Back to basics lane change

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This week’s column is a simple back-to-the-basics strategy for safe riding.

Of course, I’ve been told that I have an uncanny ability to complicate the basics. Yes, it’s true. Watch me complicate the lane-change procedure.

When asked in theory class what’s involved in a lane change, the most knowledgeable of the new students usually list these three items: your signal light, a shoulder check, and (of course) the turn.

The three most dangerous words in the English language are I know that. If you limit your lane-change to knowing just these three things, you are drafting your own demise.

Brush up, folks: it’s a five-step process. Repeat after me: Shoulder check, signal, shoulder check, turn, and cancel.

This was a mantra of the instructors back in my teaching days, and we’d repeat it over and over again until it became the students’ mantra as well.

And in order for some students to really get it, they had to adjust their “knowing.” Initially, some students would not understand why they had to shoulder check twice. These students would argue that the biggest danger lies in the 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock radius ahead. Yes, the instructor would acknowledge, this is true. Especially if your only desire is to ride straight for the rest of your life. Should you ever want to travel beyond the street you live on, you’ll probably have to change your lane. When you do that, you have a new danger zone: the space you are planning to move into.

The first shoulder-check serves two critical purposes.

First, it communicates your intention to the drivers around you.

It’s a generally-accepted norm in this fair land of ours that people tend to look at where they want to go. So when we notice someone looking in a particular direction, we subconsciously understand they will probably move into that space. This is why we almost never bump into people in crowded spaces like fairgrounds or shopping malls. Looking at your intended path of travel is also known as projecting your intentions. And it is communicating our intention that provides us riders a thin cloak of safety.

Second, it allows you the rider to scope out exactly what is happening around you.

Try this test when you are riding or driving: at any random moment, without turning your head or using your rear-view mirrors, mentally list what you believe to be behind and beside you in traffic. Then, confirm your belief by employing your rear-view and blind-spot checking tools (mirrors and shoulder check respectively). You should do this little exercise every now and then to confirm that you are actually mentally present while you travel.

And let me clarify here, that a shoulder check is not intended to absorb the scenery behind you; it’s a periphery glance into your blind spot. It should take only a split second to move your head 90 degrees, there and back. If your eyes must linger on the sights behind you, pull over and take a picture. It’s safer that way.

I have had only two incidences where the outcome might have been less than favourable. The first was when I nearly got side-swiped by another vehicle during a lane change; the second was an approaching vehicle turning left in front of me.

I’d be indignant over both, except that each time it was my fault. The first time I failed to do my first shoulder check and (I’m embarrassed to admit) began to change lanes while doing my only shoulder check. I was cocky in my knowing. As a result, I almost slammed into the car that was in my blind spot. Thank goodness they anticipated my stupidity and leaned on their horn. The second time, I failed to cancel my left-turn signal light and so the on-coming vehicle correctly assumed she could turn left — because I was. After giving her an inappropriate one-finger salute, she pointed at my still-blinking-from-the-last-turn signal light. I shrank about ten inches that day.

I got lucky in that I received a second chance to smarten up, two times.

This tiny little complicated tidbit is far too important to keep to ourselves. If you have friends and family who drive any vehicle, pass it along. Better yet, clip the column and have them read it for themselves.

Britt Santowski is a former chief instructor with the Vancouver Island Safety Council, where she trained instructors and taught riders for almost a decade. Santowski is also a keynote speaker, workshop facilitator, speaker, consultant and author.

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2 Responses to “Back to basics lane change”

  1. on 11 Feb 2011 at 5:11 pmN.

    Hi Britt

    Just wanted to let you know how much I love to read your column.

    I just passed my road test last week with “nice ride”. The journey from getting my learners in June to passing my road test was a huge growing process for me in overcoming my own comfortable self-set boundaries. Many wonderful people have helped me getting there like my boundary pushing and supervising husband (without whom I would still be back in my old comfort zone), my patient motorcycle instructor (who did not give up on me) and of course your column (that fed my craving for safety knowledge)

    Thank you for your advice.


  2. on 11 Feb 2011 at 5:12 pmR. B.

    Hello Britt,

    Your latest column in the T.C. discussing lane changes has me baffled, to say the least.

    The way you describe lane changes should be done, is in my opinion, with all due respect, downright dangerous.

    You rely on the first shoulder check, or at least you give that impression, that drivers around you will realize your intention to change lanes.

    Truth is, drivers around you hardly see the motorcycle, let alone a little head movement of the rider.

    The first rule for a bike rider in traffic is to assume that no driver has seen the bike and to look out for the unexpected.

    The second rule is to plan ahead as far as possible or practicable. The rider must know well in advance when and where a lane change is to be made.
    He will put on the turning signal well in advance, he will then gauge traffic around and do a number of shoulder checks to be sure traffic in the lane, he wants to turn into, is aware of his intentions and open up a space to turn into and only then, after one last shoulder check, make the change.

    If you rely on a quick head movement for other traffic to guess your intentions, you really asking for a long stay in an uncomfortable hospital bed, that is, if you are lucky and still alive.

    I would suggest to change your instructions re shoulder checks; I would not like a novice rider to get the idea, lane changes are that simple.

    In my 29 years of riding many kinds of bikes, most of it long distance touring, I never had an accident. Yes, some close calls and a bit of luck, which gave me the opportunity to learn from and knowing that I will never know it all.

    Thank you for your interesting columns, I will keep on reading them.


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