Seeing Blind Spots

BY CDR JASON BRAGG

A motorcyclist riding next to a semi truck is easily missed due to the blind spot. Motorcyclists need to be mindful that some drivers cannot see them. (Photo by Jason Bragg)

The week of Thanksgiving I put about a thousand miles on my motorcycle. I traversed through Everglades National Park, circumvented most of Miami then rode up I-95 to my mom’s house on the Space Coast. After a nice visit and plenty of pie, I traveled back across Florida to my home in Pensacola. Interstates are an efficient way to go places, and although the riding is certainly not as interesting as a winding mountain pass, it can still be pleasant. In the sun and wind it’s more engaging than driving my truck. It’s an opportunity for some solitude; isolated in my helmet it becomes meditative at times.

Holiday traffic in the Miami area, however, was not meditative. I found myself on three occasions unexpectedly maneuvering to avoid a large vehicle that was moving into the space that I was occupying. Two tractor-trailers and a tour bus tried to change lanes on top of me within the span of a couple hours. At the time, I just chalked it up to Miami madness, similar to the erratic driving behavior I’ve experienced near other major cities such as Los Angeles lunacy and Baltimore belligerence. I had time and space enough to move out of the way for all three instances, barely even raising my heartrate, so I didn’t think about it much.

Several days later while is was riding along a stretch of I-95 it happened again. There were two northbound lanes and I was leisurely passing a dually pickup with a very long trailer when it shifted toward the left lane just about the time I was even with its trailer hitch. The scenario developed fairly quickly, but I saw it right away and opened the throttle while moving to the far left edge, getting in front of the truck just before being sideswiped or forced onto the shoulder. This one got my attention, and not just because of the adrenaline release. It reminded me of the previous situations from Miami, but without the big city traffic. I’ve ridden tens of thousands of interstate miles over the years and although I’ve experienced similar scenarios in the past, they were pretty rare. Why four times in a week? What changed?

My recently installed cruise control device, more specifically the way I was using it, may have increased the time I was spending in the blind spot of large vehicles. Many modern motorcycles come with cruise control but I never had one until recently. It didn’t take me long to get comfortable using it; my truck has it so it was easy to adapt to on the bike, although the accelerate and decelerate buttons are not as responsive as those I’ve had on four-wheeled vehicles. It seems as though I was setting my desired speed and not adjusting it, even if it made passing other vehicles a bit slovenly.

Heated grips are another example of a system influencing riding habits. Electric heat flowing into your hands is lovely when riding in chilly temperatures. It can help maintain dexterity in your fingertips which improves both comfort and safety. My observation is that they also encourage a tight grip in order to maximize warming effect, creating at least two potential side effects: The first is that you are less likely to cover the brake (by placing your fingers on the brake lever) which can reduce braking reaction time. Second, a light grip encourages finessed steering inputs and makes the most of natural stability of the motorcycle where a gorilla grip can negatively affect the motorcycle’s handling.

“…the relationship between machinery and human error is complicated; it rarely plays out as expected.” –The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr

Cruise control is a simple feature and has become so commonplace in cars that we don’t give its use much thought. This hints of both complacency and overreliance. My highway passing technique is one insidious example of how it changed something and put me in a tight spot. A few hours afterward, I was still on the interstate riding along without the use of cruise control. I moved to the left lane to pass a truck and realized that I had gently increased my speed to accelerate past the truck. It wasn’t even a conscious action. Visual scanning, anticipating others’ lane changes, avoiding blind spots, and using lane position to maximize visibility are all techniques at which I have become proficient at. Now that I know cruise control can interfere with those survival skills I will be more diligent in how I use the system.

1. Blind spot avoidance is just one concept that contributes to what the Motorcycle Safety Foundation calls presentation – using a lane position where others have a better chance to see you. It’s just one small part of riding well, but each of those small things become very important under certain circumstances.

2. A different motorcycle or new equipment may change your riding technique without you even knowing it. Pay attention to the little things and consider taking another MSF course if you change motorcycles, they even offer a class called “bike bonding” at some sites.

3. It isn’t always the other guy’s fault. Whenever you have a near-miss or uncomfortable situation, take the time to evaluate what you could do differently in the future. This mindset may not come naturally, but we motorcyclists are more vulnerable and we can’t control other drivers actions. Assigning blame is considerably less relevant than figuring out what you can do to improve the situation.

CDR Jason “Casper” Bragg is a family man, University of Florida alumnus, and an active duty Navy helicopter pilot. He has served on both east and west coasts during his naval career, flying with operational, training and test squadrons. Currently he is an instructor at the Naval Safety Center’s School of Aviation Safety in Pensacola, Florida.
Casper got his motorcycle learners permit on the day he turned 15 and has been riding street bikes ever since. He averages more than 10,000 motorcycle miles per year, is in the MSF Rider Coach Apprenticeship Program, and maintains a blog about his motorcycling experiences at www.everydaymotorcyclist.com.