Motorcycle Braking: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Motorcycle Hand Brake Position

Stacey “Ax” Axmaker had his first exposure to motorcycle safety in 1991 when his insurance agent suggested he take a rider training class to get a discount on his premium. He did and was so blown away by what he didn’t know, that he asked how he could be an Instructor. Ax has been teaching ever since. Since that fateful day when he filled out the Instructor application, he has ‘served the cause’ in a variety of roles including Instructor, Instructor Trainer, Chair of Idaho’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan Motorcycle Safety Committee, and many more.  Learn more about Ax on his website.

As you are out and about riding your motorcycle:

  • Have you ever felt anxiety about ‘what if that car pulls out in front of me?’ YEAH – me, too.
  • Have you ever made a braking mistake – like getting a rear wheel skid that made your bike do a little dance (or worse)? YEAH – me, too.
  • And do you ever worry that if something goes wrong in front of you, that you may not get stopped in time? YEAH – Me, too!

In fact, thousands and thousands of riders have had those experiences, too. The data show us that braking errors are common in motorcycle crashes. Regardless of whose ‘fault’ a situation might have been (a car driver’ fault, the rider’s fault, both,  or neither), the ability to get your bike stopped quickly (or even slowed down quickly) is critical to avoiding collisions.

Motorcycle rider breaking

Photo credit: Motorcycletripper.com

Unfortunately, maximum braking is a skill that many riders do not have, and even for those riders that do know how, many make mistakes in ‘the moment of truth.’ Too many crashes, injuries, and fatalities are occurring as a result of poor braking or braking errors. I believe many of these are preventable with good braking skills (and good execution in ‘the moment of truth’). Every crash prevented makes life better for riders, for their families and loved ones, and for the riding community as a whole.

Over the next few newsletters, we will:

  • Spell out several common braking errors and their consequences
  • Clarify good maximum braking technique
  • Explain how to handle skids
  • Provide tips on how and why to practice maximum braking
  • Discuss the benefits (and limitations) of taking a professional rider training class
  • Reveal 2 bonus elements to drastically improve your ability to stop your motorcycle quickly

Common Braking Errors

1. Rear brake only – skidding all the way to a stop (or a crash)

  • This is very common and I believe there are a number of factors that lead to this. Among them are:
    • Car driving habits – these train us to press the pedal and keep pressing it harder if we want to stop quickly.
    • Panic – when we are startled, tense, scared, we tend to use more physical force and our ability to think clearly and rationally is greatly reduced.
    • Motorcycle habits – many riders use the rear brake only when coming to gradual stops. If there is no need to stop quickly, the rear brake will do the job.  The problem with this is that in an emergency, we tend to do what we normally do.
  • Consequences of rear brake only and skidding
    • Looooong stopping distances – this one is pretty selfexplanatory.
    • Committed to a straight-line path – with the rear wheel skidding, you can no longer change your direction. If you were headed toward a guardrail when you locked up the rear wheel, you’ll continue toward that guardrail as you skid.
    • Risk of a ‘high-side’ crash – if the rear wheel ‘fishtails’ out of alignment with the front and then the skid is released, there is a real risk of the bike straightening abruptly enough to toss the rider off the bike.

2. Rear brake only – no skid

  • As above, habits (both car and motorcycle) can lead to using the rear brake only.
  • Consequence of rear brake only
  • Looooong stopping distances.

3. Using both brakes, but soft on the front brake

  • This is also pretty common, and I believe that this is very often related to a fear of the front brake. There are two aspects to this fear – one is the myth ‘if you use the front brake, you’ll go over the handlebars!’ and the other is a very real and reasonable fear of a front wheel skid (that’s next ).
  • Consequences of using both brakes, but soft on the front brake
    • Stopping distances are much better (shorter) than rear brake only, but not nearly as good as with full application of the front brake.

4. Front wheel skid

  • Yes, this is something we all have some anxiety about –and for good reason. In my experience, the primary cause of a front wheel skid is applying the front brake to fast (‘grabbing’ the brake lever). This can often be associated with a panic situation.
  • Consequence of a front wheel skid
    • Crashing – while there are a few stunt riders out there who can maintain a front wheel skid (in a controlled environment), for the rest of us, front wheel skids (if not handled correctly and quickly) will almost certainly result in a crash. As soon as the front wheel locks up, steering control is lost and the fall soon follows.

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