Saturday, September 22, 2007

9 Riding Tips

According to various sources including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the typical motorcyclist rides less than 2000 miles per year--other sources indicate much less. Thus, most motorcyclists don't ride enough to develop good riding skills much less good riding-safety awareness.

Up until two years ago, I averaged more than 18,000 miles/year and in the last two my riding is down to 15,000 miles/year--so even using the low figure, I ride about 7 times more than most riders. So, what follows are 9 tips I've picked up that have helped me stay safe even when riding in the non-motorcycle friendly Washington DC metro area. I provide them here in the hopes that some of you may find them useful. If you're thinking of buying a motorcycle, please include these tips with the other safety information you're gathering.

In my priority order of importance:

  1. Take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation beginner's skills course.
  2. For the price of the course (a good investment IMHO), you get to ride someone else's bike (so don't worry about dropping it!) and learn a good deal about what it takes to ride safely on the street. Despite what you might hear, this is not a motorcycle familiarization class--if you don't know how to ride, don't assume you'll learn from this class. It's best to know riding basics before you take the class. Riding a motorcycle is not hard: if you know how to ride a bicycle, you're more than half ½ way there. Get someone willing to show you the motorcycle mechanics: the clutch, gears, brakes, throttle, etc. Find a large parking lot and practice riding. Riding a motorcycle is just like a lot of other things: 90% attitude & 10% mechanics. My then teenage son learned to first ride a motorcycle after about 10 minutes of instruction on a 625lb Honda American Classic Edition!
    Note: If you can't pass the MSF beginner's course, you should not ride a motorcycle.

  3. Assume every car you can see is trying to run you over.
  4. Not that they could run you over, or that they might run you over, but that they're trying to run you over. Never forget that even the smallest car is more than a 1000lbs heavier than the largest motorcycle. The laws of physics do not favor the motorcyclist in any sort of car / motorcycle encounter.

  5. Ride with your high-beam on during the day.
  6. The intent is to be seen. Riding with your headlight high beam on may irritate some drivers, but at least they see you!
    Legal disclaimer: Driving with your high beam on may be illegal. I'm not a lawyer. But I'm also not alone in believing this to be a good practice.

  7. Say to yourself, "Just ride the bike."
  8. Modern motorcycles with good tires can be leaned at heart-stopping angles without falling. If you find yourself in the middle of a sweeping turn going a little too fast for comfort, don't panic. Just ride the bike. In almost every case, you'll make it through fine. Trust me.

  9. Your front brake is your friend.
  10. You should use both front and rear brakes for every stop. However, many seasoned riders use only the front brake in most non-panic situations. A bike's front brake, just as with cars, provides more than 75% of the braking power. New riders are sometimes reluctant to use the front brake probably because they falsely believe they'll flip over the handlebars. This probably stems from previous experiences on bicycles. To go over the front bars using only the front brake requires a concerted effort. Unlike on a bicycle, the center of mass for a motorcycle and rider is relatively low. Physics is on your side here. If you're not in the habit of using your front brake, you're like to have a close encounter of the unwanted kind.

  11. Acceleration is your friend.
  12. Even small-engined anemic bikes will out accelerate all but the most potent cars. Use this to your advantage. In some cases, it may be easier to avoid a dangerous situation by speeding up and getting out of the way rather than slowing down and hoping the "problem" passes you by.

  13. Be conscious of lane position.
  14. Imagine a single lane divided into 3 portions: right, center, and left. Avoid the center portion because that's where oil, antifreeze, and other fluids from cars tends to drip and therefore can be slippery--especially when it first starts to rain. Most riders don't do this, but I suggest riding in the portion of the lane (right or left) that's nearest the center of the road way. That is, if your traveling in the left lane of a 2 lane divided highway, ride in the right portion of that lane. If you're in the right lane, ride in the left portion. This positioning keeps you towards the center of the road way and makes you most visible to cars. Further, it provides you the most room in case you need to make an evasive maneuver away from the center. Many riders avoid this lane position because they think they want to stay as far away from cars as possible. This can be dangerous if a driver, who may not see you, tries to merge into the lane with you.

    Related: I avoid riding in the center lane of a 3 (or more) lane divided highway. Riding in the center lane means you need to watch cars coming from all directions. If you stay in the right or left lane, you reduce the area you have to scan.

  15. Never get between a car and an exit ramp.
  16. Invariably, the car driver will suddenly remember that the exit you are now passing is the one they want. No doubt you've seen this while driving in your car and it appears the forgetful driver doesn't see the car between him and the exit ramp. This driver will almost certainly not see a motorcycle. Because of this, I tend not ride in the right lane on interstate highways. So, this tip coupled with the previous suggests you should avoid the center of a lane, avoid the center lane (if it exists), and avoid the right lane. That means ride in the left lane. So as not to be too much of an irritant to drivers, keep you speed up!

  17. If you're a beginner, don't ride in the rain.
  18. With good tires, you can ride almost as fast, lean almost as far, and brake almost as hard in the rain as on dry pavement. If you have rain gear, even getting wet can be minimized to a minor inconvenience. So, what's the big deal with riding in the rain? Visibility--or lack thereof. A driver's ability to see you, and just as important, your ability to see them, can be severely diminished in the rain. As a test, turn your windshield wipers off in your car the next time it's raining and you'll see how hard it is to see.
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