As much as we like to complain about the woeful ineptitude regularly exhibited by many of our fellow motorists, in Canada, by and large we’re fairly orderly with our driving and riding habits.
I didn’t fully appreciate this until a recent trip to the Kingdom of Jordan. My brother Scott joined me and a few other friends for an incredible journey around that beautiful jewel of the Middle East. Scott told you all about our adventures here.
What really stuck with me, more than the thousand kilometres of winding mountain passes and coastal roads, was riding through the absolute chaos of Amman, Jordan’s capital city. There was much to be learned out of necessity and in short order, and much of it will continue to serve me well riding here in North America.
With a population of more than 4 million people, Amman is roughly the same size as Toronto, and yet the riding experience there couldn’t be more different.
How was it?
The night before we set out on our bikes, I sat and watched the vehicular madness several stories below that was circling the roundabout outside my hotel window. I tried to make sense of what seemed like a completely random series of events that somehow managed to eschew mass mechanical destruction.
By the next morning, I was sure I was in way over my head with this journey, given that I’ve not done much riding in foreign lands. It didn’t help that I was piloting a KTM 1190 Adventure – a bike with a non-adjustable 35-inch seat height versus my 31-inch inseam – for the first time in dense, urban traffic. It struck me soon into the ride that street signs are placed around Amman for directional information only and the rules of the road are largely ignored. That said, I did pay careful notice to the STOP signs, whose Arabic script looks like two men in a canoe.
It was clear that indecision and timidness would result only in fear and, ultimately, the paralysis of our small convoy’s progress through the city. Instead, after taking a deep breath, it proved to be far smarter to simply look, commit and go if we were to make any progress at all.
Here in Canada we’re taught as riders to protect our lane position. This is based on the unwavering belief that proper lane position creates a little force field around us as long as we remain within the painted lane markers, preventing other motorists from entering our sacred space, uninvited. In Amman, however, lane markers are merely suggestions of the minimum number of vehicles that can be squeezed into the width of a particular piece of pavement at any given time. Thus, maintaining lane discipline can be futile.
Instead, keeping spatial awareness, remembering the widest points of the bike and rider, plus proximity to all the moving objects around me, meant I could maintain relatively safe, forward progress, regardless of whether or not I was alone in my lane. It sounds obvious – of course we need be aware of what’s around us when we’re riding – but believing people will stay in their lane has lulled me into a false sense of safety in the past, when riding around Toronto. “That guy in the Chevy has to stay in that lane because the laws of the land say so!” Yeah, right.
What’s more, by keeping my head and eyes constantly moving around, analyzing my surroundings, I was able to maintain movement, even at a crawling pace. This prevented me from having to come to a stop in traffic and do the long reach down to the pavement with my tippy-toes while riding that big KTM.
I’ve noticed as a motorist that drivers outside North America are much better than us at using their horn to communicate in a civilized manner.
“Toot!” means “I’m here, please don’t crunch my fender” in most places. In North America it’s more likely to mean “Hey shithead, I was here first, so fuck off!!”
As we wove our way through the densest of traffic in Amman, a quick tap on the horn or some extra revs would help motorists be aware of the presence of a motorcycle on their flank, ensuring they wouldn’t edge into the next lane over top of us. In fact, in most instances, the opposite would hold true, where the drivers would do their best to make extra space for the motorcycles.
Assume everyone – and everything – is a threat
Again, as riders we all know this, but it was only a constant and active vigilance that kept our team of riders in Amman unscathed.
Sight-lines for cross streets were often obscured by large trucks belching thick clouds of diesel smoke, or by buildings constructed very close to the road. What’s more, at many intersections, there’d be no specific stop sign or indicated right-of-way. Just because the two riders ahead of me made it safely through an intersection without slowing down, didn’t mean a 1981 Mercedes 240D wasn’t barrelling through from the right with no intention of slowing down. Hell, even if there was a stop sign, we couldn’t be assured any driver would acknowledge it.
Outside the city, we ran into countless situations where a goat, a cat or a kid would run into the street. One time, a camel took issue with our noisy convoy and bolted onto the road, charging at us before leaping into the air and scampering into the open desert, much to its handler’s chagrin.
Keeping my wits about me all the time is key to survival on my bike because around any bend there could be a pile of gravel, a Corolla or a freaked-out animal looking to end my ride, whether in Jordan or here in Canada. If I’ve got the legal right-of-way or not, it’s just best to assume something is lurking around the corner to get me.
There’s a difference between inattentiveness and simply chilling out. It’s astonishing what happens when road rage is eliminated from the equation. I’ve had my fair share of incidents with a head shake, fist-wave or single-finger salute, and with few exceptions, they have done nothing to improve the situation.
In Jordan – a place that does an exceptional job of remaining peaceful amid the chaos of the Middle East, no less – motorists seem to accept that everyone’s trying to get somewhere as quickly and efficiently as possible. That means we’re all doing our best to keep our own machine moving, and sometimes, if other machines aren’t moving fast enough, it means we’re going to go around them. No big deal. No need to lose your shit, just accept it and keep moving.
Aside from one brat who hurled a rock at me while I was riding through a small village, I’m convinced nobody really wants to kill motorcyclists. In fact, in most of Jordan, the rarity of seeing motorcycles at all meant we were often met with excited waves and thumbs up from the locals.
Taking the anger out of motoring enables us all to focus on simply moving forward as efficiently as possible – utilizing the space available. There’s an impressive natural fluidity to traffic flow when tempers and stifling road regulations are set aside.
Lane filtering works. It really, really does.
All my experiences in Jordan will be applied to my riding here in Canada as best as I can. Sadly, one of the most profound eye-opening lessons from my Jordanian ride was how effective lane-filtering (or lane-splitting) truly is.
Recently, both Zac and Mark have written plenty on this topic here at CMG, and in theory, I’ve always supported the notion, but believed it to be a pipe dream for Canada. Now that I’ve put the process to great use in a nasty bout of gridlock in Amman, count me among the die-hard fans for lane-filtering as a means to keep (two-wheeled) traffic moving safely and effectively.
Following behind a BMW R1200GS fitted with big metal panniers, the bike looked as wide as a water buffalo, and yet still sliced through the immobilized traffic with relative ease. The wide bars of the 1190 Adventure and the commanding view afforded by its (very) elevated seating position made filtering not only easier than expected, but a wholly natural-feeling experience.
Implementing lane filtering here in Canada seems like a no-brainer that should help not only enhance the popularity of motorcycling, but also make traffic more manageable.
Whether we got our start riding many, many (many) years ago like Editor Richardson, or are relatively novice riders fresh out of the instruction courses, we all should know the basics for self-preservation on two wheels. But it’s the lessons learned on the road, amid the chaos of real-world urban riding conditions both here and abroad, that will not only make us better riders, it will keep our beloved sport exhilarating.
Great read! Curious to know if cell phone use while driving is an issue over there? Or is their focus on just driving?
I think the biggest issue for lane splitting here is people’s sense of entitlement. The whole “I was here first and won’t let you go ahead of me mentality.” We would need a very big awareness campaign to let people know bikes can and will be getting places fast than cars, and drivers need to co-operate with that.
In the larger centres, yes, cell phones while driving is still an issue.
You’re definitely right about the entitlement concerns, not only for lane splitting, but just for general road safety. If people would just chill out a bit more, it’d make all our lives a hell of a lot less stressful on the road.