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Motorcycle Accidents: How to Avoid and Survive Them

Gabriel RodriguezMay 17, 2018

For many riders, motorcycling isn’t just a simple hobby or method of transportation–it’s an essential part of their lifestyle. Motorcyclists often describe riding as freeing and therapeutic, even something akin to reaching a zen state when journeying across long distances. Yet there’s no denying it: motorcycling is a dangerous activity. In fact, riding a motorcycle is as dangerous as it has ever been, reaching historic heights in recent years with 5,286 motorcyclist fatalities during 2016 in the US alone. Although cyclists aren’t always to blame, the fact remains that riding on a motorcycle will always be more dangerous than riding in a typical automobile; motorcycles are less stable, less visible to other drivers, and lack the protection of enclosed vehicles with their airbags and steel passenger compartments.

The risks won't deter those who have connected with their motorcycle from riding. After all, many riders grow incredibly fond of their motorcycles and join groups where they form long-lasting bonds with fellow riders. But there are certainly many ways in which motorcyclists can reduce the probability they will end up badly injured–or worse. Let’s go through some of the ways you can avoid being in an accident and, in the case of an unpreventable crash, how to survive it and what steps to take after.

How to Avoid Motorcycle Accidents

There's a saying that goes "there are two kinds of motorcyclists: those who've been in an accident and those who haven't–yet." Though accidents are not inevitable, they are frequently caused by factors outside the rider's control. But there are things riders can do to lessen the likelihood and mitigate the severity of motorcycle accidents. Here are a few of the things you can take into your own hands to help keep yourself safe:

1. Educate Yourself

Before riding in public, take a motorcycle safety course (or a few). These courses are offered all across the US and teach you how to avoid accidents--and, if an accident is unavoidable, how to crash your bike as safely as possible. Once you've been instructed by experts, don’t make any assumptions about the area you are riding in. Steep curves, narrow lanes, and heavy pedestrian activity are all things that could cause an unsuspecting rider to lose control. Lastly, be aware of the relative danger riding a motorcycle poses. If you know the risks, you are more likely to make a conscious effort to drive more carefully in order to prevent becoming another statistic–just don’t let that paralyze you with fear on the road, either.

2. Pay Attention to the Road

Keep your eyes peeled! Road obstructions like potholes, gravel, and other debris can be the cause of serious accidents. Never zone out when driving, even on less traveled roads. Bear in mind that both you and every other drivers on the road suffer from some level of inattentional blindness,  the medical term for looking but not seeing. Distracted drivers are especially susceptible to this condition. So try to avoid people who are multitasking or driving erratically. And don’t assume a car can see you–always play it safe when other vehicles, particularly larger ones, are nearby. 

Some motorcycle experts advise playing a continuing mental game of "What If." What if the driver's door of that parked car abruptly swings open? What if that car next to me on the expressway starts drifting into my lane? What if that person standing at the intersection doesn't see me coming and starts to cross the street? What if that truck heading toward me makes a left turn directly in front of me? Gaming out these situations in your head will help you react faster if they actually materialize. Shaving even a tenth of a second off your reaction time may make the difference between a near-miss and a catastrophic collision.

3. Avoid Substance Use

This should be a given, but the fact is that 25% of motorcycle riders in fatal crashes were alcohol-impaired (a higher percentage of alcohol impairment than any other type of motor vehicle driver involved in fatal accidents). Don’t ride your bike under the effects of alcohol, marijuana, or any other substance that may affect your reaction time. Not only is it illegal, but also highly irresponsible.

But while illegal drugs and alcohol are obvious culprits in motorcycle crashes, there are less-obvious  substances that can get you into trouble on a motorcycle. Cold medicines can make you drowsy--a particular risk when you're riding long distances and the thrum of the exhaust and the road lulls you into a state of sleepiness. ED medications such as Viagra and Cialis can cause dizziness and blurred vision. Drugs taken to combat hypertension can cause lightheadedness and balance problems. If you're on any prescription meds, read the package insert to make sure that they won't cause problems in your alertness, vision, or balance.

4. Keep Your Motorcycle in Good Shape

Take your motorcycle to routine checkups, even if it looks fine. Trained mechanics are able to identify issues with your bike before they become serious problems. If you notice anything out of the ordinary with your motorcycle, take it to a mechanic as soon as possible. Pay special attention to your tires; riding on bald tires on wet roads is terrifying. 

How to Survive a Motorcycle Accident

Maybe you’ve lost control of your bike because of a road obstacle. Perhaps another vehicle’s trajectory is inevitably going to meet with yours. While an unfortunate number of motorcycle crashes end in fatalities, there are some measures you can take to improve your chances of living through a crash or skid scenario:

1. Practice Braking

Learning how to break well is an essential skill for motorcyclists. Knowing how to break can be the difference between a crash scenario and a close call. Likewise, it can be the difference between a few broken bones and a fatal impact. One common mistake less experienced motorcyclists make, for example, is slamming both rear and front breaks as a result of panicking. On bikes without antilock brakes (i.e., most bikes currently on the road), this may result in locking both wheels, which will cause the rider to lose directional control. What's more, skid stops actually take longer than stops made by keeping the brakes just shy of the skid point. 

In a panic stop, the weight of the bike is transferred to the front wheel. On many (but not all) motorcycles, this means that the front wheel must supply most of the braking power. However, on heavy cruiser-style bikes that have a lot of weight on the back, rear-wheel braking becomes more important.

2. Learn Other ways of Minimizing the Impact

There are many ways to lessen the force of impact when you crash or skid on your motorcycle. While difficult in the rush of the moment, try to pick a crash spot that is out of traffic’s way and which you can collide with sideways–never collide with an object head-on. If sliding, loosen your muscles and focus on keeping your head off the pavement.

3. Wear a Helmet and Safety Gear

Although 19 states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear a helmet (known as universal helmet laws), others only have partial laws for drivers under a certain age, and three states (IA, IL, NH) have no laws at all. Needless to say, you should always wear a helmet that meets federal (DOT) standards when riding a motorcycle. Helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 69% and reduce the risk of death by 42%, making their use crucial for saving lives in the event of life-threatening accidents and otherwise.

The quality of your safety gear will depend on how much money you can shell out. As a rule of thumb, always look for gear with added protection, such as gloves with palm sliders and leather jackets with elbow armor. Reinforced pants, a back protector, and some good boots are also key in providing protection for your whole body.

4. Stay on Your Bike

Generally speaking, you should resist the urge to roll off of your bike in a crash scenario. By staying on your bike, you may avoid falling into oncoming traffic. You will also have the protection afforded by putting a big piece of metal between you and another vehicle or a stationary object. But in situations where you must abandon your bike in mid-accident, using a tuck-and-roll or controlled roll technique should help somewhat mitigate the degree of injuries you sustain.

Riding a motorcycle may always be a risk, but by being careful, respectful of local speed limits, and well-protected, you may avoid an untimely accident that could cost you your life. But then, what about your motorcycle? Can you take steps to protect it as well? If you’re interested in learning how to insure your motorcycle then take a look at our top 10 providers of motorcycle insurance.