Riding a motorcycle can be a dangerous activity – for both riders and people in other vehicles. As the days start to get warmer, it’s important for motorcyclists to ensure they are doing all they can to protect themselves and others on the road.
While some motorcycle accidents are unavoidable, there are many things you can do to reduce the risk of injury to yourself, your passenger, and other road users.
Never ride without a motorcycle license
In the U.S., you are required to have a motorcycle license or endorsement in addition to a driver’s license to legally ride a motorcycle. Regulations vary by state, with some also requiring riders to pass a State-sponsored education course.
Taking a Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) riding course can increase your skill as a motorcyclist and better prepare you to make emergency maneuvers when necessary. In some cases, passing an MSF course can lower your insurance costs and streamline the application process for a motorcycle license. Some courses are free.
Always wear an adequate helmet
Wearing a helmet significantly reduces your risk of serious head injury and death in the event of an accident. In some states, wearing a helmet is mandatory for some or all riders. You should wear a helmet every time you ride a motorcycle, even for short journeys.
Your helmet should have a thick polystyrene-foam inner liner, weigh about three pounds, and have a sturdy chin strap to hold the helmet on your head.
When buying a new helmet, make sure it meets the safety standards approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Approved helmets will display the DOT symbol (either painted or as a sticker), usually on the outside back of the helmet. Some helmets may also be certified by non-profit safety organizations, like ANSI (American National Standards Institute) and the Snell Memorial Foundation, but these certifications are optional. Check the label inside to see if the helmet is certified by one or more organization.
Your helmet should have a thick polystyrene-foam inner liner, weigh about three pounds, and have a sturdy chin strap to hold the helmet on your head. Ideally, it should also have a face shield to protect your eyes, but you may choose to wear goggles instead.
Replace your helmet about once every five years, unless it shows visible signs of damage (like a crack), in which case you should replace it immediately.
Check your bike before you ride
Before every ride, do a quick check to make sure your bike is fit for the road. This includes checking that the tires are properly inflated and not worn down, and that everything is in working order, particularly the brakes. If you spot signs of a fluid or oil leak beneath the bike, or other signs of damage or overuse, don’t risk riding it.
Adjust your bike’s suspension and tires every time you intend to carry a passenger or a load that’s heavier than normal.
Sit down and hold tight
Sit in the center of the seat, keeping both hands on the handlebars, except when signalling. If you have a passenger who is inexperienced in riding a motorcycle, explain safety measures to them before they ride (see the next section for passenger safety tips).
Obey traffic laws and be aware of other vehicles
In the majority of collisions involving a motorcycle and another vehicle, the rider is not at fault. While you can’t always account for what other drivers will do, you can reduce your risk of having an accident by obeying traffic laws, sticking to the speed limit, and not taking any unnecessary risks.
In general, assume that drivers can’t see you, and act accordingly. Pay close attention to the vehicles around you, especially if you notice that a driver isn’t paying attention. Leave plenty of room (at least one car-length) between you and the vehicle in front, giving you time to react if the driver brakes suddenly. Be on the lookout for other vehicles that may change lanes and veer into your path, and always signal and look behind you before changing lanes yourself.
The important thing is to leave yourself enough room to maneuver if something does go wrong.
When riding in heavy traffic, many motorcyclists prefer to ride in the far left lane, leaving themselves one unobstructed side. The important thing is to leave yourself enough room to maneuver if something does go wrong. Remember, if a car hits you, you are more likely to be injured than the driver, so it pays to err on the side of caution.
Splitting lanes (moving between vehicles in the space between lanes) is illegal in most states. Some studies suggest that lane-splitting in heavy traffic can reduce a rider’s risk of being struck by another vehicle, particularly from behind when traffic is congested. Only split lanes if it is legal, and be aware that this maneuver can sometimes aggravate drivers.
Watch for damaged roads and obstacles
Motorcyclists need to be especially vigilant about road obstacles (like fallen branches and oil spills) and uneven surfaces (including potholes). A motorcycle has less contact with the road than a car, making it more likely to skid out of control. There is also a possibility that you could be thrown over the handlebars.
If you can’t avoid an obstacle in your path, try to slow down before riding over it. You should rise slightly off the seat to absorb the shock, gripping the handlebars tightly.
Get a bike with an anti-lock brake system
An anti-lock or anti-skid braking system (ABS) prevents the wheels of your motorcycle from locking when you brake hard, reducing your risk of skidding out of control. You are 37% less likely to be involved in a fatal crash if your motorcycle is equipped with ABS brakes.
Never ride under the influence or otherwise impaired
You should never ride a motorcycle when your judgement, reaction time, alertness, balance, and other necessary riding skills are impaired. This includes riding when intoxicated or after taking drugs, including some medications. Drowsiness can also impair your ability to ride, so take a break when tired.
Adjust for inclement weather conditions
Rain, snow, high winds, and other inclement weather conditions can make riding more dangerous. Adjust how you ride accordingly—on wet roads, for example, you should avoid making sudden turns since your margin for error is reduced and you may skid. If you don’t feel comfortable riding in bad weather, leave the bike at home.
Dress for protection and visibility
Loose, flapping clothing and exposed skin is the last thing you want when riding. Your arms and legs should be well covered, preferably in leather, and your shoes or boots should cover your ankles. Never wear shoes that are prone to slipping off, like sandals. To protect your hands and increase your grip, always wear gloves.
To increase your visibility to other drivers, you should ideally wear bright clothing, and apply reflective material to your clothes and your bike.
Never take an unfamiliar bike into traffic
Before taking any new or unfamiliar motorcycle into traffic, familiarize yourself with its handling and responsiveness in a controlled area, like a quiet street. This is especially true if you haven’t ridden for some time.