Group Riding Etiquette
by George Tuttle
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 maintain spacing.
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.
Group Riding Dynamics
Reprinted with permission from the American Motorcycle Association.
From the August 2008 issue of American Motorcyclist.
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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 basic guidelines.
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.
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