by Victor Wanchena
Safe riding is always good riding. Riding safely is mostly a matter of knowledge and attitude, and riding safely doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, riding safely could add years of enjoyment to your life.
Simply put, here are 10 habits to practice that will help keep you safe and make riding more enjoyable.
1. Be ready in mind, body, and bike.
There are three ways riders should ready themselves for a ride. First, there is mental readiness. Are you ready to concentrate on riding? If you are angry or preoccupied by something, taking your bike out may not be the best idea. In an aggravated or distracted state you are much more likely to be involved in a crash or do something foolish. A proper attitude will not only make you safer but your spouse and co-workers are less likely to plot against you when you’re happy. Put your worries in your saddlebags and focus on riding the bike. Limbering up mentally, by taking time to focus on the task ahead, visualizing your route, and being ready for trouble spots is great way to prepare.
It goes without saying that drugs and alcohol should be avoided at all costs, but I’m going to say it anyway. Alcohol affects your judgment, reaction time, and balance, among other things. Loss of control of these things can easily mean your bike will soon be lying on its side. You might even get to ride in the back of a squad car. Even simple cold and allergy medications can seriously impair your riding, making you sleepy or sluggish. Safe motorcycling is demanding–don’t demand more of yourself than you’re capable of supplying.
Second, you must be physically prepared. Start with good protective gear. This means a helmet, gloves, eye protection, jacket, long pants and sturdy boots or shoes. Wear gear that is designed for use on a motorcycle, not a beach or a fancy nightclub. The people you see wearing a helmet, a smile and not much else are not well protected. Likewise, folks in eight layers of leather, kevlar and body armor but no helmet are not well protected. It is a whole package, and you need to wear it every time. If it’s too hot to wear protective clothing, it’s too hot to ride, period.
Pretend your gear is a big helping of mashed potatoes and you are the gravy inside the little bowl you made with your potatoes. If you remove a bit of the potatoes, the gravy can leak out and mix with your Jell-O. (No, thanks.) That’s what happens without all your gear, the unprotected bits could leak out.
Try not to choose all black gear. Sure, it looks cool, but bright colors will help you stand out in traffic.
On top of that, stay healthy. Well-balanced meals, plenty of water, and minimal amounts of fatty food and caffeine lend themselves to safe riding. Physical fitness will help your riding in countless ways–comfort on longer rides, better and sharper reflexes, plus, you look better in leather! Also try some stretching exercises before you ride. Limbering up physically before a ride helps you stay in the saddle longer.
Third, you must make sure that your bike is up for the job. This includes not only fixing the parts that break, but doing all the preventive maintenance that is so easy to skip: regular oil changes, properly adjusted controls, a properly adjusted chain and suspension, good tires, working turn signals, you get the idea. A few dollars spent ahead of time will keep your bike going for years. Plus, the best way to keep the buzzards from circling when you break down in the desert is to simply not break down.
With all that routine maintenance out of the way, do a quick walk around of your bike as you get ready for your ride. Look for leaks, loose bolts, tire problems, or any thing else out of place. And not to sound like your mother, but when was the last time you checked your tire’s air pressure? If it has been more than a week it’s been too long. And one more thing: no running with scissors!
2. Be smooth.
The sign of a really great rider is smoothness–and I don’t mean Barry White, smooth-with-the-ladies kind of smooth. The smooth I am referring to is the kind which can balance a cup of coffee on the gas tank, take a 40-mile ride and never spill a drop. It takes plenty of concentration, but smooth control of your ride has plenty of specific benefits.
You are less likely to lose traction due to an overzealous use of the throttle. Holding your throttle wide open takes no skill at all. If that was all it took to be fast, we would all be world-class riders. Look at racing: the fastest racers in the world are always described as being smooth, able to guide their bikes around a track without making abrupt control inputs. Good control inputs are simply rolling on the throttle gently as you accelerate and gently rolling off before you brake, not winding it out in first gear then chopping the throttle as you hit a corner.
The same applies to your brakes. If you instantly grab a big handful of brake you may get a nasty surprise when your bike begins to travels sideways.
This also includes matching the engine to the proper gear and road speed. Having your bike in the right gear keeps the power for accelerating or engine braking close at hand, while also keeping the bike running along smoothly.
You maintain your best traction when your inputs are smooth, including your steering inputs. Harsh or abrupt pressure on the handlebars can upset the suspension. Smooth, firm countersteering keeps the bike on your desired line and creates little instability in the suspension.
Your tires, brakes, suspension, and bearings will last longer, too. Smooth riding makes for less wear and tear on your bike. So remember, smooth is as smooth does, and it can be a beautiful thing to see.
3. Know where you are.
When it does come time to make an emergency maneuver, you need to know what’s around you. In fact, this is good information to have at all times. Being aware of what is in your immediate area will always help you guide your ride safely. Failure to be aware of your position in relation to those around you can cause dire consequences when faced with the need to make a quick lane change. Other vehicles have a nasty habit of sneaking in to places you can’t see them, like the blind spots over your shoulders. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine a mini-van disappearing, but it can happen. Once in that blind spot, you can find that a vehicle is easy to forget until you try to turn and find yourself mere inches from a bumper and big tires. Pay special attention to what’s in front of you, especially oncoming traffic. It’s easy to disregard traffic traveling in the opposite direction but that is where your greatest threat lies. Be ready for the car that turns left in front of you.
4. Use your head to look where you’re going.
This may sound slightly remedial but it is an under-appreciated habit of a skilled rider. It becomes even more important in corners where riders tend to be mesmerized by the patch of pavement directly in front of their bike. As you corner, keep your head and eyes up, looking through the corner as far as you safely can, at least three to four seconds ahead. (If you can’t see that far ahead, you need to slow down.) You’ll be surprised by what you may see. Couple this new-found vigilance with an escape route (should something wicked your way come) and your chances of getting intimately familiar with the pavement are cut dramatically. Often a good game to play is the “What if … ?” game. Try to anticipate that car turning left in front of you or a spaceship crash landing in your path. Hey, if it happens on TV, it could happen to you, right?
5. When your line of sight or path of travel becomes restricted, reduce your speed and use great care.
On the surface this seems to be a no-brainer, but think back to the last time a car you were following began to slow down. Did you slow and maintain a safe following distance or did you end up tailgating until the car turned or stopped? This is a very common mistake that many of us are guilty of committing. Unless “the force” is strong with you (there are not many Jedi Knights on this planet), it is tough to avoid what you cannot see. I bent two rims on a bike once because I was following so close to the vehicle in front of me that I was unable to avoid the gaping pothole that fell out from under the car at me. It was an expensive lesson that I will not forget. Simply put, if you can’t see, slow down. Rain and fog are examples of situations where less speed equals more reaction time. Curvy forest or mountain roads are fun, but because their sightlines are shorter, you need to reduce your speed to be prepared for surprises like deer, big rocks, and enormous filthy vehicles straddling the centerline.
6. Before proceeding through any intersection, check left, check front, check right, then check left again.
This is a fine example of managing your priorities. As you enter an intersection, whether turning or proceeding through, you need to know what your hazards are and where they can come from. The highest priority is to check your left. Why left? The left is the highest priority because that is the lane of traffic you first cross and therefore would be the first to impact you. After the left you continue to check the intersection in a clockwise pattern. So next is the front because the vehicle coming toward you is a threat if it turns left in front of you. It is worthwhile to note the bulk (77%) of two-vehicle motorcycle crashes occur from impacts coming from this direction. Then you check to the right. If slowing or turning you check behind you (we’ll look at this more in habit #7) then back around to the left again. You check the left twice since in the time it takes to check all other directions the situation could have changed to the left.
7. Whenever you slow, first check your rearview mirror.
Too often, what is out of sight is out of mind. As you slow down for any turn or a stop, you need to be aware of what is happening behind you. This is part of your general awareness of what is happening in your surroundings on the road. A quick look into your rearview mirrors will give you an idea of what traffic is doing behind you. The habit to get into is to check your mirrors every five to seven seconds, and also any time you roll off the throttle. Combine that with gentle application of both brakes and rarely will a stop be anything more than routine. A good reminder for this is that it is a proven fact flying insects do not check their rearview mirrors and you see what happens to them on your face shield.
There is a big exception to this. When you have to do a quick or emergency stop your priority is in front of you, but once that is taken care of it is doubly important to check your backside in case the driver following you was caught off guard by your sudden stop. Some riders use a label maker to put a reminder on their speedometer to “check mirrors”.
8. Keep a 2-4 second following distance.
Following too close to the vehicle in front of you is arguably one of the greatest sins committed by most riders on a regular basis. I find myself inching up on the bumper of the vehicle in front of me all the time. Usually it’s only because I want to drive faster than the car in front of me allows, but I have paid the price both in money and nervous close calls because I gave myself little to no reaction time by following too closely.
When traveling on a highway, the minimum distance to keep between you and the vehicle in front of you is 2 seconds, but that is the bare minimum. A 2-second following distance is like buying the cheapest bullet -proof vest you can find: sure, it’s protection, but if you really want to be safe, you’ll upgrade. That upgrade would be to a 4-second following distance. Keep in mind these distances are needed on clear sunny days. At night or during inclement weather you need to increase your safety margin. You should maintain these cushions as best as possible including the time you find yourself riding in traffic with a group of motorcycles.
To figure your distance correctly pick a point on the road, like a sign or a seam in the pavement, watch the vehicle ahead of you pass it and count the seconds it takes you to reach that point. The number of seconds you count is your following distance.
If you have trouble with this and just want to estimate the distance in feet use this formula: at 70 mph you travel approximately 105 feet a second, so 2 seconds times 105 feet would be 210 feet. But remember, that is the bare minimum. More is always better.
9. Ride with a great attitude.
This is one of the best ways to enjoy riding more and to effect a change in the general public’s sometime dim view of motorcycling. A bad attitude will be reflected in your riding and a preoccupation with whatever made you grumpy will only distract you from the job at hand: safely riding your motorcycle.
On anything other than wide open country roads, you have a choice while riding: ride with the flow of traffic, or fight it. There are often times when traffic is not moving at a speed you would choose. When this happens poor riders zig-zag through the slower traffic, tailgating, cutting people off and generally irritating everyone on the road, reinforcing the perception that all motorcyclists are daredevil speed demons with no respect for mom, apple pie or the law.
Option two is you can try to be a courteous rider demonstrating what a responsible person you are, “Look ma, I’m all growed up now.” It is my opinion that nothing harms the image of motorcycling more than a rider aggressively weaving through traffic on a motorcycle. It may impress 14-year-old boys being shuttled to little league, but they don’t vote or call their elected representatives, although their parents sometimes do.
When you ride you are an ambassador of motorcycling to the general public and it is your responsibility to ride accordingly.
The very best time to practice these habits is every time you go out for a ride. Spend at least a few minutes every ride concentrating on each of these habits and soon they will become second nature to you. Don’t focus so hard on practicing that you lose sight of the job at hand. Instead integrate practice into your normal riding routine.
Taking any of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) courses is always a good idea. If you are newer to riding, the Basic RiderCourse (BRC) will give you a good foundation of riding skills and help you break any bad habits. The Experienced Rider Course (ERC) is a great idea even if you’ve been riding awhile. Even people who think there isn’t anything left to learn about motorcycling come away with something from either of these classes. The cornerstones to safe motorcycling are knowledge, training, attitude, and practice. They are what make a good rider.