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Cars vs. motorcycles: Can't we all just get along?

If you ride a motorcycle, you've probably had it out by now. Like daffodils and tulips, bike enthusiasts herald the arrival of spring.

I don't ride, though I cover motorcycle events. I've taken the training (I'm contemplating a second go at my test, if only to prove to myself I can pass it), and done rides with colleagues and friends. I'm an excellent passenger, I'm told. I just don't have a burning desire – yet – to be a rider, something I believe is vital if you're going to be a good, safe rider.

What I do have is respect for those I know who do ride. While the headlines will fill with the reckless actions of a few, the vast majority of riders simply want to share the road, enjoy their transportation choice, and get home safely. Like all of us.

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The motorcycle course I took through Humber College a number of years ago provided me with some of the best training I've ever received. I've taken countless advanced driver training classes in cars, but the perspective from a bike is much different, with so much more staked on the outcome. That awareness has carried over into how I drive and how I treat others on the road. The invincibility you have in a car evaporates when transferred to two wheels; you quickly become aware how vulnerable you are to the slightest error of either your own actions, or those around you.

Liz Jansen with her motorcycle in Orangeville, ON. (2011 file photo) The Globe and MailFernando MoralesThe Globe and Mail

Instructor Liz Jansen is more than a motorcycle rider; she's an ambassador for the sport throughout North America, works with corporate clients, organizes rides and has written an excellent book on the role that motorcycles have played in the lives of a fabulous cross section of different women. Meeting her, you'd never think "biker chick." Ever. But her calm demeanour lends itself well to teaching others to be good riders, and to respect the laws of the road as well as the laws of physics. She's been on a bike; she's been under one.

I turned one of our usual conversations on its head recently. What would you tell drivers, I asked her, instead of just motorcyclists? What do you think motorists should know about the bikes they share the road with?

I've yet to see a discussion between motorcyclists and drivers that didn't get heated at some point. Her responses were as welcome as they were thoughtful, acknowledging the wrong doings on both sides, often due to ignorance rather than malice.

Got a pack of riders ahead of you? Can't get around? "Wise leaders of groups keep their packs manageable; like eight motorcycles. If a driver can't safely pass a whole group, fatalities occur when we have nowhere to go." A long string of staggered riders is as dangerous to them as it is annoying to you. Smart ones don't do it.

Some rogue riders are simply breaking the law. It's illegal to ride with your high beam light on; it's illegal to lane split. We have the laws, we need the enforcement.

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Smart riders will be easily seen to a motorist by staying out of possible blind spots. "Riders are taught to ride in the inside tire track on a two-way road," says Jansen, "because it's easier to see them approaching. On a four-lane road, we advise using the left tire track on the inside lane in most circumstances."

Speaking of being seen, high-visibility gear makes sense. You'll also see many motorcyclists using hand signals as well as turn signals to draw the attention of motorists. Jansen notes that, while it's true, bikes are easy to slow by gearing down, students are taught to tap their brakes so those around them know what they're doing. This is a good tip for anyone using a manual transmission.

Riders are trying to keep a safe buffer zone ahead of them. That debris in the road that you can drive safely over can be deadly on a bike. They can also stop more quickly than a car, so don't tailgate. Flipside, bikers who cut in and out of traffic and race down shoulders should remember they're one angry driver away from bad news.

"Please be considerate of motorcyclists behind you. If you can avoid it, don't pick that time to use your windshield washer. Never throw trash and cigarette butts out the window. Especially when a motorcyclist is behind you. Riders have had butts stuck in their helmet."

If you see a motorcyclist zipping by in a T-shirt and flip-flops, you're right to shake your head. Those same stones that can crack a windshield can equally get flung up into flesh. Smart riders will wear proper gear regardless of the weather, but that can mean a lot of heat in summer. Traffic jams are far more uncomfortable without the comfort of air-conditioning.

"Put your smartphones away. We have a bird's eye view of what goes on in cars and it's scary," says Jansen. Actually, that's good advice no matter what you're piloting. She's also the first to tell riders to make sure they have the right skills. "If you can't keep up safely, don't be out there."

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A little consideration on both sides goes a long way, and everybody gets home.

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About the Author
Drive, She Said columnist

Lorraine Sommerfeld began writing when she was about to turn 40, because it was cheaper than a red convertible. Her weekly column Drive, She Said, while existing in the automobile section, is a nod to those of us who tend to turn the key rather than pop the hood. More


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