Life is a risky business. You can minimize risk, manage risk, anticipate and have a plan for dealing with risk, but you can never totally eliminate risk. There is risk associated with riding a motorcycle. You can ride safely and do things, employ strategies to help ensure your safety, but, as the U.S. Supreme Court said in a workplace safety related case in 1980, “safety is not the equivalent of risk free.”
There are two major areas of motorcycle safety or risk management that I’ll look at here; avoiding getting into an accident in the first place and minimizing your risk of injury if you do have an accident.
Before You Get On The Bike
If you drive a car there are probably a few things you do before pulling into traffic. You fasten your seat belt. Check your mirrors, maybe you use your blinkers to signal your intention to pull away from the curb. And then you drive away. All of the safety equipment you need is contained in the vehicle itself; air bags, steel body and chassis, crumple zones. Not so much with your motorcycle.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety says, “Motorcycles continue to offer no significant protection to their users in a crash, a fact that horrifies some people used to being enclosed in a steel cage and cushioned by airbags. The very fact that a motorcycle at rest won’t remain upright without its rider or some external method of support seems ominous to some.”
Largely due to what most attracts us to riding, the unfettered freedom of riding in the open air, we bikers are at greater risk of injury if we have an accident. The NHTSA says that 80 percent of motorcycle crashes result in injury or death to the rider compared with 20 percent for occupants of a passenger car involved in an accident. There are several common factors that contribute to the severity of the results of being in an motorcycle accident. If you’re aware of these factors you can take steps to minimize your risk of being involved in an accident and of being seriously injured if you do have a wreck.
Get Licensed And Trained: I’ve said this before here at PowerSportsTV. And I’ll likely say it again. Before you ride get your motorcycle license and take a rider safety course. About 25 percent of riders involved in an accident are not properly licensed. A safety course will introduce you to or refresh you on some basic safety strategies and give you the opportunity to practice them in a controlled environment.
Gear Up: You’re hanging out there in the open on your bike, that’s the beauty of riding. It’s also why your risk of being injured if you have an accident is so high. There are no seat belts, no cage-like body, no roof, no airbags (unless you ride the top-of-the-line Honda Gold Wing). So invest in some safety gear and wear it every time you ride. The NHTSA puts the percentage of riders involved in a crash who are not wearing helmets at 42 percent. So strap on that lid.
Drop your bike, even at parking lot speeds and you’ll find out just how hard and abrasive the road is. Motorcycle specific jacket, gloves, boots and pants will protect you against road rash and lessen the likelihood of broken bones thanks to the body armor included in many jackets and pants. Brightly colored or florescent gear will also make you more visible to other motorists, reducing your chance of getting into an accident in the first place.
Ride Sober: Riders with a blood alcohol level at or above the legal limit account for 34 percent of all motorcycle accidents and, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), 29 percent of all motorcycle related fatalities. Even if you somehow manage to ride after drinking without having a wreck you risk a stiff fine, possible impounding of your bike or even jail time if you’re caught. Drinking and riding is just not worth the risk.
Do A Pre-Ride Bike Check: A motorcycle is not totally void of safety features. But if they’re not working they’re not going to do you any good. Before every ride do a quick visual inspection of your bike. Look at all the cables and hoses to make sure none are fraying, cracked, kinked or leaking. Check your tires for tread depth, cracks or bubbles. It’s a good idea to regularly check the air pressure in the tires.
Once you start the motorcycle make sure all your lights are working; high beams, turn indicators, brake lights and, if your bike is so equipped, emergency flashers. Sound the horn. Yeah, those bike horns are pretty wimpy, but it’s still loud enough to get the attention of a motorist who’s about to pull out in front of you, so be sure it works. Check and, if necessary, adjust your mirrors. It is possible to get most motorcycle mirrors positioned so that you’ll get a clear view of what’s coming up behind you, so take the time to set them so they work for you.
On The Road
Sitting in the driveway, all geared up, the motor running. That’s a pretty low-risk environment. It’s also a pretty low-fun experience. Funny how those two factors, risk and fun, so often seem to be related. If you’re wearing the proper gear, done your pre-ride check and you’re sober you’ve gone a long way in reducing your risk of injury if you have an accident. Once you get into traffic there are a number of strategies you can employ to keep from having an accident in the first place. So let’s get you out on the road.
Lane Position: A car or truck will take up an entire lane of traffic. But our bikes are much smaller, so we have three options for positioning ourselves; the far left, the center, or the far right of a lane. I usually opt for the far left. This gives me the best view of oncoming traffic and puts me about equidistant from the shoulders on both sides of the road, giving me the maximum amount of time to react to a critter or pedestrian who might dart out in front of me. I do move around in the lane though, as circumstances require.
Position yourself where you have the best view of what’s ahead. If you’re coming up on an intersection and there’s a truck or high profile SUV or van in front of you, look for oncoming traffic that may be turning left and traffic preparing to enter the intersection from the left cross street. Then you’ll want to shift to the far right to check traffic coming into the intersection from the right cross street and to make it easier for that driver to see you. Choose the lane position that gives you the best view of the road and makes it easiest for others to see you.
If you’re riding in a stiff cross wind you can ride on the side of the lane that the wind is coming from to minimize the chances of your bike being pushed into the oncoming lane. Big trucks can cause a pretty strong windblast, so when you see one coming in the other direction, move to the center or far right portion of the lane.
On multi-lane roads choose a lane position that keeps you out of the blind spot of vehicles in front of you. If you can see the driver’s face in the mirror then you know you’re not in his blind spot. If a vehicle starts to pass you it’s a good idea to move to the center position of your lane. Staying in the far left puts you too close to the other vehicle, especially if the driver swerves into your lane too quickly. And riding in the far right of the lane may encourage the driver of the passing vehicle to jump into your lane without giving you adequate space.
Anticipate Hazards: When you ride, play a little game. Try to guess which other vehicle on the road is trying to kill you. Here’s a hint: they all are. Or at least it can seem that way. A good dose of paranoia is a healthy thing when you’re on your bike. And are you really paranoid if they ARE out to get you? Watch people as they drive. They’re eating, drinking, talking on the phone, texting, checking email, putting on makeup, singing along with the radio. No wonder they don’t see you and your comparatively small motorcycle. It’s actually pretty amazing that any of them ever make it to their destination.
Be keenly aware of your environment when riding. Pay special attention to intersections. According to the NHTSA that’s where 70 percent of collisions between motorcycles and other vehicles happen. Get a good view of traffic around and in the intersection. Anticipate what they’re going to do and have a plan to deal with it. Don’t expect other drivers to signal before they make a turn through an intersection. Always signal before you make a turn through an intersection.
Look as far down the road as you can. Watch for entrances to the roadway, driveways, parking lots, on ramps and position yourself in the lane to give you the best view and the best chance of being seen by other motorists. If you live in an area with a large deer or other wildlife population (which would be about anywhere except for maybe Antarctica) watch the sides of the road for animals that may dart out in front of you.
The roadway itself sometimes presents hazards. Debris, road kill, potholes, oil and other fluids left on the roadway, especially around intersections where vehicles have to sit idling waiting for a light to change, are all things you want to see long before you reach them so that you can safely avoid them. Different road surfaces will provide different levels of traction. Approach railroad tracks, manhole covers and the steel surfaces of some bridges and overpasses with caution, especially in wet conditions.
Establish A Space Cushion: Empty space is one of your best friends when you ride. The more space there is between you and other vehicles the more time and room you have to react and maneuver when faced with a hazard. Don’t follow other vehicles too closely. Keep at least two seconds of space between you and the vehicle in front of you. More at highway speeds. This gives you ample time to stop or swerve to avoid a vehicle that stops suddenly in front of you. To determine how close you are to the vehicle in front of you look for a stationary object up ahead, such as a mile marker sign or phone pole. As the rear end of the vehicle in front of you passes the object begin counting; one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two. If you pass the object before you get to one-thousand-two you need to slow down.
It’s a little tougher to command the space between you and vehicle behind you. If you’re being followed too closely tap your brake lightly a few times to cause your brake lights to flash. If the other vehicle doesn’t slow down then you should slow down a little. Still too close? If you’re on a multi-lane road or a two-lane road with a passing zone slow down even further so the other vehicle will pass you. He won’t pass you? If possible, and safe, pull off the road and wait for the other vehicle to get a good distance down the road before you continue. If you can’t pull off the road and the other motorist can’t or won’t pass, reduce your speed to the safest slowest rate you can. At least that way if you have to brake suddenly the other vehicle will the maximum amount of time to stop, reducing the likelihood that you’ll be rear ended.
We bikers don’t always need to use the brakes to scrub off a little speed. We can roll off the throttle or down shift to control our speed. But motorists behind us won’t always recognize that we’re slowing down. Be aware of what’s going on behind you and if you’re slowing down a little or coming to a complete stop tap your brakes three or four times a few seconds before you actually begin slowing. This will cause your brake lights to flash and alert the driver behind you that you’re preparing to alter your speed, provided of course that he’s not reading his email.
Whenever possible allow yourself enough space for an escape route, especially at intersections. Don’t pull up so close to the vehicle stopped at a traffic light in front of you that you can’t quickly move to safety if another vehicle comes up behind you too quickly or closely. On multi-lane roads don’t allow yourself to get boxed in. Alter your speed, slow down or move faster, to keep some open space on at least one side.
Recognize Your Own Limitations: Nothing compares to zipping along the open road on a motorcycle. And it can be tempting to open the throttle a little more than is prudent, especially on a nice long stretch of straightaway when there are no other vehicles around. Don’t allow yourself to over ride your limitations or the limitations of your bike or the road. Research by the GHSA shows that 35 percent of all fatal motorcycle accidents involved excessive speed. And half of those fatal accidents were single vehicle wrecks. Let’s not add ourselves to that list of people who are out to kill us. Slow down and ride at a speed that’s within your ability to control your motorcycle.
You can ride safely if you recognize the inherent risks associated with motorcycling. Wear safety gear. Be aware of other traffic and potential hazards. Keep as much space between you and other vehicles as possible. Follow these simple guidelines and you’ll be riding safely for years to come.