One of the greatest joys of motorcycling is riding with friends. But riding in a group presents special challenges – whether your “group” consists of two riders, a dozen, or more.
Group riding connects us in a way that solo riding can’t. As a group of bikes rumble through town or across the countryside, each rider is experiencing the same scenery, the same weather, the same road conditions, etc., even as each individual may experience them in a different way.
This gives gas stops and lunch breaks a whole new dimension, where riders swap stories that are as fresh as a still-too-hot cup of coffee. Fresh perspective is what’s great about group riding.
By learning some of the basic guidelines of group riding, you can help make sure your next outing is safe and enjoyable for all.
The best group rides start with the best rider meetings. These don’t have to be big, formal affairs – just a quick “touchbase” to get everybody on the same page and cover a few basic topics, such as:
- Hand signals
- Fuel stops
- Lunch/meal stops
- What to do if you get separated
- Basic route info
- Construction zones
- Ride leader/Road Captain introductions
It can also be important to make sure less-experienced riders know they can stay in their comfort zone. No one should be expected to ride beyond their own skill level. Sometimes this might mean having two route options available or putting newer riders in a group that doesn’t mind going at a slower pace or stopping more frequently.
Good communication is one of the most important aspects of good group riding – and it starts before the ride begins. Whether a small group of friends out for a ride or an
organized event such as a chapter ride, make sure everyone is on the same page before you set out.
Be sure, for instance, everybody knows what to do if someone in your group gets separated. Exchange cell phone numbers as needed. If you’re part of an “event,” attend the riders meeting. Assure that everyone is clear on the hand signals to be used.
-Learn the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) hand signals
The MSF recognizes the need for key, universal communicative gestures that result in safe, fun, and effective group rides. The great news about learning the language of MSF signals is that it’s quick and easy.
Some of the basic ones include:
- “Form a single line” (one finger in the air)
- “Hazard in roadway” (point with left arm or right foot)
- “Slow down” (hold left arm straight out, palm down, and move down and up several times)
- “Speed Up” (left arm out, palm up, move up and down)
- “Stop” (left arm out and bent downward).
But why the MSF signals rather than your own signals?
“There’s no reason to invent a new language when one already exists that works perfectly fine and that’s already ‘spoken’ by so many riders,” says Ray Petry, Senior Project Manager for Harley-Davidson® Riding Academy in Milwaukee. “The MSF signals are sensible and fairly intuitive. Plus they cover the most common situations that need to be communicated by motorcyclists.”
So take a few minutes and really look at the MSF signals (you can download and print them from the MSF website at www.msf-usa.org/library.) Then take your printed copy, give it a nice laminate of clear packing tape on both sides, and then put it in a saddlebag or in the pocket of your riding jacket.
Communicating with other motorists
Of course, not all of our riding communication occurs with people in our group. Sometimes we’re compelled to communicate with other motorists.
Brake light and turn signals are the most critical tools for communication; however, Petry also believes in the added redundancy of hand signals. “I think that other motorists sometimes forget there’s a human sitting on a motorcycle until they see a hand go up in the air,” he says. “It’s anecdotal, but it seems like motorists give you a wider berth when they see hand signals and motorcycle signals.
“And let’s not forget: a friendly wave to a deserving motorist or bystander can help turn a positive light on motorcyclists. The more that all motorists see us as real people, the sooner they’ll treat us like it.”
-Additional communication tips
“The very nature of a group is that it takes longer to react to any situation that develops on the road,” he says. “So, whenever I’m a group ride leader, I give a couple taps of the brake light to grab the group’s attention whenever possible, rather than going straight into a braking situation. Likewise, if I’m riding in a group, I’ll use my turn signals sooner than if I were alone, because it takes an extra moment or two to register with the group.”
And finally, Petry addresses the annoyance of being overly communicative. “Some riders want to point out every crack in the road or debris on the shoulder. This actually creates additional distraction and risk to the group, especially if people simply stop paying attention to the rider. My advice: Communicate only what is essential.”
Riding in Formation
The first rule of riding in groups is to ride in staggered formation. That is, with the lead rider in the left third of the lane, the second rider following in the right third, the third rider again in the left, and so on. Each rider behind the leader should maintain a two-second following distance to the rider two spots ahead in the same side of the lane and one second behind the person directly ahead on the opposite side.
This formation gives each rider room to maneuver, while also making the group a little more “compact,” taking up less room on the road than if everyone were riding single file.
Following distance is key. Each rider should stay at least two seconds behind the rider directly in front – at least one second behind the rider in the other half of the lane. “At least” is key. Riders should feel free to fall back further when going through a set of curves or if conditions (such as rough roads or rain) call for a higher safety margin.
In addition to the space cushion advantage, the staggered formation takes up less room on the highway than a single file line, makes it easier for other motorists to see you, and makes it less likely that you’ll be separated by other traffic.
Even though riding in formation presents a number of advantages, it also presents certain challenges. Chief among them can simply be staying together – especially when riding through protected intersections. So make sure a “separation plan” is
discussed at the pre-ride meeting
Generally, it’s best to limit the size of a single group to six or eight bikes. When groups get bigger than that the risk factors go up, and it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the group together. If your group ride is larger than eight bikes, consider splitting into several groups, each with its own designated lead and sweep riders.
If a group does get split up at an intersection, the lead rider can make a decision to slow down (to a safe minimum speed), or even to pull over and wait, to let the stragglers catch up – but only if there’s a safe place to do so. Sometimes it’s best just to regroup at the next planned stop.
Again: It’s better to get separated and regroup later than to put someone’s safety at risk. Make sure you establish a plan, and everyone knows it. If less-experienced riders are along, make sure they aren’t all in one group – and each “sub-group” has at least one experienced rider to look after the beginners.
Finally, related to the point above, it’s a good idea to have experienced riders – or even official “Ride Captains” like in a H.O.G.® chapter environment – riding in both the lead and “sweeper” positions (the last bike) in each group.
While groups of motorcycles have a visibility advantage over single bikes, intersections are still the area of highest risk. Approach with caution, with riders proceeding through only when it’s safe and legal. Blocking an intersection without permission and a proper escort is almost always illegal. And always put personal safety ahead of staying with the group.
-At STOP signs and red lights:
Line up side-by-side, two-by-two, at the stop. At STOP signs, proceed through the intersections two at a time, returning to the staggered formation as you pull away.
If the intersection is clear of other vehicles – or if you can be very confident (through eye-contact and hand gestures) that other vehicles at the intersection know what you’re doing, it’s sometimes okay to proceed in larger groups. But do so only
with great care!
-Left turns at a protected intersection with a left-turn arrow:
Tighten the formation to allow as many riders as possible to pass through quickly. Don’t ride side-by-side; make the turn single-file or in a tight, staggered formation.
-Left turns at a protected intersection with NO left-turn arrow:
Proceed with caution single-file, with each rider proceeding through the intersection only when it’s safe and legal.
-At an intersection with a two-way stop (traffic light or STOP signs):
While waiting at a traffic light, it may be appropriate to close up the formation and wait side-by-side. However, when the light turns green, riders should pull away one by-one and re-establish formation.
-At an intersection with a YIELD sign:
Turn your head to check for traffic before merging.
Interstates and Freeways
When merging onto a multi-lane freeway, do so single-file, and go into the staggered formation only after entering the flow of traffic. It’s the responsibility of the lead rider to accelerate to and maintain a safe merging speed – and the responsibility of those following to keep up. Bear in mind that other traffic may well separate your group when you merge. If this happens, take your time re-grouping; don’t be in such a hurry to reestablish your formation that you compromise anyone’s safety. Often a good idea is to slow down a little (staying in the right lane) and encourage the other vehicle to pass, waving the driver around if necessary.
At cruising speeds, the ride leader is well advised to stay alert for merging issues as the group approaches on-ramps. If your group is in the right lane, consider moving the group a lane to the left (with enough notice and good communication) when approaching a merging situation.
Exiting the freeway should also be done single file. Adjust your following distances accordingly as you exit – though keep in mind that your following distance (measured in seconds) will automatically increase as you slow down, even as you keep the same linear distance from the bike ahead of you.
Every rider should use their turn indicators; the lead and sweep riders should use hand signals, as well.
The basic rule is simple: On multi-lane interstates and freeways, pass in small groups (three at a time is a good number); on two-lane highways, pass one-by-one, safely and only in marked passing zones. But a more important rule is: Pass only when necessary! It’s often better to bide your time and be patient – especially on two-lane roadways. But, if you do have to pass, here are some strategies to keep in mind from Ray Petry, Senior Project Manager for Harley-Davidson® Riding Academy.
If you’re among a group of riders who are about to pass a motorist, agree in advance on how the group will or will not pass and follow that guidance while still making
your own safety decisions.
“It’s a mistake to blindly follow the lead of the rider in front of you,” Petry says. “For starters, that rider might have very different sensibilities than you about what constitutes a safe situation for passing. Secondly, even if the situation was safe for his pass, it might have changed by the time you’re ready to do so.”
The best approach is to employ the same strategies and sensibilities used when riding solo. Petry adds one extra bit of caution for group passing: “If you’re riding within a group and decide to pass a motorist, be extra cautious to look behind you before swinging wide. Others in the group behind you might not share your same caution and could decide to pass before it’s their turn.”
-Passing with a passenger:
The strategy changes when passing while your motorcycle is loaded with a passenger or the weight of extra gear.
“If my bike is fully loaded, I ride with the premise that I’m not going to pass unless it’s absolutely necessary,” says Petry, “because a loaded motorcycle takes more time to accelerate and decelerate.”
For those occasions when he does pass while riding fully loaded, Petry eschews the “gas-it” method in favor of building speed before initiating the pass because a fully loaded motorcycle doesn’t accelerate quickly enough.
“My rationale is the same as for passing unloaded: use the method that consumes the least amount of time for the whole passing process. With a loaded cycle, I’ve found that the building-speed method is generally the quickest.”
-Passing in farm country:
Years of riding in rural Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have made Petry acutely aware of the pitfalls associated with passing slow-moving farm machinery.
“Someone driving farm equipment like a tractor or combine poses added challenges and danger to a motorcyclist,” he says. “Their equipment is usually pretty wide and sometimes hangs into a second lane. Sometimes they can’t see or aren’t paying attention to motorists behind them; they might not have working lights or turn signals; their equipment is cumbersome and can sling mud and dirt on to the road; and they might abruptly turn into fields without a clearly marked or visible driveway.”
Pay attention to these dangers for clues to directional changes a farmer might make in his/her route, such as the telltale sign of dirt chunks going into and out of fields, as well as other equipment being operated in upcoming fields.
-On a multi-lane interstate and freeway:
Pass in small groups of two or three. Or when traffic is light, the whole group can pass together, as long as all the riders clearly signal and maintain good following distances while making the pass.
-On a two-lane highway:
Pass one by one, only in designated passing zones, just as you would if riding alone.
Passing presents special challenges for a group. It can lead to a group getting separated and put riders in dangerous situations, often unnecessarily. The purpose of a group ride should be to enjoy the ride along with each other’s company and to have a shared experience to talk about later. It shouldn’t be to get somewhere in a hurry.
As a lead rider, if you find your group stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle on a two-lane road, don’t force it. Consider finding a safe place to pull over and rest for a while. Or just
drop back to a safe following distance, relax your mind, and focus on the scenery or the beautiful weather instead of the frustration of the slower speed.
-How to get passed
How to handle occasions when you’re the one getting passed? According to Petry, it’s best to check your ego at the door, do your own scan of the situation and allow the pass to occur as safely as possible.
“If I think the situation is safe and okay for passing, then I stay my course and don’t make any changes,” he says. “But I’m prepared to change that tactic and have a plan for it. If I see a motorist roll out to pass me, then I look at all the factors on the road. I want them to have a choice to go in front of me as well as the ability to change their decision and come in behind me. That might mean moving over to the right third portion of the lane and slowing down.
-Additional passing tips
Here are a few more useful tips from Petry for safe passage:
- "If you’re about to pass another vehicle, always check behind you before initiating the move to ensure that a motorist behind you isn’t doing the same thing at that same moment.”
- “In most states a motorcycle owns the entire lane. So if you’re passing another motorcyclist, be sure to pass them in a different lane instead of using their same lane.”
- “When riding in multiple traffic lanes, I always try to pass on the left whenever possible. If it’s just me, it’s okay to pass on the right. But if I’m riding in a group, I believe passing should occur on the left.”
- “Be wary of anything that’s out of the ordinary that could result in sudden directional changes by other motorists. Cues like an out-of-state license plate might indicate a driver who isn’t familiar with the area and could make a sudden change. Likewise, if you’re near a tourist attraction or other popular landmark be prepared for last-second maneuvers by other drivers. And I always consider someone driving really slow as a possibility for a non-signaled, unsafe U-turn.”
A Dynamic Approach
The group-riding guidelines presented here are just that: guidelines. As with any aspect of motorcycling, there’s always more to learn and there’s no substitute for experience.
And don’t forget to take a headcount at the end of your ride to make sure everyone is accounted for.
To learn more about best group-riding practices, talk to your local Harley-Davidson dealer or H.O.G. chapter about the Rider’s Edge Group Riding Course or visit https://www.harley-davidson.com/us/en/learn-to-ride/new-rider.html.
A version of this post appeared in HOG® magazine.
Originally posted on April 27, 2020 on Harley-Davidson Insurance The Open Road blog.