Positioning – Part One

Today, I’d like to talk about a subject that truly transformed my riding.

I am almost ashamed to admit that, early in my motorcycle “career”, I rode daily for twenty years without having any concept of what positioning was.

It was only when I embarked on my advanced training that the subject was introduced to me, and it is no exaggeration to say that it completely transformed my riding.

After having received some excellent training from my instructors, and putting the principles into practice, I was amazed at just how much I could now see, and how much sooner I was seeing it. And, conversely, I was amazed at just how much information I had been missing through all those years of riding before. Information that was there for the taking if only I knew where to find it!

It also made riding a much less stressful experience because I was seeing things so much earlier than I previously had — and people were seeing me much sooner as well.

I hope you’ll forgive my enthusiasm about this subject, but it truly was an “eye-opening” experience for me. I hope it can do the same for you.

As the subject of positioning is a large one, and it is of so much importance, I have split the subject into multiple posts. This post introduces part one.

So, after that enthusiastic preamble, let me explain just what positioning is:

Positioning is the art of using all the space available within your lane (usually) to ensure maximum visibility to other road users, provide maximum view for you, and to provide the safest way to negotiate a hazard.

I say “usually within your lane” because there are times when it will be prudent to change your lane for extra safety — and not just because you wish to pass another vehicle.

Because of the relatively small width of our bikes, we have a great advantage over larger vehicles such as cars. We can alter our position within our lane without encroaching on other traffic. As will become apparent, this can gain us a massive safety advantage if we use it intelligently.

So, to begin with, let us define a baseline; the position we would normally assume when there is no other reason to alter from it; our:

Default Position

Now, in actual fact, there are really two default positions. One for when you’re in traffic, and one for when there is no traffic around. Let me explain why:
All the time we are riding, we are obviously looking out for hazards, but we are also balancing those hazards, and equalising our buffer zones between us and those hazards.

Imagine we are riding straight along a two-lane road (one lane each way) that has traffic coming in the other direction. On our right, we are often passing pedestrians, and there are also regular side streets on our right.

Clearly, the oncoming traffic on our left is a hazard, so it makes sense to allow some space, and not ride in the left of our lane. However, if we were to ride in the right of our lane, we would be putting ourselves nearer to those hazards. Plus, we would not be able to see well into the side streets on the right (and they won’t be able to see us well).

What do we do in such a circumstance? We divide our buffer zone. We keep equal distance between us and these two opposing sets of hazards. Hence, in our current scenario, we would be in the middle of our lane. Should one of the hazards begin to look more threatening, we will consider expanding that buffer zone at the expense of another less threatening one.

This is the default position that I will refer to from now on, but, let’s alter the above scenario a little to demonstrate an alternative. In this new scenario, the road is much more quiet. There is no traffic coming the other way, and no traffic immediately behind us.

Now, we still have the same hazards on our right. The pedestrians are still there, and there are the same side streets on the right. However, the hazards that were immediately to our left are no longer there (there is currently no traffic coming from the opposite direction). The nearest hazard on our left is now the opposite side of the road where there are other side streets and potentially pedestrians.

Does this change things? I know, you’re ahead of me. It make sense to equalise our distance from the hazards, and move more towards the left of our lane; towards the centre line (see diagram below).

From this position, we have put more-or-less equal distance between the various hazards we are navigating, and it is easier for us to be seen by traffic entering from the right.

Of course, as always, we need to give up positioning for safety, so, if traffic begins to appear from the opposite direction, we need to give up our position, and smoothly return to the middle of our lane.

Motorcycle Positioning. Default Position

Let’s get back to our default (middle of lane) position.

The default position should be assumed when there are no other outside circumstances dictating that you should adjust it. It is the position you should return to after you have negotiated any current hazard, and it is the position you should maintain when nothing is to be gained by altering from it.

There are three main reasons for the default — middle of your lane — position:

  1. You “command” your lane. We do not want to invite drivers to sneak up beside us, or to use part of our lane for their manoeuvres, or worse still share our lane! Confidently claiming our lane in this manner tends to discourage all of this.
  2. We have a default — and equal — buffer between us, and any hazards that may be surrounding us. In the world of motorcycle survival, every inch can count.
  3. We avoid giving wrong visual clues to other drivers about what we are about to do. I’m sure many of you have taken these kind of visual clues from other road users. The driver in front starts to shift toward the left of his lane, and sits there for a while. The astute rider will already have guessed that that driver is about to change lane or turn — very often without signalling. We don’t want to falsely give any of these signals by sitting in the extremes of the lane when we are surrounded by traffic.

So, having established what our default position should be, what may prompt us to vary from it? I will give a few bullet point examples, and expand where necessary:

  1. When doing so would give us a better view of the road, and traffic/hazards ahead.
  2. When doing so would give another road user a better view of us. I call this “presenting” to a potential hazard.
  3. When doing so would give us a greater “buffer zone” between a perceived hazard and us.

That’s all for this post. I will be expanding on the things that may cause us to deviate from our default position in the next post!

[Addendum}

I have received a message from a reader stating that one should avoid riding in the middle of your lane because that is where oil residue collects. “Every motorcyclist in the world knows this”.

This serves to outline a useful point regarding rider safety. There is a danger in taking one piece of information, and turning that into a hard-and-fast “rule”. I call this “rule fixation”. Everything we do while riding—including the techniques discussed in this blog, and the book— should be as a result of careful consideration of many factors, and risk assessment.

While oil residue in the middle of a lane is something that is taken into consideration, it is only one of many factors. Each factor is weighed by the risk versus rewards. In the case of oil residue in the middle of your lane, this is only really an issue at areas where cars idle—such as at traffic lights. There may be an argument for avoiding the very centre of your lane at a traffic light but, of course, normal observation will tell us whether that is an issue. For the rest of the roadway there is no more oil residue in the middle than elsewhere. By foregoing safe positioning because of fixation on the “rule” to avoid the middle of the lane, you are giving up the enhanced safety afforded by that positioning, for no real benefit.

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