Motorcycle Safety

It’s a Personal Choice.

This article is a random collection of thoughts about motorcycle safety gleaned from personal experience, learning, and observation. It’s not meant to be preachy, but I care about motorcycle safety and have some strong opinions, so it may come across that way. I hope my thoughts enliven the conversation, challenge your thinking, and maybe, just maybe, get you thinking about how to be safer on the road. In the end, we all decide for ourselves, so take what resonates with you and leave the rest. At the very least, I hope you find it entertaining.

The Wake-Up Call: Safety First

Back in ’87, not long after I got my hands on a killer red 500cc Honda Shadow, reality hit hard. My girlfriend’s brother, a seasoned rider, was in an accident that left him in a coma for six months. It was a brutal reminder that accidents don’t discriminate; they can happen to anyone.

For various reasons, but mainly because I was flying all over North America for work and was away from home a lot, my motorcycle sat in the garage without being ridden. So, I sold it. It wasn’t until over twenty years later that I returned to riding. When I did, I knew a safety-first mindset was non-negotiable. Every decision I’d ever make regarding my riding, motorcycle, gear, or training would be informed by the trauma I had experienced alongside my girlfriend as she worried about her brother.

Establishing the Right Mindset

Evel Knievel said, “You are the master of your own ship, pal. There are a lot of people who fall into troubled waters and don’t have the knowledge or ability to make it to shore. They have nobody to blame but themselves. I wanted the knowledge and ability to “make it to shore,” or in my case, keep myself safe on my motorcycle. From the get-go, I knew that taking control of my safety meant accepting 100 percent responsibility for every twist, turn, and hazard that would come my way.

The first thing I decided to do was remove the word “blame” from my riding lexicon. Blaming someone or something else when I failed to keep myself safe is a cop-out. At the end of the day, it’s up to me to anticipate and deal with whatever challenges come my way.


To my surprise, I learned that motorcycling is more predictable than not. I learned that car and truck drivers are going to pull out in front of me, lose me in their blind spots, lose me behind poles and other structures in the city landscape, lose me among competing traffic, and sometimes follow me too closely. I learned that while riding, I’ll come across traction hazards, corners that are tighter than expected, deer on the road, ruts in construction zones, and cars stopped over crests and around blind corners. I learned to expect kids running out onto the street in the city and farmers pulling out onto the highway with their tractors in the country.

So, how can I be caught off guard by what I already (or should already) know? Complacency? Fatigue? Mental laziness? Lack of practice? Inattention? Yes, probably. But all of those things are a choice that’s up to me.

Traffic Patterns and Driver Behaviour

When I have a close call, I reflect on how I might have contributed to the near miss. In almost every case, I did or didn’t do something that put me at greater risk. When I correct those behaviours, the near misses become fewer.

A row of cars is lined up behind a UPS truck turning left. There is something I know for sure: the chance that one of the waiting drivers will get impatient and jump into the curb lane to rush past the delivery van is very high. Yet, I see motorcyclists fly up the curb lane at high speed without a worry in the world, seemingly totally oblivious to the fact that at any moment a car will stick its nose out. When a motorcyclist hits the car, the car driver will legally be at fault. Practically, however, the motorcyclist failed to keep himself safe. When the motorcyclist then blames the “cager,” they leave themselves open to doing the same thing again. Understanding driver behaviours and traffic patterns is essential to keeping ourselves safe.

Riding Skills

When it hits the fan, and it will, I want to have the skills to take the appropriate action to keep myself safe. Having the skills does two things. First, I can avoid or mitigate the impact of the situation. And second, I’ll be able to face dangerous hazards without panicking. I don’t know of any other way to perfect riding skills than by practicing and taking advanced riding courses. When I returned to riding, I took a Police Motor Officer Certification course. It was ten days of advanced police riding skills training. It was brilliant. There is no way I’d be the rider I am today without taking that course. Whether you do a day course, a weekend course, or something more comprehensive, I highly recommend it. Not only will you be a much better rider, but it is also a rocking good time! When you’ve had good training, you are more likely to foresee and avoid dangerous hazards. And that could be the difference between a mild scare and a very bad day. Like Evel Knievel says, you have to have the knowledge and ability. Practice and ongoing training will ensure you have both.

Bike and Gear

I took a riding course with a rider who arrived on a new $40,000 Harley. He quit in the middle of the first morning. He, by far, was the least capable rider in the group. No worries. He had signed up for the course to change that. But as soon as he realized that he might scratch his new bike, he left. I took my police course on a too-big-for-me BMW 1200GS. (I must have dropped it over a dozen times. I’m really glad it wasn’t mine!) After the course, I bought a V-Strom DL650. I now have over 100,000 kilometers on the odometer and have ridden it across Canada, up The Icefields Parkway, around the North Shore of Superior, to Gaspé, around The Cabot Trail, and all over the east coast and Northern Ontario on many occasions. I don’t need a larger bike. I love my 650, and it is a riot to ride. It handles the twisties and long-distance touring. I mention this because I really believe that you’ll have way more fun riding a lesser bike really well than an expensive or large bike poorly. Start with a bike that is commensurate with your ability, then graduate as you gain skills and confidence. Think about making your dream bike your second bike, not your first. Learn how to ride first.

Ride in the Rain

Eventually, all of us will get caught in the rain. After my police course, I rode my newly bought motorcycle home from Victoria, BC to Toronto. Nine of the ten days of the trip it rained, and it was the best thing that could have happened to me. It taught me not to fear rain. I learned that my bike still had lots of traction. And I learned how to be smoother on the throttle and the brakes. If you aren’t comfortable riding in the rain, get yourself some good rain gear and go for a ride. Today, I do a lot of touring, and I ride rain or shine, severe and dangerous weather excepting. Rain riding is just another skill to learn.

The Better-Than-Average Thinking Trap

Thinking you’re a better rider than you are is common. It’s the result of what is known as the better-than-average effect. It’s a tendency for a motorcyclist to overestimate their riding ability, relative to other riders. It is based on the idea that if asked, the majority of riders will say they are a better rider than average. But the definition of average means that some riders have below-average skills, some have average skills, and some have above-average skills. It is impossible to have the majority of riders with above-average riding skills. Yet, when asked, that’s what most will claim.

Thinking you’re a better rider than you are is dangerous because you’re oblivious to your own incompetence. Riding without consistent practice is like being a pilot who can only fly on autopilot. As long as everything is okay, you’re fine, but if something unexpected happens, you won’t have the grace under fire to handle it.

The training recommendations for California motor officers state that motorcycle skills are perishable. Despite riding 24/7/365, motor officers in California are mandated to take ongoing rider training. When we return to riding after the winter, our skills have suffered. If we return after a long hiatus like I did, our riding skills have suffered a lot.

Realize that you are probably not as good as you think you are, and if you’ve been off your bike for a few months or a few years, you’re definitely not as good as you were. So, be humble, take it slow, and practice crucial skills in a parking lot long before you need them.

The Two Rules That Are Easy to Forget

Looking twelve seconds ahead and staying two seconds behind the vehicle in front of you are two rules that seem to be forgettable. I try very hard to always remember them, but I witness riders breaking them all the time. When you follow these two basic rules, you become aware of a hazard at the earliest possible time, you have the time to locate an escape route and check for additional hazards, and you have the space to stop or take evasive action. And by doing it right, you stay calm and cool under fire. These two simple rules can make all the difference. Remember them!

Investing in Quality Gear: It Wasn’t Negotiable for Me

First, let’s talk about helmets. Your helmet is your most important piece of safety gear. But here’s the thing: size matters, and fit is crucial. I know this. A good friend of mine was in a motorcycle crash. He landed twenty meters down the road, but his helmet landed over 50 meters down the road. A helmet can’t do its thing if it doesn’t stay on your head.

A report called “Testing Positional Stability of Motorcycle Helmets” specifically discusses these issues and concluded that motorcyclists often buy a helmet too big for them because it feels comfortable. Choosing a helmet that fits your head shape and size perfectly is essential for maximum protection. Don’t settle for a helmet that’s too big or too small just to save a few bucks or get the brand, design, or colour you want. A properly fitting helmet should feel snug but not uncomfortable, and it should stay securely in place even when you shake your head vigorously, and especially, heaven forbid, if you’re in an accident.

When it comes to your protective gear, don’t skimp on quality. A top-quality helmet, sturdy jacket, gloves, and boots can make all the difference in the event of an accident. Sure, it might be tempting to spend most of your money on your shiny new bike, but remember, your safety gear is what stands between you and serious injury in a crash, so leave enough to buy quality gear. If anyone needs top quality gear it’s a new rider.

A closing thought or two…

So there you have it, a glimpse into my journey and the lessons I’ve picked up along the way. Motorcycle safety isn’t just about rules and gear; it’s a mindset, a way of approaching the road with awareness, anticipation, and a thirst for continuous learning. It’s about taking responsibility for our ride, being adaptable to changing conditions, and always striving to be better, safer riders. Remember, we all carve our own paths on two wheels, so ride safe, stay curious, and enjoy every twist and turn the road throws your way. See you out there!

John Lewis

John is a passionate moto-traveller and motorcycle enthusiast who enjoys sharing stories that inform, inspire, and entertain. Specialising in motorcycle touring, safety, travel, or just about anything motorcycle-related, John’s insights, travels, and experiences have been featured in national magazines such as Motorcycle Mojo and The Motorcycle Times, as well as on various blogs and websites. When he is not riding or writing, he works as the service manager at a boutique motorcycle shop where he’s always ready to share a story or helpful tip.

One comment

  1. I came back to riding in 2003 after 25+ years. I bought a new Yamaha FZ1, 1000cc, pretty peppy bike. At this point in my life i had been a pilot for 25+ years and had learned power is a relative thing in how much you use is controlled by your right hand and you brain.

    The FZ1 had a great powerband with ample power down low so i joked I started off riding it like a tractor. it took me 10,000km to get most of my situational awareness back.

    As a forest fire fixed wing suppression pilot ( I had done many years of rotary before the move to fixed wing exclusively) i was very familiar with Situational Awareness. At times poor visibility in smoke, multiple aircraft in close vicinity, terrain hazards, more than one comm radio in operation and listening to them all, your SA gets finely tuned. Riding a motorcycle requires a well developed SA. Car/truck drivers quite often telegraph their intention to change lanes before, if ever, using a turn signal for example. Sometimes you can see the wheels of a car start to turn at a cross street before the car movement itself registers. Someone who is starting to pull out without looking your way. Watching for these and other things is all part of SA.

    The comment about appropriate protective gear* in the article is so important. Also, so is hi-viz gear. You have to make yourself as visible as possible. I have a yellow jacket and gloves. I do hand signals in addition to the use of the turn signal when changing lanes – movement attracts attention. There’s lot’s you can do here.

    *In rotary wing flying 50% of fatalities were from head injuries in accidents yet 40-50 years ago there was much opposition to helemt use. Think of this when strapping on that beanie helmet vs a full coverage or modular.

    Some thoughts of a 71 year old guy, now retired, who rides an Indian Challenger.

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