Group Riding Etiquette
Although I have met and know
most of you by now, you may not know that much about my own
background. I retired from the Air Force fourteen years ago where I
flew supersonic jets for twenty years. The last fifteen of which
were spent flying tactical fighters, F-4 Phantoms and F-16 Fighting
Falcons. During those twenty years, formation flying was a way of
life. Many of the formations we flew dated back to WWI and earlier.
Each particular formation was designed for very specific technical
and tactical reasons using a healthy dose of common sense, all of
which still apply today.
The same can be said for motorcycle formations and spacing during
group rides. The aviation rationale, disciplines and some formations
directly apply to motorcycle group rides. Your position within the
group should be logical and based on common sense.
The following are a few common sense guidelines I use when riding in
a group. Some are extremely basic but may be useful for the first
time group rider or even for some of the more experienced riders who
have simply not had an opportunity to give it much thought until
now. Most of the following discussion is intended for group rides of
around ten bikes or less. Larger groups may necessitate some
modification and/or additions. Whenever possible it is best to match
the skills, machines and riding/speed preferences of the group even
if it requires splitting the main group into two or more sub-groups.
The use of "he/him" is generic and applies to both sexes.
1) Your first priority must be safety. The fact that you are now
riding in a formation should not increase your risk or that of
others. For that reason everyone must ride their own ride in a
manner that keeps them in their comfort zone. Never exceed your
capability or comfort zone just to keep up. If the pace is too quick
for you - back off until you feel comfortable. The group will
eventually slow to your pace. There is no need to rush to avoid
becoming lost or separated from the group
2) Discipline is essential. When riding in a group, you
automatically forfeit some personal autonomy. You should normally
maintain your relative position within the group unless doing so
would compromise safety. Randomly changing positions is an
indication of an undisciplined rider, increases risk for everyone
else and should not be condoned. There may be times when changing
your position in the formation is the safe thing to do. But before
you do, you should have a good reason and it shouldn't be frequent.
3) Trust your leader. This is a two-way deal. You should trust your
leader and he must be competent to lead. A good leader will always
take into account the equipment, experience and skill level of each
rider. He needs to tailor his riding accordingly. A common practice
I would like to see more of is a concise briefing by the leader just
before the ride. Depending on the nature of the ride and the
familiarity of those within the group, this briefing may only take a
minute or two. As a minimum, the leader should outline the route and
establish the overall tone for the ride. Questions should be
addressed before the helmets go on.
4) Pay attention and don't assume. This is so basic and elementary
that it should not need to be addressed. However, far too many
accidents have occurred during group rides where someone just
stopped paying attention for a split second and ran into the person
in front of them. Be aware of your spacing behind the rider in front
in terms of time. Know your own reaction time and stopping
capability and don't ride any closer in point of time. Never assume
the rider in front will continue at his current pace and never look
away for any longer than an instant.
When accelerating from a stop, especially in conjunction with a
turn, don't assume the rider in front will continue to accelerate
just because his brake light went out and he started to roll. He
could subsequently see something that causes him to stop while you
are looking over your shoulder for traffic and run into him.
Unfortunately, this scenario has also played out all too often.
5) Each rider is directly responsible for the rider behind them.
This enhances mutual support. If the rider behind you starts to fall
back, so should you. If you lose sight of the person behind you,
slow down for a while. If that doesn't work after a period of time -
turn around. Something has obviously happened and he probably could
use your help. As you can see, if the last person in the formation
had his engine quit (ran out of gas) or crashed eventually the
entire group would be at his aid. For larger groups the leader
should identify smaller units that would stay together for such
situations. If it is necessary to stop or if you decide to take a
different route, it is essential that someone in the group knows
where you are.
A good technique that makes it easy for the guy in front of you to
see you is to position yourself so you can see his eyes in his
mirror. If you can't see his eyes, he can't see you without moving
his head. This is even more applicable if he only has one mirror.
6) Type of formation (staggered, trail, line abreast) and spacing.
This depends on your environment (weather, road type and condition,
speed, congestion, etc.), and your mission. One extreme would be in
heavy stop and go rush-hour traffic at very slow speeds. A close
staggered formation with no less than nose/tail clearance (unless
stopped) might be the smartest formation. In city traffic a closely
spaced formation will discourage cars from "cutting" in. Leave them
room and they may be tempted to cut-in. Better to tighten up the
spacing a bit so cars perceive the group as a homogeneous unit.
The other extreme would be a "spirited" ride out in the hill country
on a twisty open road with no traffic. Here the smart formation
might be an extended trail just keeping the guy in front and in back
of you in sight.
For me line abreast is strictly a "show" formation suitable for
funerals, processions and such and has no place in an informal group
ride. It diminishes your margin of error and increases risk of a
collision. However, when pulling up to a stop, stopping two abreast
is probably a good idea.
Unless briefed otherwise, during the course of a typical informal
group ride your position (formation and spacing) should be fluid and
dictated by the overall situation. You might find yourself going
from a close staggered to an extended trail formation and back again
all in a relative short amount of time.
At times you may want to have increased spacing to avoid road
hazards like rock chips while at the same time desire to keep the
formation relatively tight. Two bikes riding close staggered in
trail with other groups of two works well in this case.
Sometimes when on a two-lane road riding staggered and you find
yourself on the left track it is a good idea to move over to the
right momentarily when on-coming traffic passes. This is especially
true for larger vehicles like 18-wheelers. This is to have a little
more distance and time in case something falls off; he veers towards
you, or throws a "grit blast" in his wake.
7) Establishing the spacing. Because there are so many variables
that could dictate the optimum spacing, number two in the formation
should normally set the spacing for the group. Nobody else is in a
position to logically set or change the spacing in a fluid
environment. As such, the number two rider should be experienced and
have a solid understanding of group ride dynamics. In city traffic
you may need to frequently make minor deviations to the group
spacing to avoid running in the blind-spots of other vehicles.
Although you may be number five and can't see number two, you would
only need to maintain the spacing that number four has on three. In
other words, set your own spacing based on the spacing taken by the
guy in front of you. Don't exceed your comfort level in order to
8) Speed and lanes. It depends. The leader initially sets the pace
but eventually the slowest rider should normally determine it. If
everyone follows the guidelines above then speed will take care of
itself. A modification to this might be on country rides where there
is a pre-ride agreement that the faster riders will be in the front
of the group and the slower riders in the rear, and that the faster
group will wait at all turn-decision points until the second group
catches up. A common misconception is that going slower is always
safer. Not true. On our superslabs, going slower can get you killed.
With few exceptions, the leader must tailor aggressiveness and
average speed to the lowest level of capability in the group.
Capability is defined and limited by skill, experience, machine or a
combination of all three. Speed preferences should be discussed and
agreed upon before the ride begins.
On multilane roads the group should strive to be in the same lane as
the leader. However, don't compromise safety to get there. If a car
cuts into the formation, analyze the best course of action to get
back in formation. You might just want to ride it out behind the car
for a while if other options aren't obvious.
Normally on our superslabs the leader should be in what he considers
to be the safest lane for conditions. Many times with modern bikes
and competent riders this is the furthest left lane going just
slightly faster than the general traffic flow. This limits, but
doesn't negate your vulnerability from the rear by the
hyper-speeders. Generally the right lane has the most hazards in the
form of exiting and entering cars at sometimes drastically different
speeds. A middle lane also has its hazards. In a middle lane, you
are subject to “crazies” on both sides of you and it is difficult to
“isolate" the threat.
In conclusion, these are just a few of my thoughts on riding in a
group. I'm sure there are other ideas, techniques or guidelines that
I missed. I hope that this will stimulate a discussion on the
subject and would like to solicit your thoughts and comments for
future publication. The more we learn and talk about group riding
the better off (and safer) we will be while riding in a group.
Thanks for your time. Ride safe!
Click here for the AMA's "Touring Guide" in pdf format.
Reprinted with permission
from the American Motorcycle Association.
From the August 2008 issue of American Motorcyclist.
Click here to
join the AMA
I often ride in groups of three to six motorcycles, and we’re often
on freeways. Sometimes, when changing lanes, the lead rider will
keep the same position in the lane (Generally, in the left
wheeltrack), and sometimes, a different lead rider will change
positions depending on which lane he’s in (left wheeltrack in the
right lane, right wheeltrack in the left lane). My question is:
Where should the lead rider be, and does it vary from lane-to-lane
on a freeway? And should the rest of the riders re-stagger when and
if the lead rider’s position changes?” – Simon Morris, AMA No.
807523, Winter Park, FL
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation Responds:
The whole group's formation should be dynamic, yet follow a few
If the road is straight and there are no unusual traffic or surface
conditions, the staggered riding formation allows a proper space
cushion between motorcycles so that each rider has enough time and
space to maneuver and to react to hazards, while keeping the group
compact. The leader should ride in the left third of the lane, while
the next rider stays at least one second behind in the right third
of the lane; the rest of the group follows the same pattern. If the
group is using this pattern, the leader should remain in the left
position, even after the group changes lanes, so the other riders
aren't continually changing their positions in response.
However, if the leader feels that the center third of right third of
the lane is the best position for the road and traffic conditions,
then the leader can signal the group to adjust to a single-fine
formation, with a 2-second following distance throughout. A
single-file formation should be used on a curvy road, under
conditions of poor visibility or poor road surfaces,
entering/leaving highways, or other situations where an increased
space cushion or maneuvering room is needed.