Last year, my husband purchased his first motorcycle. He grew up riding, but finally decided to get his own bike. I, of course, was nervous. As an insurance agent here in Kokomo, Indiana, I hear a lot about motorcycle insurance claims. And some of them are nasty.
Riding motorcycles can be dangerous, but there are also a lot of things a driver can do to help prevent disastrous accidents. Here are some suggestions on how to stay safe while riding.
Take a Safety Course
Before my husband received his motorcycle license in Indiana, he had to take a safety course. He spent an entire Saturday in a parking lot learning from ABATE how to better ride his motorcycle safely. Even if you aren’t required to take a safety course by the state – you should. He learned invaluable skills in that safety course, and came out more confident of how to protect himself.
Classes teach traffic safety laws specific to motorcycles, how to respond to an emergency situation, and give you a chance to practice in a controlled environment. It’s better to learn how to handle a skidding motorcycle, or what to do when the bike falls, in a controlled environment where no other vehicles are present.
Police officers who operate a motorcycle are required to take even more in depth safety course – a week long – to make sure they have the skills to be safe. These courses can be taken by the public as well – my father in law took the course and soon after got to use the skills to protect himself and his wife from a bad motorcycle drop.
Ride within Your Skills
If you’re riding with a group, and they decide to do something you’ve never done before and aren’t comfortable with, don’t join them. Everything about riding a motorcycle is skill – and these skills take time to develop. Others may be able to go faster, go on curvy and hilly roads, or control their bikes in tight weaves. Take time to build your skills and only drive when and where you are comfortable.
While I’ve ridden on the back of a motorcycle, I would never expect to be able to just jump on and ride. There are many complex parts to riding a bike – from balancing, to shifting, let alone how to safely get off in a difficult, unexpected situation. If you want to learn more skills in a controlled way, look for nearby advanced motorcycle classes.
Look twice before pulling out into the road. Never assume even if you have right of way that other drivers see you. Ride defensively and do your best to stay safe around other vehicles on the road.
Don’t follow other vehicles to close, particularly if you have an older bike. Without ABS, and your manual transmission, sudden stops aren’t necessarily possible. They may lead to an asphalt slide, which no one wants to experience. Do your best to avoid cars tailing you, as the same problem is worsened with close-following vehicles.
Distracted driving is bad no matter what type of vehicle you drive. While on a motorcycle, it is best to stay hyper-aware of all your surroundings and everything going on around you. Remember – other drivers are often complacent and not paying attention, and the larger the vehicle the lessened visibility the drivers likely have. When riding a motorcycle, you should assume they don’t see you and do your best to stay safe.
Do not play with your phone while on your bike. If you need to, put your phone in a saddle bag or an interior jacket pocket to reduce the temptation for distraction. Removing your hands from the ability to quickly brake, hit the clutch, or steer, as well as reducing your attention to other vehicles, is not worth the brief call or text. Your life is more important.
Check the Weather
Riding a bike in rain, snow, or any weather that affects the tire traction on the roads can be dangerous. You have less traction and your visibility can be compromised. Before you go for a ride, check the weather. If heavy rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog, or ice are predicted – postpone the ride for another time.
If you must drive in the rain on your bike, there are a few ways to reduce your risk. Wait until later in the rainstorm to ride, because the road is increasingly slippery right after it starts to rain. Drive slowly and cautiously. Leave lots of space for other vehicles. If the weather gets too bad, pull off into a parking lot somewhere to wait out the storm. Do not pull over and sit on the side of the road, as this leaves you at risk for being hit by other vehicles with reduced visibility.
While riding with a passenger is fun, it does add further concerns for the driver. Before riding with someone else, make sure they know what to expect on a motorcycle – such as stops, starts, and turning. Inform them not to distract you. If they haven’t ridden before, practice together somewhere safe like a parking lot – that way you can get the feel of the bike holding the extra weight and they can get used to turns and maneuvering. Also make sure they wear a helmet and appropriate gear.
If you’re thinking of traveling with a young passenger, check the laws in your state to make sure they are of legal age to ride on the back of a motorcycle.
The day after my husband purchased his first bike, we dropped almost as much money on the gear as we had on the bike. This is not the place to spare the expense – the gear can make all the difference between an injury and a critical medical situation.
Anyone you see riding a motorcycle with shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops is making a STUPID, unsafe life decision. They also skew the statistics for the injuries sustained from riding a motorcycle.
Aside from your knowledge and skills, your gear is your only crash protection system. Even without another vehicle present, you can lose control of the motorcycle and drop it – dropping yourself at the same time. Skin to asphalt contact take in a slide hurts a lot more than leather gear to asphalt.
Leather and other strong materials protect the skin from sliding along road surfaces. If you want to scare yourself, YouTube some motorcycle slides. The gear also protects from other road hazards – rocks, bugs, and other objects thrown up from the road. At 60 miles an hour, a direct rock hit can HURT. Even just lacking gloves can leave you with tiny cuts from road debris.
Even better than leather or jeans is true motorcycle gear that comes with armor in place. This armor provides extra padding in case of fall. Many of these jackets are made breathable and light weight, or with zip-out liners to alter per weather. Armor is typically put along the spine, torso, shoulders, elbows, and other common fall locations. Gloves even come with armor. As I am still lacking gloves as a rider, I push the importance strongly.
While it may seem safe enough to wear crops with your boots, even if they nearly touch, I don’t suggest it. If you fall or slide, the leg can easily become exposed and burned on the tailpipe.
Along the same lines again, DO NOT WEAR FLIP FLOP on a motorcycle. Riding shoes serve as protection and make riding easier. Imagine trying to switch gears with a flimsy open toe-shoe. You also protect from burns, as in a bad situation your foot can easily slip and hit the exhaust or engine and BURN. Or if you’re just super lucky, you could get a sunburn on your feet.
When purchasing shoes, choose a shoe (or better yet a boot) out of a sturdy material like leather and with a rugged sole. This sole will help provide better traction when touching the ground while starting, stopping, or in case of an accident. The last thing you want is to have your shoe slip and cause you to drop the bike. Boots are great because of the extra ankle support and protection they provide. They also have many attractive options, so utility doesn’t mean ugly footwear.
Wear a Helmet
Always wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle – The majority of motorcycle related deaths come from head injuries. Make sure it is a Department of Transporation-approved helmet, and meets all the required safety measures. It should be tested to prove it provides a certain level of protection in case of accident.
Make sure your helmet fits properly. The first time I rode a motorcycle I was loaned a helmet – size large. The entire ride was uncomfortable, because the helmet boxed my ears as it slide around from the wind. While it was obvious it didn’t fit, I had no idea how a proper helmet should fit. If you are clueless – go to a professional shop. They will not only be able to help you choose the right kind of helmet, but they can make sure the size properly fits. It should be snug – not too tight or loose. Many people tend to say you have slight chipmunk cheeks when it fits properly. It also should provide protection without obstructing your view.
For a helmet that provides better safety protection, opt for a full face style. Instead of just protecting the top of your head, it protects the whole head, including the jaw. If you can’t stand to put on a full face helmet (which I find horrible to do), look for a modular helmet. It provides the protection, but allows you to open the front for taking it off and on, as well as when stopping.
Shop for the right helmet for you. It took me many tries at many different stores to find a good, small helmet that fits my head without hurting my jaw. It is the most important piece of the gear that you will wear, so don’t cheap out and buy something that won’t protect you. This isn’t an area to take chances.
Because let’s face it, you can’t protect against everything. We’ve had insurance claims for cars, homes – anything that can happen will at some point. But many things won’t happen as well. Just do what you can to stay safe and enjoy the ride.
Photo: "Motorcycle driver" by Franc. Flikr. Not modified. CC BY-SA 2.0