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Safe Group Riding

Written by  February 29, 2012

Few things are more impressive than seeing a large group of motorcycles cruising down the road in formation. On the flipside, few things are as horrid as seeing a group of motorcycles heading down the road with no clue what the hell they’re doing. You know the ones I’m talking about; the leader is often in the right-hand side of the lane, everyone is riding side-by-side, or there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for their formation.
One of my biggest pet peeves when riding in a large group is seeing the lead rider riding in the right-hand side of the lane. As I’m sure most everyone knows, except for those who are guilty of this, the main reason the lead rider should always ride in the left-hand side of the lane is so they can keep an eye in their left mirror so they know when traffic is approaching or passing the group so you don’t pull out in front of them. The other reason is so you can see around traffic in front of the group, so you know when it’s safe for the group to start passing slower moving vehicles. Neither of these can be safely done if you’re riding in the right-hand side of the lane, plus it makes you look like a dweeb.
For many riders, including yours truly, motorcycling is a social activity, and riding with friends in a group can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of riding. Even though I’m not a big fan of riding in large groups, I have to admit I get a kick out of seeing the look on people’s faces when we pull into a gas station or restaurant parking lot. You would have thought The Wild Ones just rode into town to terrorize the locals and burn down the place. It still amazes me how too many bad biker movies, biased news reports, and the uninformed public can look down on such a fun activity.

Riding in a group can be a lot of fun, but it also requires extra attention and effort from everyone in the group. In most large groups, you often have riders with various skill levels and temperaments. The pace at which a group rides is often one of the most nerve-racking and frustrating things you have to deal with when riding in a group. Less-seasoned riders can easily find themselves riding beyond their skill level, while more-seasoned riders may find the pace too slow and cumbersome.

If I’m leading a large group of riders on a trip, which I don’t particularly enjoy doing, I try to set the ground rules up front so there are no surprises. I explain that I normally like to ride approximately 5 mph over the speed limit, or whatever seems to be the safest speed according to traffic flow. If everyone is OK with that, off we go. If not, or if I get a mix of responses, I often suggest that we divide into two or more groups, recruit a leader for the slower moving group, make sure everyone has a map and knows the route we’re taking, and then tell them we’ll see them at one of the next fuel or restaurant stops.

You may think this sounds a bit harsh; however, I’d rather have someone think I’m a jerk than cause them to have an accident because they’re riding beyond their ability with me in the lead. I equally don’t want to hold back riders who may want to ride faster than I’m planning on going, so it’s equally fair to let them go on ahead and tell them we’ll meet up with them when we get there.

If I’m not leading the group, and no expectations are set in advance by the leader, I normally tell them I’ll ride along unless the pace is too slow or too dangerous, in which case I’ll ride on ahead and see them when they get there. It’s nothing personal, but it drives me nuts to ride at or below the speed limit and hold up traffic; especially on two-lane highways.

Riding in Formation
When riding in a group, there are three basic formations: staggered, single-file and side-by-side. On certain rides, you may be required to use two or more of these formations, depending on the situation.

Staggered Formation – This is one of the most common group formations in which the bikes are lined up on both sides of the lane, with the lead bike on the left side of the lane, the next bike on the right side of the lane, and the next bike back on the left side, and so on, with a two-second space between you and the bike directly in front of you. For you math wizards, yes, that means there’s a one second interval between you and the bike on the opposite side of the lane in front of you. This type of formation keeps the group close together and maintains a safe amount of space around each bike. Increase your space cushion in bad weather to avoid road spray and give you more time to stop. The reason the lead bike rides on the left side of the lane is so they can safely see around any vehicles in front of the group they may need to pass, and to also see any vehicles that may be approaching from behind the group in the opposite lane.

Single-File Formation – This formation is most commonly used when riding on winding roads so you have the entire lane to safely negotiate each corner without worrying about someone riding too close to you on the opposite side of the lane. Remember to maintain at least a two-second space between you and the bike in front of you so if one rider goes down they don’t take down the riders behind them. This is also the proper formation when approaching a vehicle or obstacle on the side of the road. When riding in a staggered formation and this situation occurs, the leader should give the proper hand signal and everyone moves into single-file formation until they have passed the obstacle and the leader gives the proper hand signal to return to staggered formation.

Side-by-Side Formation– When riding side-by-side, you reduce the amount of safe space between you and the bike next to you. This type of formation should be avoided, except in rare circumstances. The only time I’ve ever ridden in this formation is when your group is riding in heavy stop-and-go traffic or during a police escorted ride or parade. You often see motorcycle police officers riding in this formation, but personally, I think it’s a bad idea even for them.

Keeping the Group Together
If you are leading a group of riders, it is your responsibility to look ahead in order to make proper lane changes. When you are ready to change lanes, signal early so those behind you have plenty of time to prepare for the maneuver. You should change lanes as early as possible so everyone has time to complete the change.

It is often suggested that inexperienced riders be placed toward the front of the group so the more seasoned riders can keep an eye on them and help out if needed. In many groups, the tail gunner, tailender, or whatever you want to call the last rider in the group sets the pace of the group. When riding in a group, keep your eye on the person behind you so if a rider falls back, you can slow down a little to prevent them from dropping too far behind. If everyone uses this technique, the group will maintain a steady speed without creating, what I call, a rubber band effect.

Passing in Formation
When riding in a staggered formation, as the group approaches a slower moving vehicle, you should pass one at a time. When it is safe to pass, the leader should pull out and pass, and maintain their position in the left-hand side of the lane. After the leader has successfully passed the vehicle, the second rider should move into the left position and pass the vehicle when it is safe. After passing the vehicle, the second rider resumes their position in the right-hand side of the lane behind the leader.

Stopping in Formation
When it is time for the group to stop at a rest area or restaurant, all riders should stay in formation and wait for their turn to park. One rider out of place can disrupt the flow of traffic and create confusion for the other riders. If possible, you should always try to stop at gas stations and restaurants on the right side of the road rather than making left turns across traffic. While this is not always possible, it is a good practice. To keep the group moving, everyone should stay together and not wander off too far unless you know when the group is planning to hit the road again. Maybe it’s just me, but I hate riding in a group with people who dilly-dally around when refueling or stopping to eat. Personally, I think it is disrespectful of the other riders, and other than riding too slow, this is the next item on my list of group riding pet peeves.

Your preparation, skills, and knowing your responsibilities is the key to making this social form of motorcycling fun for everyone. If done right, group riding can be one of the most enjoyable social activities in which you can participate as a rider.

By Mike Schweder