Staggering Considerations

To stagger or not to stagger. That is the question most frequently posed by participants in our Stayin’ Safe advanced rider training program (

These riders take advantage of their full lane and "ride their own ride" on rural roads

These riders take advantage of their full lane and "ride their own ride" on rural roads

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?

Will this rider have the freedom to shift to the right to create space ... or be locked into his lane position?

Will this rider have the freedom to shift to the right to create space ... or be locked into his lane position?

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.



7 Responses to “Staggering Considerations”

  1. PT Says:

    The most succinct argument I can give for not riding in staggered formation (unless you’re bunching up the group at a stop light) is simply this:

    If — taking traffic and other variables into consideration — there’s a proper position at any given moment within the boundaries of one’s lane of travel where the savvy rider would place his bike (e.g. the left wheel track), then by default the opposite lane position (in this case it would be the right wheel track) becomes the wrong lane position.
    If you, the savvy rider, chose the correct lane position, you have forced your hapless buddy into taking the less prudent position.

    Of course, in a heartbeat or two, the situation can reverse, and you find yourself in the undesirable position in the lane, while your ungrateful buddy enjoyes the primo spot.

    Is this really how you want to conduct your ride, in goose-step rigid formation, unable to quickly change position or speed to assertively manage the dynamic situations of the road?

  2. Ian Shuttler Says:

    I agree with all your comments. One other negative feature of adopting a closely staggered formation is that as the lead rider moves around it generates a ripple effect down the line of riders, e.g., as the lead moves to the left, then second moves to right, third to left etc and when the lead rider moves to the right, then the second moves left and third right etc. This can happen if riders are more concerned with keeping the close staggerd formation vs riding their own ride, and it can be really frustrating and dangerous.

    If riders are thinking, then they should space out as the ride and speed opens up and each adopt the safest road position, as they move into slower areas, then a stagger can be adopted, but it all depends upon how experienced the group is. Using the ‘buddy’ system for a group ride, where each person keeps mirror contact with the rider behind allows everyone to ride their own ride and spread out. With bigger groups (8-10+ riders) the ‘marker’ system, where the run leader places a rider in a safe place to indicate the change in direction allows for the others to again ride their own ride, no pressure to keep up as there will always be a rider at any change in direction, then the ‘marker’ rider is collected by the back rider and hence everyone rotates around the sequence of riders.

  3. Randy Kuklis Says:

    Too many times, riders following the lead rider become inattentive to the task of safely piloting their motorcycle. They get a sense of false security. Being enveloped in a cocoon by surrounding riders allows them to become less focused, distracted, and inputs into the motorcycle become less authoritative. Riding with one’s guard down increases risk, especially when riding in a group. Under these conditions, if a rider needs to immediately focus attention on an unfolding event, chances are they’ll react in a panic because there was not sufficient time to Search / Evaluate / Execute. Panicking, when a situation demands a well-thought of plan, can place the rider and following riders in a potentially dangerous situation.

    Remember that 2 second following rule? It takes almost 2 seconds to search, evaluate (and process). The time does not include execution of the decision.

    Group riding can be fun and quite enjoyable. However, each rider must include safety and attention in their skillset.

  4. eddie Says:

    I am in agreement with the original post and the comments against riding staggered in a big group. As a general preference, I don’t like to ride in any group of more than 3 or 4 bikes anyway. The difference in rider abilities, familiarities (or lack of) of each other’s riding styles can make for a less than optimal travel. But, 99% of the time, it’s just me and one other rider – usually my lady friend on her Sportster. In such an arrangement on an open road, having her ride staggered helps me see her in my mirrors and her to see past me a little better. Leading, I give warning cues almost without thinking – a point of the finger or dab of a toe at debris in the road is usually enough. In the curvy bits, we abandon the stagger and each ride our own ride.

  5. PT Says:

    Eddie makes a good point about improving one’s vision of the road ahead by not following precisely in the lead rider’s tiretrack. I find if I move slightly to one side, it not only improves my view around the rider ahead, it also helps me not target-fixate on the taillight of the leading bike, but focus farther ahead at the road instead.
    I also share his preference for keeping the group small. No reason not to split up the party into mini-pods of 2-3 bikes, and meet-up at a designated point. With a little luck and scheming, you can avoid getting stuck in the group that includes the OCD perfectionist who takes an eternity to get his gloves and cuffs adjusted just so-so while everyone else is in gear, holding the clutch, waiting…!

  6. Mark Says:

    I just got back from a 12k mile trip with two other riders. Staggered works well on the freeways ‘slabbing it’ but not on single lane roads. We almost got hit more than once by each other when the lead driver realized too late that we needed to make ‘that turn onto another route’.So I agree with most of/if not all of the previous comments


  7. Pete Tamblyn Says:

    Uh, Mark?
    If you had several incidents of almost hitting each other when the lead rider made a last moment change of direction, it sounds like a greater following distance would be helpful.
    It’s unfortunate when two buddies have ridden together forever, and speak with confidence that they can “read each others’ minds” when they are together on their bikes, find out the hard way that they weren’t psychic after all.

    Time and space are our friends.

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