Watch the Road
MICHAEL J. MONAHAN
U.S. Army Cadet Command
Fort Monroe, Virginia
As a longtime motorcycle enthusiast and fan of riding periodicals, I’ve read about various strategies for avoiding accidents. Articles warn of traffic-related problems motorcyclists encounter all too frequently — drivers backing out of driveways, oncoming drivers turning left and drivers in the left lane suddenly turning right. The warnings and riding techniques discussed in these articles are extremely valuable and should be remembered and practiced while you’re riding. While you’re practicing these techniques, however, make sure that you also, literally, watch the road.
Specifically, riders must always watch for potholes, pavement heaves, open pavement joints (expansion joints) and raised pavement sections. Potholes and pavement heaves are most prevalent in the springtime, just when your riding skills are rusty from a long winter’s rest. At the least, they can result in bent rims and tracking problems. At worst, they can cause a nasty accident, injury or death.
Potholes, even small ones, can toss you off your ride. Pavement heaves can throw you significantly off course and into the woods. Open pavement joints caused when the pavement expands and contracts are like linear potholes waiting to send you out of control, especially during wet weather. After a hot summer’s day, pavement sections often rise at expansion joints. Hitting one is like running into or off of a curb at high speed and can quickly send you out of control. When you ride, pay attention to the weather because it affects the road.
Open joints on bridges can catch a tire and throw your motorcycle out of control in a heartbeat, so avoid them. If you can’t, slow down to cross them. If the joint is running parallel along the bridge, stay away from the joint. Look at the road ahead and, if possible, stay on the side that lets you avoid crossing the joint.
As slippery as bridge and road gratings are when they’re dry, they’re much worse when wet. When crossing them, sometimes your motorcycle will feel squirrelly and the handlebars will oscillate back and forth. Slow down and don’t hold the bars in a death grip because that’s what it might turn into. Hold the grips firmly but loosely, and don’t make sudden turns. Let the motorcycle move with the surface. It feels weird and somewhat scary, but your ride will make it across. Also, rain grooves in highways can affect your motorcycle just like gratings. Don’t let them cause you to panic!
Road construction, which includes uneven lanes, bumps, gravel and rough pavement, is prevalent during the riding season. Regarding uneven lanes, get in one lane and stay there! If you must change lanes, slow down and approach the other lane at a greater than 45 degree angle. Different lanes are often at different heights, and the dangers are the same as those you encounter on raised pavement along the expansion joints. Therefore, the same warnings apply. Bumps act like pavement heaves and potholes. Remember, watch for these road hazards, but don’t fixate on them. Once you spot a hazard, pay attention to where you want your motorcycle to go because it’ll go where you’re looking.
Last, but not least, is pavement compression. With the increase in truck gross weights, even concrete is compressed over time to form grooves along the highway. Tractor-trailers have tandem wheels and, as a result of their weight and tire configuration, leave two grooves shaped like a shallow “w.” These are found mainly in the right lanes of interstate highways and they’re sometimes hard to see. If your motorcycle feels like it’s getting a flat and you’ve checked your tires, wheels and steering head and they look fine, then take a careful look at the highway. Is the center of the lane raised slightly? Can you see a shiny area on either side of the center of the lane? If so, then you’re experiencing the effects of pavement compression.
What’s on the road besides yourself and other vehicles? Sand, mud, oil, diesel fuel and water all are deposited on roads and can cause the unsuspecting motorcyclist an immediate loss of control. Did you know the first few minutes of a rain are the most dangerous? That’s because any oil on the road will be floating on top of the water. And what about man-made obstacles? How many times have you seen an “alligator” (a section of tire tread from a tractor-trailer) lying on the highway just waiting to bite the unwary rider?
Off-camber curves (ones that aren’t banked to help you stay on the road) are rare, but they’re out there and can cause you to wreck if you don’t slow down. Pay attention to road signs warning of these obstacles, but don’t depend on signs to tell you they are there. Watch the road!
Always pay attention to traffic, obey the laws and ride defensively. Remember, everything else is bigger than you! While you’re keeping an eye on other motorists, also make a habit of watching the road. That’ll help make your ride enjoyable and safe so you can do it again tomorrow.