Lane Positioning

Yet another discussion with a student today raised the issue of lane positioning for motorcycles. There was some misunderstanding about the advantages/disadvantages of each postion and once explained, the student was better able to position himself to best advantage.  The lesson was further emphasized when another rider rode past our group in the completely wrong lane position for the situation, allowing them to see the hazards he had created for himself.  

Lane positions 1,2 and 3

Although probably not  completely universal, for the purpose of this discusssion, lane positions for a motorcycle are numbered 1,2 and 3 from left to right within a lane. To my knowledge all the schools in BC use this terminology as does Harley Davidson’s  Rider’s Edge program. On a multi-lane road, each lane would have three lane positions, numbering from the left 1,2,3,1,2,3, etc.  Although this indicates the roadway is divided into three equal portions, it doesn’t mean that the riding position is in the center of each of those lane positions. Looking at the figure to the left above, in lane position 1 for example, riding in the center of that portion would put the rider too close to oncoming traffic while the center of lane position 3 would be too close to the curb or parked cars. In lane positions 1 and 3, the riding position is actually slightly closer to lane position 2. Lane position 2 is the only one where the center of the position is suitable. To make things a little easier, lane positions 1 and 3 are  roughly equivilent to the tire tracks of most vehicles.  

Before pressing on I will explain three terms. Visibility: your ability to see in a 360 degree range. Conspicuity: the ability of others to see you. Dominance: your “statement of ownership” of your piece of the road; your posture, lane position and demeanor all indicate your dominance… or lack of it. Being dominant doesn’t  mean being aggressive, whereas taking over your piece of the road and being assertive does. Remember that in this discussion there is a difference between “lane” and “lane position”  

Lane Position 1                                                                                                                                                           

All things being equal, lane position 1 would be the default lane position on a two lane road. The rider is able to scan further ahead and behind to determine hazards. Drivers ahead and behind have the rider in the primary rear view mirror and in full frontal view respectively. Most importantly, oncoming traffic can see the rider far sooner than if the rider is hidden by a car in front.  Something else I personally feel is that there is more “room to run” than anywhere else on the road. There is more pavement left and right of the rider to use to avoid hazards. To put these considerations to the test, watch as you drive or ride, for a rider who has chosen lane position 3  behind a car or some vehicle large enough to hide the bike (there are unfortunately plenty out there). The rider only becomes visible at the last instant as the car in front passes you. For that rider, it is not unusual for a driver coming the other way, itching to pass the car in front, to move out into the oncoming lane only to see there is a bike right where they thought there was nothing. Bad news for the bike. To sum up, as a general rule lane position 1 gives you the highest conspicuity, highest visibilty and the most dominance of any other position on the roadway. As a single rider, you are in the  best position for a left turn, however must move to lane position 3 for the best position for a right turn.  

Lane Position 2

The center of the road is often  described by some as “the grease strip” and that it should be avoided at all times. Except for very particular circumstances, this is not true. Unfortunately the statement malignes what can be the safest place to be. Certainly at or near intersections the roadway can be covered in oil dripping from countless cars waiting at red lights. On the open road and less busy city streets clear of intersections, this is not the case. This means a rider must survey his or her situation if considering riding in lane position 2. The advantages of lane position 2? You are farther away from oncoming traffic and the curb. It is a decent place to be when rounding a blind curve or approaching a blind hill, allowing fair visibility and conspicuity at the same time and at the same time allowing “room to run” if things change on either side (i.e. driver over the line or car parked on the side of the road). Disadvantages? You are hidden by cars ahead from on-coming traffic to some degree, there is sometimes more debris in the center of the road, you are not in the primary mirror of the driver in front and perhaps less visible to following drivers. To make safer left and right turns you must move to positions 1 and 3 respectively.  

Lane Position 3

This position is usually the least desireable position for normal riding because of poor visibility, conspicuity and dominance. You are close to the curb or parked cars and there is usually a lot of debris (read: gravel or sand) in that position if there is a curb. It is a very good place to be in blind corners and approaching blind hills, although it must be kept in mind that there can also be hidden hazards on the curb side once rounding the corner or cresting the hill. It is the best position to make a right turn, claiming the lane as your own prior to the turn (bicycles and even cars will tend to deek in between you and the curb if they think they can). It is often suggested to move over to lane position 3 when being approached by a large truck, bus or other that may produce a significant wind blast. Something to consider is that if the wind blast is that strong that it may disturb the bike, being in lane position 3 only places you about four feet further away (negligeable reduction in wind blast) but also four feet closer to the curb. If the wind blast is that bad, I personally don’t like being too close to the side of the road. Thankfully, unless there is a severe cross wind, it is not usually all that bad and in all cases, easy to manage using counter steering. Junk falling off a truck is more of an issue and again, lane position 3 leaves you very little “room to run”.  

Four Lane Roads

All the above changes when you have more than one lane in your direction. When there is more than one lane in your direction, for purposes of discussion, they are numbered from the left as described earlier: 1,2,3,1,2,3 and so on. If there are two lanes, the roles of each lane position switches. In the right lane, lane position 1 offers the most dominance, forward and rear visibility and conspicuity to both lanes of traffic plus more “room to run”. In the left lane, lane position 3 offers those advantages. Being in the secondary mirror of the car ahead is of lessor concern given the other advantages. What this means is that again, all things being equal, a single rider will move from one side of the line to the other (1 to 3 to 1) as he or she changes lanes. In almost all cases, lane position 2 is less desireable and lane position 1 (left lane) and lane position 3 (right lane) are the poorest of the lot. Three or more lanes in your direction leaves a huge question mark. The best lane position in the center lane(s) is always describes as “it depends”. The best solution; don’t ride in the center lane, pick far left or right instead.  

The “Rules” Don’t Always Rule

All of the  above are only guidelines and all bets are off when it comes to unusual situations. If the road surface is bad enough that it is dangerous to ride there, then by all means choose another position. If there is an oncoming hazard that deserves a little room, then move over to 2 or even 3. Moving to another lane position in different highway situations may at times actually improve conspicuity and visibility. Example: Trailing cars in a long line of traffic approaching in the oncoming lane have difficulty seeing a motorcycle in lane position 1, so a move to 2 or 3 will alert them to your presence. The thing to remember is that you need to be thinking about  your situation at all times and whatever lane position you are in, consider the weaker and stronger points relative to your situation and ride accordingly.  

As always, I encourage questions and comments on this post. Please see the tag line below to make a comment.

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One Response to Lane Positioning

  1. Pingback: Biking In Dallas » Critical Thinking about Bike Lanes

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