The unparalleled exhilaration of a motorcycle has captivated youth and adults alike for the past century. It is also a fact, however, that motorcycles are very dangerous. Their complete lack of collision protection combined with a very high power-to-weight ratio can make riding to the store a game of Russian roulette for the rider lacking caution, skill, or experience. This guide will inform and educate you about the following safety related topics in an effort to keep you alive and riding:
· Buying a motorcycle
· Getting the right gear
· Getting the right mentality
· How to conquer the urban jungle (street survival)
First though, I will put modern motorcycle performance in perspective. Consider this: In the time it takes a fast, production sports car (in the horsepower range of about 220-300hp) to accelerate from 0-100km/h, a good, modern sport bike will do the same and have time left over to stop completely and begin accelerating again. This incredible acceleration, combined with top speeds in the range of 300km/h, and a lack of collision protection, means that you can all too easily kill yourself. The number one way inexperienced motorcyclists die are when they misjudge a corner, go too fast and fly off the side of the road. Scared stiff? Good!
Now, when you walk into a bike shop for the first time, it is very important that you keep a level head. Plain and simple, that 1300cc crotch rocket you’ve got your eye on is no less than suicide. Many shops will simply refuse to sell such a bike to beginners, because they’ve seen the results of these purchases, and I applaud them for their strong character. So walk past the huge, chromed out hogs, the sleek, fast sport bikes and settle your gaze on the old, scratched, beater bikes in the corner. The ones that are less than 500cc. They will be cheap to buy, cheap to insure, and when (that’s right, “when”, not “if”) you crash, you wont care if it gets scraped up. After you have been riding at least a year, and have already had your “learning spills”, go back to the shop and get the bike you really wanted in the first place.
Now that you have your old, powerless beater bike (which will still be a good deal faster than most cars), let’s get you some good protective gear. Number one on our list is a helmet. I don’t care what you think is cool, what your friends say or how huge your ‘fro is, never never never (must I keep going?) get on your bike without a helmet. There is simply too much risk. Things to look for when buying a helmet:
· Snug fit: Your cheeks should be held very tightly in a new helmet; it will form to your face over time
· One piece shell: Helmets with mold lines are made using old technology and are not DOT or SNELL approved (read: unsafe)
· Replaceable visor: Trust me….you want a tinted visor. It looks cool and your eyes won’t be watering from the strain of looking into the sun
There are three other pieces of equipment I highly recommend: a jacket, gloves, and boots. The jacket should be either thick ballistic nylon or thick leather. Jackets with armour in the elbows and back will save you pain and road rash in your “learning crashes”, and especially if you crash at speed. Gloves should have strong enclosures around your wrists and extend at least 2-3 inches into the sleeve of your jacket. Boots should have thin soles that are chemical and oil resistant (more stability when you’re stopped with a foot down). They should also lace up above the ankle. This last point is especially important, because if you crash at speed, your boots can fly off and you will start breaking ankles and losing toes. A good rule of thumb is this: dress like you’re expecting to crash on every ride. Believe me, the one day you decide you don’t need gloves or a jacket, you won’t see that oil slick and you will go down. While your head may be protected (you are wearing your helmet!), that T-shirt, shorts and sandals ensemble may not have quite the protective properties that you’d like. Ouch!
The most imminent danger for you while riding your bike is not the cars around you. It’s not oil patches on the road, nor is it random chance. It is the way you see yourself as a rider. For those who have seen the movie Top Gun, you must think of yourself as “Iceman”. Calm, cool, collected, with focus unbreakable. If you start riding as a “Maverick” hot shot, you will get hurt or dead, simple as that. All you have to do is stay realistic about your riding skills and experience, and then apply that to your riding. The first time you clamor aboard your new machine, you should be practicing riding in a straight line and not stalling the engine, not thinking about doing power slides and wheelies. As you gain experience….sure, doing a wheelie on a deserted road isn’t going to hurt anyone except you. Stunts and speed are some of the things that draw us to motorcycles in the first place, but many people partake in these activities when they have too little experience, and without respect for proper location. Pulling wheelies in traffic or pushing the bike to its limits anywhere but on a racetrack are unacceptable, and unrealistic. Again, be realistic, and you will be that much safer.
As a motorcyclist, you will spend most of your time-sharing roads with cars, trucks, and the like. The most common motorcycle accident in traffic is when a rider is going through an intersection and a car turns left at the same time. “I didn’t even see him!”, the driver says. This is our problem. With such a small surface area in comparison with cars, and often weaker headlights, we are much harder to spot in a pinch, or when Joe Blow in his big truck is on his cell phone. Therefore, most traffic strategies revolve around making you seen and heard. Now I will tell you something many people would frown upon: be aggressive. It sounds absurd. You should be defensive on a bike, right? I guarantee if you drive defensively, letting cars decide where you go and when, your risk factor is doubled. If you glide through traffic like a shark through a school of fish, maintaining an assertive lane position (more on that in a minute), revving the engine a little bit higher than you need to, people will notice you. They may get miffed that you’re making extra noise and speeding slightly, but at least they won’t move into your lane and force you off the road because they didn’t see you. Keeping your speed slightly above the average traffic speed prevents people from “sneaking” up on you from behind. You will find that your mirrors are almost useless on any bike, and constant shoulder checks will have you looking behind you when a car may be slamming on the brakes in front of you. While in traffic your lane position is vital. Always place yourself in a position where cars cannot even think about sharing a lane with you. For example on a four lane highway, regardless of which lane you are in you should position yourself close to the white line between the two lanes on your side. If drivers see an opening in the lane, they will often take it and force you off the road. Don’t give them this opportunity. You must also remember that cars are not as quick to stop as you are. If you can at all avoid it, don’t apply maximum breaking force in traffic. You may make the stop, but the van behind you will smash into you and you’ll get a free ride in an ambulance.
One final rule: whenever passing another motorcyclist, a polite wave is required. It’s somewhat of an unwritten law, and almost like a secret handshake. Those silly fools in the cars don’t know what they’re missing.