It’s finally nice riding weather in much of Canada, and many of us will be heading out with our friends for a group ride to no place in particular.
There are rules for riding with other motorcycles, which not everyone follows. Most of us know about riding staggered: instead of following behind the motorcycle ahead at a two-second-or-more distance, as we might a car, we should ride at a one-second distance from the bike ahead, but on the other side of the middle of the lane. This effectively blocks the lane as a four-wheeled vehicle would, and it gives enough space for maneuvering if there’s any sudden problem.
As the Ontario government handbook describes it, “This staggered formation allows the group to stay close together without reducing following distance and without having drivers drive alongside one another. Staggered formation can be safely used on an open road. However, you should drive in a single line on curves, in turns or when entering or leaving a freeway.”
Note the reference in there to not riding alongside another motorcycle, Easy Rider style. This is because, as the handbook explains, “If you have to avoid another vehicle or something in the road, you will have no place to go.”
(The sole exception to this seems to be if you’re a motorcycle cop. Those guys tuck themselves in to each other at a much closer distance, but then, they know what they’re doing and they know each other well.)
Something that’s rarely mentioned and often ignored, however, is the need to break up a procession of riders into manageable groups, usually no more than four or six at a time. This is especially important for cruiser riders out enjoying the sunshine and smelling the new-mown grass, who often ride below the speed limit. They’re in no rush and, sometimes, the groups are accommodating newer riders who prefer the slower pace.
If the group is too large, it becomes difficult for a driver behind, who wants to drive at the speed limit or more, to overtake. On a two-lane road, it can be the equivalent of pulling out to overtake numerous tractor-trailers. Such a manoeuvre takes a lot of clear road ahead, and it can be very frustrating for somebody who’s trying to get somewhere, with no interest in the smell of the new-mown grass.
About 15 years ago, a group of riders from a local cruiser club were out pootling around the country roads near Bolton, Ontario. They rode their bikes in formation but didn’t break down the procession of maybe 18 motorcycles into smaller groups, so it was nigh-on impossible for anybody to overtake. On Mayfield Road, they were riding comfortably at around 70 km/h or so, with cars behind them that were unable to get past and make swifter progress.
One driver was in a hurry, though, and pulled out to overtake. He was also drunk. Somewhere alongside the long procession, a truck appeared from over the rise ahead and there was nowhere back in the right lane for him to pull into – it was filled with motorcycles. Instead, the driver swerved to the left and onto the opposite gravel shoulder, allowing space for the truck to speed through with no impact. On the gravel, though, the driver lost control and swerved back into the road, into the procession of bikes, and through into the neighbouring field. The driver was killed, at least one rider was killed, and at least one pillion passenger was severely injured, losing a leg. All because the riders had left the driver with no clear options for space.
I couldn’t find a reference to this collision anywhere, though I remember it fairly well from reading about it at the time. I wrote to Allan Johnson, a local motorcycle historian and loyal CMG reader, to ask if he could fill in any of the gaps in my memory.
“I remember later driving along the road where it happened,” he wrote back. “When I looked at the road, driving along it the way that the motorcycle group had been going, the view of distance along the road seemed to me so limited (maybe 800 metres) that it would have been foolhardy to have attempted a pass of more than a single car if you were following it at 80 km/h, especially if there was an oncoming vehicle doing 80 km/h. People forget that.
“And presumably, if the group of riders was doing the “two-second-rule-but-staggered” (so they were one second or 22 metres apart), the guy trying to pass didn’t think he could see enough room to squeeze back into the middle of the pack.”
The point is, this was an entirely preventable tragedy. Yes, the drunken car driver caused it through his impaired decision to overtake, but the group of riders exacerbated it by riding as if they owned the road, and not allowing him to get by. If they’d broken themselves into smaller groups, he might have tucked safely back into the lane at any time.
Now we’re starting a new season of riding, and there will be groups of motorcyclists on the roads again. Some will be in no hurry, enjoying the smell of the new-mown grass. If you’re riding with them, just remember that not everyone is as relaxed as you. You don’t own the road, and riding slowly doesn’t mean you’re riding safely. If others want to get past you, give them the space to do so.