Useful Notes: Motorcycle Safety
: This page has been provided for informational purposes only. The authors of TV Tropes can take no responsibility for any accidents that may result should you neglect proper training on the assumption that reading this was sufficient, nor is this page written by a qualified motorcycle safety instructor or rider.
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 driver training. There is no such thing as a Universal Driver's License, and riding a motorcycle or two-wheeled motorized vehicle is FAR different than riding a non-motorized bicycle or driving a car. Learning how to safely control the vehicle in a variety of conditions will reduce the risk of a crash and reduce the risk of a crash being fatal.
- Unless you are a trained stunt rider on a closed course, watch your speed and do not try stunts. Showing off on a motorcycle in traffic can kill you or other people, and once you are above 65 miles per hour, the likelihood of crash fatality increases exponentially from both lack of reaction time and the speed at which you crash.
- ALWAYS WEAR A HELMET. Whether you are the rider who's driving or a passenger. Wearing a helmet will protect you from head injuries in the event of a crash.
- Of secondary importance (but almost equal), wear proper protective clothing. Proper protective clothing means real leather or Kevlar (or at the very least, very thick denim or similar). It may be hot and uncomfortable but it will help protect you from road rash (deep cuts and scrapes that can become easily infected) and from broken bones and internal injuries in low to moderate speed crashes.
- It is not IF you will crash on a two-wheeled motorcycle, it is WHEN you will crash. The point of driver training and body protection is so you can prevent some crashes and so you can survive those that are inevitable.
- DO NOT ride in bad weather conditions, when you are drunk or tired or otherwise compromised, or in areas where you are unsure of the terrain. Motorcycles (and scooters, mopeds, dirt bikes, and the like) are far less forgiving of conditions and driver error than all other vehicles, and bad weather, compromised drivers, and bad terrain are some of the top causes of crashes.
- As a passenger, do NOT ride on a motorcycle with anyone with whom you are not willing to trust your life. Passengers get worse injuries in crashes more often than drivers (since they are often thrown from the bike first, since they are often less secured, and since they are often spur of the moment riders without proper gear). As a side note to this - if who you are riding with will not at least give you a helmet and tell you how to ride safely, do not get on the bike.
Preparing Yourself For the Ride
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 make an effort to make 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).
- Pay attention 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.
- Do not ride in unfamiliar terrain if you can possibly help it. If you are unsure about the place you are going, travel there first in a car or truck or by public transit, especially if you plan to ride a less stable vehicle such as a moped. 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 compensate by not speeding and keeping your attention on surroundings.
- If you have a passenger, know motorcycle safety rules and instruct them on such before they get on. 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. 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.)
Wear the Appropriate Gear
- BUY A NEW AND PROPERLY CERTIFIED HELMET note and WEAR IT ANY TIME YOU RIDE. 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. Wearing helmets is the law in many places, and even if it's not the law, it will prevent the most fatal injuries a crash can deliver (head injuries). So wear one. Make sure any passenger you have wears one. No exceptions. Needless to say, if you crash, buy a new helmet before you ride again.
- BUY PROPER CLOTHING and wear it any time you ride. Ideally, you want as much barrier between fragile skin and bone and the road as you can provide. This means Kevlar or real leather (or at the very least thick denim, or ideally a combination of thick denim and leather or Kevlar in at least one layer of your clothing (which should be long-sleeved shirt/jacket and long pants), and possibly a reinforced jock cup if you have external genitals. Leave the shorts, dresses, and anything else that exposes skin or can get caught up in the bike or its parts at home. Also, you should store weapons (especially guns, which can go off, or knives, which can stab you) or anything that could stab you - including pens or needles - at home or in a secured side bag.
- Secondarily, ZIPPERED POCKETS or a secure side bag. You want to have your wallet and phone, for example, where they cannot fly out of your pockets. The panic you feel at a lost wallet or phone might well make you not think for a moment and stop or crash - prevent this by either storing your belongings in a secure side bag or in zippered pockets. The same goes for passengers, and possibly more so - having a passenger lose something and freak out over it could also lead to 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. Of course, you should probably make 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.
- Again, avoid stunts or showing off unless you are a trained stunt rider on a closed course. Even then people get hurt and wreck badly.
- Again, 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 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
Here's some preliminary risks that can help with risk management.
- All two-wheeled motorized vehicles are slightly different. Knowing how to ride a Vespa, for example, does not mean you can ride a Harley flawlessly. Know your vehicle and be sure you have had the proper training and the chance to ride it on a closed course or an empty lot or similar - make sure you know how to control it before you take it out into traffic. If it is your first time, make sure you are instructed by an experienced rider at the very least if not a professional instructor.
- For a first bike, go 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.
- Two-wheeled, single track motorized vehicles 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 (unless it gives you a flat tire) in even a VW Bug or a Smart may throw your bike off balance. Hitting that puddle at 75 miles per hour will cause you to hydroplane and lose control. You 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. Roll off the throttle, brake gently, or downshift. Either way slow down.
- 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.
- Know how braking works on a motorcycle. Braking shifts the weight to the front thus roughly 70% of your total braking power comes from the front brake. Never 'slam' on the brakes. Most motorcycles don't have any kind of anti-lock system, thus sudden 100% braking 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, align the rear wheel to the front wheel and gradually release. Or if you can safely control the bike during this, 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.
- Never, ever try to stop the bike with your feet if your name isn't Fred Flintstone.
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), 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
- Remember to take corners from the outside to the inside, then back out.
- 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 you need to brake in a corner, straighten the motorcycle first before braking. Braking hard during a turn will cause an imbalance.
- If the motorcycle starts to swerve, do not brake, 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).
- 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: go where you want to go, not what you want to avoid!
- 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.