Useful Notes: Motorcycle Safety
: This page has been provided for informational purposes only. It is highly recommended if you're thinking about riding a motorcycle that you should attend a motorcycle safety course. This page is not a substitute for proper training.
So you just got (or you saw a media depiction of and want to ride) a Cool Bike
? Unfortunately, the media often won't show the downsides and risks of it or the proper and safer ways to ride a two-wheeled motorcycle, dirt bike, moped, or similar.
The Short Version
The below gets into details, but these are the primary rules of motorcycle safety:
- There is no substitute for proper safety training.
- Always wear a helmet, regardless if you're the rider or passenger and if helmets are optional.
- Wear protective clothing, preferably with real leather or some strong material like kevlar.
- Do not try any stunts, especially in public roads.
- Avoid riding in bad weather or if you're tired. Obviously, do not ride if you're intoxicated or medicated.
- If riding as a passenger, you should trust the person who's driving the vehicle. If you are uncomfortable with them in a car, you certainly won't like it on a motorcycle.
Preparing Yourself For the Ride
Before Getting that Motorcycle...
- It's highly advisable to take a motorcycle training course. These courses are usually a few days that covers the basics of safety, operation, and handling. It's also a really good way to tell if you're ready for a motorcycle or similar.
- While some training certificates allow you to skip your local DMV's practical test, keep in mind that you're probably not ready for much more than neighborhood roads and side streets if the training course is your only experience.
Understand, Accept, and Mitigate the Risks
- Motorcycles and other two wheeled, single tracked vehicles, carry different risks than other vehicles. It's also important to understand your behavior on the road. If you're inclined to take risky behavior in a car, you're probably likely to take risky behavior in a motorcycle. You need to understand the consequences for your behavior on the road should you ride.
- There is no single cause of a crash, but a number of factors that simply led up to that point. However, understanding the factors you can control and making an effort to choose safer decisions can minimize the risk of crashes, injuries, or other undesirable events.
- A method devised by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) is Search, Evaluate, Execute (SEE).
- Search for anything that could increase risk factors.
- Evaluate the best way to avoid or minimize risk.
- Execute the plan.
- One way motorcycle training instructors say to think of riding motorcycles is that it's a sport. Sports have their associated risks, some greater than others. It's just convenient this sport gets you places.
Preparing Yourself and Others For the Ride
- Don't ride if you're tired, drunk, under any medication that impairs your ability to think or make quick decisions. You need to be alert at all times on the road.
- This also covers being physically compromised. For example, if your right hand is unusable (even if sporadically so as with carpal tunnel or nerve damage) this can affect braking and put you and others in danger.
- If you must ride while tired, give yourself plenty of room up front and around. Even if the guy behind you is tailgating and cussing at you.
- Try not ride in unfamiliar terrain if you can help it. If you are unsure about the place you are going, travel there first in a car or truck or by public transit. Make a note of everything from potential sources of road debris to curves to anything that could be a surprise. Planning your rides and your route allows you to react more intelligently.
- If you absolutely must ride in unfamiliar terrain, make sure to give yourself plenty of room in front of you and pay close attention to your surroundings.
- Riding with a heavy load or with passengers is very different than without. It's highly advisable to practice with some weight in the passenger seat before attempting.
- If you have a passenger, it's up to you to ensure of their saftey and protection as well. Inform them of what to do when riding.
- At the very least, you should provide them with a helmet, a place to securely store their belongings, and instruction as to the safest way to hold on. Make sure they are informed of when it's safe to get on and off and to not make any sudden movements if possible.
- Most bikes are only set up for one passenger at most - do not allow multiple passengers. Nor should you allow a passenger who is drunk, high, or who is wearing clothes that pose an active danger to safe riding (e.g. a long cape or dress that can get caught on the road or the muffler).
- Age is another thing: even if you want to share your love for riding with your kids, there is no safe way to have a young child as a motorcycle passenger. Passengers should be old enough to understand how to ride properly and to not need a safety seat. Generally, this means anyone under 13 or 14 as a passenger is a very bad idea (and possibly illegal depending on where you are.)
- And lastly, your motorcycle will have different tire pressure requirements when riding with passengers. Consult your manual or the sticker where the pressure table is at to know what to set the tire pressure to.
Wear the Appropriate Gear
- Buy a new, certified helmet and wear it any time you ride note . Old or inadequate helmets (especially those that have been in a crash before) will not protect your head in the event of a crash. If you ever plan to let anyone else ride with you, buy a second helmet that a passenger can wear. The helmet must fit comfortably snug around your head to protect it. Too loose and you could end up "crashing" in your helmet.
- That said, read the manual for maintenance and cleaning. Especially cleaning.
- It's also recommended to get a full face helmet or a compound helmet (this allows the front face plate to lift up if you need some fresh air). "Skid lids" and other such barely legal helmets don't protect much.
- Wearing helmets is the law in many places. Even if it's not the law, wear one anyway as it will greatly reduce the chance of a severe head injury. Make sure any passenger you have wears one. No exceptions. Needless to say, if you crash, buy a new helmet before you ride again.
- Wear appropriate clothing any time you ride. Ideally this means real leather or strong fabrics like Kevlar. But at the minimum, you should have long sleeves and pants. Leave the shorts, dresses, and anything else that can get caught up in the bike or its parts at home.
- This isn't just for protection; sometimes it gets cold with the wind chill factor, and cyclists have gotten hypothermia or frostbite when dressed inappropriately and riding under adverse conditions. The outer layer should be some kind of windbreaker in this case.
- Secure your belongs in a zippered pocket, backpack, or a secure side bag. You want to have your wallet and phone, for example, where they cannot fly out of your pockets. The same goes for passengers. The possibility of either of you freaking out over a lost item may cause an accident.
- You may want to invest in some hearing protection. If it's not loud engine noise, it's the wind noise that may be loud enough that long term exposure will permanently damage your hearing. Mke sure that it doesn't block too much sound that you can't hear important things like horns and emergency vehicle sirens.
Inspect Your Motorcycle Before You Ride
- It's important to ensure the motorcycle is good to go before riding. From the MSF, they developed a six step method called TCLOCS
- T - Tires and wheels. Make sure the tires are inflated to the proper pressure, are in good shape, and that your brakes work
- C - Controls. Make sure the levers, switches, cables, hoses, and throttle are all in proper order.
- L - Lights. Particularly important, do the head lights, turn signal, and brake lights work?
- O - Oil and other fluids (brake, coolant, etc.). Make sure the levels are appropriate and there are no leaks.
- C - Chassis. Is the bike's frame in good condition?
- S - Stands. Make sure the center and side stand work.
Know your limits.
- If your conscience, gut, or instinct is nagging at you, listen to it.
- Avoid stunts or showing off unless you are a trained stunt rider on a closed course. Even then people get hurt and wreck badly.
- Do not ride when mentally or physically compromised in any way.
- If you have no experience with motorcycles, do not ride one as the driver, and if you are going to get on as the passenger, make sure the driving rider knows what he or she is doing, is sober, provides you with a helmet (if you don't have one) and place to store your stuff, and does not push you to ride if you are absolutely not comfortable with the idea.
- If you have experience as a motorcycle rider, be sure you know how to handle a new or different type of bike before you take it into traffic.
- Do not let "it's just a few blocks" or "it's a short trip" make you disregard safety advice.
Understanding the Ride
- All two-wheeled motorized vehicles are slightly different. Knowing how to ride a Vespa, for example, does not mean you can ride a huge chopper or supersport bike flawlessly. Know your vehicle and at least drive it around an environment as safe as possible (closed course, parking lot, neighborhood roads) before taking it out on the main streets. If it's your first time, get instructions from an experienced rider or a professional instruction on the operation.
- For a first bike, go with a smaller bike. It's less weight to deal with, especially when you have to pick it up (and you will drop the bike at some point) and their lower RPM torque makes it easier to handle. The typical engine sizes recommended for beginners are 250cc to 500cc.
- Motorcycles have manual tranmissions, which means you must know how to work the clutch and shift levers. Scooters on the other hand, are more or less automatic. Mopeds and two-wheeled vehicles of smaller displacement may only have one gear.
- Motorcycles and the like expose you to debris and are more affected by other hazards than a car due to balancing. This means that bottle you run over and think nothing about in even a VW Bug or a Smart car may throw your bike off balance. Hitting that puddle at 75 miles per hour will cause you to hydroplane and lose control. You will need to be more attentive to debris and hazards.
- Know how steering works on a motorcycle. At low speeds (typically <15MPH/25KPH), the motorcycle will turn in the same direction as you turn the handlebars. At higher speeds, turning a motorcycle works counter intuitively. To start a turn, you need to push the handle bars in the opposite direction of the turn. Although you could think of it this way: push left, go left; push right, go right.
- When coming to a turn in the road, there are four steps to taking it:
- Slow down before you enter the corner. Roll off the throttle, brake gently, or downshift. Either way slow down. If you brake reasonably normal during a turn, the motorcylce has a high chance of loosing balance.
- Look through and past the turn where you want to go. People have a tendency to go where they look, so look where you want to go.
- Press the side of the handlebars where you want to turn. From above, if you want to go left, press left; if you want to go right, press right.
- Gently roll on the throttle as you make the turn. This will help stabilize the motorcycle as it turns. Of course, the exception is if a hazard has been identified.
- Braking on a motorcycle shifts the weight to the front, thus roughly 70% of your total braking power comes from the front brake. Never slam on the brakes. A lot of motorcycles don't have any kind of anti-lock system, thus sudden braking at 100% application will cause the motorcycle to either wobble or flip over.
- If you happen to lock the front tire, let go of the brake immediately.
- If you lock the rear tire, hold down the clutch, align the rear wheel to the front wheel and gradually release. Or if you can safely control the bike during a wheel lock, don't release.
- The danger here is releasing the brake will cause the rear tire to catch the road and the motorcycle will want to straighten itself, which may cause sudden loss of control.
- The other danger may be that when the rear tire does catch, it has a good chance of stalling the engine. If the clutch is not in or the bike is not in neutral, then the gear box will stop turning which won't allow the rear wheel to turn freely.
- Never, ever try to stop the bike with your feet. A 350+ pound metal object at any speed will win out over your feet.
Strategies For the Road
- Be visible. Wear bright, reflective clothing, keep your headlights on (most motorcycles won't let you turn them off anyway), turn the high beams on during the day (though there's some debate if this is necessary/a safety hazard), and use your signals to convey what you're doing.
- Stay out of another vehicle's blind spots and be attentive to yours. Especially stay out of other people's blind spots. Motorcycles are small, easy to miss obstacles and a depressingly good number of people fail to check them. Also, even if your motorcycle is blaring out loud from the exhaust, it's being directed backwards, anyone in front of you or to your side will not know you're there by sound alone!
- Maintain a minimum safe following distance. Typically this is two-three seconds behind the vehicle in front
- The ideal way of taking a corner is from the outside going into the inside, then exiting to the outside. This is straighter and safer than taking a corner more sharply. Obviously this means getting close to oncoming traffic, so be careful.
- If you need to brake in a corner, straighten the motorcycle first before braking. Braking hard during a turn will cause an imbalance.
- Be on the look out for obstacles. Avoid them if possible but if you can't:
- Slow down as traffic and time is willing
- Approach at a 90 degree angle as much as possible
- Keep your eyes on the road, not the obstacle
- Before crossing the obstacle, stand up a bit off the seat with your knees bent. This will help cushion the bump.
- Keep a firm grip on the handlebars
- "Blip" the throttle to shift the weight to the rear. Once the front tires cross the obstacle, roll off the throttle to bring the weight back towards the front.
- If the motorcycle starts to swerve, do not apply the brakes, maintain steady throttle, keep your body upright if you're leaning the motorcycle. Once the motorcycle stops swerving, stop and check for load imbalances, which is the usual cause of swerving.
- Lane splitting (or as motorcyclists insist, lane sharing) is a legal gray area. In the US, California is the only state where it's officially been stated that lane splitting is legal as long as it's done safely. In other words, don't be an ass about it like going really fast relative to traffic or weaving in and out between lanes and cars.
- If you don't know what this is, lane splitting is when a motorcyclist goes between two cars. There's usually enough room to do so provided the cars are within their lanes.
- Some (not all) three wheeled vehicles are slightly safer than two-wheeled. While a motorized trike type motorcycle (with a wide wheel arrangement for two back wheels) or an ATV is still highly dangerous (especially for an untrained/unskilled rider), and they can flip if ridden carelessly or dangerously still, they do have somewhat better balance than a two-wheeled motorcycle/moped/dirt bike and are somewhat safer in encounters with debris or bad conditions. Especially if you plan to do most of your riding in unfamiliar territory/less than optimal conditions or you are uncomfortable with the balance of a two-wheeled moto, it may be worth the slight drop in Cool Bike factor to settle for a three-wheeler or an ATV. That said, three wheels do NOT invalidate all of this advice so far - in fact, the only gain in safety a three-wheeled motorcycle or ATV provides over a two-wheeled bike is IF you follow all of the above advice.
- For everyday city driving and/or regular commuting, especially in places like New York City or Los Angeles where streets are often badly maintained and full of debris hazards, sudden surprises, and bad drivers, unless you really want the Cool Bike factor and have very good reaction time, even the smallest or most "economy" car is usually a better/safer idea than any bike.
- Take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation (or non-US equivalent) course. Not only is it usually a requirement for a motorcycle endorsement, but they teach the fundamentals of motorcycle riding in a controlled environment, rather than busy city streets.
In the Event of Control Loss/Crash:
- Remember: look where you want to go, not what you want to avoid! People have a tendency to go where they look.
- If you find yourself losing control of your bike, you must react fast. In some situations, you can possibly regain control (a turn taken too sharply, a puddle causing you to hydroplane). In others, you cannot. This will be a split-second decision and one you need to prepare for long before it happens.
- If you can't regain control but can possibly reduce speed or hit a non-moving object - do so. Better yet, if you can throw yourself off the bike while doing so, this is vitally important to prevent head and neck injuries if the bike is going to be flipping upside down or crashing head-on rather than skidding onto its side. If it's skidding onto its side, throwing yourself free from it or trying to may injure you worse depending on situation. Again, this is why you cannot be compromised - these are decisions you will need to make in split seconds.
- Try your very best to stay out of oncoming traffic after you land. If you can possibly walk or drag your body after you crash, get out of the way of moving vehicles. Getting run over by another vehicle after you're already wounded is a possibility you must avoid if possible - even if doing so might make, say, a broken leg worse, it's better to be rehabbing that leg for a few years than to get run over by a semi.
- That said, do not move unnecessarily. Once you are out of the way of traffic, yourself, stay still and wait for help. This applies even if you think you are uninjured - the adrenaline rush can obscure injuries, especially internal injuries, and even sometimes incredibly painful broken bones and the like. Do NOT go back into traffic (or risk injuring yourself worse) to haul your bike to safety - it can be towed later.
- The only exception to this is if you are, as far as you know, unhurt and the bike is in the way of traffic enough to cause a secondary accident, and you are capable of quickly righting and moving it without getting run over or injuring yourself worse. If you do so, it is also a good idea to note where it was before you moved it for when the police arrive.
- Do not leave the scene if there is even property damage (and especially if others were involved) even if you feel fine and your bike is still operable once uprighted. Doing so can get you arrested for hit and run.
- On the same note, even if you feel fine, get yourself checked out. You may have internal injuries, you may have injuries that won't show up until later (some neck and back injuries are like this), and you need to be sure that you are truly unhurt.
- Before you ride again, make sure your bike is in operable condition and any damage to it that could make it less safe is repaired, and buy a new helmet.