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Motorcycles carry an image of open roads and care-free fun. But operating a motorcycle safely requires skill, practice, and awareness. Motorcyclists are twenty times more likely to be injured than car drivers. More than half of all motorcycle accidents involve riders with less than five months experience. If you have a motorcycle or are thinking about buying one, it's essential to learn to operate it safely.
Take a motorcycle safety course
Department of Defense (DoD) regulations require that you complete a motorcycle safety course before being allowed to register or even operate your motorcycle on or off your installation. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) offers a basic safety course. Find out if it is offered on your installation by checking with your safety office. You may also receive an insurance discount for having successfully completed the MSF course. Check with your insurer about this.
Use protective gear
There's nothing between you and the open road when you're on a motorcycle. The right clothing and gear will protect you from the elements and flying debris, while offering some protection from injury in the event of a crash. The DoD Installation Management Agency has set minimum requirements for motorcyclists, but individual installations may have stricter regulations. Check with your installation's safety office. Here are the minimum requirements for protective gear:
- Helmet — Research shows that wearing a helmet can help prevent traumatic brain injury in a motorcycle crash. DoD regulations require all motorcycle riders to wear a helmet while riding on an installation regardless of state helmet laws. The helmet must be certified by the Department of Transportation (DOT) or the equivalent if you're stationed outside the United States. The chin strap must be secured while you're operating the motorcycle. When shopping for a helmet, be sure to do the following:
- Look for the DOT sticker proving the helmet meets federal impact standards.
- Check the fit. The helmet shouldn't be too loose or too tight.
- Get a new helmet if you drop your helmet and it is damaged. Helmets are made to absorb an impact, but only once. After that they may lose their effectiveness.
- Protective eyewear — If your helmet is not equipped with a full face shield, wear a pair of shatter-proof goggles. Make sure these are scratch-free. Scratches can impair your vision, especially at night when they may cause glare.
- Protective clothing — Wear long sleeves and long pants. A thick jacket and pants, preferably leather, will help protect your skin from road abrasions if you fall. Choose a jacket with zippered side vents. Opening them can help keep you cool during hot weather, and closing them can help keep you warm on cold days.
- Thick, full-finger gloves — These will protect your hands from flying debris and from wind, cold, sun, and rain. Gloves will also protect your hands from road abrasions in a crash. Make sure your gloves are made for motorcycle use for maximum grip and protection.
- Sturdy footwear — Wear leather shoes or boots that cover your ankles. These will provide a shield in case you accidentally brush against a hot part of the motorcycle. High boots will also help cushion your ankles in a fall. Use oil-resistant soles to avoid slipping.
- Highly visible clothing — DoD regulations require that motorcycle riders wear a high-visibility (brightly colored) upper garment by day and reflective clothing at night. Increase your chance of being seen at night by putting reflective tape on your helmet, jacket, and the backs of your boots.
In nearly two-thirds of all motorcycle accidents involving another vehicle, the other driver is at fault. Be aware of those you're sharing the road with, and drive defensively.
- Look around. Don't let your eyes rest on any one object for longer than two seconds. Look at the road ahead, to the sides, and in your rearview mirrors.
- Be ready to react. A car could pull out in front of you or stop suddenly. An animal may dart across the street. Expect that these things may happen so you won't be caught off guard.
- Keep your headlight on while driving. A lit headlight will make you more visible to other motorists. Most motorcycle headlights go on automatically when you start the engine, but you may have to turn them on manually in older models.
- Use your horn if you need to. If you suspect a car is about to cut you off, beep your horn to get the driver's attention. Motorcycles are not as visible as cars, and drivers sometimes don't notice them until it's too late.
- Flash your brake lights when slowing down to a stop. The flashing will tell the motorist behind you that you are slowing down.
- Keep a safe distance. While driving forty miles per hour or less, give yourself a two-second lag time from the car in front of you. That means two seconds will pass between the time the car passes an object on the side of the road, and you pass the same object on your motorcycle. While riding on the highway at higher speeds, allow a three- or four-second gap between you and the vehicle in front of you.
- Be aware of blind spots. Position yourself in a part of the lane where motorists can see you in their rearview mirrors.
- Don't use your motorcycle when your judgment is impaired. Never drive when you're tired or have been drinking alcohol.
Be prepared for bad weather
It's best to take a different kind of transportation when it's rainy or windy. If this isn't possible or you're out riding when the weather turns bad, be cautious and drive slowly.
- Practice driving your motorcycle in windy and rainy conditions. Stick close to home and avoid traffic to gain experience driving in bad conditions without putting yourself at great risk.
- Avoid driving your motorcycle when it first starts to rain. The road becomes slippery at first because the rain causes oil from passing vehicles to float to the surface. After time, the rain will wash the oil away and the road will become less slick, but it will still be less safe than a dry surface.
- Be prepared for wind gusts. Ride on the side of the lane where the wind is blowing from in case a heavy gust shifts your motorcycle over. You might have to lean into the wind to keep your balance.
Keep your motorcycle maintained
A motorcycle that is kept in good working order is less likely to malfunction on the road. Practice regular maintenance to head off potential problems.
- Read your owner's manual. This will give you information about how to maintain your motorcycle and how often to have it serviced.
- Check the tire pressure before riding. Make sure the tires are inflated to the pressure listed in your owner's manual.
- Check the lights, including the brake light and turn signals, before you ride. Make sure everything is in working order.
- Check the controls before riding. Make sure cables are free of kinks or stiffness.
- Keep a toolkit and owner's manual with you when you ride. If something goes wrong, you'll be prepared to fix it.
Know your resources
You can find more information on motorcycle safety on the Service websites:
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation also offers basic motorcycle safety courses.