RiskyBusinessRisky Business is a series of articles about mitigating risk for the motorcycle rider. I started this series years ago for Nashvilleriders.com but since I closed up that site I wanted to bring this content to Motorcycle Words.

The first in this series is Being Vigilant.

Vigilant is defined as “keenly watchful to detect danger; wary”. Sounds like something every motorcycle rider should be doing, but as there are so many potential dangers out there, where to begin?

Forget “The Force”

Despite Luke Skywalker’s success destroying a death star while keeping his eyes closed, your best way to spot and be aware of potential threats is to use your vision. This sounds a bit basic but I’m always surprised at how many drivers (and riders) out there seem to be using “The Force” to guide their vehicles down the road and not very well I might add. As a motorcycle rider one typically has an unobstructed view of the surroundings. In fact sitting on most sportbikes, sport-tourers, and standards can give riders a height advantage over most car drivers.  

Rider education courses point out it’s very important to be watching what’s happening down the road as far as you can. Being able to see farther ahead will help you prepare for sudden stops, debris, and other road hazards you might encounter. You can make it much easier to have a good vantage point by doing a few things such as:

  • Not all windows will be easy to see through.

    Not all windows will be easy to see through.

    Don’t ride behind large trucks and tractor trailers that block your view of the road ahead. Sure you can stop quicker than most trucks but if they crash into something  you may find yourself out of stopping room real fast.

  • Look through and past the front and rear windows of the vehicle(s) ahead of you. While it may not be that easy to see a lot of details you will most likely be able to see the brake lights of several of the cars in front of you through each vehicle’s front and rear glass.
  • Don’t tailgate. Sounds like a no-brainer to me but you really want to provide enough space between you and the car ahead of you to see and avoid an object such as a piece of tire carcass that wasn’t visible until after the car in front of you passed over it.

It’s Not Paranoia if They Really are Out to Get You

When I ride I assume that pretty much everyone is going to pull out in front of me or cut me off. This may sound like it makes my rides stressful but it’s not as bad as it sounds. It is possible to strike a balance between enjoying the ride and still be alert. I automatically cover the brake lever or at least start reaching for it when I see a car waiting to turn onto a main thoroughfare from a side street in front of me.

Covering that brake can save valuable time.

Covering that brake can save valuable time.

I started doing this because so many people would start inching out or just go ahead and pull right out in front of me. It’s amazing how easy it is for a bright red motorcycle with two bright headlights on it to simply become part of the background for some drivers.  Now, as I said, if I see a car waiting to turn ahead of me somewhere they become my primary “threat” until I’ve passed by them.


Speaking of passing it seems around Nashville that using turn signals must be an act of ”squares”  as it seems using them is very uncool (I’m so “square” I’ve actually turned on my blinkers turning out of my driveway).  Lack of signals becomes a serious hazard if you are, for instance, passing a car on the highway. Since we can’t rely on seeing a turn signal there are two important places to watch on a car that will give you an indication that they are or are about to change lanes.

That front tire can be a valuable indicator.

That front tire can be a valuable indicator.

First, the driver’s head can let you know that they are getting ready to change direction. Some drivers willactually do a head check to look into the next lane before they make a move. I say “some” as unfortunately the words “most” or “many” would be inaccurate. Not enough drivers (and riders too) actually do a head check in situations like this.

The second Spot to watch is the bottom of the front tire. When a vehicle initiates a turn, the very first thing that changes direction will be the front wheel. Obviously don’t stare at the wheel  (you still want your attention ahead of you) but keeping it on your “radar” will alert you if they are about to move into your lane.

Warning Signs

Not all potential threats on the road are created equal. While watching the series of videos presented in the MSF Basic Rider Course, I noticed that most of the cars used to demonstrate hazards were white, four-door cars. Funny thing is that over the years I’ve noticed white four-door cars do seem more prone to cut me off or otherwise become a hazard.

Ok, so the white four-door issue is most likely psychological, but there are some signs and/or traits that can be cause for caution when nearing vehicles. Warning bells set off for me when I spot:

  • Was it the driver's fault here? Assume so and give them some space.

    Was it the driver’s fault here? Assume so and give them some space.

    Cars that have crash damage. Maybe the driver wasn’t at fault, but perhaps they were. Either way a vehicle that is damaged and might not stop or handle as well anymore. Also the turn signals and brake lights could be non-functional even if they look ok.

  • Rental cars. Let’s face it, some people do not treat rental cars very well and tend to drive them “like they stole” them so if you see a rental company sticker you might want to give them a wide berth.
  • Temporary and dealer tags. People who just got a new (or new to them) car may not be quite used to various aspects of the vehicle yet. They may be presently getting used to how it turns, brakes, and learning about what/where they can and cannot see from the driver’s seat of this newly acquired vehicle. These same issues can very well apply to rental cars too so keep this in mind for them as well.

Listen, do you smell something?

Up until this point it’s been all about what you see, but your other senses can be very helpful in maintaining vigilance when on the road. Hearing, admittedly, may not be a great help due to wind and other noises and how much you can hear will be subjective, but your olfactory sense (smell) can alert you to a variety of potential hazards.

Diesel fuel can wreck your day if you happen to run into it. Unlike gasoline, diesel is very slick and doesn’t evaporate like gasoline. In fact as the lighter components of diesel evaporate it becomes more slick and greasy. If you smell that telltale sulfur odor on the road keep your eyes peeled for a diesel spill.

Don't get bitten by a Road Gator like this one.

Don’t get bitten by a Road Gator like this one.

That burning rubber smell is great during a burnout but if you find yourself on the interstate, and you start to smell burning rubber it could be a tire getting ready to give up the ghost. Look at the large trucks ahead for white smoke coming from the tires and try to get as far from their lane as you can. Also be on the lookout for small pieces of tire debris that will signify a tire is about to blow.

And what else?

While I feel the above offers some good tips and ideas on remaining vigilant when riding on the street I’m sure there are more. Tell us your thoughts on how you remain vigilant on the streets when you’re riding using the comments feature or hit up our Facebook page and leave your comments there.