Have you ever had a close call on your motorcycle? Have you had one of those pucker moments where you have to pull over and collect yourself before you ride any further? I know I have. Frankly, I think we all know that motorcycles can be dangerous. According to the National Motorcycle Institute, “driving a motorcycle is approximately 27 times more dangerous than driving a car, mile for mile.” Yet, here we all are, accepting the risk. No matter what machine you ride, we all know the rush and freedom of twisting that throttle and feeling the wind and road rush by. But how can we make ourselves safer, and increase our chances of staying alive on the highway? Turns out, there’s a lot we can do as riders to keep ourselves out of harm’s way. From gear and helmets, to riding habits, here are a few tips and tricks to extend your riding career:
1WEAR THE APPROPRIATE RIDING GEAR.
Now, I know we’re all adults and we make our own decisions regarding style and comfort. However, motorcycle specific gear is designed with the rider in mind. Flannels, vests, and skate shoes may look stylish, but they simply do not offer the same level of protection as a motorcycle specific setup. Good riding gear is designed with vents and liners for temperature control, as well as armor plates to decrease impact severity and abrasion. Whether it’s leather or Kevlar, gear always holds up better against pavement than your naked skin. There’s a plethora of colors and styles available, from super sporty and aggressive jackets to touring suits with all the pockets you can imagine. According to the Journal for Accident Analysis and Prevention, riders wearing body armor were 73% less likely to suffer open wound injuries during a crash situation. Boots and gloves also often get overlooked as unnecessary pieces of equipment, but the truth is they reduce injury and fatigue as well. A good over-the-ankle boot reduces injury to those sensitive knobby bones. According to Accident Analysis and Prevention, riders wearing boots and gloves were 53% less likely to suffer foot/ankle injuries, with similar statistics for fingers. That literally means that simply choosing hiking boots over Chuck Taylors and wearing some sort of glove cuts your risk of injury in HALF. Choose gear that suits your riding habits, and wear it all the time. A good mantra here is “Dress for the slide, not the ride.”
2WEAR AN APPROVED HELMET.
This seems simple, but there are still many riders who disregard the safety a helmet offers because they “want the freedom of the wind.” Crash studies like the one conducted by Dietmar Otte have consistently proven the safety benefits of helmets, specifically the full face. A whopping 34.6% of ALL impact damage sustained to a helmet takes place on the chin bar section. Do you like your teeth? Beyond that, there’s the comfort gained from reduced wind noise (persistent wind can result in hearing loss) as well as reduced exposure to wind and elements, which can dehydrate and injure your skin. Even in triple digit heat, a proper full face helmet will keep you comfortably riding longer with vents for airflow and a polarized lens. Sure, you won’t feel the wind in your hair, but you’ll still have hair after a crash because the pavement didn’t grind it all off. Morbid, but true. Most helmets weigh an average of only 3 pounds, so they won’t negatively affect your neck muscles. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, for every 100 motorcyclists killed in crashes while not wearing a helmet, 37 could have been saved had they worn helmets. So, when you mount up, take a moment to consider those that love you, and grab your brain bucket.
As with anything in life, if you are passionate about riding you’ll study the craft. Riding skills require constant tuning and honing to stay sharp. Everything we do on a bike is a perishable skill, from shifting to braking to turning, and if we don’t practice our precision fades. There are literally hundreds of schools that offer classes to improve your riding skills, located all over the country. Schools like Total Control Training or the Motorcycle Safety Foundation offer tons of classes at varying skill levels. For example, Total Control Training offers a basic level course, an intermediate course with emphasis on obstacle avoidance type maneuvers, 2 levels of advanced courses focusing on body positioning and proper cornering, and a track clinic specifically designed to bring it all together in a controlled environment. They offer these courses across the United States, so location is no excuse to slack off on furthering your riding skill. Thinking “I’ve been riding X amount of time, I know my stuff” is exactly the kind of overconfidence that gets riders killed. As riders we can become complacent, comfortable, even lazy as we ride. We often believe that experience and anecdotal evidence trumps the need for education. However, statistics prove that when we forget to keep our heads on a swivel, bad things happen. It may take 15 years of riding without a single incident before you finally become one of the been-downs instead of the gonna-go-downs. But, when you take even a single course specific to motorcycling, your mind will be blown at the things you didn’t know. Remaining teachable and open to trying new things to improve your skills is key. So, if you’ve had a close call or have simply hit a plateau where you feel you aren’t improving, take a class.
4 STAY FED AND HYDRATED.
The dangers of dehydration and low blood sugar are myriad, and only get worse when you’re in the saddle. Per the Iron Butt Association, fatigue can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from lane discipline to sleepiness to speed fluctuations. Dehydration symptoms include thirst, less frequent urination, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, increased heart rate, fever, and irritability. The solution to this, staying hydrated, seems simple but can be difficult while riding long distances. Therefore, many endurance riders wear modular helmets and use cup holders, to keep beverages close to hand. Drinking fluids even when you don’t necessarily feel thirsty, such as when it’s cold or rainy, can keep those symptoms at bay. Low blood sugar has a long list of symptoms itself, which include blurred vision, mood changes, headache, hunger pangs, shaking, sweating, skin tingling, trouble concentrating, loss of consciousness, seizure, and even coma. Ask any diabetic about their routine and you’ll begin to understand how important blood sugar levels can be. The answer here is just as simple, have some sort of snack either before you mount up or on hand for longer rides. Plan food breaks into your longer rides, whether you’re going up and down the same canyon 10 times or traveling across state lines. Something as simple as granola bars or hard candies stuffed into a jacket pocket can keep your blood sugar on an even keel, which will keep you comfortable and riding longer. Staying fed and hydrated will keep you physically and mentally sharp, which will allow you to focus on your riding.
4READ THE AVAILABLE LITERATURE.
Read the available literature. This is another part of rider education that often gets overlooked. Something as simple as cracking open your Motorcycle Operator’s Manual can illuminate things that will make you much more intimate with your specific make and model. Go a step further and pick up the maintenance book for your bike, and you’ll begin to know your bike’s inner workings. Wrenching on your bike can also give insight into aspects of your own character, helping you understand your own capacity for patience, reaction under pressure, and willingness to learn. Beyond that, there are hundreds of books out there written by highly skilled and experienced riders, designed to help you improve your awareness and mastery of the machine you love. Books like Twist of the Wrist or Total Control emphasize various aspects of riding. Twist of the Wrist, for example, has 2 different volumes dedicated to road racing technique, and goes into serious detail about body positioning and mechanics. Total Control is a more circumspect novel, dedicated to all aspects of riding, and covers everything from mental strategies to keep clearheaded and focused to specifics about physics such as tire profile and suspension tuning. Just as a doctor has shelves of books on anatomy and biology, so should we fill our shelves with books about our favored craft. Regardless of your interests related to motorcycles, there is a book out there tailored to you.
As riders, we can be quick to blame “cagers” for our problems on the road. We rage at the idiots who don’t see us, or cut us off, or inject their vehicles into our carefully organized runs. Too often, we forget that our safety on the road comes down to our own ability to interpret the signs around us and be alert for danger. The things I’ve listed above are a good start to keeping yourself safer, but that’s just the beginning. No matter what kind of riding you do, whether it’s track, mountain cruises, or long distance touring, YOU determine your level of safety on the road. My hope is that you’ll take the tools I’ve offered up, and add them to your toolbox. Keep your knees in the breeze, stay out of trouble, and catch me on the road!
Written By: Justin “Redial” Kiernan-Safety Instructor
See this article and more in our May/June issue!