The Ultimate Motorcycle Safety Guide: Tips for New Riders
Table of Contents:
|1. Motorcycle Maintenance
|6. Types of Injuries
|2. Pre-ride Motorcycle Checklist
|7. Constant Vigilance
|3. Helmet Safety
|8. Ride with a purpose
|9. Be Seen
|10. Eye Contact
It’s wise to consider the motorcycle itself as a part of your plan to stay safe on the road. Motorcycles have much tighter tolerances than automobiles. Motorcycles require fastidious and consistent maintenance in order to stay safe on the road.
Literally “where the rubber meets the road,” a motorcycle’s tires are the last point of contact between the rider and the very unforgiving road. If there’s one thing to go over with a fine tooth comb before every ride, it’s your motorcycle’s tires.
Improper tire pressure can end your day almost as fast as riding on worn out tires. Often, the pressure published on the tire sidewall is the maximum recommended pressure, not the ideal pressure for safe and exhilarating riding. Consult your bike’s owner’s manual to discover your bike’s ideal tire pressure. It’s a good idea to check your tire pressure before every ride and even during stops on longer rides. Never trust the gas-station air pressure gauges. Purchase a high-quality gauge from a motorcycle shop and use it to check your tire pressures before every ride.
Wear indicators, foreign objects, dry rot, and old rubber
Wear indicators are little “bumps” inside your tire grooves that tell you when it’s time to replace your tires. To check them, run a penny across the grooves on your tires. It’s time to shop for new tires when you can see the entire penny when it passes over the wear indicator. Check for foreign objects stuck in your tires before each and every ride. A nail or screw stuck in a tire could potentially cause a catastrophic blow-out under the wrong conditions. Have the tire patched by a professional or replace it immediately upon finding a foreign object in the tire. Heat cycles are also important. Motorcycle tires are designed to heat up and cool down a certain number of times before the rubber becomes compromised. After too many heat cycles, the tires may lose a significant portion of their road holding potential — even if they look fine on the outside, they are no longer safe for use. Letting your motorcycle sit for a long time, especially in a space without climate control, may cause the tires to become cracked and dry-rotted. Cracked and dry-rotted tires are not a suitable interface between your motorcycle and the road. Be sure to replace your motorcycle tires before riding your motorcycle if your motorcycle has been in storage for a while.
Tires interface directly with the road, but a motorcycle’s suspension has a huge affect on how well that interface works. Riding a bike with poor or unmaintained suspension isn’t just uncomfortable, it is potentially dangerous. Be sure to check fork seals and have them replaced when they start leaking. Also, check your shock or shocks regularly. Have the shock serviced if it’s leaking or if you notice your bike becoming more uncomfortable to ride. When you hit a bump or depression in the road, your bike’s suspension determines whether or not the tires momentarily leave the road or continue riding the surface. Momentarily losing contact with the road may result in loss of control, causing a crash.
If you live in a place where it’s impossible to ride year round, properly winterizing your bike helps keep your bike in good shape when it’s not in use. One of the worst things you can do to a motorcycle is let it sit. Fluids become old and stale, seals crack, and things do not work as well as they should, if at all, the next time you want to ride. It’s a good idea to visually and mentally go through a short pre-ride checklist before every ride, even if you ride year round.
- Are the tires set to their ideal pressure? Do they show visible signs of wear? Cracking?
- Are the wheels straight? They should be!
- Are the forks straight?
- Try to twist the axle nuts. Are they tight?
- Is the chain set to the proper slack?
- Is the chain well lubricated?
- Does the wiring harness show signs of fraying?
- Is the engine leaking coolant or oil?
- Are the handlebars tight?
- Do the brakes feel mushy?
- Are all of the control cables in tact?
- Is the windshield clear and free of obstructions?
For a more detailed checklist, check out the MSF’s pre-ride checklist.
Aside from your brain, a helmet is the most important piece of safety gear a motorcyclist could have. There are a variety of reasons to wear a helmet, and all of them have something to do with staying safe on a motorcycle. Helmets look cool It doesn’t seem like it at first, but a cool looking helmet with great graphics and a bright finish helps keep motorcyclists safer. Bright colors and cool designs attract attention, which will mean more people seeing you while you’re riding. If more people see you, fewer people will run into you. Avoid traumatic brain injury (TBI) According to the National lnstitute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, traumatic brain injury is
“[sic] A form of acquired brain injury and occurs when a sudden trauma causes damage to the brain. TBI can result when the head suddenly and violently hits an object, or when an object pierces the skull and enters brain tissue.”
Traumatic brain injuries are common among motorcyclists, football players, and soldiers. TBIs may occur regardless of whether the rider was wearing a helmet or not. However, wearing a helmet drastically reduces the risk of TBI for motorcyclists, so wearing a helmet while riding is still a good idea. Avoid facial scars If you’ve ever had road rash on your face, you or your family may have been worried about possible scarring. The fact of the matter is, it takes a very deep cut to produce a facial scar. Unfortunately, motorcycle crashes are more than capable of producing cuts deep enough to scar. Wearing a helmet goes a long way when working toward preventing hard foreign objects from coming into direct contact with your face at high speeds. Cheat death in a crash According to the MAIDS Report, conducted in Europe in 1999 and 2000, wearing a helmet would have prevented or reduced head injuries sustained by riders involved in nearly 70% of the motorcycle crashes that were studied. A helmet made no difference only in 3% of the crashes. According to the same study, helmets were never the cause of serious neck injury. What does this mean? It means, wearing a helmet makes riders nearly superhuman, able to cheat death where riders without helmets perish. Wearing a helmet when riding just makes sense. Browse my list of the top 5 safest motorcycle helmets for ideas.
All the gear, all the time (ATGATT) is the safest policy to adopt as a motorcyclist. ATGATT means going out on the road prepared with every last piece of gear you need in order to stay safe to mitigate the effects of a crash when — not if — a crash occurs. Reduced injury Being prepared with the necessary gear and attire at all times leads to less potential for injury. Period. Proper safety gear virtually eliminates the chances of road rash and, subsequently, expensive bills at the hospital for skin-grafts. Helmets reduce the risk of long-lasting or permanent brain injury. Less anxiety while riding leads to more enjoyment You’re free to enjoy your ride to a greater extent when you’re not worried about the consequences of crashing. Wearing gear doesn’t just improve your quality of life after a crash, it increases the enjoyment of riding. Motorcycling is inherently dangerous, and smart riders do everything they can to stay safe, both for themselves, their friends and their family.
Leather is one of the most abrasion-resistant natural materials known to man.Leather comes in a variety of grades and weights. Look for motorcycle gear constructed with “full grain leather” rather than “top grain leather” , and make sure the weight of the leather is at least 3 ounces. The weight of the leather refers to the mass of a square foot of material that is 1/64″ thick. When loaded with a sandbag and dragged behind a truck competition-grade leather takes 86′ to tear, meaning you’re unlikely to experience road-rash wearing competition-grade leather during a crash.
Sportbike gear is designed to protect all riders, not just sportbike riders and race enthusiasts, against maximum carnage in a crash. Sportbikes are very fast and capable of performance far beyond the capabilities of most of the people who ride them on the street. As such, it’s very easy to get in over your head, resulting in catastrophe regardless of the quality of your gear. However, proper gear combined with the right attitude about riding goes a long way toward reducing injury.
Next to a helmet, proper one or two-piece race leathers are one of the best pieces of safety equipment a canyon-carving sportbike rider can invest in. This is true regardless of whether you intend to take to the track or stick to riding in the streets or canyons. When fitted properly, a full-grain, competition-grade leather race suit significantly reduces the chance of experiencing both road rash and bone fractures during a crash. Expect to pay upwards of $1000 for a high-quality race suit at retail. The good news is barely used race leathers can be found for significantly less if you’re willing to do some hunting around on motorcycle forums or Craigslist.
The old adage “race on Sunday, sell on Monday” is alive and well thanks to recent innovations in race suits. An airbag suit is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a suit with an air chamber contained within the aerodynamic hump of a modern race suit. Top MotoGP racers like Jorge Lorenzo have tested them in competition and confirmed their efficacy in reducing season-ending injuries. These cutting-edge safety devices are available for use on the street, by all kinds of riders, thanks to suits and vests equipped with the technology now available for consumer purchase. Although these devices are expensive, up to $3000, they can be worth their weight in gold during a crash.
Back and chest protectors
Because most high-quality race suits include armor in the shoulders, knees, and shins, many riders overlook the necessity of back and chest protectors. If you do not purchase them before getting fitted for a race suit, ask the shop to provide one to try on while you’re getting fitted. Choose a race suit that accommodates the bulk of additional armor to avoid replacing it in the future when you decide to add additional armor to your quiver of safety gear. High quality back and chest protectors help to protect your spine and sternum from catastrophic damage in the event of a crash. Think of them as helmets for your torso.
Full-grain leather boots with plastic sliders
Leather boots prevent your feet from being ground down to their nubs in a high speed crash, and plastic sliders reduce the potential for broken bones. How do they do that? One of the biggest hazards of crashing, other than running into a fixed object, is “tumbling” mid-crash. In a tumble, the rider’s limbs flail helplessly and bash into the ground repeatedly. Riders tumble when their gear catches on irregularities in the road or even the road itself. When gear catches, it throws the rider from the point where it catches. Think of it as a “high side” without a bike involved. The consequences are catastrophic, often breaking the limb attached to the gear that catches the road. This risk can be reduced by wearing gear, especially boots, equipped with plastic sliders.
Gloves that cover the wrist and part of the forearm, also known as gauntlet gloves, round out the sportbike rider’s gear ensemble. Like a high-quality race suit, gauntlet gloves are constructed of full grain, competition-grade leather. Gauntlet gloves suitable for sport riding often include armor constructed of shatter-resistant plastic or kevlar to protect the rider’s knuckles. Their primary purpose is to protect the rider’s hands, wrists, and lower forearms from road rash and fractures caused by impacts and abrasion.
Although riders of cruiser motorcycles often take fewer risks than sport riders, the type of motorcycle you choose to ride does not in any way mitigate the fact that motorcycling is inherently dangerous. Crashing on a cruiser is just as dangerous as crashing on a sportbike. Although most sportbike gear is designed with a “sporting” aesthetic in mind, i.e. “the Power Ranger look,” cruiser riders often adopt more understated gear designed for sport riding.
A leather race-suit looks silly on a cruiser. Black leather jackets look cool. The key is to avoid jackets constructed of fashion or cosmetic-grade leather. Materials like deerskin and top-grain leather are to be avoided because they provide little abrasion resistance during a crash. Like with a good quality race suit, look for a jacket constructed of full-grain, competition grade leather that fits your personal sense of style.
Leather chaps and pants
Full-grain, competition grade leather pants and chaps make it possible for cruiser riders to get virtually the same protection as properly outfitted sport riders. Again, the most important thing is the quality of the leather used to construct the pants or chaps. With that said, cruiser gear should be as stylish as it is protective. Although tassels and other ornaments are popular, you run the risk of them catching or hanging on road obstructions in a crash. Avoid safety gear that appears to be made more for style than substance.
Skull-cap helmets pose a hazard
Although half-cap, also known as skull-cap helmets, are popular with all sorts of riders who despise helmets in states that require them by law, they pose many hazards to riders who wear them. Many skull-cap helmets are poorly made and do little to nothing to prevent injuries during a crash. Although a well-made skull-cap like the one pictured above will prevent traumatic brain injuries from occurring in certain types of crashes, they do not protect as well against road-rash as a full or even open-face helmet. If you must wear a skull-cap, ensure it is designed to keep you safe — not to make a fashion statement.
Adventure touring and off-road gear
Gear designed for touring, adventure touring, and off-road riding is often very similar. Whether designed for hardcore off-road competition like motocross and supercross or long-distance touring, most off road gear is constructed of light-weight, abrasion-resistant synthetic fabrics. Jackets and pants often contain armor to protect against impacts. Adventure touring gear is designed with long-distance comfort in mind. Off-road gear is designed for multiple off-road spills at relatively low speeds. It’s normal for off-road riders to crash fairly often when traversing tough trails at low speeds, suffering only minor scrapes and bruises when equipped with proper gear and riding within the limitations of their machines and skills.
Synthetic fabrics have come a long way, and some of them have abrasion-resistant qualities similar to that of full-grain leather. Although not suitable for racing or track duty, they are very effective at preventing road rash during motorcycle accidents. Cordura, a fabric manufactured by DuPont, is the most abrasion-resistant synthetic fabric available. It is the only synthetic suitable for motorcycle gear. Look for high denier Cordura, at least 500 denier, when purchasing motorcycle safety gear made of anything but leather.
Many new motorcyclists take to the road after a 10 minute lesson from a friend about where the clutch, shifter, and brakes are located. As such, many new motorcyclists never develop the skills they need to stay safe on the road. Whether they crash on their first ride or their 100th ride, the fact remains the same: motorcyclists who attempt to teach themselves the finer points of riding tend to crash more often than those who seek professional training.
There are many options available to motorcyclists of all skill levels, from the newest of newbies to riders with 20+ years of riding experience under their belts . You’re never too experienced to take a class, learn more about your hobby, and become a better motorcyclist!
Motorcycle Safety Foundation courses
One of the most popular courses in the USA is the Basic RiderCourse, held all over the country by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. It’s a course designed for people who have never ridden a motorcycle. Bike are provided, and successfully completing the course generally results in receiving a motorcycle permit. In many states riders must complete an additional skills course to receive a motorcycle endorsement on their driver’s licenses.
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation offers other courses, including curriculum designed specifically for advanced cruiser riders, sport riders, and dirt riders. Check their website to find a class near you.
Many advanced courses, including the MSF’s Kevin Schwantz RiderCourse, take place at the local racetrack and are taught by active club racers and ex-professional racers. Don’t let the words “racetrack” or “racer” fool you. Many track schools are designed specifically for advanced riders, and all types of motorcycles are welcome. There is absolutely no expectation for students to “get faster.” Most track schools are designed to improve rider skills, thus turning students into better riders overall regardless of what kind of bike they choose to ride.
Race schools are the ne plus ultra of rider instruction. These courses are held by regional and national sanctioning bodies, the organizations that govern different racing series throughout the country, and are designed to result in receiving a “race license” from the sanctioning body upon successful completion of the course.
The courses are NOT designed to make riders faster or even better motorcyclists. They are designed to teach advanced sport riders how to stay safe during a race and focus instead on race craft. For a course designed to make you faster on track, look to advanced track schools and private instruction.
Many current and ex-professional racers are more than happy to spend a day or weekend watching you closely on track and offering actionable advice to improve your skills. These are unofficial courses, and the racers who teach them do so independently of organizations like the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, local sanctioning bodies, or the AMA. This type of instruction is often designed for current club racers who want to become faster racers.
Other than traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), there are two additional types of injuries motorcyclists may experience during a crash: road rash and fractures. Although many of these injuries can be prevented by adopting a disciplined approach to safety, it is important to know about their consequences.
Road rash sounds harmless, and it is when you fall off of a bicycle or a skateboard. On a motorcycle traveling at highway speeds, road rash becomes a potentially life-or-death issue. It’s not uncommon for road rash to cover more than 50% of a rider’s body during an unprotected crash. Many riders lose their lives to road rash on the spot via blood loss and later as a result of infection. The #1 thing that unites riders who have lived through serious road rash injuries is their newfound respect for All The Gear, All The Time (ATGATT). Proper full-grain, competition grade leather jackets, pants, boots, and gloves are your best defense against serious road rash. Road rash injuries often go so deep that the skin won’t grow back on its own. Skin grafts are needed. The scaring is permanent. The pain is nothing short of the most intense thing you’ve ever felt in your life, and it lasts for months, sometimes years, after you have an accident.
Although the potential for road rash can be reduced significantly by wearing proper gear, fractures are more difficult to avoid. It’s not the speed that gets you, it’s the sudden stop at the end. Experienced racers tell stories of leathers soaked through and dripping with blood after being cut from an injured rider’s body, the result of serious compound fractures that are caused by tumbling at high speeds over uneven terrain. The potential for fractures is even higher on the street, where there are innumerable obstructions both on the road and in shoulders and medians. Guard rails, other vehicles, telephone poles, fences, and road signs have the potential to kill riders who hit them at highway speeds. Make no mistake about it. Even if you’re wearing all of your gear, hitting a pole at 80mph will split you in half with the same efficiency as a buzz saw. However, just because you crash at speed does not mean you’re guaranteed to hit something. If you happen to tumble during a crash, gear equipped with good, CE-rated armor may prevent certain fractures from occurring, thus increasing the survivability of a crash.
When asked about their mindset when riding, many experienced riders say their brain is set to “paranoid.” Another phrase for paranoid is “constant vigilance.” It’s a sixth-sense that develops after years of riding, allowing the rider to recognize the potential for a crash before it occurs. Smart riders scan the road constantly, looking for things like loose gravel and pot-holes that may cause their bikes to lose traction. They also scan other traffic, looking for signs of poorly driven vehicles and inattentive drivers. When passing through an intersection, even if the light is green, they look as far into cross traffic as possible for vehicles that don’t seem to be slowing down. Learn how to use your peripheral vision to detect hazards that aren’t directly in front of you. Never twist the throttle in anger, and never leave the house on your bike if your mind feels like it’s not “all there.” Go pet your dog until you feel better before riding. Constant vigilance is about knowing what could happen, and then recognizing the signs before it actually happens. When stopped, watch your mirrors for vehicles that aren’t slowing down and keep a clear escape route open. Be ready to take off quickly and maneuver the bike to a safe place should you perceive a hazard approaching.
Defensive driving works better for drivers than it does riders. A rider that is seen is far less likely to get hit by a vehicle operated by an inattentive or irresponsible driver. Defensive riding often causes riders to “fade into the background” and become virtually invisible, making them vulnerable to collisions. Although speeding isn’t smart, riding at the pace of traffic, changing lanes often, and passing other vehicles is a great way to ensure people see you when you’re riding. All of your movements on the bike should appear deliberate. All movements on the road should be executed with equal parts confidence and competence. Use your peripheral vision to scan cars as you pass them, watching their tires to ensure they stay within the lines where they belong. It’s often better to “power through” hazards than to stop quickly to try to avoid them. Motorcycles are faster, nimbler, and brake quicker than most cars. Coming to a sudden stop leaves riders wide open to getting hit by vehicles behind them. Always look as far ahead as you can, and use your peripheral vision to spot potential hazards. If a car starts drifting into your lane, it’s often a better idea to open the throttle or initiate a fast evasive turn than it is to smash the brakes to avoid a collision. Never pull into traffic from a side street assuming drivers will see you. Always accelerate to the speed of traffic as quickly as possible when pulling into traffic.
Drivers who hit motorcyclists often say the same thing: “I didn’t see him! He just came out of nowhere!” Don’t let yourself be another victim of the SMIDSY (Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You)! Riding with a purpose goes a long way towards ensuring other vehicle operators see you on the road. Adding reflective tape also helps. Brightly colored gear attracts attention and makes riders easier to see. In addition to proper gear, making eye contact with other vehicle operators helps, too.
People are hard wired to notice when other people are looking at them. Humans are self-conscious creatures, and when someone looks at us we feel like our behaviors are being judged. Looking directly at other vehicle operators, even with a mirrored visor, goes a long way towards making them notice you. If they fail to return eye-contact, you can be reasonably sure they haven’t seen you. One of the best times to make eye contact with drivers is when traveling down a road with a lot of side streets. Drivers who don’t see you may pull into traffic and hit you. I can’t count the number of times I’ve made eye contact with someone right as they were about to pull out in front of me, only to have them brake quickly. Eye contact prevents accidents. Use it to your advantage.
Further reading and resources
Textile vs. Leather Jackets Part 1 and Part 2
Spidi – safety equipment manufacturer
Alpinestars – safety equipment manufacturer
Sportbike Track Gear – Internet retailer that sells high quality sport riding gear
MotoSport – Internet retailer that sells high quality cruiser gear