Riding a motorcycle (also known as a motorbike) is a very different experience to riding in a car, and can be greatly enjoyable. Unfortunately, due to the lack of protection motorcycles offer compared to an enclosed vehicle, riders face a higher risk of injury or death if they are involved in an accident. This is especially true if the rider is not wearing a helmet.
Motorcyclists face different risks than other road users. By following a few simple motorcycle safety tips, riders can make the journey safer for both themselves and their passenger.
Common Motorcycle Safety Issues
When riding a motorcycle, being thrown from the bike or colliding with a structure or other vehicle can be deadly. Motorcyclist deaths have been on the rise since 1998, and are consistently higher in states without universal helmet laws.
Safety issues that can lead to motorcycle injuries:
- Not wearing an adequate helmet
- Alcohol and/or drug use (including some prescription medications)
- Poor weather conditions
- Debris or obstructions on the road
- Uneven road surface (such as potholes)
- Riding an unfamiliar or damaged bike
Motorcyclists also need to be aware of other road users who may not see them, or may not be paying close enough attention to the road. Cars and trucks may veer suddenly into your path, potentially sideswiping you.
Safety Tips for Motorcyclists
While some 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.
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.
Aim to 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 on 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 motorcyclist 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.
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 out for damaged roads and obstacles in your path
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 when 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 appropriately and to increase your visibility
Loose, flapping clothing and exposed skin is the last thing you want when riding. Your arms and legs should be completely 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, take the time to get familiar 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.
Motorcycle Tips for Passengers
Being a passenger on a motorcycle is exhilarating, but you should never put yourself at unnecessary risk. Here are some things you can do as a passenger to increase your own safety and that of the rider:
Motorcycle Safety Tips for Passengers
What to Do After a Motorcycle Accident
Even experienced and careful riders sometimes get into accidents, often as a result of other vehicles or unforeseen obstacles.
If you are involved in a crash and are not incapacitated, the most important thing you can do is get yourself out of harm’s way. Get out of traffic, and move away from the vehicle(s) if you notice gasoline is leaking.
If you, your passenger, or someone in another vehicle is injured, call an ambulance immediately. Don’t move an injured person unless it’s necessary to get them out of harm’s way. Don’t remove an injured person’s helmet unless it’s restricting their breathing, as moving their neck has the potential to paralyze them if they have a spinal injury.
If no one is injured and the accident is minor, contact local law enforcement and remain at the scene until they arrive, as they may need information from you. Inform them of any debris in the road that could harm other drivers. If another vehicle was involved in the crash, you may need to exchange insurance information with the driver.
Even if you weren’t visibly hurt, you should get checked out by a medical professional after having an accident, as you may not immediately notice your injuries.
Motorcycle Safety Statistics
Riding a motorcycle can be dangerous, so it’s important to know the risks and take measures to increase the safety of yourself and your passenger.
According to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), motorcyclists are 27 times more likely to die in an accident than drivers of other vehicles, and six times more likely to be injured. In 2015, there were 4,868 motorcyclist fatalities in the U.S.
While many accidents are the fault of another driver, riding dangerously puts you and those around you in harm’s way. In 2014, 43% of motorcyclists who died in single-vehicle crashes had been drinking. In 2013, a quarter of all fatal motorcycle accidents involved a rider who didn’t have a valid licence, and 34% involved a rider who had been speeding.
Wearing a helmet is the best way you can protect yourself and your passenger from being seriously injured or killed in an accident. With an adequate helmet, your risk of sustaining a head injury in a crash is reduced by 69%, and your risk of death by 40%.