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 full 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 skills and includes classroom work that addresses our personal assessment of attitude, perception, and behavior.
The reluctant ambassador
One of the discussions during our classroom time was being an ambassador for our motorcycling 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.
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.
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.
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.
That means I can be the most responsible rider in the world yet that isn’t what sticks in drivers’ memories. The few riders acting like jerks is what many drivers will remember. That means I’m not being judged by my personal behavior but instead carry the weight of an unfair perception of motorcyclists.
There’s not a lot I can do to combat that. My hi-viz gear, well-lit motorcycles, continual training, and responsible riding don’t seem to have much impact on that perception.
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 slowly 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?
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 or greedy when in fact I’ve had to maneuver to avoid a hazard that you are completely unaware of as a driver of a car.
Machine differences. Drivers often don’t understand our machines are not simply two-wheeled 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 not going to be the same as a driver’s. As a result, our actions 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 often don’t get from non-riding drivers.
One conversation at a time
Having said all that, I still choose to be a motorcycling 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 a valuable investment.
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
- Understand what’s involved in motorcycling before you judge our actions.
- 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 lose. Always. If you’ve followed me here for any length of time, you know I speak from experience.
- Once you start seeing us and understanding the intricacies of riding, notice how many good riders you see compared to how many bad. I mean really notice. You’ll be surprised.
- Then look at your fellow drivers. Notice 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.
- And finally—check your own behavior behind the wheel. Are you paying complete attention, no distractions? Have you brushed up on your driving knowledge and skills? Are you being a role model and ambassador yourself? If the answer to any of these questions is no, don’t label us as the problem.
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 actually do see me—say hi. I’m happy to make a new friend.
[…] It’s already May and we’re well into Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month. You’ve probably noticed a surge of bikes on the road as the weather gives us more and more agreeable riding days. Here’s a post from the archives to give you some insight into life on a bike. valinreallife.com… […]