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Off-siding - a technique that crosses the line?
I originally wrote this tip as an expanded response incorporating questions being asked by a nearly-new rider. With a year's experience since passing the bike test, he was shown the technique of 'offsiding' on a riding assessment. If you're not familiar with the term, offsiding is positioning to the RIGHT of the centre line (here in the UK) to improve the view ahead, rather keeping within our own lane. I remember being told many years ago that "you've paid to use all the road - so do so". I'm not implying he was being encouraged to use this position but many riders do, myself included on rare occasions - I'll explain the limited circumstances in a moment. In the time I've been involved in rider training offsiding seems to have gone from a technique that was generally accepted "but do it carefully" to one that's generally frowned upon as "controversial and we really shouldn't". So what's the right answer? Is there ever a time when it's a good idea to cross the centre line to gain a view?
Before we go any further, we need to sort out if it's legal. So long as the centre line is broken - that is, we're looking at crossing either the short lane divider markings or the longer hazard line, it's not illegal - we can cross a broken centre line. But we could end up on the wrong side of the law if we're seen to be riding carelessly or even dangerously - in the case of a longer hazard line, the Highway Code says we can cross the line "if safe and necessary to do so". Much will depend on who is interpreting 'safe and necessary'. My view may not be the same as that of a policeman or magistrate.
If we can say "yes, it's legal", my approach on Survival Skills advanced motorcycle rider training courses is always to get trainees to ask two questions in order to perform a basic cost / benefit analysis:
- what are the benefits
- what are the risks?
The usual benefit that is proposed is extra vision - the further right we move:
- the further we can see ahead around a blind bend to the left
- the more we can open up a view into a blind area on the left
- if we can see further, we may also be seen from further away
Let's start with the the blind bend, and the idea that we can open up the view from riding right of the centre line. What about the risks? The most obvious one is in riding along the 'wrong' side of the carriageway, sooner or later we WILL meet someone coming the other way. As we're on the same side of the road, we're on a collision course.
It should be fairly obvious we need to be able to return to our side of the road WELL BEFORE the other vehicle gets anywhere near us. But if we have this kind of clear space, isn't it likely we're already seeing a long way ahead? What exactly are we adding? As I've said elsewhere, the practical reason for extending "the distance we can see to be clear and expect to remain clear" is nearly always to carry more speed. Whilst speed might be essential as part of a police rider's pursuit activities, it's NOT part of the remit for an ordinary civvie rider.
If there's a bit of a question about the advantage, what about the disadvantages? A bit more thinking should reveal some real problems:
- the shock experienced by the oncoming driver who finds a motorcycle on the wrong side of the road in front of him
- the need not just to get back left of the centre line, but to shed any extra speed too
Let's reverse the position. If we were rounding a right-hand bend and suddenly found a car approaching on the wrong side of the centre line, how would WE respond? Would we be thinking calmly: "ah, advanced driver doing a bit of off-siding"? Would we be thinking at all? What's the chance we'd respond with a WTF and a panic grab of the brakes? I rather think it would be the latter. And what if we panic-swerved too, to our right into the other lane and away from the car? What happens next? This confusion alone is a very good reason to avoid offsiding into a blind corner - we should always avoid putting ourselves into situations where our safety depends on other road users behaving reliably. Even if we don't scare the bejasus out of the driver, we still have to return to our side of the centre line. A typical response is along the lines of: "I only off-side at a speed that allows me to return to my side of the road in time". But what if the other driver is going a bit quicker than usual? What if the oncoming driver has cut the corner to straighten it out? Check out the worn paint on the middle of a lot of fast kinks - the reason it's worn is vehicles straight-lining that bend.
And if we were carrying more speed towards the corner to exploit the better view, we now have to get rid of it. Have we got enough space to do so? And if we've had to cut back to the left closer to the bend, does that means we've just turned into the corner too early? And is there a risk we'll now run wide later in the bend? 'Turn-in too early, run wide later' is a classic bike cornering crash accident so why take a line that could actually precipitate this error? About the daftest 'benefit' to offsiding I've heard is that "you get a longer braking distance because you're not directly behind the vehicle in front". Eh? Have a think about that for a moment. What if something comes the other way? Could we now safely return to our side of the road and slow down before running into that vehicle going the same way? I'm baffled by the thinking here, and if I feel my braking distance is being compromised by the vehicle ahead, I'll open up space ahead, and probably slow down too.
If the argument FOR offsiding towards a blind left-hand bend is that we have plenty of space to deal with the above problems, then we can make an argument AGAINST offsiding that our view around the left-hander probably isn't that bad in the first place. And the sharper the left-hander, the less the benefit but the greater the risks.
However, there is a time I will CONSIDER offsiding approaching a left-hand bend, and that is where an off-side position will MAINTAIN a view that I already have - that is, I can already see clearly and by crossing the centre line I avoid losing the view ahead. It's sometimes possible that as we exit one corner - typically but not always a right-hander, we can see round the following left-hander, usually because it's a gentle kink.
For example, on one of my training routes we encounter a narrow single lane bridge. As we exit the previous right-hand bend, we actually have a long view ahead, across the bridge and for around 400 metres further down the road. So if we turn IMMEDIATELY onto the 'wrong' side of the road we MAINTAIN the view that we already had, as we ride up to and over the bridge, and we can see if there are oncoming vehicles we might have to give way to.
But if we don't offside, and do the conventional thing and remain in the left-hand lane, the view ahead gets cut off by the hedge. Now the bridge is blind, and we have to 'pop out' from behind it to GAIN the view over the bridge at the last second. In this case, the long forward view beyond the bridge more than compensates for any potential hazards from oncoming vehicles - we have ample time to 'see and be seen' and we can move back if necessary - there's also a chance the driver coming the other way will give way to us.
So if by moving to the right of it we can MAINTAIN the view we already have, then there is an argument for offsiding. But early planning is essential. What I nearly always see in this kind of situation is that riders take too long to work out the lines-of-sight, then move too late, often only when they realise they have lost the view. Now we are attempting to REGAIN it. It's risky because even if it's only takes a couple of seconds, that's a couple of seconds we've been riding blind. Sometimes, riders will anticipate a right of the centre line position could open up a view and move to GAIN it, but move far too late. Now the risk is we might gain a close-up view of the front of a Scania - something we didn't really want to see.
There's one last case. I mentioned that crossing the centre line can open up a view into a blind area on the left, and that may help someone see us coming:
a driver about to pull out of the blind area to see us coming. The roads are littered with blind driveways, entrances and side turnings, and sometimes I will spot a particularly risky one. I could slow right down just in case a vehicle started to emerge, but I could also slow down AND move to the right if the view ahead and behind shows the road is free of traffic
approaching a left-hand bend with a car parked on my side of the road on the corner. It's a situation not dissimilar to the bridge I mentioned earlier - by moving right early, I MAINTAIN the best possible view around the parked car, and give the oncoming driver the best chance of spotting me coming. What I don't want to do is pop out jack-in-the-box style, and GAIN a view only to meet someone head-on
So, to sum up...
...there are some occasions when I will cross the centre line. But it's always tempered by the realisation that whilst I am in control of my own speed and position, I cannot control how the driver coming the other way reacts. I also have to distinguish between the advantages of 'maintaining' a view and the risks of attempting to 'gain' a view.
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