When Sharing the Road, How Much Responsibility Belongs to the Motorcyclist?



Photo courtesy of somewhere on the Internet.



NOTE 2/19/10 : Here is a link to a story in the San Diego Union Tribune regarding the “Share the Road” freeway signs. Sadly, it looks like I’m kinda right about some car drivers. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why so many drivers have it out for motorcyclists and bicyclists alike. 

I was driving into work this week when I noticed that the digital freeway sign that usually informs me about the minutes I’d spend in the purgatory of traffic that is the 405 south had a new message. This week these signs read, “Share the road. Look twice for motorcyclists.” What a fantastic message I thought, and a good sign that the CHP and CalTrans were reinforcing a warning that we riders have been proselytizing all along.

In fact, the “Share the Road” message showing up on the approximately 700 so-called Amber Alert signs across California is part of a public service campaign by the CHP, the Office of Traffic Safety and CalTrans to promote highway safety by getting drivers to actually look for motorcyclists. Nice stuff.

The pessimist in me had another thought — I bet there were more than a few drivers cruising by, reading that sign and thinking, “Why should I care? These stupid motorcyclists are crazy to begin with and dying is a part of their equation.” I honestly believe that there are those out there who don’t give a flying crap about riders and believe some motorcyclists deserve to die or be injured.

After getting into the office and going through my e-mail, which includes Google news alerts that notify me of news stories containing keywords like “motorcycles” and “honda” and such, my thoughts were confirmed. Again. I have a morbid curiosity about reading the reader comment sections in stories about fellow riders going down in traffic or being seriously injured. It’s in these anonymous forms that I’ve read the most vile, repugnant statements made by strangers about strangers that I’ve ever come across.

The other day it was a story about the 91 freeway in Long Beach, Calif., being closed down to investigate a crash between a motorcyclist and a vehicle. There was really no information in the story about the accident or the condition of the rider, but here is one such comment: 

Was this an unfortunate accident between a car and a motorcycle? Or, was the motorcyclist splitting lanes so he could go 20 mph faster than the rest of the traffic? If it was an unfortunate accident, I hope everyone is okay. If it was reckless lane-splitting, like I see every single day, then the motorcyclist deserved to be hit.

The thing is, this is one of the more sedate such comments I’ve read. One of the worst happened in a story about the death of an employee of a Harley-Davidson dealership here in Orange County, Calif. Not only did some commentators say he deserved to die, they were upset that his accident had disrupted their daily commute. They were so repulsive and mean-spirited, I hoped to god that none of the rider’s family members ever came across them. And of course, they were delivered with the anonymity that empowers so many Internet trolls.

I’ve always known that a big swath of society views motorcycling as inherently risky and dangerous — and it is, without a doubt, more dangerous and risky than say, driving around in a car or sitting in a chair. But within this group, there is a subset that believes riders, quite simply, deserve to die. I’ll never understand this callousness any more than I know all my lectures about managing risk, wearing safety gear, getting training, etc. will never change the minds of other folks. But there’s something very vicious about it.

Then there are some more reasoned comments, such as this, that get me to thinking: 

Lane splitting may be legal. However, splitting lanes when traffic is already flowing at 65 mph or buzzing by cars at 65-70 when the cars are only doing 40-45 is just plain stupid. Even when good drivers signal and check their mirrors before changing lanes, there are still close calls, or worse, accidents. The big difference in speed between the cars and the motorcycles makes it seem like the motorcycles appear out of nowhere. Still, I see plenty of bikers doing this every day on the 110 freeway. Don’t believe me? Try driving on the 110 at rush hour and see for yourselves. That is why certain bikers get hit. Be smart. If you really need to speed around traffic, maybe you should leave a few minutes earlier.

and this:

RB Mom you are correct. No motorcyclist ever deserves to be hit. But many motorcylcists put themselves in a positon to get hit by drivign to damn fast while splitting lanes. And while that my be legal it is the stupidist thing they can do. Remember the saying “you can be right, dead right?”

If you’ve ridden for any length of time, you know that it’s a given that drivers don’t look out for motorcyclists. They don’t. And until the “Share the Road” message gets some traction among the general public and eventually reaches those that can be called anti-motorcyclists, they won’t. Yet, I do see riders splitting lanes at unsafe speeds. I see motorcyclists doing amazingly stupid things all day and night. And I cringe. I see them riding too fast for conditions, passing on the right, wearing T-shirts and shorts, wearing flip-flops, wearing novelty helmets, doing stunts in traffic. And yes, here in California where it is OK to lane share, I’ve seen riders INSISTING ON THEIR RIGHT OF WAY. There’s really no winning that confrontation. 

I’ve ridden like an idiot more times that I’d like to admit. It comes with being in a hurry or just enjoying a little extra throttle if that’s any excuse. I’ve got a family, I know better. 

I guess what I’m getting at here is yes, drivers and other motorists need to be more aware of motorcyclists. They need to stop texting, reading, telephoning, applying makeup, shaving and driving. They need to be Much More Aware. And this is a long, uphill battle, but one that is well worth fighting. But riders are also fighting a problem of perception and this is sometimes a person’s only reality. When a good chunk of the driving populace sees riders riding as if they’re expendable, well, maybe they are expendable. After all, they must not value life too much when they’re doing all those stupid stuff in traffic, right? Yes, I know there are thousands of motorcyclists doing all the right things who still get injured or killed, but there’s another point to be made. 

When it comes to getting drivers to recognize motorcyclists, how much of the onus falls on the loose nut behind the handlebars? We can do everything on earth to get them to notice us — lights, loud horns, bright colors, etc., but to what avail? It’s one thing to be a defensive rider and there’s an argument for making drivers hyperaware that you’re there, but why do so many riders put themselves in a position where an inattentive driver can kill them? 

If you read this and care to comment, please do. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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2 Responses to “When Sharing the Road, How Much Responsibility Belongs to the Motorcyclist?”

  1. Tim Monroe Says:

    While I’m happy to see those signs on the freeways of California, I won’t fool myself into thinking I’ll be any safer on the roads because of them. It constantly amazes me that so many of my fellow riders show such disregard for their safety by splitting lanes at such a high speed differential, stunting on the freeway, etc. The older I get, the more the British system of motorcycle rider licensing starts to make sense.

  2. Dave Koshollek Says:

    I sent this to our local paper in response to a negative motorcyclist editorial.

    What’s Good for Motorcyclists Is Good for You Too

    Motorcyclists often get a bad rap. Some say cycles are too loud and some note the folks who ride them dart around their towns like crazed squirrels. For reasons such as these a motorist may not like sharing the road with motorcycles. But, did you know motorcycles are good for you?
    • Get 35-75 mpg, which reduces our demand on fuel (Which can eventually help lower fuel prices)and reduce the consumption of non-renewable resources
    • Require significantly fewer materials and resources to manufacture them than a car or truck
    • Use a relatively small amount of road space, which reduces gridlock in congested areas
    • Can be ridden in HOV lanes, which improves traffic flow on highways
    • Can be parked up to 4-vehicles per car space, providing more room for cars & trucks
    • Roll on 2-wheels and weigh between 300 and 800 lb, which is a fraction of cars & trucks. And they’re ridden an average of only 715 to 2900-miles per year (Motorcycle Industry Council estimate), which means they’re barely wearing the road surfaces they ride on

    And, did you know that motorcycles in states like California and Arizona are charged license fees according to their MSRP, not their road usage or vehicle weight? That means motorcyclists pay a disproportionate amount of taxes for road wear they don’t even cause. In states like CA and AZ a new Harley-Davidson or Honda Gold Wing owner can be paying over $200 per year for licensing just to ride less than 3000-miles!

    Additionally, Arizona and California’s motorcycle industry impacts their retail marketplace to the tune of roughly $692-million dollars and $3-billion dollars per year respectively (Motorcycle Industry Council estimate for 2006), paying taxes and employing thousands of individuals along the way.

    As you can see, motorcycles are good for everyone – not just those who ride them. So, please watch out for us. We don’t need your thanks, we just ask that you don’t run into us!

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