To stagger or not to stagger. That is the question most frequently posed by participants in our Stayin’ Safe advanced rider training program (www.stayinsafe.com).
While riding in a staggered formation may have certain advantages such as increasing visibility of the group, compressing the length of the formation, and discouraging other drivers from weaving in and out of the group, I believe the practice should be limited to multi-lane, divided highways. And even then, it should only be a “loose” formation in which it is understood that each rider can take full advantage of the width of his lane as necessary to avoid objects on the road, create space or increase visibility. On a divided multi-lane highway, the bulk of the group is less of an issue for drivers desiring to pass — they simply select another lane in which they can pass. And, being a divided highway, the group of riders has less worry of left-turning vehicles. On two lane roads however, I just don’t see how staggered riding provides more safety for riders on straight sections of roadway (staggered riding should never be used on twisting sections of tarmac. The trade offs are too significant over any benefit. With regular opportunities for oncoming vehicles to turn left, vehicles to enter the roadway from either side, animals to waddle out from the shoulder and potholes, gravel, or other debris to be in a rider’s path, I simply don’t see the advantage of any rider being locked into a particular position within his or her lane. Can he move if he has to when the car backs out of a driveway? Will there be another bike in his way following just off his rear tire when he needs to dodge a pothole or create space from a turning vehicle?
In a “proper” staggered riding formation, even if riders are following in an MSF-specified 2-second following distance from the rider directly ahead in the formation but only 1-second behind the rider immediately ahead to the right or left, if one moves from his position to avoid an object, he instantly cuts in half the following distance of the rider behind him. Even from a legal standpoint, the courts have consistenly ruled that the following rider is responsible for any crash in which the rider rear ends another — even if the rider ahead was “supposed to” stay in his portion of the lane while riders adopted a staggered riding formation and even if everyone was following their MSF-recommended staggered riding guidelines. By law, each motorcyclist is entitled to the full use of his lane from center line to fog line. And every rider is obligated to follow at a distance that allows him or her to avoid a collision with the vehicle ahead. I know because I just served on a case that addressed this very issue.
Instead, why not allow each rider in the group to ride his own ride? To follow at a minimum of two seconds behind the rider or vehicle ahead and have full use of his or her lane to increase line of sight, create a safety cushion from oncoming vehicles or from those waiting to enter the roadway, or to avoid obstacles. Other than looking good and keeping everyone together in a tight, neat package, I simply can’t see the advantages or benefits of riding in a staggered riding formation.