A Motorcycling Ambassador

As a rider, I believe in continually training. Improving my skills not only increases my confidence and enjoyment of motorcycling, it helps me stay as safe as possible. Our roadways are an unforgiving environment dominated by automobiles. On a daily basis, I share the road with people who do not prioritize safety and responsibility when driving. So I wear gear and I train.

My latest round of continuing education was participating in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s (MSF) Advanced Rider Course (ARC). I’ve taken a lot of MSF classes, most of them focused on low-speed maneuvering. The ARC is a bit different from my previous courses. It focuses more on body position and crash avoidance in the riding skills and includes classroom work that addresses our personal assessment of attitude, perception, and behavior.

motorcycle training - val in real life
Building riding skills involves more than just seat time. Risk assessment and decision making are just as important.

The Reluctant Ambassador

One of the discussions during our classroom time was being an ambassador for our community—riding responsibly to give riders a good name instead of reasons for drivers to resent us. Even though I strive to be an ambassador when I’m in the saddle, I still have a lot of conflicting feelings about the effort I put into it:

  1. Problem #1? Squids—the jerk riders you see careening recklessly through traffic with little or no protective gear. Trust me, squids make me as angry as poor drivers do. Possibly even more so because I know they’re contributing to my vulnerability on the road by creating animosity between riders and drivers.
  2. Problem #2? Human nature. Even though squids are the exception not the rule among the riding population, we humans are prone to focus on the negative. The “negativity bias” kicks in even when a negative experience represents only a small fraction of our total experience. So when a driver sees a rider acting like a jerk, the tendency is to lump all of us into that category when in reality most of us ride reasonably. That means I can be the most responsible rider in the world—and most riders are reasonably responsible—but if drivers let squid behavior color their perception of the entire community, there’s not a lot I can do to combat that. My hi-viz gear, well-lit motorcycles, constant training, and responsible riding don’t seem to have much impact on perception when it’s far easier to be angry at a few poor riders.
  3. Problem #3? Driver behavior. Distracted driving is a well-documented, growing epidemic. I get a more than a bit, shall we say, “put out” about constantly working on improving my skills when drivers don’t. Most haven’t developed reasonable perception and risk assessment skills so we riders are left to make up for their inadequacies.
  4. Problem #4? Stigma. Non-riders often have a knee-jerk reaction to motorcycling as irresponsible, dangerous, and the domain of “hooligans.” Again, stereotyping comes into play although by some standards that’s fading. When someone says the word “biker”, what comes to mind first? Probably not your neighbor —the doctor, the lawyer, the school teacher, the retired couple down the street. Yet those people are as likely to be riding as any other person. I’m guessing me as the middle-aged, female, blonde mom in full protective gear wasn’t your first thought, right?
  5. Problem #5? Decision-making. Drivers who don’t also ride have no understanding of the different decisions we have to make in piloting our bikes. That means our actions are frequently misinterpreted. You may chalk me up to being a squid because I have to make a quick maneuver to avoid a hazard that you are completely unaware of as a driver of a car. That’s why I’ve written about what motorcyclists want you to knowtwice—and these two posts are just the tip of the iceberg.
  6. Problem #6? Machine differences. Drivers often don’t understand our machines are different beasts from cars. Our performance capabilities and vulnerabilities are vastly different so we must operate differently. Not disregarding traffic laws, mind you, but our decisions about lane position, speed, and hazard avoidance are different and are often interpreted negatively. Just as a tractor trailer driver faces different challenges from the rest of us, we have to accept that all of these machines are not created equally. Yet we need to share the same road space. That requires cooperation and understanding we don’t often get from non-riding drivers.
motorcycling - val in real life
“Irresponsible” riders hard at work improving their skills.

Friendly Advice

Having said all that, I still choose to be an ambassador, as frustrating as it can be. When I have the opportunity to speak to a non-rider, I hope I’m doing a good job of dispelling these misconceptions. Even one person at a time, I think it’s time well-spent.

So take the time to chat with a rider. Ask them why they ride, ask them about their bike or gear, ask them about their last trip… anything to start a conversation that builds understanding.

I have some tips for you non-riding drivers I haven’t had a chance to talk with yet…

  1. Understand what’s involved in motorcycling before you judge our actions.
  2. LOOK FOR US! If you do nothing else, train yourself to see smaller vehicles. Just because we’re not as easy to see doesn’t mean you don’t have the responsibility to do so. When you don’t, we always lose. Always. If you’ve followed me here for any length of time, you know I speak from experience.
  3. Once you start seeing us and understanding the intricacies of riding, take notice how many good riders you see compared to how many bad. Really notice. You’ll be surprised.
  4. Then look at your fellow drivers. Take notice of how much distracted driving is happening and consider what that means for a rider. Call your friends and family out on it when they’re doing it. Not just for riders’ sakes but for their own safety.
  5. And finally… check your own behavior behind the wheel. Are you distracted? Have you brushed up on your driving knowledge and skills? Are you being a role model and ambassador yourself? If the answer is no to any of these questions, don’t label us as the problem.
motorcycling - val in real life
This is an incredibly dangerous scene for a rider so I will make changes to my position which you might not understand.
motorcycling - val in real life
A straight, open road with no curves and no other vehicles. Seems ideal, yes? No, those tar snakes will be demanding my attention, unlike if I were driving a car.

The big picture

We’re all in this together and it’s going to take all of us to bridge this gap. I know many riders and drivers who will read this and say it’s a hopeless cause. I’m choosing optimism and advocacy, however, because if we don’t try, there truly is no hope for change. Even if what I say resonates with one single person, that’s enough.

If you see me out there (and I can’t tell you how much I hope you do see me), say hi. I’m happy to make a new friend.

motorcycling - val in real life
For all of the challenges, why do I ride? Because it’s an amazing experience and my favorite way to travel. Freedom, connection, and engagement. It’s unlike anything else.