Following Distance

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I considered carefully what should be the first entry in this blog. I didn’t want to make things too difficult to start with, so I’m going to start with one of the most fundamental safety tips – following distance.

Good motorcycle roadcraft (you will hear me refer to this phrase often) dictates that you always ride so that you can stop in the distance you can see to be clear.

What dictates the distance you can see to be clear?
Well, the obvious one is the vehicles in front of you, but there are many other things that can affect how much of the road ahead you can see. Here are some of them:

  • Curves in the road.
  • Hills.
  • Weather.
  • Your own eyesight.
  •  Foliage (bushes, trees, etc…)

So, how much distance do I need to leave?
This varies due to a lot of circumstances. Different bikes will have various optimum stopping distances due to variations in braking efficiencies. This will also vary according to how well you know your motorcycle, how efficiently you can bring it to a stop, and your braking techniques (more on this in an upcoming blog).

It is important to know and practise stopping on your own machine.

However, here is a very useful tip for monitoring your following distance: At any given speed, a good rule of thumb is to leave two second’s space between the vehicle in front, and you – the Two Second Rule.

Here’s how it works: As you are following other vehicles, take note of a landmark that the vehicle in front passes. This can be a tree, a traffic cone, anything that you can reliably see when that vehicle passes it.
As soon as the vehicle in front passes that marker, start saying to yourself: “Only a fool breaks the two second rule.”
You should not pass that marker until you have finished saying that mantra to yourself. Don’t rush. Don’t see the marker coming towards you too quickly and hurriedly finish the sentence. Say it at a normal, conversational pace.

Motorcycle Safely - The two second rule

Using this simple rule of thumb, you will find that you are allowing a good distance between yourself, and the vehicle in front.

Does this change when it is raining, or the roads are wet?
Most definitely! You should allow double the following distance when the roads are wet. Simply say “Only a fool break the two second rule” twice, and you should not pass the marker until you have finished.

After a time of doing this, you will find that you will naturally start allowing a good following distance, and just an occasional check will confirm that you are.

The advantages to allowing a safe following distance are huge. The obvious one is that if the vehicle in front stops quickly, you will be able to safely stop with ease before your motorcycle becomes a very expensive ornament for the vehicle in front. Some of the not-so-obvious advantages include:

  • You will get a much better view of what is happening up ahead. An experienced, safe rider is mostly taking notice of what is happening two, three or more vehicles ahead (more on observation in a later post).
  • You will stand more of a chance of avoiding the scourge of a biker’s existence – the road alligator.
  • If you are planning a passing manoeuvre (again, the subject of a later post), you will be able to glean much more information, and so be able to better plan that pass.
  • If you have following vehicles, you will be in a better position to control your braking so that you don’t become an expensive ornament on the front of that vehicle!

So, as you are riding the next time you are out, try the two second rule. It may save your life!

Remember: Only a fool breaks the two second rule!

Be Safe!

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3 thoughts on “Following Distance

  1. Good post. I have some questions, though you may have covered them in your other articles. Concerning following distance, I an avid user of the 2 second rule. My modifications deal with larger vehicles in front of me such as trucks, buses and even larger SUVs. Not only do I want to stay at least 2 seconds behind them, but I also want to be in a position so they can see that I AM behind them.

    For large trucks and buses this would require that I favor the left or right side of my travel lane to allow the drivers to see me in their side view mirrors, but the closer I am, even at 2 seconds behind, the harder it may be for them to see me. This then requires me to stay farther back to guarantee that I’m spotted and they are aware that I am traveling behind them.

    My other question deals with the following distance of the vehicle behind me. Before I purchased my 300 cc (Kymco) Downtown scooter, I rode a 175 cc sport scooter that was more of a highway legal commuter class (top speed was 70 mph). I commuted from a small town in South New Jersey, across the Delaware River to Philadelphia for work. To do so I take a major 3-4 lane highway that has a posted speed limit of 45 mph. The problem is the flow of traffic can be 60 mph and higher. A median divides the flow of opposing traffic. As a scooter rider on would think that I would favor the middle or right lanes due to the flow of traffic. Unfortunately, the middle lane is subject to vehicle’s constantly shifting like land sharks, while the far right lane is subject to drivers exiting and merging into traffic from the many inexpensive gas stations along the way, or streets, making the drive more dangerous for a two wheel rider on that section of the highway.

    I stay in the far left lane – the passing lane. With the median to my left I only have to deal with the car in front of me, or behind. That’s where my problem starts.

    Many drivers ignoring the speed limit and tend to trail-gate me in their zeal to get to the bridge on their way to Philly. Since I’m already doing about 60 I’m reluctantly to go WOT, or to merge into the middle lane where lane shifting is an active, contact sport. I generally stand my ground, but on occasion I will lower my left hand in a halting motion to the driver behind me to back off. Some do, while some with change to the middle land and race past me doing at least 70 or higher.

    Sorry for the length of this letter, but I’ve often wonder if my strategy is the best one for this phase of my daily commute, or is there another tactic that I should employ?


    1. Hi Wolf. Thanks for the comment. I’ll try to take your points and questions in order.
      For the following distance—particularly behind large vehicles that you mentioned, you answered the point quite well yourself. When following a large vehicle—particularly those that don’t have interior mirrors—the general rule is that if you can’t see their mirrors, they can’t see you.

      Further, if a pass/overtake of the vehicle is a possibility, the first thing I would do would be to drop even further back. This gives me a much better view of the road ahead, and allows me to better plan and prepare for any passing manoeuvre. Many times I see people “trapped” into following a vehicle for many miles—getting more and more frustrated—simply because they’re following too close too see any passing opportunities that may arise. The larger the vehicle, the further I drop back, generally.

      As far as your position in the lane, I advise against any rigid rule such as riding in a particular part of your lane. Lane positioning is a very fluid thing which changes per second, and is the result of myriad observations and intelligent choices. There can be no hard-and-fast “position”. These choices make up a large part of my book. One second you may be choosing a left part of your lane so that the vehicle you are following can better see you. Another second, you may be giving up that position because of a vehicle coming up from behind, or the road curving to the right. There should be no rigid choice of lane position.

      As far as choosing a lane to travel in, you have hit on a hot topic, and one which often has me bewildered at peoples’ reasoning. Here is my take on the situation—you may not like it: We don’t have the luxury of “choosing” a lane in which to travel. The law, etiquette and even safety already mandates that for us. In countries which drive on the right, it is clearly stated as “Keep right except to pass.” Personally, I fully believe that most of the traffic issues here in the U.S.—and the constant need to build ever-wider roads—comes from a lack of lane discipline.

      In fact, someone recently asked me how I found the change from riding in England where they drive on the left to riding in the U.S. where they drive on the right. This was my reply: “Well, in England, everybody drives on the left, and I passed on the right. Here, everybody drives on the left, and I pass on the right. Nothing has changed.” A sarcastic reply, but it reflect my bewilderment at people believing that they have a choice as to which lane they travel in. It is quite clear. You keep right except to pass. We have choices to make concerning our safety, but we still have to do so within the rules of the road. The rules of the road clearly state that we choose the inside lane unless we are passing. Further, people insisting on driving in “outside” lanes when there is no need only frustrates other road users—as you have described. We—as motorcyclists—are vulnerable enough without having to deal with peoples rash actions brought about by frustration and annoyance. Of course, if there is no other traffic on the road, we are free to choose whichever lane we like as safety dictates. As soon as traffic starts to come up behind, we have to resume the inside lane.

      Lastly (and this is not directed at you), other road users’ speed has nothing to do with us. We have only one job on the road. That is to get to our destination safely and efficiently; to be responsible for our own riding. If another road user is going faster than we—or the law—would like, that is none of our business past ensuring we are out of harm’s way. Thinking something along the lines of: “Well, I’m doing the speed limit, so I don’t have to let that person get past.” is not only combative, but downright dangerous. Many crashes are a direct result of rash actions brought about by frustration. We may argue that it is the other person’s fault for driving like they do, but the second we act as “part-time cop” we are just as guilty as them. I say: don’t be that guy.

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