same school, or you stole that from my head. That’s GREAT advice
  • Excellent essay, “You’re invisible”!!!!
    I stress the exact same advice to all my fellow road going two wheelers, including my son.

    One tidbit of advice I give anyone who travels or commutes on interstate highways, keep a minimum of 2 seconds away from the car behind you.

    What?!?!?! Yes, that’s right. How many times per week are you stuck in traffic because someone plowed into the rear end of the car ahead of them?

    Imagine if the car that was struck was a bike. Remember some fundamental differences between a motorcycle and a car: a single brake/tail light, drastically shorter braking distance and the aforementioned invisibility.

    A wave to keep back or moving to a less congested lane may keep those morons off your tail. Make sure to not be so focused on what’s behind you that you forget to scan all around you.
    The “you’re invisible” rule along with situational awareness(what to do if…) should keep you safe and enjoying motorcycling.

  • Excellent advice Dirck. This has been my mantra for many years now and the second piece of advice I give to anyone new to, or thinking of, taking up street riding. My first piece of advice is to take an MSF training course. Thanks for reminding us of one of the most important skills we can acquire and use.
  • know you didn’t ask for reader input on this article:
    but I’m offering some anyway and am pretty sure I won’t be the only one who chimes in with their 2 cents worth. Especially since you left the door cracked open, saying: “This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of things new riders should be concerned with.”

    You make a very true statement, saying: “If an automobile is in a position to hit you, plan an escape path in advance.” In the particularly dangerous situation of Freeway travel, we can go one step further by keeping an automobile OUT of a position to hit you, keeping an escape path always at the ready.

    Often, an automobile can come into your lane quicker than you can escape since higher speeds increase the gyroscopic motion of a motorcycle, making quick turns difficult.

    When freeway commuting, ride in the left half of the fast lane.

    I know cops are looking for you there, so don’t go faster than you must, the car ahead of you, the flow of traffic, etc. But I personally believe it’s worth the trade off. It’s the safest place to be IMO. The first lane is where cars merge onto the freeway. Also, cars merge to that lane preparing to exit the freeway (always dodging some idiot). In the middle lanes, you are surrounded by cars .

    In the “fast lane”, there are cars only to your right. Riding to the left side of that lane offers a huge cushion, and also a quick get-away onto the shoulder of the road. Also, because that lane tends to move a bit quicker, you can watch cars as you approach them. That’s a LOT better than cars approaching YOU from behind.

    Some may disagree, but I’ve been riding there for years without any problems, and always feeling much safer. Any close calls I’ve had were in other lanes.

  • My philosophy exactly. Nice article.
  • This is one of the best pieces you’ve written.
  • Very simply and effectively written!
    There was sad deadly accident some two years ago.
    Young motorcyclist was not ‘seen’ on busy road.
    That’ what the culprit car driver claimed.
  • I agree with everything but the high beam. Being seen and being annoying are two different things. When in my car, I think high beams on bikes are very frustrating. I wouldn’t do it because, while drivers in cars are dangerous to us, irritated drivers are worse.
  • I enjoyed your article “Being Invisible”.Only one thing. I dislike with a passion the practice of motorcyclists riding with their high beams on.It hurts my eyes just as much as not dimming your lights at night.In my opinion it is distracting to cage drivers. Maybe I’m a bad person, but it makes me feel as though the bike rider is arrogant and unconcerned with the welfare of others. Just as driving at night without dimming your lights. It pisses me off.Clearly instilling anger and ill will in fellow motorists is not your goal.I just wanted you to know the opinion of one of your temporarily blinded victims.
  • Okay, so, are you going to tell us how your son did on his first street ride?
  • Spot on, you nailed every important factor that needs to be adhered to, the other comment I received from my instructor that has stuck with me till this day is….“Think of this as a game…… Every single vehicle driver out there is trying to knock you off your bike, The game is to see how far you can get before one of these guys gets you!”Touch wood, (Over 60,000 kms) no one has managed to get me! *he says knocking on the pc desk*Keep up the great work on the site!
  • Being invisible has some great information and covers several things I’ve preached for years. I’m a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Dirtbike school instructor and in just about every class someone expresses interest in street riding. I’m going to print your article and begin handing it out to these potential street riders in the future if you don’t mind.

    One thing that stands out is the second to last paragraph. I have told everyone that has ever asked me about street riding to get formal training and spend a year or two riding in the dirt first. The things you learn in the dirt will make you a better rider and save you on the street. I see it almost everyday. The rookie rider on the shiny 600 pound Harley or even worse a liter bike. I have two words for them having to learn a panic stop for the first time on a busy street…Good luck.

    I visit the website daily. Keep up the great work!

  • I just read your article on Being Invisible. That is a great speech for the beginner. It parallels the one I use when arming a novice against the perils of street riding. I only find two additions to subjects you have already opened.

    Your paragraph on animals missed an aspect of their danger. When Mrs. Soccer Mom in her two ton SUV sees the little critter; it will consume ALL of her attention; she will do ANYTHING to avoid hitting it; and once again, YOU ARE INVISIBLE!

    As for learning to ride in the dirt, you are VERY right on. Keeping the novice away from the two ton motorcyclist eating 4 wheelers is good. An added aspect of dirt riding (one that has saved some of my hide) is that dirt bikes spend more time to some extent “out of control”. Thereby forcing the rider to instinctively learn corrections that will help them restore control.

    Thanks for getting the speech into print.

  • I’ve been riding a long time…it’s still great gettng a reminder!
  • Great little article, Dirck. It’s always a good reminder for riders, new and old.

    You might ask for other suggestions that your readership might have.

    One tip that I have, and use regularly, is that I flash my bright beams on and off when coming into an intersection where traffic might pose a threat….even (and especially) where I have the right-of-way and there might be traffic making a quick and legal (or illegal, for that matter) turn. Sure, sometimes I get weird looks, but I guarentee that it does get people’s attention, and that, ultimately, is what it is all about.

    Thanks for Motorcycle Daily. It’s really a treat.

  • I just want to make a comment on you “Being Invisible” article. These words you told your son are wisdom words. I have to say that I believe you are giving motorcyclists the best and most important advice they can get for a “safe” riding experience. When you go riding you are only one guy among dozens, hundreds or thousands. Even if you are a skilled, experienced rider and don’t make mistakes, that alone is not enough. You are only one among many. Even if you don’t make a mistake, someone will make it. Thinking that you are always invisible for everybody else in the road may be the most important safety precaution, because sooner or later you will be invisible for someone.

    “If you 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.” – This happened to me, and I didn’t know I was invisible. Today I am a paraplegic.

    Keep the good work, and my advice would be: Don’t ever let you son forget that he is invisible. Go ride with him, and lead the ride so that he can learn the habits from you.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with your “Being Invisible” article, and have told many riders and non-riders alike that my good fortune in avoiding a motorcycling accident in 35 years of street riding (I’m 48) is a belief in the philosophy is that “I’m invisible” when I ride. There are just two things I’d like to add: 1) Although I often try to make eye contact with drivers, even if I do, I assume that they haven’t really seen me… after all, I’m invisible ! 2) If anyone ever cuts me off, I never get angry in the slightest, and I make no attempt to “get back” at them… after all, I’m invisible, so it’s not their fault they cut me off ! Keep up the good work.
  • Spot on Dirck – however, one crash I was in – I was driving my Nissan Patrol 4×4 complete with bullbar (2 tonnes of invisibility). The subaru driver looked directly at me for a good few seconds and pulled out. I wiped the front off his car and cracked one of the plastic hub covers on my car wheel. Darned car drivers! That cover cost me $4.00 at the wreckers.

    Excellent article though

  • No doubt you have received numerous replies to your posting. I feel your ‘speech’ is an excellent example of what we all must know but would add a few things:

    Making eye contact may be helpful, but don’t presume that you have. Even if that person apparently acknowledges your presence, you might be mistaken. Assume the driver is looking right through you. Remember, you’re invisible. They have nothing to fear, but it’s your hiney.

    I find that, rather than acting like I’m merely invisible, the best defensive mindset is to act as though other users of the roadway are actively trying to kill me. That way you are prepared for the occasional nut-job that actually is interested in knocking you off, as well as the unusually inattentive driver. However, it is not appropriate to attempt self-defense unless somebody is actually trying to hurt you. ;-p

    With respect to panicking due to excess entry speed I think your advice is best, novice riders should be conservative with entry speed and fully aware of their environment. Riders should make a quick mental note of road surface conditions, oncoming traffic, and the landscape beyond the outside of the curve.

    That said, the occasional panic will ensue. The correct response to fear from perceived excess entry speed is usually to lean more. The bike is almost always capable of more lean than we anticipate. We should mentally train ourselves to ‘lean more’ when we panic while cornering because it is highly counter-intuitive.

    If you really are going too fast, ‘lean more’ is still usually the best option because a low-side slide in your own lane past apex is almost always the preferable way to have a cornering get-off: oncoming traffic has time to respond to your mishap, the bike hits any hard obstacle instead of you being sandwiched between the two or tossed in a ditch, and levers, boots, handlebars, and jeans cost less to replace than wheels, frames, forks, helmets, and brains. But in reality, if you ride with any sort of awareness of your own mortality, you will never find yourself cornering beyond the mechanical limits of your machine. This is especially true of a novice rider who reaches the fear threshold at fairly low speeds and lean angles.

    Those who court danger by using high entry speeds and extreme lean angles on public roads suffer at the other end of the spectrum, their bravado takes them past the mechanical limits of the machinery. These should be instructed to go racing or at least get life insurance.

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