Editor’s note: This post was written by Patrick George.
For many motorcycle riders, getting on a bike is the ultimate expression of freedom. Taking on the open road with nothing more than the machine and some gear provides thrills that no car can offer, no matter how much horsepower it has.
However, there’s no getting around the fact that riding a motorcycle is more dangerous than driving a car. While a motorcycle is more maneuverable than a car, it offers less protection to its rider. In addition, some motorcycle owners choose not to wear safety gear like helmets. And even if a rider is extremely skilled and well outfitted with safety gear, a mistake by a nearby driver can have deadly results.
Safety is crucial when riding a motorcycle, but it goes beyond just wearing a good helmet. It also means having other gear that is adequately protective, like gloves and jackets, and making sure your motorcycle is in top condition. A mechanical failure on the road can easily cost you your life.
A popular inspection system used by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation is called T-CLOCS. It stands for “Tires, controls, lights, oils, chassis, stands.” We’ll go into all of those items in this article, plus a few extras.
Thirty states currently allow motorcyclists to ride without helmets, but many people advocate across-the-board helmet mandates. In 2009, 41 percent of all riders killed on motorcycles were not wearing helmets, according to Consumer Reports. Statistics clearly show that a helmet is not something a rider should go without.
But what kind of helmet should you buy? Two words: DOT and Snell. Basically, you will want to get a helmet that has at least been certified by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and it can’t hurt to have one that’s also been certified by another group like the Snell Foundation. The latter is a nonprofit organization that researches motorcycle helmet safety.
You should also inspect your helmet before a ride, especially if you haven’t used it in a while. If you’ve crashed in your helmet, or if it has a loose or broken chinstrap, is several years old, or has been cracked or damaged in any way, it should be replaced. Check for dents and scratches and make sure the internal padding is still comfortable. Remember, one crash or fall will damage the foam inside the helmet, dampening its protective ability.
Next on our checklist, we’ll look at the rest of the protective gear a safe rider should wear.
Helmets are a critical part of protecting your life when you’re on a motorcycle, but what about the rest of your body? In addition to broken bones, crashing on a bike without adequate protection puts you at risk of road rash and an assortment of other injuries. For this reason, experienced riders know to wear the proper gear at all times.
At the very least, this means a leather or textile jacket, gloves and protective shoes. It could also mean pants, kneepads or an entire suit. Like your helmet, it’s a good idea to inspect these items before you go for a ride.
Make sure the jacket is made from a sturdy material like leather and doesn’t have any holes or tears. If it does, it’s time to replace that item or get it repaired. In addition, make sure it still fits properly if you haven’t used it in a while — an ill-fitting piece of gear isn’t very helpful.
The same goes for your gloves, pants, and shoes. If they’re worn out, don’t use them. Motorcycle gear can be expensive, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
In this next section, we’ll talk about how to make sure your tires are up to the task at hand.
Tires have to be monitored on a motorcycle for the same reasons they have to be monitored on a car. When tire treads wear down, they have less grip on the road and less traction in wet conditions. The rubber on them slowly depletes until the tread — the area water moves through — becomes less and less useful. However, motorcycle tires wear down a little differently from car tires.
In countries where vehicles stay to the right of oncoming traffic, like the United States, motorcycle tires wear down on their front left sides faster than the right. This is because left turns have a larger turning radius. The rear tire, however, tends to wear more in the center.
Worn-out motorcycle tires can be very dangerous. It’s important to check the tires from time to time to see if they need replacing. In addition, check your tire air pressure about once a week — you don’t want to have them underinflated or overinflated, which can affect your fuel consumption, handling and tire life. Replace bent or cracked rims immediately.
Next — your motorcycle can go, but can it stop? We’ll learn how to inspect your brakes.
In hairy situations where it looks like a collision is imminent, many motorcycles have an advantage over cars thanks to their smaller size and maneuverability. But that only goes so far — a good, well-maintained set of brakes is still essential.
It’s critical to make sure that your brakes are working properly. Fortunately, like many motorcycle parts, they can be a little easier to work on than car brakes. From time to time, inspect the brake fluid reservoirs on the handlebars and the rear of the bike. Refill the fluid as necessary, preferably from a new container.
Also, look to make sure that your brake pads aren’t too worn. You can do this by looking at the pads through the wheel with a flashlight, as well as taking the brakes apart and inspecting the pads more directly. If they are in fact worn out, the pads can replaced in a manner similar to that of car brake pads.
Next up, let’s take a look at the other fluids on the bike, including motor oil and coolant.
Motor oil is essential to any internal combustion engine. It makes sure the engine’s many moving parts are lubricated and don’t grind against each other, which causes damage. Motorcycle engines run at much higher RPMs than car engines, so the oil has an even tougher job on a bike.
Your bike has a dipstick that you can use to check the oil level, or a glass panel that lets you inspect the oil level visually. When it gets low, it’s time to change the oil. If you haven’t ridden in a while, it’s always a good idea to check the oil before you take off. Your manufacturer recommends the oil get changed at certain intervals, but the oil needs to be changed more frequently after longer rides at high RPMs and other conditions.
The other fluids you should inspect are the brake fluids, which we described in the previous section, and the coolant. As the name implies, the coolant prevents your engine from overheating. On many bikes, there’s a visible panel near the engine that shows how much coolant is present. If it gets low, add more. All of these are good things to check before a long ride.
Next, we’ll discuss why it’s important to inspect your motorcycle’s lights and electric systems.
One of the biggest risks a motorcycle rider takes is that he or she is less visible than a car. Countless accidents happen because a driver simply doesn’t see a motorcycle. For this reason, it’s crucial that your bike’s headlights, brake light and signal lights work properly.
Now is a good time to check out the battery. Does the bike start without any trouble? Are the battery terminals free of corrosion? If you’re experiencing problems in this area, it may be time for a new battery.
Test your various lights, making sure you don’t have any burned out bulbs, cracks in the lights, or damaged reflectors. Make sure the regular and high beam light work. Test out the turn signals, and ensure that the rear brake light comes on when you use both the front and rear brakes. In addition, make sure no wires are exposed that could come loose or catch on your body later. You will also want to test out the horn and make sure it works properly.
Our inspection is going well. Let’s move on and check up on the chassis parts of the bike.
On a motorcycle, the word “chassis” refers to the frame and suspension. These are two of the largest and most important components on the bike.
Inspect the bike’s frame and look for dents, cracks, lifting paint or other damage. Make sure the bolts are in place tightly and that the wheels and frame are aligned properly. A crash or wear may have caused them to be off. The exhaust should be firmly connected and not leaking. The rear shocks should move up and down smoothly and without resistance. The front suspension forks should have smooth travel.
Look and see if the coil springs on the suspension have broken or are cracked at any point. In addition, check the motorcycle belt drive or chains, making sure the sprockets aren’t worn. If there is wear, it’s a good idea to replace the chain and sprockets at the same time. Look for items like missing pins and clips as well.
Next up, let’s look at the bike’s controls, and make sure they work correctly.
Now we need to check the control parts on the motorcycle, which are responsible for turning your input into moving and stopping.
The throttle on the right handlebar should open smoothly and snap close when you release it. Also on that handlebar is the front brake lever — make sure it can be applied without any problems or stiffness. On the other handlebar, we have the clutch lever, which should go in and out smoothly and be able to shift gears without slipping. Also, check the rear brake pedal, which is usually located on the right foot peg. That does most of the stopping work on a motorcycle so it should be operating properly.
Now check for other items like the hoses and cables running around the bike. They should not be frayed or kinked up in any way; this is also a good time to make sure they’re properly lubricated. Make sure the hoses aren’t cut, broken, leaking or deteriorating.
We’re getting toward the end of our checklist. Now let’s take a look at the motorcycle’s mirrors.
Next, look at the mirrors on your motorcycle. A rider has to be able to see everything around him or her clearly. Not spotting a car coming up from behind can have devastating consequences.
If the motorcycle is missing one or both mirrors, do not ride it. Similarly, look for mirrors that are cracked or missing pieces of glass. Replace these, and clean your mirrors if they’re dirty.
Before you start riding, you must also adjust your mirrors so you can see correctly. Georgia Motorcycle Operators’ Manual describes this procedure: Sit on the bike and take a close look at the mirrors. Adjust each mirror so you can see the lane behind you, and as much as the lane next to you as possible. The mirror may show part of your arm or elbow, but that is normal. It’s the road you should be most concerned about.
Finally, let’s take a look at the last item on our safety checklist, the stands.
Properly working kickstands can support the weight of the motorcycle and you on top of it. When inspecting a kickstand, look for any kinks or bends in the metal. It should swing down freely without resistance. In addition, the stand should not come down on its own while you’re riding. Many bikes have a kill switch that prevents you from driving off in gear while the stand is down, so make sure that works correctly.
If your bike has a center stand, make sure that can support its weight as well. Again, look for bends and cracks in the metal, and whether or not it can hold the motorcycle securely. Some center stands act as lifts for the motorcycle so you can raise them off the ground to replace tires and do other maintenance. Make sure that works properly as well.
After following all of these steps, you can go out and enjoy a long ride.