This story originally featured on Motorcyclist.
There’s a lot to learn when you first start out riding a motorcycle. The mechanical aspects of handling the bike are typically the most apparent—how to shift smoothly, how to take a corner skillfully, how to perform an emergency stop, etc. But you also need to get your mind dialed in too, which means looking at the road and its many potential hazards more critically and predictively. This situational awareness goes a long way in keeping you safe on the road.
Ken Condon provides a great definition of what situational awareness is in this write-up, so here we’re going to take a look at some ways you, as a new rider, can intentionally work toward improving your road-reading skills.
Build on what you already do
The truth is, you’re already reading the situation in front of you whenever you ride. Responding to brake lights on the car in front of you, crossing an intersection at a green light, changing lanes to pass by a slow driver, these are all instances of using situational awareness to navigate traffic safely. A lot of these responses are likely automatic if you have experience driving a car, so developing your situational awareness as a rider is simply to build on the skills you already have.
For example, you may be stopped at a red light shuffling through your playlist or talking to your passenger in a car, not really paying attention to the movement of traffic in the lanes around you. When your light turns green you go, and 99 percent of the time you don’t have to think much about it.
On a bike, you’ll want to get in the habit of noticing all those other lanes and drivers. You’ll want to position yourself in such a way as to have a line to ride forward if someone comes up hot behind you, just in case they don’t see you. You’ll want to make note of whether there’s a left turn lane opposite you and whether there’s any chance a driver could miss seeing you as they try to make the turn. Are people in the lanes running crosswise trying to beat the yellow? Is the flow of traffic mellow or aggressive?
Look around you and adjust your plan once the light turns green to suit the conditions you observe. It might be as simple as taking a beat before accelerating just to make sure the drivers in the other lanes are fully stopped. It might seem like a lot to think about at first, but it won’t be long before these assessments become automatic.
Have a plan before you leave the house
Effective situational awareness starts before you even get on the bike. Give the route you plan to take some thought, and make some mental notes about the hazards you might face. You’ll face a different set of scenarios on a ride through town than you will on the freeway or during a ride up into the hills. Do you know the roads well, or are you exploring a brand-new route? Is it a typically busy time of day, or are you riding when traffic is light? Has it stormed recently and are there likely to be patches of debris on the road?
A mental checklist like this can allow you to feel more prepared and calm on the bike from the moment you pull away from your home. You’ll still need to respond to the actual conditions once you’re out there, but having a game plan in place early can make responding less stressful. Panicked decisions improve the likelihood of an accident, so do your best to avoid making them. Take a few minutes to give your ride some thought before you set off and make it part of your pre-ride routine.
Gear choices matter
The whole point of doing a pre-ride assessment of potential hazards is to get your mind locked into riding mode. Having the right gear on for the conditions outside is essential to staying locked in that mode.
Say you plan to cover a few dozen miles on the freeway on a cold day. All you have are a thin pair of mesh gloves, so you throw them on and head out. Unless you have heated grips or some grip guards, your fingers are going to feel like hell in a few miles. They’ll be freezing cold, aching, hard to move with dexterity. A situation like this taxes your ability to be present and attentive to the situation around you. A portion of your mental energy is going to be spent damning the weather, your numb hands, the gloves, yourself, and who knows what else. This will slow your reaction time immensely.
This is all to say that to maximize your ability to be aware of the ever-changing situation around you, you need to give yourself the chance to have a clear, focused mind. Make sure your helmet fits well and is comfortable, that it vents properly, and doesn’t fog up or impede your vision. Make sure you can move your body in your jacket and pants, and that your feet easily manipulate the foot controls in your boots or riding shoes.
Be sure your mind is up to the task
The right gear can ensure you’re physically dialed to ride, but you also need to consider your mental state and whether it will allow you to be situationally aware. Riding is a great stress relief, and hopping on a bike to blow off some steam when you’re angry or frustrated can be a great way to get past those feelings. But they can also impede your ability to be fully present for the task of riding. If you’re getting lost in daydreams about telling your boss off or just had a fight with your spouse, you should be wary of hopping on the bike. As a newer rider, you’re likely still in a learning phase and should give yourself every chance to be focused and alert on the bike.
Develop some standard operating procedures
Reading every continuous cue from the cars around you, the landscape, and road conditions can be a lot to process. It can help to make some rules for yourself as you ride to help ease the load.
Maybe you decide to always accelerate (if traffic allows) if you find yourself in the blind spot of the car beside you. Maybe you tap the rear brake just enough to flash your taillight a few times before you start to come to a stop in order to give the person behind you a little more of a visual cue of what you plan to do. After you’ve ridden for a while, take stock of some of the common situations you find yourself in and think about the things you could do to enhance your safety and visibility. Over time these will become habits and will allow you to keep a closer eye on other potentially hazardous circumstances.
Assume they don’t see you
You probably heard some version of this in your MSF course, but it helps to calibrate your thinking to riding: Assume other motorists don’t see you.
In practice this could mean having a plan when you’re at a stop and you see a car coming up behind in your rearview mirror. It could prompt an extra look at cross traffic before you ride across an intersection. It could influence when you start to signal for a turn, or where you position yourself in your lane. Give yourself evasion options whenever possible and find ways to keep some safe distance between yourself and others on the road. Getting clipped by a car changing lanes becomes a lot less likely if there’s no car directly beside you, after all. It won’t always be possible, but take advantage of the occasions when it is.
This may also play a role in how you outfit yourself on your bike. Hi-vis pieces might not be the coolest-looking pieces of gear, but a pop of color like that really does help make you stand out. Reflective material also helps, particularly if you ride in low-light conditions.
Scan, scan, scan
Keeping your eyes up is vital because you will need to constantly be assessing and reassessing your surroundings on the bike. Use your periphery to take stock of the roadside conditions and motorists that flank you, notice brake lights three or four cars ahead so you can be better prepared when the car directly in front of you begins to stop. Look out and then scan back closer to your current position. A constant state of attentive scanning will allow you to spot clues that pertain to the dynamic of the road ahead and will give you precious extra seconds to respond should you need to, and can help to reduce the number of unexpected situations you’ll face.
These tips will go a long way to improving your situational awareness as a new rider. This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but it contains the essentials. Tailor your approach to your needs, which will be different depending on where you live and where you ride. Here in southern Oregon for example, riding at dusk or in the morning in certain areas means you have to be on the lookout for deer and turkeys crossing the road. Riding in a congested urban area has its own set of unique challenges. The bottom line is awareness is one of your best ways to prevent an accident, so it’s worth developing to ensure you have a long, happy life as a rider.
And to the more experienced riders out there, if there are any essential elements I’ve missed, please share in the comments.