Cruise Your Way to Motorcycle Safety

Allie Johnson

The average age of motorcyclists is on the rise, and older riders even sport a cool nickname: Baby Vroomers. But, as you grow older, the likelihood that you’ll be hurt if you are involved in a motorcycle crash increases.

Why? As riders age, they may “break easier,” says James R. Davis, a motorcycle safety expert who offers tips for staying safe on the road on his motorcycle safety site. According to a 2013 Injury Prevention study, motorcyclists 40 to 59 are twice as likely as riders under 40 to end up in the hospital because of a motorcycle crash, and motorcyclists 60 and older are three times as likely.

No matter your age, riding a motorcycle is much more dangerous than driving a car, truck or SUV, data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicates. In fact, the risk of a fatality on a motorcycle is 26 times greater than the risk in a car, according to the NHTSA.

Preventing motorcycle wrecks is a two-way street, requiring effort from both motorcyclists and other drivers. You can increase your odds of staying safe on a motorcycle, or in another type of vehicle, by revving up your knowledge of motorcycle safety.

Safety Tips for Motorcyclists

Here are eight tips for motorcyclists on how to stay safe on the roads:

1. Start With the Right Bike

According to the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), one good option for beginners is the standard motorcycle, which offers comfort and versatility. Like most types of motorcycles, it comes in various weights and levels of power, but the AMA recommends that beginners start with a lighter-weight bike.

In addition, beginners should avoid sport motorcycles (sometimes nicknamed “crotch rockets”), which are designed for stunt riding. “That’s a really inappropriate first motorcycle,” Davis says.

2. Gear up for Safety

Of course, wearing a helmet that meets U.S. Department of Transportation standards is a must. (For an even better quality helmet that goes beyond DOT standards, look for the Snell certification on the back of the helmet.) Helmets cut the risk of head injury by 69 percent and the risk of death by 37 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) recommends that you replace your helmet with a new one every few years or whenever your current one shows any sign of damage or wear—even if it’s just chipping or cracking of the outer shell or loosening of the chin strap.

And your head isn’t the only part of you that you should protect. Wear clothing designed to protect your body, including a jacket and long pants made of leather or abrasion-resistant fabric, gloves, sturdy ankle-covering boots and a full-face covering.

3. Try to Stand Out

One common cause of crashes is failure by other drivers to spot motorcyclists. To stand out more to other drivers, select brightly colored gear paired with a reflective vest or reflective tape. According to the Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures, all but two of the 900 motorcyclists involved in crashes were not wearing bright colors.

4. Brush up on Your Skills

It’s important to practice slow speed skills and emergency skills, such as braking and swerving, in a parking lot or other safe area, says Ray Ochs, a motorcycle safety expert and lead developer of the MSF Basic Rider Course.

If you’re going to carry a passenger, practice that before you hit the road because it changes the handling of the motorcycle, Ochs adds. For example, with the extra weight and movement of a passenger, you may have to brake differently and round corners more carefully. You’ll also need to allow yourself “more time and space” when passing other vehicles.

5. Never Ride Right Next to a Buddy

Riding side-by-side in the same lane may increase your visibility to other drivers, but it’s unsafe to ride two abreast in the same lane, Davis warns. “That’s a maneuver acceptable only in a parade,” Davis says, adding that a motorcyclist who loses control “will take out what’s next to him.”

The MSF typically recommends staggered the riding formation for group rides. This means that the first motorcyclist rides in the left third of the lane, the second motorcyclist rides one second behind him in the right third of the lane, and so on. This riding pattern provides plenty of room for riders to react to hazards, and the adjacent headlights can make you and your buddies more noticeable to the cars around you.

However, in certain situations, such as on curvy roads or in poor conditions, it’s best to ride single file with two seconds of space in between motorcycles to give you even more time to react to surprises.

6. Stay Safe in the Rain

Riding when the roads are wet is more dangerous than when they are dry, so avoid it if possible. If you can’t, even if it’s only drizzling, ride at five to 10 miles below the speed limit. Give yourself more space between you and the vehicle in front of you and avoid puddles and oil patches (which may appear rainbow-colored). And if lightning starts, head for cover immediately.

In addition, be prepared for the tumult that may occur if a semi passes you going in the opposite direction. First, the truck may kick up a “rooster tail” of water that could “drop your visibility to zero,” Davis warns. It may also slow your bike temporarily as you continue to move forward at the same rate of speed for a few moments. Anticipate it and just “ride it out.”

Before you find yourself caught in the rain, consider using a spray that will cause the water on your visor to bead up, like Rain-X, to increase visibility.

7. Learn How to Handle Big Rigs

Large trucks can present big challenges and dangers to motorcycle riders. If a big rig is behind you, try to create as much space as possible between the truck and you, Davis recommends. And if a large truck is passing you, try to move away from the passing lane. Be prepared for a gust of wind that can push you as much as half a lane away from the truck and then, as it passes, suck you back toward its back wheels.

“Choose your path so you allow for this sideways movement and don’t run off the road,” Davis writes. If you want to pass an 18-wheeler, do it while going uphill, Davis recommends. The truck will slow more than you will, allowing you to get by faster and get further ahead. That will lower your chance of encountering other dangers, such as the truck experiencing a tire blowout while you’re passing it, Davis says.

Safety Tips for Other Drivers

Even if the vehicle you drive has four wheels, motorcycle safety should still be top-of-mind when you hit the road. It’s crucial that you do your part to keep motorcyclists safe because half of all fatal motorcycle crashes also involve another vehicle.

Here are five tips for drivers on keeping the roads safe for motorcyclists:

1. Keep Your Eyes Open

The most common cause of motorcycle crashes involves right-of-way violations: the driver of another vehicle turns, usually left, into a motorcycle that had the right-of-way. That’s because other drivers frequently fail to spot motorcycles, which are small enough to be temporarily blocked by a car’s blind spot or by another object, such as a fence or shrubbery.

The MSF recommends that you look around twice for motorcycles, which includes checking your mirrors and your blind spot, before making any moves such as a lane change or a turn.

2. Don’t Follow Too Closely

Give yourself at least four seconds worth of room to stop when driving behind a motorcyclist. Be aware that a motorcycle can slow down by downshifting or “rolling off the throttle,” in which case the brake light won’t come on.

3. Never Try to Share a Lane

A motorcycle is small and narrow compared to a car or a truck, but a motorcyclist still needs a full lane’s width in order to ride safely and have room to maneuver. A motorcyclist may need to make a sudden move within the lane to avoid hazards such as puddles, potholes, slick spots on the pavement or obstacles (e.g., a piece of tire, a branch, road kill).

When you see a motorcyclist change positions within a lane, assume that they’re doing it for a safety-related reason, not just to be reckless, show off or invite you to share the lane.

4. Verify the Turn Signal

Motorcycle turn signals may not automatically turn off after the motorcyclist makes a turn, and a rider can forget to switch it off manually. If you see a motorcycle with its turn signal on, don’t assume that the motorcyclist definitely intends to turn. And speaking of signals, always remember to use yours so that motorcyclists and other drivers can anticipate your actions on the road.

5. Pass Motorcycles With Care

If you need to pass a motorcyclist on the highway, be careful. You can pass a motorcycle the same way you’d pass another car or truck, but maintain plenty of distance and don’t whiz by. The gust of air generated when you drive by too quickly can throw a motorcyclist off-balance and even cause a crash.

In spite of the dangers that riding presents, the good news is that the number of fatal crashes involving motorcycles is decreasing. In 2014, two percent fewer people were killed in motorcycle crashes compared to the previous year. If motorcyclists and other drivers each do their part, the roads can continue to become safer for motorcyclists, whether they’re just starting out or have been riding for years.

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