Rider’s guide to motorcycle safety

Last updated: August 2022

Whether you are a seasoned rider or a rookie, it's important to take certain safety precautions when riding a motorcycle. Before you hit the open road, consider brushing up on some motorcycle safety basics.

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Motorcycle safety statistics

In 2020, 82,528 motorcyclists were recorded injured, 5,579 motorcyclists were killed, totaling 14% of all traffic fatalities in that same year according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Riding a motorcycle is not without risk. Injuries and fatalities are not uncommon. But taking precautions on the road and preparing properly can reduce the severity of the risk.

In states without universal helmet laws, 57% of motorcyclists killed were not wearing helmets compared to 11% in states with helmet laws, reports the NHTSA. They estimate that 1,872 motorcyclists’ lives were saved by wearing a helmet in 2017. Practicing responsible riding and wearing the appropriate protective gear can help you make sure you can keep riding for many years to come.

Wear a motorcycle helmet

It’s important to wear a motorcycle helmet even on short trips. When buying a helmet, look for one with a “DOT” label on the back, says NHTSA, which indicates it meets safety standards set by the Department of Transportation. Some helmets also include a face shield to help protect your face and eyes from wind, rain, bugs and road debris. If your helmet doesn’t have a shield, it’s important to wear goggles to prevent your eyes from watering while you’re traveling, the NHTSA says. There are three types of helmets you can choose from:

  • Full helmets wrap around the wearer’s head entirely, with an integrated chin guard and visor, and provide the greatest level of protection to the wearer.
  • ¾, or open face helmets, are similar to full helmets but trade face and chin protection for greater visibility and ventilation.
  • ½ helmets are another option but are not recommended, as they offer less protection than other helmets, according to the NHTSA.

Dress in protective gear

It's also a good idea to wear protective gear that helps guard your arms and legs in the event of an accident. The NHTSA suggests wearing either leather or heavy denim pants and jackets, and footwear that covers your ankles. In addition to protecting your hands, gloves can help you keep a better grip on your bike. Gear with reflective qualities can make you more visible to other drivers, the NHTSA says.

You also may invest in body armor such as knee and shin guards, back guards or elbow pads to offer further protection on the road. Gloves can also help protect your hands and, if properly fitted, may help you keep a better grip on bike handlebars.

Eye protection such as a helmet visor or goggles may also help protect your eyes and face from debris, dust and wind out on the road.

It's also important to dress for the weather conditions you'll be riding in to help you stay comfortable on the road.

Practice using the controls

Before hopping on your bike, take a moment to familiarize yourself with the controls, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) says. That includes adjusting levers and pedals so they're with easy reach, trying out the headlight dimmer switch before you need to use it in the dark and finding the location of the horn button.

If your bike has a reserve fuel valve, brush up on how it works so that you're able to quickly and safety turn it on if you find yourself running low on gas during your ride, the MSF says.

Check your bike before riding

Staying on top of basic maintenance may help you avoid unpleasant surprises on the road. The MSF recommends checking six parts of your motorcycle before each ride: the tires and wheels, controls, lights, fluids, chassis and stands. Some issues, like topping off the fluid, you may be able to resolve yourself, while other times you may need to consult a professional for a repair.

Be a defensive rider

When riding, keep your bike in positions that can easily be spotted by other motorists, the MSF advises. Avoid riding in another driver's blind spot, for instance, and don't stay behind a large truck, where others may not see you.

Don't hesitate to use your horn if you think another driver could put you in jeopardy, the MSF adds. A quick beep of the horn can alert others that you're there.

Avoid Road Hazards

A motorcycle can be more prone to skids and bumps in the road because bikes have less contact with the pavement, Consumer Reports says. It's a good idea to try to avoid running over debris, such as wet leaves and pebbles. If you can't avoid hitting a potential hazard, Consumer Reports suggests slowing down as much as you can.

Try to approach bumps such as railroad tracks at a right angle to help prevent your bike from skidding, Consumer Reports adds.

Perform motorcycle maintenance

Routine maintenance plays an important role in motorcycle safety. MSF suggests checking your battery each month and, if the fluid level is low, topping it off with distilled water. Additional maintenance steps are usually listed in the owner's manual. The MSF recommends having service performed at an authorized motorcycle dealership.

Riding a motorcycle comes with responsibility. Doing what you can to make sure you and your bike are prepared for your ride may help you have a safer and more enjoyable trip.

Tips for staying visible

Most multi-vehicle motorcycle crashes are caused when other drivers don’t see the motorcyclist, according to the NHTSA. Using a combination of behavior and making yourself more visible, you can increase the odds that motorists around you will see you. The NHTSA recommends:

  • Obeying the law, and riding in expected ways, reduces the chance of other drivers failing to see and predict your movements.
  • Leave room between you and other vehicles.
  • Always check your surroundings before you change lanes.
  • Use reflective materials, like reflective tape, on your helmet or motorcycle to increase visibility at night.
  • Keeping your headlights on at all times can increase your visibility, you may even use your high beams during the day.
  • Riding in groups can also increase your visibility on the road.

Local riding courses

Confidence in your riding skills and knowledge of local motorcycling laws is critical to motorcycle safety. Many states offer motorcycle resources or classes. These courses typically aim to equip riders with practical and strategic skills to help them navigate the road more safely. Depending on where you live, there may be multiple options available to riders looking for education, so it’s important to do your research and understand if the content of the course will fit your educational needs.

There may be online courses available offered locally or by wider distributors. These courses tend to act as beginner courses or to help people decide whether motorcycling riding is right for them. Taking a course in person may offer the best value.

Carrying a first aid kit

Even the safest and most prepared motorcycle riders may experience an accident or injury on the road. In those cases, it may be beneficial for you to have a first aid kit. But motorcycles may have limited storage for a comprehensive first aid kit, so you may need to consider what items will be most useful in your situation.

A basic med-kit as defined by the Red Cross includes:

  • 2 absorbent compress dressings
  • 25 adhesive bandages
  • 1 adhesive cloth tape
  • 5 antibiotic ointment packets
  • 5 antiseptic wipe packets
  • 2 packets of aspirin
  • 1 emergency blanket
  • 1 breathing barrier
  • 1 instant cold compress
  • 2 pairs of non-latex gloves
  • 2 hydrocortisone ointment packets

But it may be useful to prepare additional items to address specific injuries, like burns or broken bones.

Obeying traffic laws

Motorcycles are subject to many of the same traffic laws that cars are, and motorcycle riders must abide by the same laws they would in a car. But certain laws may vary based on locale.

In some states, motorcycle riders and passengers may be required to wear certain protective gear such as shatterproof eye gear or helmets. Some states also require headlights be turned on during the day to aid with visibility.

Lane splitting is a controversial issue in the United States and, at the time of writing, only explicitly made legal in California. California defines lane splitting as driving a motorcycle between rows of stopped or moving vehicles in the same lane, including on both divided or undivided streets, roads or highways. The legality of lane splitting is defined on a local level, so riders should always verify that it is legal before engaging in the practice.