Motorcycle Safety: Head First

Before hitting your motorcycle's starter button, make sure that the nut that connects the handlebar to the seat is neither too tight nor too loose. **By Art Friedman

It's considered good practice to give your motorcycle a quick check-over before you ride. The Motorcycle safety Foundation has developed an acronym for the basic checklist -- T-CLOCK. That stands for: Tires, wheels and brakes; Controls; Lighting and electrical; Oil; Chain and chassis; and Kickstand. Even if you are getting on to continue a ride, before you trust your life to them, it's prudent to give a quick once-over to components, such as tires, which can change suddenly. I found a front brake system that had gone flat for unknown reasons just the other day. I have pulled nails out of tires on a few occasions, sometimes before they actually punctured the tire. On two occasions when picking up recently serviced motorcycles, I have discovered loose drain plugs. It didn't cost anything but a few seconds to look, but the penalty for not doing so could have been severe.

But how about one other vital component? Do you conduct an attitude check of the rider before you hit the starter button? Do you ever stop to ponder whether you are as ready as your bike? Mechanical problems rarely cause motorcycle accidents. Rider errors, on the other hand, causes most accidents and contribute to many more.

Human factors in motorcycle operations could fill a few books (and they have). But for all the attention the subject gets, we motorcyclists still continue to do things that make accident investigators scratch their heads and wonder. There are a few common themes that show up.

The most common method of preparing to have an accident is to have a few drinks first. A bit over half of all fatal motorcycle accidents involves riders who have been drinking. The law prohibits a pilot from flying an airplane within eight hours of drinking. Though flying an airplane involves more judgement before taking action than riding a motorcycle, it rarely requires the instant response to a problem that piloting a motorcycling does. It's rare to have someone turn left in front of your airplane. Yet many riders think nothing of riding home in traffic after a couple of beers.

Illegal drugs also take a toll, but people who use them and ride probably don't read a column like this anyway. But how about legal drugs? There was quite a stir of resentment several years ago when the maker of a cold remedy showed a TV ad with a rider impaired by a cold medication, but few of the protesters pointed out that all vehicle users, motorcyclists included, have a responsibility to know about the stuff they use. If you have taken a cold medication, there is more than one reason to follow a doctor's advice and stay in bed.

There are other ways you can chemically alter yourself, like cleaning parts in strong solvent without gloves or breathing protection. Or standing in a closed garage with the engine running. Even out in the great outdoors you might compromise yourself. Consider a flat-lander who visits Colorado and spends a few hours in the Independence Pass area, stopping to admire the view, take pictures and have lunch. He might be a bit oxygen-deprived by the 11,000-foot-plus altitude, but not recognize it before he has trouble negotiating a corner.

Just riding can cause problems. I sometimes forget that not everyone is used to spending hours on a motorcycle. A few years ago a friend who had joined us for par wat through transcontinental ride apparently fell asleep and ran off the road and through a fence a few days into the ride. Don't plan schedules that your body can't keep.

Long days of motorcycling can be more fatiguing than you might anticipate. Besides the fatigue created by just sitting in one position, you have the wind pressure to combat, vibration, and the occasional adrenaline rush, glare, all of which tire you. The air rushing past can also tire you. You can become dehydrated much more quickly than you would while standing still. The noise of the wind is also tremendously fatiguing, though few people recognize the toll it takes. A good windshield, a top-quality helmet and earplugs can do much to lessen the mental drain created by the noise. So will a quiet exhaust system.

If you are planning a long trip this summer, work up to it by riding to work every day and taking progressively longer weekend rides in the month or two leading up to it. Don't schedule a long ride your first day. The second and third days are probably the ones where you can rack up the most mileage. After that you will probably get more tired each day, unless you take a break for a few days and relax. During the trip, eat lighter breakfasts and lunches that won't make you sleepy, and allow time for breaks. Drink water before you get thirsty. Schedules should be even looser if you are riding with other people. You should all discuss your plans ahead of time and be prepared to accommodate anyone who is feeling tired or stressed. One rider's problem can be dangerous for the entire group.

These days "road rage" is hot topic. Consider a day I had recently. It was the day before I left for Daytona, and I had an overwhelming number of things to finish. That morning El Nino had finally overwhelmed our roof. A camera I'd just bought for the trip wasn't working, and the maker's customer-service people didn't seem to care. The battery in my wife's car had chosen that day to become reluctant. By the time I'd dealt with those pleasures, I was late for a meeting. Naturally, I got behind the president of the local Speed Kills chapter, who apparently felt that anything over 60 percent of the speed limit was an affront to man and nature. It would have been easy to go psycho on her. Instead I converted my annoyance to amusement by shouting to myself in my helmet, "It's the pedal on the right!" When she finally decided to stop completely and get out of the way, I didn't get a half mile before a bozoid in a Buick attempted to bunt the Yamaha and myself across the median. I could have loudly raised questions about his ancestry, and I considered directing him to a Remedial Driver Clinic when he pulled up next to me at a light shortly thereafter, instead I just ignored him.

A friend once told me about a motorcycle crash she'd had. She started the account by saying, "Well, the first thing I did wrong was get mad." Anger and similar emotions, such as fear, have no place on a motorcycle. A high stress level should also disqualify you. If something untoward happens to raise your pulse rate while you're riding, pull over and cool down before continuing. Don't risk your life to express your annoyance. Think about the wife and kids, or make a joke to suppress your anger. If you're stressed out, cool down before you ride.

And don't drive either. I always figure that if I'm not ready to ride a bike, there is no way I'm going to pilot a vehicle that weighs at least five times as much, isn't as maneuverable, takes longer to get places and will do much more damage if I screw up. Too bad not everyone feels the same.

Anyway, before you climb on your motorcycle, check that the nut that connects the handlebar to the seat is neither too tight nor too loose.

Art Friedman
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_For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the _ Street Survival section of

Illustration by John Breakey