Motorcycling - Advice For Novices - Street Survival

Much has been said and written about the recent and continuing growth of motorcycling. There are lots of new and returning riders hitting the streets (hopefully not literally), and we hear from many of them. The typical query pertains to a choice of bike or gear, but with increasing frequency I hear from new and born-again riders who ask what they can do to stay safe.

Most of these riders have heard and applied the usual advice about taking a new rider course from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation or a state agency, and they have gotten licensed, but they recognize that a beginner's course is just the tip of the iceberg, and that learning how to control a motorcycle is much different from learning how to operate it safely.

The concern is quite valid. New motorcyclists crash more than those who have been riding for some time, and the first six months appear to be especially dangerous. So what actions can a new rider (or for that matter, an experienced one) take to make life on two wheels safer?

Be Conspicuous
Many motorcyclists will be surprised to find this at the top of my list of things to do to stay safe, but the key issue in surviving among those much larger vehicles is to be seen by their drivers. My bright orange helmet does more to keep me out of harm's way than any other traffic strategy. It is also the easiest measure to exercise, since it is completely passive once it's on.

Bright colors may not be stylish, but they are good for your health (if only by keeping your blood pressure down). When other drivers see you, you spend a lot less time demonstrating your swerving, braking and swearing skills.

Black, by far the most popular color for motorcyclists, isn't the worst possible hue, but it's way down there. Olive drab, gray, camouflage patterns and other dull colors are worse, but black doesn't jump out at all, and at night it is the worst choice. The best options are those eye-catching colors in the red-to-yellow range, and they should be bright; a dull yellow is not as effective as a bright yellow. Fluorescent colors are the most effective. I have even seen eye-catching fluorescent blue and green helmets. Finally, you want a big, uninterrupted section of that color. A complicated scheme of several bright colors is less effective than a continuous patch of a single bright shade.

Where should that bright color be? Since most collisions occur with a vehicle that started out in front of you, it should be on the front of the vehicle or rider. A yellow touring fairing (such as that on the Gold Wing 1800) is hard to overlook, but a small patch of yellow in the same area isn't as effective. More likely, you will wear your conspicuity. The Hurt Report found that riders wearing bright jackets crashed less frequently. Recently, a New Zealand study reported that riders who wore white helmets instead of black helmets got punted off the road less often. It noted that bright colors seemed to be even more accident-preventative. From my experience, a really bright helmet is the best approach. Wearing an equally bright jacket seemed to have less effect in traffic than the bright helmet, even though the jacket's eye-catching area was larger. My presumption is that the helmet's height has some effect, since people can see it over cars around you. Reflective panels on a helmet or jacket are eye-catching at night.

Use your headlight, too. Running the high beam during the day (but not at night in urban scenarios!) makes you stand out, and you can further employ your headlight's eye-grabbing tendency by using a headlight modulator, which flashes the high beam.

Wear a Helmet
No matter how careful you are, things beyond your control can conspire to pitch you down the road. When that happens, the only thing that will make a major difference in your future is whether you chose to wear a good helmet. The choice between no helmet (or a novelty beanie helmet, which is almost the same thing) and a basic DOT helmet can be the difference between "living" as a vegetable or having a normal life. A full-face helmet can further improve your odds, and if you spend time shopping, you can find one that is actually more comfortable than riding bareheaded. Although a jacket, boots, gloves, etc. can reduce your injuries, those are not likely to attenuate injuries of the life-changing sort, though a back protector could conceivably prevent a spinal injury. I'd say gloves, which might prevent grinding off part of a finger, are the second most important apparel items, but all protective gear is worth the price because it makes riding more comfortable.

Practice, Practice, Practice
You can practice your skills every time you ride. Brake hard when you come to a stop without a car behind you. Practice weaving quickly between lane lines or around tar spots. Cruiser riders should be comfortable dragging their bikes so they can use the available lean angle when they need it. These exercises will make you better able to ride your bike to its limits in a crisis.

Ride Every Day
A new rider's skills should be exercised frequently. If you only ride on weekends, your abilities will atrophy between trips, and you will have to rebuild them the next time you head out. Riding to work or riding every evening or morning will make you a better rider in fewer miles than just riding occasionally.

Avoid Riding With Groups
Going somewhere with a group probably seems safer, but the dynamics of group riding make it much more risky than riding solo. You may also have to deal with riders who are less skilled than you are or have been drinking. Wait until you are completely comfortable on your bike before taking on this challenge.

Back to School
Plan on taking an Experienced RiderCourse within a year (preferably about six months) after you start riding, or right away if you are returning. Remember that there will probably be a waiting list, and you may want to do this even before you start riding. This course will help you expand your skills and give you a chance to have your riding habits critiqued before bad habits take hold.

Read Up
There are plenty of books to help you evaluate and expand your riding skills and strategies. I'd recommend The Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Guide to Motorcycling Excellence from Whitehorse Press (800/531-1133). There are also good books by Keith Code, David Hough, Nick Ienatsch and others (check one of the online bookstores), and most of the past versions of this column are available on our Web site ( in the Street Survival section. These sources are great food for thought, practice and coaching. Be wary of what you read on the Internet, however. There is a lot of BS out there. Assertions that helmets interfere with vision or hearing or break necks are disproved by valid research, as is the popular claim that loud pipes save lives.

Approach New Situations Slowly
Some common motorcycling activities require adaptation and learning. In addition to riding with a group, these include carrying a passenger and traveling long distances on your motorcycle. Find a safe place to practice carrying a passenger before you venture into traffic. Take a few short trips on your bike before you head for the third state over, and allow time on your initial long rides for repacking, dealing with aches and making adjustments. Long trips are great for becoming intimate with your motorcycle, however, so don't avoid them.

Keep Your Bike in Good Shape
Tires are the most commonly ignored component, so make sure the pressures are per the manual. However, loose chains and improperly adjusted clutch, brake and control positions can also affect your motorcycle control. You might want to ask your dealer's service department about these things.

Don't Drink and Ride
This should go without saying, but I will anyway. Even one beer is too much. Sometimes the difference between a ride in the ambulance and merely elevating your respiratory rate is millimeters and microseconds of reaction time. Save it for after the ride-and well before the next one.

If you habitually do these things, your skills will improve quicker than most new riders, and you will develop habits that will serve you as long as you ride.