Motorcyclists are among the most vulnerable road users and are disproportionately involved in crashes and casualties. Despite making up less than 1% of road traffic they account for 18% of deaths in collisions, and are 38 times more likely to die in a crash than drivers or passengers in cars. Those new to or returning to motorcycling need to be especially aware of the risks, and understand how these can be seriously reduced by getting the right training and wearing full protective clothing.
To help keep yourself and others safe on the roads, read our advice below on:
Slowing down and riding defensively
Riding safely in groups
Protecting your passengers
Training to be a better rider
Wear the right protective gear
Wearing high-quality protective clothing, particularly when fitted with body armour, reduces the risk and severity of crash-related injury and hospitalisation. Before buying protective gear, check out the latest reviews, and buy the best that you can afford from a dealer you can trust.
Helmets save lives, prevent or reduce the severity of brain and facial injuries, and protect your eyes from wind, dust, insects or flying gravel. Riders who do not wear helmets face a 40% higher risk of fatal injury and a 15% higher chance of other injuries including life-changing brain damage. For general advice on motorbike helmets, visors and goggles, see this Department for Transport information sheet.
Buy a full-face (not open-face) helmet with strong chin pieces and energy-absorbing liners to offer the most protection to your face and neck as well as head. Your helmet should meet the British Standard BS 6658:1985 standard and carry the BSI kitemark; or it should meet UNECE Regulation 22-05 – there should be stickers indicating this. Choose one that is brightly coloured and easily visible, with a clear non-tinted visor.
The Safety Helmet Assessment and Rating Programme (SHARP) has tested hundreds of helmet models, rating each one according to how much protection it offers. You can use their website to find a helmet within your budget that meets high safety standards.
Do not buy a second-hand helmet. Buy your helmet from a reputable dealer, and make sure you try it on beforehand. A properly-fitting helmet is essential and dramatically increases your chances of surviving a crash. The SHARP programme also offers life-saving guidance on choosing the best helmet fit.
If you drop your helmet, replace it immediately even if it looks ok.
Protective clothing helps save your skin and helps keep you warm and dry every time you ride. More than a third of motorcyclists admitted to hospital suffer serious injuries to their arms or legs, and one in 20 later die from the injuries they sustained. Clothing should:
be made of good-quality leather, or a high-performance textile alternative, with good-quality seams and as few seams as possible. Ask your retailer for details of which safety standards they meet before buying, and whether the safety rating applies to the whole garment or just the body armour;
be fitted with body armour on the back, shoulders, elbows, knees and shins;
fit properly; it should be snug but with enough room for layers of warm clothing underneath and so your movement is not restricted; and
be fluorescent during the day and reflective at night to help other drivers spot you.
Make sure you combine your protective suit with strong, flexible, waterproof gloves and biker boots, made either of leather or a high-performance textile alternative, to offer you the best protection if you come off your bike. Gloves should cover high enough up your arms that they do not come off in a crash. Both gloves and boots should fit comfortably and snugly, allowing you to grip the handlebars properly and operate the controls easily.
The faster you go, the less time you have to react to and avoid hazards and people, and the harder you will hit in the event of a crash. Motorbikes don’t have air bags or side-impact bars, so if you are involved in a collision, you’re exposed to the full force of impact. By staying well within speed limits, and slowing down further for riskier situations and conditions, you will have more time to react.
Stopping distances for motorbikes
Average stopping distances for motorbikes from the moment you realise you need to brake to the moment you stop are:
At 30mph – 23 metres (75 feet)
At 50mph – 53 metres (175 feet, or more than twice as far)
At 70mph – 96 metres (315 feet, or than four times as far)
Stay well within the speed limit at all times and maintain a two-second gap (four in the wet, much more in icy conditions) between you and the vehicle in front; it’s your braking space in a crisis.
More than two-thirds of motorcyclist deaths occur in rural areas. Even if you’re an experienced motorcyclist and know the road well, ride at a speed that would enable you to stop within the stretch of road you can see, slow right down for bends, and hang back and enjoy the ride rather than overtaking. People live, drive, walk, cycle and ride horses in the country, so don’t be tempted to think the road’s all yours. Presume that someone or something is round every bend and over every brow and slow down appropriately.
Like motorcyclists, people on foot or on bicycle are vulnerable road users. Help to protect them by going at 20mph or below in towns and villages.
Defensive riding techniques
In Europe, 69% of reported crashes involving motorbikes were found to have been at least partially caused by other road users not seeing the rider. Make sure you practise defensive riding techniques to safeguard yourself as much as possible against other drivers’ inattention. If you are a car driver, looking out for cyclists and motorcyclists, especially at junctions, will help reduce needless deaths and injuries.
Defensive riding techniques
slow down: give yourself time to react
make yourself visible
position yourself on the safest part of the road (this will vary depending on the circumstances)
look out over the handlebars and ‘read’ the road and its traffic far ahead
check mirrors and other views frequently
take a ‘lifesaver’ or ‘shoulder check’ glance behind you before carrying out a manoeuvre
stay alert to everything that is going on around you
try to make eye contact with other drivers, but don’t presume that they have seen you
stay vigilant for clues as to what other road users might do next, but never presume that they will do what they should do.
For more tips on defensive riding, see BikeSafe’s Advice Centre.
Listen to weather forecasts before riding, especially in winter. The best way to be safe is to avoid riding altogether in bad conditions. If you get caught out in bad weather, consider stopping overnight somewhere if you have a long way to go. Take breaks at least every two hours to stay alert and focused. You should do this at all times, but it’s especially important in cold weather, when you can become tired much more quickly. You can also become tired quickly if the weather is hot – again, take regular breaks, and make sure that you stay properly hydrated.
Be extra vigilant at junctions. A major killer of motorcyclists is drivers failing to spot them at junctions and pulling out. As you approach a junction, consider shifting your road position slightly, which can help drivers see you approach.
Many motorcycle collisions take place at bends in the road. Take bends slowly, and adjust your road position depending on whether it is a left or right-hand bend. You can read further advice on cornering on the BikeSafe website. Be particularly vigilant for any suspicious wet-looking patches or long dark lines on a dry road, or rainbow-coloured patches on a wet road – these are an indication of spilled diesel, which can be as lethal as black ice. Never ride close to the central white line on a right-hand bend; if you do, your head will be in the path of any oncoming vehicles.
Make sure your motorbike is fit for the road and won’t let you down. Keep your bike clean and carry out simple, regular maintenance checks – spotting a problem with a tyre or brake pad could save your life.
Read Brake’s detailed advice for drivers on speed, fatigue, bad weather, and other topics, much of which is relevant for motorcyclists too.
Travelling in groups
Riding in groups carries risks; in particular, peer pressure can cause motorcyclists to go faster than they feel comfortable. In crashes involving people riding in groups, the victim is often a new biker or someone new to the group.
To reduce risks, keep your group size to as few riders as possible, and show the strength of character to ride well within speed limits and slow down further for risky situations and conditions. Use the two second rule to keep your distance from the rider in front; it’s your braking space in a crisis.
Plan a route ahead of time, arranging regular, safe stopping places so that if anyone falls behind they know where to meet. Agree on rules such as not overtaking each other and not speeding. If anyone else breaks the rules, or is driving too fast for the conditions, drop back and don’t feel pressured to keep up.
You might also consider putting more experienced riders at the back of the group, so that they can look out for the less experienced. It also means that newer motorcyclists are less likely to rush to catch up with the rest of the group.
For further advice on travelling in groups safely, visit: Bikesafe.
Carrying a passenger affects the handling of a motorbike and the safest option is to not carry passengers at all. You can only carry a passenger if you have a full motorbike licence and the appropriate insurance, and should only consider doing so if you are a skilled, experienced rider.
If you do carry a pillion passenger, you should:
Only carry a passenger if your motorbike is designed to carry two people – by law, it needs to have suitable seat and foot supports for the pillion passenger;
Make sure the total weight on the bike does not exceed the manufacturer’s recommended maximum. You may also have to make minor adjustments to parts of your bike such as headlight direction, tyre pressure, suspension or chain – check your bike’s handbook;
Make sure your passenger is wearing a helmet and full, properly-fitting protective clothing;
Tell your passenger what they should do while on the bike; sit still, lean with the bike, keep feet on the foot rests; and
Remember that carrying a passenger will lengthen your braking distance, slow acceleration, make steering lighter, and affect cornering and balance.
Carrying children on motorbikes
Motorbikes are inherently much, much riskier than other modes of transport, and children are particularly vulnerable to serious injury or death in a crash.
If you are making a long journey, then the safest way to transport children is by train or bus. If you are making a short journey, the best way is on foot, holding your child’s hand.
If you are determined to carry a child on a motorbike (legally, parental permission is required, and the child needs to be able to reach the footrests), then ensure they wear the highest standard of protective clothing, including boots, gloves, trousers, jacket and helmet, all of which must fit them exactly. But remember that no amount of protective gear will protect you or your child in many kinds of crashes.
Train up and be a better rider
Inexperience can leave younger riders at much higher risk of death or serious injury. In 2016, more than 1,000 riders aged 20-24 were killed or seriously hurt in collisions in Britain, far more than any other age group. At this age, young people are at a critical stage of brain development, which can lead to more impulsive and risk-taking behaviour. To reduce the risk of a crash, consider gaining more experience on bikes with smaller engines before progressing to more powerful ones, or taking additional post-test training such as the Government’s enhanced rider scheme.
Whatever your age and experience, extra training can improve your safety. An advanced training course can help improve your skills, whether you have just passed your test, are returning to riding after a break, are considering buying a more powerful bike, or want to become a safer, smoother, more skillful rider.
One-to-one tuition is preferable, so that all the advice is aimed specifically at you. The Motor Cycle Industry Association recommends the ratio should be no more than two to one. Ensure the course you choose includes an assessment of your riding, to help you identify areas for improvement.
If you ride for work purposes, ask your employer if they’ll pay for a course; they have a responsibility to ensure you are safe on the road.
Some local authorities also offer riding assessments or subsidised courses – check with your local road safety officer, or see the BikeSafe website, which is particularly useful if you are returning to biking. The Motorcycle Industry Accreditation Centre (MCIAC) is also a useful resource to find your nearest MCIAC-accredited training school.
To find courses in your area, try:
British Motorcycle Federation
Motor Cycle Industry Accreditation Centre
The Enhanced Rider Scheme (ERS)
The Institute of Advanced Motorists
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents
Article from Brake the road safety charity, see the article with references here.