Group motorcyclists must obey laws

Q: I recently ran into a horde of motorcyclists, I’m talking 50-60. At cross streets, one would block the intersection and the rest would drive through. Red lights were ignored. What’s the police ruling on this?

A: In one sense, horde is the right word — the dictionary definition includes a large group, a nomadic group and a moving pack of animals. However, it also has a sense of chaos attached to it, as in a horde of stampeding bulls.

Group motorcycle rides, when done properly, work to avoid chaos. I’m not a motorcycle rider, so skill-wise what I know is second-hand from experts who actually ride. They’ll tell you that it takes practice to ride well; riding a motorcycle poses a much greater technical challenge than driving a car and the consequences of an error are more severe.

Outside of a couple exceptions, the law doesn’t grant any group of road users a blanket right to keep their group together while traveling. Unless you have an event permit or are honoring the deceased, all traffic laws apply. I can’t find a law that says, “Oh, there’s fifty of you? Go ahead and block the intersection so you can stay together.”

Actually, it’s the opposite. The law states that vehicles in caravan or motorcade shall “allow sufficient space between each such vehicle…to enable any other vehicle to enter the space without danger.” The one exception without a permit is funeral processions.

For a big group ride, the organizer could apply for an event permit and arrange for traffic control at each intersection the ride passes through. You’ll often see that happen at running and cycling events. Those officers who stop traffic to allow runners or riders through an intersection are hired by the event organizer. Admittedly, that’ll be trickier for a motorcycle ride. At a marathon the planners have a course maximum of 26 miles; a motorcycle ride would cover that while just getting warmed up.

For most rides, a group ride organizer isn’t going to be applying for any permits. Instead of blocking intersections, group ride organizers should have a plan to regroup if riders get separated. Apologies to riders who love big groups, but from a safety perspective it’s not a great idea. Group rides work best when you’re traveling with a handful of people you know and trust. The best advice seems to hover around no more than seven riders in a group. At that size, you don’t need to have anyone blocking the intersection for you.

Besides not getting through traffic lights together, giant group rides have other challenges. Inevitably, the group will have a mix of rider skills and priorities. You might practice what you’ve learned, but you can’t control the person who outrides their skill, either because they’re a novice or because their ego is stepping in front of their sense.

The success and safety of a group ride depends not only on the skill of the riders, but also on the ride organizer. If you’re invited to join a big ride that doesn’t include a pre-ride meeting to lay out the expectations and go over communication strategies, that’s a clue. As a rider, it’s up to you to choose who you want to ride with. Choose wisely so that each ride will be followed by another one.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly traffic column for this newspaper called The Wise Drive. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.