Passing Another Vehicle - Street Savvy

Of all the things you do on a motorcycle, crossing the center line to pass another vehicle is potentially the most dangerous. That's when you run the greatest risk of hitting another vehicle head-on. So survival hinges on knowing when it's safe to pass and when it's not. The three most important factors in making that decision are speed, time and distance.

The less time you spend in the opposing lane, the less likely you are to be involved in an accident. Accelerating to a higher speed will let you pass more quickly, but raises an issue we'll call the Startle Factor. Zoom past a car like a low-flying jet or veer back into your lane milliseconds before becoming a hood ornament and there's no telling how the drivers around you will react. A few years ago on California's Highway 1, three motorcyclists were killed when a driver swerved to avoid a fourth that was coming right at him. Better to limit your speed to only slightly faster than the car you're passing, allowing plenty of time and distance to complete the pass.

OK, but how are you supposed to minimize your time in the opposite lane while also minimizing your speed? Begin accelerating in your lane instead of waiting until you cross the center line. Then, all you have to do is pull out from behind the car, zip past, duck back in front and continue on your merry way. Give the driver a polite little wave and he'll think motorcyclists are friendly, not adrenalin-addled psychopaths.

It helps to plan your pass in advance, and on twisty roads with short straights and limited lines of sight it's vital. Leave some space between yourself and the car you're following, and as soon as you see the corner exit, begin accelerating. If it's safe to pass, go for it. If not, slow and wait for another opportunity. Should you find yourself behind a procession of sightseers in motor homes moving at parade speed, consider stopping for gas or a snack rather than making a series of hairball passes. Sometimes, discretion really is the better part of valor.

As for passing over a double yellow, we'll leave that decision up to you. Let's just say that these techniques work regardless of what color the center line is. In terms of both legality and safety, it's best to wait for a designated passing zone. But it's also ironic that as bikes have become more powerful-and thus capable of passing in less time and distance-legal passing zones have become fewer and farther between. Here in California, Caltrans has over the past decade painted double-yellows where there were once dotted lines on many of our favorite roads. And some of us have long memories.

Last, and most important, you alone need to make the decision whether it's safe to pass. Never follow one of your riding buddies into the opposing lane without making sure it's clear, even if he waves you on telling you it's safe to go. When you're gambling with your life, don't let someone else determine the odds.