So you want to ride a motorcycle?
Motorcycles have been a hot transportation option for decades. They cater to a certain type of lifestyle, allowing you to enjoy the outdoors and the freedom of the road. Considering many models get great gas mileage, are easier to park, and can cost less than a car (though not always!), they can also make economical sense.
However, motorcycles can be a more dangerous form of transportation than cars. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, deaths on motorcycles occur 27 times more often than from crashes in other types of vehicles.
The good news is that you can substantially reduce your odds of being hurt on a motorcycle by making smart decisions to secure your safety. To help you out, we’ve got a number of safety tips from top motorcycle sites and long-time motorcycle riders.
Choosing a Ride
When considering a motorcycle, consider how you’d answer the following questions:
1. Why do you want a motorcycle?
Is it for commuting to and from work? Weekends? Road trips? Off-roading? Will you ride mostly on neighborhood streets or the highways? Different primary goals for a motorcycle will dictate the kind of bike as well as modifications you might need.
2. What’s the local climate and terrain like?
Does it snow, or is it often rainy? Do you have lots of hills? Some models are better suited for inclement weather, maneuverability, and braking. You might also need to invest in special tires or other gear to adapt to high winds or rainy conditions.
3. What’s your skill level?
Be honest about your abilities. If this is your first time riding, you don’t need to start with the biggest and best motorcycle out there. Even low-end bikes are more powerful than you might expect. For newbies, a model with up to a 300cc engine might be a good place to start, unless you plan to do a lot of highway riding, in which case a higher horsepower will be necessary to keep up with traffic.
4. What ride fits you?
You want to choose a motorcycle that “fits” you. You should be able to keep both feet on the ground when sitting on the bike, and be able to reach all of the controls easily. Keep in mind ergonomics as well. Do you want to lean forward or sit upright? You also don’t want a bike that’s too heavy for you or that feels “too big.”
5. Does your bike have the right safety features?
When choosing a motorcycle, many experts recommend models with antilock brakes. These have been shown to significantly improve riders’ chances of surviving a crash. Consumer Reports noted that ABS brakes reduced the chances of a fatal crash by 37%.
In addition to brakes, consider the bike’s visibility. This includes the size and style of the bike, the color (bright colors are more easily seen), and lights. The easier you can make it for other drivers to see you and your bike, the less likely they will be to cause an accident.
For help narrowing down your options, check out RevZilla’s breakdown of different motorcycles for different types of riders and experience levels.
What Kind of Gear Do You Need?
Arguably the single most important element in your personal safety is to choose–and then wear–appropriate safety gear. And the best gear in the world won’t help you if you’re not wearing it – so it’s important to commit to wearing it every time you ride. As experienced riders will tell you, there’s no “quick trip to the store” that doesn’t deserve the full treatment. The majority of car crashes happen within five miles from home, so don’t assume you can’t get into an accident a block from your house. Even at low speeds, any collision can be life-threatening when riding a motorcycle.
Wear a helmet. Period. There’s just no excuse not to do so. Study after study—and tons of anecdotal evidence from riders—show that motorcyclists are far more likely to survive a crash with a quality helmet. Consumer Reports noted that when states have repealed helmet laws, motorcycle fatalities increased by as much as 31%.
You can get a lightweight, full-face helmet approved by the Department of Transportation (look for the DOT-approved sticker on the back). These will not only protect your face and head, but will cut down on wind noise. Because helmets degrade over time, expect to replace yours every five years.
2. Protective outerwear
Ditch the t-shirt and shorts. You need clothing that will protect you from the elements, bugs and debris, and road rash. While some people think it’s too much trouble to get special rider gear, consider this (warning – graphic description ahead): according to the motorcycle site A Ride Apart, you can expect to lose a half-inch of skin and muscle if your bare skin hits the pavement at 44 mph. Any faster and you might have life-threatening injuries just from the skin being peeled away, not to mention the impact itself.
So how do you protect yourself? Leather or special textile motorcycle jackets and pants are far superior to regular street clothes. Many of today’s top options come embedded with kevlar or other armor. If you’re riding in cold or wet weather, you may also wish to invest in special moisture-wicking long underwear tailor-made to keep you warm and dry.
You’ll also need gloves made for motorcycle riding to protect your hands and keep them warm so you can operate your bike without issue.
The right sturdy boots are key for motorcycle safety. Choose ones that don’t twist and have extra protection along toes, heels, and ankles.
And in general when choosing outerwear, avoid black and dark colors. For safety, bright colors will help you stand out and make you more visible to other vehicles. If you insist on a black leather jacket, then at least wear a reflective vest (see below).
5. Glasses or Goggles
Prescription goggles offer extra eye protection for those who typically wear glasses.
6. Other options
- Reflective safety vests and clip-on blinking lights make you much more visible at night (and the brightness of the vests makes them work during the day as well). You can also get special reflective tape to add to your bike or gear, and many companies like Timbuk 2 offer reflective fabric options for backpacks and messenger bags.
- Back protectors and neck braces such as the Leatt STX provide additional protection if you get into an accident, and can prevent an accident from leaving you paralyzed. Riders report that this gear isn’t hot or uncomfortable, though it can take a little time to get used to them.
Riding Best Practices for Motorcycle Safety
1. Ride sober and remain alert
Don’t ever get on a bike while intoxicated, and don’t ride when you’re tired. Consider the effects certain medications have on you before you hit the road. Your judgment must always be top-notch when you’re on a motorcycle.
2. Stay hydrated
Be aware of dehydration, which can be a real concern on long rides or in hot, sunny weather, and can make your brain foggy before you know it.
3. Avoid distractions
It might seem like fun to listen to headphones or to use your phone, but this will distract you from the road and prevent you from hearing traffic sounds. Just like riding impaired, you might not see an oncoming hazard.
4. Observe all objects sharing the road with you
Make it a habit to practice good situational awareness. Keep an eye out for everything, and be aware of potholes, loose gravel, animals, and aggressive drivers.
5. Be a defensive driver
- Always assume cars can’t see you.
- Keep a safe distance behind and to the side of vehicles.
- Give plenty of advance warning for turns or passing.
- Always keep an eye out for an escape route if a car comes into your lane or cuts you off.
- Learn good lane position so cars will notice you and you can see further ahead. In most cases this means riding near the center line, not the middle of the lane or on the right.
6. Be extra cautious when riding in inclement weather
While it may be unavoidable to ride in the rain, be aware that roads will be slippery (especially if it hasn’t rained recently), visibility is reduced, and you will need a greater distance for braking safely, so reduce your speed and keep an eye on traffic patterns and standing water. If there’s a thunderstorm, high winds, or icy weather in the forecast, leave the bike at home.
7. Consider a motorcycle safety class
This is key for beginning riders, but it’s also a good idea to take advanced classes once you’ve got some miles under your belt. These classes will teach you new safety techniques, talk about the best in safety gear, and provide other information that will keep you safe on the roads. Many motorcycle manufacturers offer special motorcycle safety classes.
Covering Your Bike and Yourself
You can follow all of the above advice to stay safe on the road, but you may still get nicked by a car, crash, or have your bike stolen. We don’t wish for any of these scenarios, but we do prepare for them.
Our final tip (#19, if you will)?
Make sure you have the right insurance coverage to protect yourself against high medical bills and costly bike repair or replacement with motorcycle insurance.
By maintaining consistent safety practices, you can enjoy many years riding a motorcycle. Stay safe out there!