By Chris O’Neil
The vast majority of the miles I’ve logged as a motorcyclist have been as a solo rider, where I alone plan the route, set the pace, and determine when and where to take breaks. Riding alone, to me, reinforces the independence, mental solitude, and freedom I feel every time I saddle up. Riding alone allows me to easily ride at my comfort and skill level.
I also enjoy large group rides from time to time, where someone else is responsible for the trip planning, and execution—and where I can just follow along a route with a bunch of folks who love riding as much as I do. However, riding close to so many others can lull you into a false sense of security or can create a sense of performance pressure—or both. Riding within your limits, or “riding your ride,” when in a group is one way to avoid these dangerous mental states and ensure a safe and fun ride.
Just because you’re not leading the group ride, doesn’t mean you don’t have a role in planning the ride. The group leader should provide a pre-ride briefing that covers the route, planned stops, hand signals, and procedures to follow if the group gets separated or if a rider has an emergency. Actively listening and participating in the pre-ride briefing helps get your mind in the ride.
Group riding is generally done in a staggered column of two within a single travel lane, requiring riders to maintain an interval with the biker ahead of them and the rider in the staggered position. It’s easy to get fixated on the mechanics of maintaining these intervals and to forget to continue your own scanning of the roadway. Seeing and evaluating potential risks and planning how to avoid or mitigate them is a continuous process for motorcyclists that doesn’t stop whether you’re in the lead, the middle, or at the tail of your group. The visibility that comes with riding in a group does not replace the need for you to identify your escape routes should an emergency – like an animal darting out into your path or a car encroaching your lane – arise.
It’s also easy to feel a little pressured when in a group ride – the sense of a need to keep up, to take turns and curves at the group’s speed, to not get separated at a traffic signal, or to proceed through an intersection before you’re really ready. I have felt this pressure a couple times while riding in groups and I took a few twisties a bit faster than I would have if I were on my own.
And now I know better. I learned to overcome that mindset by recognizing I’m riding with a group of friends – no one is judging me. These folks want me to enjoy the ride as much as they do, and they want to help me become an even more accomplished rider. I remind myself, in every group ride, that I’m going to ride my ride and that’s not only okay, it’s expected by the folks with whom I’m riding. If I’m riding my ride, I’m in my comfort zone. If I’m in my comfort zone, I’m more relaxed and less likely to panic or overcorrect in an emergency, and less likely to crash or cause a crash because I’m confident that my abilities match my environment.
Motorcycle Safety Month is wrapping up just as the motorcycle riding season is shifting into high gear. Getting out with friends in group rides is a big part of the season and ensuring you’re riding your ride, every ride, is one way to make every ride a safe ride.
Chris O’Neil is the NTSB Chief of Media Relations.