Harry Clark, ABATE of New York Safety Officer

Most bikers know by now that most car/bike collisions happen at intersections. We know we need to be careful at intersections. Still, a little refresher course can’t hurt.

Left-turners are a serious threat. Let’s look at what most people consider “left-turners:” oncoming cars that turn left in front of motorcyclists causing collisions. This happens most often at intersections, but can also happen at driveways.

Let’s imagine a car driver who is driving along, mind on other things, cell phone in ear, just had a fight with his spouse, etc, and whose mind is not fully on driving. Maybe traffic is heavy, and opportunities to turn left are few and far between, putting pressure on him to grab the first opportunity he can to turn left. This is often the case in larger cities with congested traffic. Here is the worst possible thing that can happen: the driver takes a quick glance, the way is clear, and he turns left. Crunch! Where the hell did that motorcycle come from?

There are times when a motorist looks and fails to see the motorcyclist. It goes beyond simple “seeing,” since perception is the process where a motorist not only sees something, but has that object register with enough visual impact for his mind to acknowledge its existence. What happens in this situation is that the motorist fails to perceive the existence of the motorcyclist.

Have you ever had a situation where an oncoming car or motorcycle appears suddenly, almost magically?
I have. What happens is that car or motorcycle for whatever reason fails to make enough of an impression for you to notice it right away. As bikers, we have a tendency to notice other motorcycles on the road readily. There are plenty of car drivers out there who have no interest in motorcycles, and tend to have a problem noticing us in traffic.
Well, what can you do to make other motorists notice you? Let’s look at the opposite: what can you do to make yourself harder to spot in traffic? That’s easy, let’s dress in black from head to toe, and run our low-beam headlight, or better yet, no headlight. That’ll make us damned near invisible. I saw a guy doing just that in the last week: black from head to toe and no headlight at all.

While some motorcycle safety authorities recommend using your low-beam headlight in traffic, I believe that advice is poor. Look at motorcycles on the road running low-beam headlights. You can barely tell the light is on with many bikes. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) recommends you run your high beam, and I agree with them. An alternative is a Harley with the dual passing lamps. Those suckers show up well in traffic. On a cloudy day, I’ll run low-beam my bike, but with fog lights, which are comparable to the Harley passing lamps. The main point is, don’t be bashful, use your lights to stand out in traffic. Force other motorists to notice you. “Oh, I don’t want to shine my bright light in their face, it might annoy someone.” Yeah, and 6 weeks in the hospital would annoy the hell out of me.

A bulky bike helps. The Hurt report drew a correlation between the width of a motorcycle and accident rates. A wider bike, with fairing and saddle bags tended to do better in traffic than skinny bikes. A wider bike makes more of a visual impression, and seems closer than a narrow bike.

Another tactic is a white helmet. Studies prove white helmets reduce accident rates compared with black helmets. What’s important here is the concept that making yourself easier to spot in traffic really does improve your odds. So how come I see bikers doing nothing to make themselves visible? I don’t know, you tell me.

Don't Hide. Another thing is, they can’t see you if you are hiding behind another vehicle. If you want to have a wreck, hide your bike behind the car or truck in front of you, then ram and jam around that vehicle just as you come to an intersection. Almost guaranteed an oncoming left-turner won’t see you, or won’t see you in time.
Make sure you aren’t hiding as you approach an intersection. Move over and shine your high-beam in the face of a left-turner as you approach the intersection. Then drift to your right to give yourself some space cushion at the intersection.
Slow down in town. If you speed through an intersection to show off, the people you impress may be in the x-ray department at the local hospital.

Where to look first. There are other left-turners besides the oncoming left-turner. For example, as you come to a stop at a stop sign or red light, which direction should you look? First look behind you to make sure you aren’t going to be rear-ended, then look to your right. Why? Because traffic on that other road may have someone turning left onto the street you are on. Many motorists aren’t too fussy as to which lane they are in while doing that maneuver. They may use your lane, and knock you off the bike in the process. So you need to check for left-turners at stop signs, by looking to your right. You need to check as you come to the stop sign.

More Left Turners. As you cruise through town, you need to check intersections for red light runners from either direction. But in general, you need to check the right side of intersections carefully for another type of left-turner. This motorist is at a stop sign, with the intention of turning left onto the street you are on. In this case, you are in motion and he is stopped. What if a UPS truck is turning from your street, right onto the street that motorist is on, blocking his vision? That other motorist can’t see a damned thing. So of course he will go, turning left across your path.

A woman did that to me, but I was wise to her. I spotted just her rear bumper. I slowed way down, and sure enough out she came. She stopped halfway across my lane. I made sure she was stopped, then swerved around her. The only reason I knew she was there was that I searched for her, and spotted only her bumper. The lesson is, there are potential left-turners at intersections, on your right, not just in the oncoming lane. Anytime vision is blocked, beware! Blocked vision and a car waiting to turn left are all the ingredients necessary to produce a wreck.

In this case, white helmet, high-beam headlight, and a super-bright flagman’s vest together wouldn’t have helped at all. The woman couldn’t possibly have seen me, no matter what I did, or wore, and chose to turn left anyway. There are idiots just like her out there, believe me, and they will put you down if you let them.

Right turners. And I might as well mention another hazard at intersections, again on your right. These are right-turners! Many times there will be potential left-turners on your right on that next side street, with right-turners hidden behind them! In these situations, blocked vision is common. And since right-turn-on-red is legal most places, it is fairly common to have right-turners eager to enter the road you are on. You’ve got to watch out for them.

This happened to me just in the last week. A woman on a side street on my right began a right-turn-on-red, winding up halfway in my lane before she spotted me and stopped. I had my high-beam on, my white helmet, and a jacket with yellow sleeves. A blind person could have seen me. But she did wind up in my lane. It was an easy situation to handle, as I slowed, then swerved into the other lane away from her. It might have been a wreck if I had been daydreaming, riding too fast, or didn’t know how to swerve. Also, she only came halfway out because she did in fact see me. A little late, but she did see me, and stopped.

Improve your odds, make yourself more visible, and be streetwise at intersections.

Ride safe. ~ Harry Clark, ABATE of New York Safety Officer