5 tips for defensive motorcycle riding

Person riding motorcycle on highway near semi trucks
February 17, 2023

Safe riding involves not only avoiding errors of your own but also anticipating and responding to other drivers' errors. This is crucial, because human error contributes to 98 percent of auto accidents each year. While you can't control how others drive, you can take it upon yourself to practice defensive riding.

What is defensive riding?

Defensive riding for motorcycle riders means preparing and operating your motorcycle in a way that emphasizes awareness and safety. A key element of this is anticipating what other motorists will do, even if they’re wrong.

Review these five safety tips and use them as a foundation as you become a more defensive rider:

Tip 1: Wear protective motorcycle gear

Leather jackets, heavy boots, and rugged gloves are just some of the items of clothing many people associate with biker culture. But biker apparel isn't just about fashion—it serves a double purpose to help keep motorcycle riders safe.

Motorcycle helmets and gear

The CDC estimates that about 750 lives each year could be saved if all riders wore motorcycle helmets. A helmet is by far the most important piece of equipment for helping you stay safe on your bike, but other pieces of gear—like body armor, gloves, and knee and elbow braces—are crucial as well.

Motorcycle apparel

Shoes that cover the ankle, full-finger gloves, leather vests, and eye protection don't just look cool, they can also help protect you from the dangers of the road. While these clothing items won't necessarily stop you from being involved in an accident, they can help limit your injuries.

Tip 2: Check your bike before riding

While human error is the top reason for accidents, even the best riders are only as good as their machines.

To promote safe, defensive driving, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) created the T-CLOCS Inspection Checklist. Make sure to perform this six-point check before riding:

  • Tires and wheels (T): Check for obvious issues like flat tires, bent spokes, and cracked rims. Also look for less visible issues. Check your air pressure (especially in colder weather) and be sure your brake pads are in good condition and can each stop wheels from rolling on their own.

  • Controls (C): It may sound obvious, but it's impossible to be a safe rider if you can't control your vehicle. Make sure:

    • Your handlebars are straight and turn freely

    • Your levers and pedals are in good condition and well-lubricated

    • Your cables and hoses don't have frays, cracks, kinks, or leaks

    • Your throttle moves freely and snaps closed

  • Lights and electronics (L): Verify that your headlight, tail light, and brake lights are intact and bright, that your turn signals are operating correctly, and that all exposed wiring is clean, snug, and not fraying. Take this opportunity to adjust your mirrors and reflectors and ensure they're clean and intact.

  • Oil and other fluids (O): There are five fluids that you should check: engine oil, gear oil, hydraulic fluid, coolant, and fuel. When you check these five fluids, verify not only that they're at the appropriate levels, but that the hoses are free from leaks and cracks.

  • Chassis (C): Check that the frame is straight and not cracked, the suspension is smooth and lubricated, the chain or belt is securely mounted, and all the nuts and bolts are secure.

  • Stands (S): Finally, confirm both the center and side stands are straight and secure. Your stands should have enough tension to stay in position while also springing into place when you're ready to use them.

Remember: Defensive riding isn't just an action, it's an attitude toward safety that extends to how you care for your machine.

Tip 3: Follow the rules of the road

Many of the human errors that cause accidents are simple misjudgments: stopping too abruptly, sitting for a split second too long at a green light, or practicing poor posture that slows down response time.

However, some errors represent failure to follow the rules of the road. Here are some actions you can take to help ride safely and legally.

Obey traffic laws

While speed limits apply to every vehicle sharing the road, motorcycles typically accelerate much faster than passenger vehicles due to their unusually high power-to-weight ratio. Because it's relatively quick and easy to accelerate on a motorcycle, many motorcycle riders find themselves speeding without realizing how fast they're truly going.

In addition to the universal rules of the road, motorcycle riders have to be aware of some unique traffic laws. For example, the regulation of lane sharing and splitting. Lane sharing is the legal practice of riding side-by-side with another motorcyclist in the same lane. Since motorcycles have a much smaller footprint than other vehicles, lane sharing helps riders share the road more efficiently by using the space of the entire line.

Lane splitting, on the other hand, is the practice of using the space between lanes to pass other vehicles. It's illegal in most states because of the risks involved, so be sure to check your state's laws before lane splitting.

Use hand signals

Over the years, bikers have established an informal set of widely understood motorcycle hand signals that allow you to communicate with other riders. While these kinds of acknowledgments are informal, they also serve a defensive riding purpose.

For example, the two-fingers-down acknowledgement gesture shows other riders that you see them, are aware of their position, and will ride with their safety in mind.

Here are a few other hand signals bikers use to communicate with their road-mates:

  • Left turn: To indicate an upcoming left turn, extend your left arm straight out from your side. This is an analog equivalent of a turn signal and is required by law in some states when your blinkers aren't working.

  • Right turn: You may assume that if you extend your left arm to indicate a left turn, you'd extend your right arm to indicate a right turn. This isn't the case—keep your right hand on your handlebars at all times. Instead, indicate a right turn by bending your left arm up at a 90-degree angle with your fist toward the sky.

  • Stop: Extend your left arm out and down at a 90-degree angle with an open hand, showing your palm to whoever is behind you.

  • Slow down: To signal that riders behind you should slow down, extend your left arm with your palm facing down and move your arm down

Know your state's motorcycle requirements

Each state has its own laws regarding things like helmets, handlebar height, and passengers. Always be familiar with your state's motorcycle requirements and the laws of each state you pass through during long road trips.

Tip 4: Make yourself visible

Whether you're riding at night or during the day, other motorists must be able to clearly see you. Here are several ways to make yourself more visible to others:

  • Wear bright-colored clothing or ride a brightly colored motorcycle: When your safety is on the line, it's no time to be shy—don't be afraid to wear bright, highly visible colors when riding.

  • Wear reflective clothing: This includes high-visibility vests or helmets

  • Always use your lights when you ride: Check your lights before every ride and use them appropriately. Some states require you to ride with your lights on even in daylight.

  • Don't ride in blind spots: This is important for both drivers and riders, but it's particularly key for motorcycle riders because of their bikes' relatively small footprint and rider vulnerability.

  • Use your blinkers and horn: Don't be afraid to use your blinkers and horn to get other drivers' attention when necessary.

Tip 5: Practice situational awareness

Situational awareness is a key element of defensive riding because it enables you to respond rapidly and actively to new developments on the road.

Even as car manufacturers race toward self-driving cars, your mind should never be on autopilot. Zoning out while riding is so dangerous, it has its own name: highway hypnosis.

Some practical ways you can practice situational awareness include:

  • Checking your mirrors every 5–10 seconds

  • Watching the roadsides for animals and debris

  • Getting plenty of rest (7–9 hours of sleep) the night before you ride

Be aware of other drivers

While safety starts with you, it doesn't end there. Being aware of other drivers is just as important as being aware of your own riding. Keep a close eye on other drivers and anticipate their next move. Give yourself enough room to stop in case the driver ahead of you slams on their brakes, makes a sudden move, or gets into an accident of their own.

Being aware of other drivers helps improve your reaction time—after all, you can't control other drivers, but you can control how you respond to them.

Give yourself an exit

Good strategies always include a contingency plan. Always have a way to avoid getting boxed in by other drivers. Some ways you can maintain a good exit strategy include:

  • Avoid passing in the right lane

  • Give yourself some space between yourself and the driver ahead of you

  • Don't rely on last-minute lane shifts before off-ramps

Avoid road rage

Roughly 80 percent of American drivers say they experience significant anger while driving at least once per month. This road rage contributes to a significant number of accidents—in fact, road rage has contributed to about 300 deaths over the past 10 years, according to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration.

While the prevalence of road rage might make it appear as a universal human practice, there are things you can do to help reduce road rage, both in yourself and in others.

Experts suggest staying comfortable and giving other drivers the benefit of the doubt—even when they're initiating conflict. By refusing to escalate conflict, you can help minimize the potentially dangerous accidents that happen when emotions get the better of people.

The importance of riding your motorcycle defensively

Defensive riding is important because it can help keep you and everybody you share the road with safe. As millions of people drive daily, it's easy to become desensitized to the dangers of the road, but this proactive approach can help you avoid complacency.

Motorcycle accident statistics

Over the years, cars have gotten safer through innovations like seatbelts and airbags. But motorcycles haven't always followed this trend. In fact, over the last 10 years, motorcycle injuries and deaths have increased drastically, with the fatality rate increasing by more than 20 percent from 2011 to 2020.

Reduce your motorcycle insurance costs

Defensive riding on your motorcycle can help you avoid accidents—and costly medical bills—while also helping protect you from the financial liability of an expensive loss. Plus, motorcycle insurance rates tend to increase following accidents.

Earn safe riding discounts

Some providers offer motorcycle insurance discounts to defensive riders. By avoiding accidents and claims, and taking proactive steps like enrolling in a safety course, you could qualify for discounts and decrease your monthly premiums.

Motorcycle safety courses

You can find motorcycle safety courses that can help you learn safe defensive riding practices in your area. You may be able to find courses through riding groups, at local colleges, schools, or community centers, or even online.

Related Links

Defensive riding can help you avoid accidents, but they can still happen. That’s why motorcycle insurance is essential.

Planning your next riding adventure? Make sure you have the right coverage before you go. Review your motorcycle insurance policy today.

The general information in this blog is for informational or entertainment purposes only. View our blog disclaimer.

*Data accuracy is subject to this article's publication date.

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