FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Safely operating any type of motor vehicle is a combination of several different factors -- experience, environment and discipline affect both individuals and their fellow drivers. Motorcyclists, however, must be acutely aware of and prepared for potential hazards at all times, much more so than their counterparts in conventional vehicles.

Steve Kurtiak, a motorcycle and recreational vehicle specialist with the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center's Driving Directorate, has experienced his fair share of near misses and close calls during decades of motorcycle riding and dirt biking.

"Riding is more a mental process than physical," he said. "It's more your mind and eyes than body. A rider has to constantly scan traffic, the road and surrounding environment."

According to Kurtiak, even seemingly inconsequential nuisances drivers face every day, like plastic bags tumbling across the road or asphalt patching that turns gummy in the summer sun, can spell serious trouble for a motorcyclist.

"Road surface conditions, surrounding vehicles, approaching intersections and turns, signage, pedestrians, really anything that can affect the flow of traffic are critical considerations for riders," he said. "There's also the question of where you're riding. City streets, country roads, interstates and multilane highways all have similar considerations but different risk management approaches."

Kurtiak said all riders should take the acronym SEE, standing for search, evaluate and execute, to heart.

"What SEE means is you're constantly searching for potential hazards and when you see one, you come up with a plan, then execute to either negotiate or mitigate the problem," he said.

It's also important for riders to leave a generous buffer zone between their motorcycles and other vehicles and obstacles, front and back, left and right. While drivers are encouraged to maintain a three-second interval between their car and the vehicle to their front, Kurtiak said that spacing often isn't enough for motorcyclists.

"Motorcycles present a smaller profile, and many drivers have difficulty gauging their speed and proximity as compared to passenger vehicles and large trucks or school buses," he explained. "Riders must position themselves in traffic to see and be seen. If you're tailgating, you're doing neither."

Braking also can be an issue for riders, especially those with less experience. Motorcycles have only two brakes and a smaller traction patch than an average car or SUV.

"Proper braking is one of the most important skills any rider can have," Kurtiak said. "Which brakes a rider applies affects their stopping time, and that's a primary reason braking is taught in our progressive training courses. Proficiency is vital."

The burden of safely sharing the road can't be borne by motorcyclists alone, however. Vehicle drivers must do their part to stay aware of their surroundings and be respectful of their peers on two wheels.

"As Mr. Kurtiak said, a motorcycle's profile and size can skew a driver's perception," said Robert Myrick, also a driving specialist with the USACRC and lifelong rider. "One of the most common motorcycle accident scenarios seen nationally involves a vehicle turning into a rider's travel path. Those drivers often report they either didn't see the motorcycle or thought they had time to make the turn."

When drivers see an approaching motorcycle, the safest course of action is to yield and let them pass before turning, Myrick said, adding that motorists should also be particularly cognizant of nearby motorcycles in bright sunlight and blind spots. And just as riders are cautioned against tailgating, drivers should always allow a safe following distance between their vehicle and a motorcycle to their front.

"Many riders will use engine braking to slow down, meaning they roll off the throttle and don't engage their bike's taillights," Myrick said. "Drivers must be aware of the increased risk motorcyclists face and ready to react quickly when they're in close range. Anything can happen in a second or less."