May is Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month, and it’s a great time to review safety rules, inspect your bike and buy new equipment. Whether you are a beginner rider, upgrading to a new bike or you’re a seasoned biker club member, exercising safety protocols helps protect you, your passengers and other riders and drivers around you.
If you long for the freedom that comes with the spring weather and riding on the open road, here are some of the best safety tips for group and solo riding.
1. Choose the Right Bike
Motorcycles range from small and light to wide and incredibly heavy. Smaller motorcycles are much safer for beginning riders or riders with small frames.
Large bikes can require a lot of strength to mount and turn, and bikes that are too tall can be a challenge for riders to stop safely. It’s dangerous to try to maintain balance while standing on tiptoes, so get a bike that allows you to stand flat-footed while stopped.
When trying out bikes, pay attention to published specifications like seat heights to help narrow your options. Cruisers and touring bikes tend to have the lowest seat heights, whereas touring bikes can be heavy.
If your balance isn’t as good as it used to be, consider switching to a trike or using your bike with a sidecar. Three-wheeled arrangements may require an additional driver’s license endorsement, but it is rarely difficult to obtain if you have an existing two-wheeled cycle endorsement.
2. Get a New Helmet
In the U.S., the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) has requirements for motorcycle helmet materials and manufacturing. However, many helmets also adhere to the stricter guidelines put out by the Snell Foundation, a leading research organization dedicated to helmet safety.
Replace your helmet every five years or less. The plastics and foams in helmets age and usually start to degrade five years from the manufacture date, so it doesn’t provide the same level of protection over time. Plus, padding may grow thin, causing your helmet to fit too loosely.
If you have dropped your helmet from a significant height, or if you’ve been in a minor accident with it, replace your helmet immediately. The structural integrity may be compromised, which can cause it to malfunction.
Get a full-face, shell-built helmet for maximum protection for the head, neck and chin. Modular helmets are almost as good but don’t have quite as much chin protection. Open face and half-helmets do not protect your jaw and teeth.
If your helmet is in reasonably good shape, continue to inspect it before each ride. Do a point-by-point safety inspection of each part and re-adjust the chin straps so the back of the helmet cannot be pulled up while your chin is pointed down. Once it’s showing any signs of damage or fits too loosely, replace it.
3. Inspect Your Tires
Before each ride, check your tire pressure and measure your tread depth to make sure you’re ready to ride. Small punctures can leak air quickly, and even a slight drop in tire pressure can cause an accident on the road.
Motorcycle tire treads should be between 1/32” and 2/32” deep. Since the middle of the tire wears out first, measure from this point. Check the sidewalls for cracks and other deformations.
Sportbike front tires should last at least 3,600 miles, and rear tires should last 1,800 miles. However, check the manufacturer’s directions carefully, as their recommendations may vary. Larger tires and sidecar tires each have their own specifications as well.
4. Train Your Passengers in the Basics of Riding
Although most adults can be trusted to ride safely as passengers, they may still need training and reminders. Remind them to keep their feet away from the muffler, lean at the same time as you and avoid distracting you. Passengers should keep their feet securely on the footrests until you have fully parked the bike.
If possible, your rider should have their own motorcycle and license and know how to handle a variety of bikes since each is mounted differently.
5. Avoid Wet Roads
Riding a motorcycle in the rain is hazardous, but it’s too easy to overlook wet roads during a morning ride. If the roads are even slightly wet, postpone your ride a few hours if possible to let them dry.
If you must ride on wet roads, reduce your speed and increase following distance. Accelerate and brake slowly and keep an eye out for dry sections of the road to drive on, such as the middle lane of a highway.
6. Wear Proper Gear
Everything from your boots to your gloves needs to provide protection. Leather, Kevlar or high-density ballistic nylon are the best choices for jackets and pants. Look for jackets with heavy padding to help prevent broken bones in case of an accident.
Boots are also important, as they can prevent shattered and crushed foot bones. Foot and leg injuries can result in never being able to ride a motorcycle again. Invest heavily in proper footwear with stiff soles and shin armor.
Pay attention to the finer details of each accessory. Fingered gloves provide more protection than fingerless, and boots with oil-resistant soles offer a better grip. Any embellishments or detailing should be flat so that it won’t get caught on parts of the bike.
Body armor with high-density foam and Kevlar surrounds your shoulders, chest and back. If you crash with body armor on, you may just walk away with a bruised ego.
7. Bring it in for a Tune-Up
Brakes, oil levels, wheels and other parts all need a periodic inspection. Since two-wheeled vehicles are harder to keep under control during sudden mechanical failures, bring your motorcycle in for an inspection even more frequently than you would bring a car in.
Older bikes are more likely to have maintenance issues, but that doesn’t mean you can neglect a newer bike. Get the oil changed and the chain tension checked once every 4,000 miles. You will also need a carburetor tuning and coolant system flushing every two years.
8. Check Lights Every Time
Every U.S. state requires motorcycle headlights to be on at all times, so before heading out, double-check to make sure yours are working correctly. Take the opportunity to check your brake lights and turn signals as well.
If you don’t have one already, get a bike with three headlights for improved visibility. Since the majority of motorcycle accidents are caused by a lack of visibility, having three headlights arranged horizontally can create a distinctive appearance and improve the chances of other vehicles on the road noticing you.
9. Take a Defensive Driving Course
Sharing the road with cars is tricky, but it’s doable if you know what to look for and how to maneuver your bike quickly.
Taking a defensive driving course or other specialized training can be helpful for motorcyclists. Learn how to predict drivers’ movements and make proactive moves to protect yourself–especially at intersections. If you ride with a particular passenger often, have them take the course with you.
Ride defensively, but don’t engage in risky behavior such as lane splitting, quick lane changing or side-by-side highway riding in groups. Always obey the rules of the road and remain aware of your surroundings. Look through turns and keep your head and eyes up at all times.
10. Watch Out for Pedestrians and Animals
Cities may have large numbers of pedestrians at intersections and other crosswalks. However, pedestrians may occasionally appear in the suburbs or the countryside. Use caution when turning, as pedestrians can appear in crosswalks with little notice.
Take extra care around shopping malls, parks, schools and anywhere major events are happening. Even in rural areas, residents sometimes must cross roads to get to their mailboxes.
The biggest issue in rural areas is the presence of animals. Deer can be fatal if you hit them, but even a cat or raccoon can cause a serious accident on a motorcycle. Reduce speed at night, even if it’s outside of deer season.
11. Stay Alert
Lack of sleep can impact your ability to drive safely. Never ride on less than seven hours of sleep, or late at night if you’re feeling drowsy.
Even daytime rides can become dangerous. If you’re hitting mid-afternoon and feeling sleepy during a ride, pull over and wake up with some coffee and stretches. Drink some water, since dehydration can also make it hard to focus on the road.
Never ride under the influence of any alcohol or drugs. Even one drink can be enough to make you drowsy, delaying your reaction time and causing an accident. You must drive more defensively than car drivers, which means your reaction times must be razor-sharp.
12. Use Headsets
Any group ride should use hands-free helmet communication to keep in touch during rides. Even if you’ve decided on a route ahead of time, being able to communicate clearly is important, especially in case of maintenance problems or road hazards.
Cardo Systems headsets can be used under any helmet, so they can easily be loaned to fellow riders. Our headsets use Dynamic Mesh Communications (DMC), a mesh technology that makes Bluetooth syncing easy and crystal clear. Use them with up to 15 riders for easy group coordination.
Helmet communications systems even come in handy during solo rides. Cardo Systems headsets use natural voice operation for controlling audio with simple commands.
13. Plan Carefully
Whether you’re planning a solo run or a group ride, research your route in advance. Try to decide which rest stops you’ll use, what time you want to break or end your ride and if you’ll be turning around anywhere. Although helmet communication can help with changes of plan, it’s still best to keep surprises to a minimum.
Careful planning can help to identify potential problems. For example, there may be a long stretch of highway with no rest areas or gas stations around. Knowing this in advance can help you plan your fill-ups and bathroom breaks.
14. Keep Group Rides Small
Unless all riders are very experienced, groups larger than eight can become challenging to manage. Mechanical issues, navigation problems and even safety concerns can be addressed more quickly in smaller groups. Having a smaller group also makes it easier to communicate and for leaders to keep track of everyone.
Although large rallies can be a lot of fun, they should be broken up into smaller groups to make organization easier. Event organizers should designate experienced group leaders and a sweep rider to stay in the back of each group.
15. Have an Emergency Kit
Solo riders should always carry emergency flares, cash, a rain poncho, a basic toolkit and a flat repair kit. These can make a huge difference if you get stranded far from home or outside of cell phone coverage.
Carrying a fire extinguisher and a full tool kit as an individual rider is pretty difficult, but it makes sense for at least one person to carry these items during group rides. Even if everyone in the group is experienced and knows how to maintain their bike, accidents can still happen. The more bikes there are, the more there’s a chance of a mechanical problem or even an accident.
16. Stay in a Staggered Formation
Instead of riding single-file, have two lines of bikes staggered with sufficient room on either side of them. This allows the group to take up a whole lane for visibility, while also maintaining room on either side of each bike.
A staggered formation makes it safer for each bike to swerve to avoid obstacles and potholes. It also makes it easier for bikes to get back into single-file formation to pass cars or construction areas. Though it may require a little extra training for rookie riders, it’s well worth the effort.
A Year-Round Effort
Motorcycle safety should be a priority every month of the year. Accidents claim thousands of lives annually, and most can be avoided with better safety gear and careful driving. Wet roads, distractions and maintenance issues can contribute to fatal accidents as well.
Spring is a good time to double down on your efforts. Take the opportunity to remind passengers and fellow riders of best practices, and lead by example in your riding. Scrutinize your motorcycle and gear, and replace tires, oil and helmets as needed.
Your bike and gear are an ongoing investment. With careful maintenance and good driving practices, your bike can give you years of safe and thrilling rides anywhere in the country.