Ten Objective Things You Can Do To Stay Alive On Your Motorcycle

Ten Things That Make Motorcycling Safer

Riding a motorcycle may be one of life’s most fun and rewarding activities, but it’s also dangerous. So, if you’re going to ride, it would be smart to try to be as safe as as possible. So, here are ten things proven to help make motorcycles safer.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that motorcycling is the most dangerous thing that still legal. You can’t really make bikes “safe.” Riding a motorcycle is like driving a car up on two wheels while not wearing seatbelts, or skiing downhill at 70 MPH for several hours at a time. The danger is inherent and crashing hurts like hell — or worse.

Much of the advice riders get is fairly nebulous and vague: Ride like you’re invisible — Drive defensively — Be more careful than you think you need to be. Good advice an’ all, but do you know what that really means in practice? Even specific riding tips can be tough to follow all the time: Look at least 10 seconds ahead — Look where you want to go — Don’t look at any one thing for more than two seconds— Watch oncoming cars’ front wheels. Maintaining that sort of hyper-aware mental attitude every moment of every ride is at the very least exhausting and perhaps even impossible. It’s tough to know how safe is “safe.” So, what concrete, objective, verifiable steps can riders take to decrease their risk of accidents, and survive in one piece should they have one?

1. Wear a full-face helmet.
This should be obvious. Helmets save lives, no question. It doesn’t need to be made of kevlar, cost $500 or be Snell approved. It just needs to be fairly new (less than 5 years old), and fit you properly. And those “novelty” skull helmets? Forget it, they’re worthless. It’s not the hard shell that keeps you alive, it’s the thick, crushable polystyrene liner that saves your brain from rapid deceleration. And make sure it’s a full-face or modular helmet. That visor and chin bar can save your face and teeth not only from an unfortunate meeting with the pavement, but from an airborne june bug or lug nut as well.
2. Wear high-conspicuity clothing.
If you’ve ever ridden with someone in a hi-viz yellow jacket, you know how dramatically they jump out of their visual surroundings. Some retro-reflective patches or trim for night riding is a nice bonus. People ride motorcycles to look cool; I know some people don’t want to dress in lemon-lime when they ride. But fortunately, thanks to people like Andy Goldfine of AeroStitch, hi-viz clothing is slowly being recognized as savvy road wear for experienced moto pilots, not Chicken Little nerdniks. Your jacket and helmet are 50% of the surface area people see, and the highest point of the vehicle/rider unit. Furthermore, most bikes are small, dark and handsome. Even if you have brightly colored sportbike with a fairing, what oncoming traffic sees of your bike is mostly the headlight, forks and front tire. One more thing: go for a jacket that is all high-viz, including the sleeves (such as the Olympia Bushwacker shown); vests or jackets with just some hi-viz accents are much less effective.
3. Wear body armor.
If you have a high-quality riding jacket like the Olympia, you probably already have armor and an articulated back protector built in. If not, under-the-jacket armor can be worn under anything. Adding armored pants is even better. Look for “CE-complaint” armor, especially for the spine. Your outerwear should be leather or ballistic textile (Cordura). Your cotton hoodie and jeans won’t provide pavement abrasion resistance for more than a moment. Cheap plastic rainjackets are especially bad; they don’t tear, they melt, embedding themselves into wounds (yes, that’s as grizzly as it sounds).
4. Get formal rider training.
No matter how new or experienced a rider you are, you probably overestimate your skills. There are certain things you need dedicated training to learn. Take the MSF RiderCourse at a bare minimum. The just-annunced MSF CORE advanced classes look like an awesome improvement. If you really want riding skills you can be proud of, you’ll be amazed what a street-oriented track class can teach you.
5. Obey traffic laws.
This one is obvious, but one of the least followed. Bikers tend to be swaggering young guns and thrill-seeking hotshoes. But the fact is that obeying speed limits (including cornering advisory speeds), as well as no-passing zones, etc., all lower the accident risk dramatically. The occurrence of single-bike fatalities rises alarmingly beyond the posted limit.
6. Don’t drink alcohol.
Notice that I didn’t say anything about being drunk. Sure, we all know that riding while legally drunk is the #1 way to become a smear mark on the pavement. Statistically, however, even just a drink or two does effect your riding performance without being illegal, and often without making you feel drunk. Besides, I said this was an objective list; exactly what point alcohol starts affecting your abilities is a very subjective call (and the first thing to go when you drink is your ability to judge the situation with objectivity). For those who do drink alcohol, the best — though admittedly uncommon — rule is that a drink and a ride should always have a good night’s sleep in between them.
7. Ditch your alarm clock.
Fatigue can be as debilitating as a couple of beers. Americans routinely cheat ourselves out of adequate sleep, and the effects (like a couple of beers) are easy to ignore. A proper night’s sleep is at least eight hours, but perhaps as much as 9-1/2 hours for some people. Ironically, teens and young adults need more sleep, but often get the least. How do you know if you’ve gotten enough sleep? Toss your alarm clock and let your body tell you when its time to get up. Your brain will be able to process more information and react quicker out on the road.
8. Ride a boxer.
Highway bars are useless in preventing lower-leg injuries, but it turns out that a big cylinder sticking out in front of your leg does just that. Riders of BMW boxer twins and Gold Wings have accident statistics similar to other large touring and sport-touring motorcycles, except for a notable decrease in ankle, foot and lower-leg injuries.
9. Ride a bike with ABS.
Many motorcycle riders are uncomfortable with the perceived “nanny-ism” of anti-lock brakes, even if they are okay with ABS in their car. But motorcycles need ABS technology much more than cars, because they depend so critically on wheel rotation to maintain their dynamic balance, and the loss of rotation is so often unrecoverable. The true meaning of recent statistics on ABS use is still being sorted out, but it is clearly one of the most dramatic advances in motorcycle safety in many, many years. One important note: ABS doesn’t prevent low-sides; braking deep into a turn is still a no-no.
10. Install a headlight modulator.
If its legal where you live (in other words, if the local constabulary won’t hassle you), get a daytime headlight modulator. Research demonstrates that otherwise inattentive drivers take notice of a pulsing headlight sooner and continue to pay more attention to the vehicle. Brake-light modulators are also effective, but since more than three-quarters of traffic dangers are located in front of the bike, the headlight is the more critical addition.
BONUS: Move to the desert.
Okay, this one isn’t practical for everyone, and if we all did it it wouldn’t be an advantage. But people who live in wide-open rural areas in states from Montana to Arizona have fewer non-at-fault accidents. In other words, there are fewer cars around, and those that are around are easier to see from a distance.

It should be noted that many of these states have proportionally higher at-fault rider fatalities due to excessive speed and alcohol consumption among motorcyclists. It seems all that being all alone out on the open range makes people believe that they don’t have to follow the other rules listed above.

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