Safety extra important with mopeds and their cousins

Dennis Gildea doesn't gloss over the facts. Riding a two-wheel motorized vehicle -- and that includes mopeds and motor scooters as well as motorcycles -- "is a lot more dangerous than driving an auto," he tells his students.

Mr. Gildea has been riding motorcycles for 15 years and teaching motorcycle safety for the last 3. His course, designed by the Motorcycle Safety Federation , is approved by the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Creating an awareness of the problems facing the two-wheel rider is basic to his teaching.

The pothole that makes the auto driver wince can throw the unprepared cyclist off his machine. Sand, mud, rain, and other poor road conditions are always more severe with two wheels than four. And the auto driver himself is not always the motorcyclist's best friend, either.

"It's not intentional on the driver's part," Mr. gildea says. "It's just that he doesn't always notice the cyclist. He sees him, but it doesn't register. He's too busy looking for other autos."

Statistics bear this out. In a majority of accidents involving a motorcycle and an auto, the auto driver has been held legally responsible.

So, says Mr. gildea, "don't rely on the other guy. Your safety and enjoyment on the road depend on you." There is much that you can do. "You are far from helpless," he stresses.

Motorcyclists, including the moped rider, should:

* Dress for protection and visibility.

* Improve traffic awareness.

* Select proper lane position.

* Identify hazards and take action to avoid possible dangerous situations.

Dress: Leather received a bad name when the motorcycle gangs came into existence, Mr. Gildea says. But it was originally associated with motorcycling because of the protection it offers. Wear sturdy clothing that protects you from scrapes and abrasions, should you come off your cycle. In cool weather wear a sweater, by all means, but be sure it is covered by a wind cheater or the air will penetrate the loose knit of the sweater and negate its insulating qualities.

Always wear a good-quality helmet. Statistics suggest that 67 percent of all fatalities could have been avoided if the cyclists had worn a helmet. To be sure you are getting a good-quality helmet, choose one that bears either the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) label, the Snell Memorial Foundation (Snell) label or the Department of Transportation (DOT) label.

Traffic awareness: This includes helping others to see you and making a constant visual search for other road users on your part.

To make yourself more noticeable to other road users, wear bright, eye-catching clothing for daylight riding. Bright-colored helmets stand out more than dark ones. Reflective tape on the helmets and other clothing is most important at night. A flashing strobe light, attached to a belt, is another way to increase your noticeability at night. Always (that's alwaysm ) ride with the headlights on, even in the middle of the day. Motorists admit this brings the motorcycle to their attention in a way that little else does.

Use turn and brake signals early. Use both the electrical signals, if your vehicle has them, and hand signals.

Sound is another communicating tool. Use your horn, blow a whistle, or even use your voice if you have the slightest doubt that another vehicle or pedestrian has not noticed you.

Never let your eyes "fix" on any object for more than two seconds. Keep track of the traffic around you. Keep checking the rear- view mirror. One advantage the cyclist has over the auto driver: He has no blind spots with which to contend.

Drive two seconds behind the vehicle in front of you. Pick a reference point that the vehicle in front passes -- a tree, road sign, or mark in the road -- and begin counting "one thousand one, one thousand two." If you can complete the two-second count by the time you pass the reference point, you are staying a safe distance behind. If not, adjust your speed accordingly.

In poor visibility, increase the distance to three seconds. Experienced riders try to see 12 seconds ahead of them. This way they are seldom surprised by any turn of events.

Selecting proper position: In traffic the best place for a motorcyclist most of the time (this does notm apply to the moped rider) is the left-hand tire track of the auto ahead. This way you avoid the oil slick often formed in the center of the lane, you see oncoming traffic more easily from this position, and the driver ahead can see you in his rear-view mirror.

Mopeds, on the other hand, should avoid this left-of-lane position at all times unless moving over to turn left.The moped is simply too slow to keep up with traffic except in downtown situations. Just like bicycles, mopeds should stay over to the right.

In most cases, says Mr. gildea, who has been asked increasingly about moped safety of late, the moped rider should stay about three feet from the curb. This allows him to stay free of the refuse that frequently collects in the gutters and also allows some space in which to move, should a passing motorist come "too close for comfort."

On narrow country roads where passing even so narrow a machine as a moped presents some difficulty for the auto, the rider should be on the lookout for a smooth, firm shoulder where he can move over to allow backed-up traffic to pass.An impatient driver behind you poses a traffic hazard to you and other road users.

Identifying hazards: Roads hazards, according to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, fall into three categories -- cars, trucks, and other vehicles that share the road with you; pedestrians and animals, marked by quick, short moves and unpredictability; plus stationary objects at or near the roadway, such as chuckholes, guardrails, bridges, and rows of trees, all of which may limit your freedom of movement in some way.

To be constantly aware of these is to be prepared.

Intersecting roads must be considered a hazard. More accidents involving motorcycles take place at intersections than anywhere else. So check oncoming traffic for vehicles that might turn left in front of you. Check traffic from the right and left, and look into the mirror to see what is coming up behind you.

Even while waiting at a traffic signal for a green light, make the same checks. An oncoming vehicle might turn in front of you and cross traffic might go through on the yellow -- or even a red -- light, a common occurrence.

Consider all driveways as hazards.Cars coming out of them generally do so in reverse, when the driver is not able to get an unrestricted view of the road behind him. A gentle tap on the horn will help, of course, but always be ready to take evasive action or to stop completely, if necessary.

In other words, paying constant attention to the ever-changing scene in front of you and anticipating what others are likely to do around you is the key to safe riding.

According to the Motorcycle Safety Federation, safe riding is 90 percent a mental process and 10 percent physical execution.

"It boils down to this: If you make good decisions and execute them properly, your riding will be basically trouble-free; but if you make poor, risk-taking decisions, you could be in for a rough time."

For a copy of the booklet, entitled "Motorcycle Rider Course," send $2 to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, 780 Elkridge Landing Road, Linthicum, MD 21090.

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