It may have an image of being seriously lacking in terms of safety, but recent advancements have helped make motorcycling a much safer form of transportation than it is perceived by the general public.
Let's face it, motorcycling has an image problem, at least with the non-motorcycling public.
Not only is there that infamous and seemingly unbreakable association with 1%er biker gangs, but in general, motorcycling is often viewed as possibly the most dangerous form of getting from A to B you could opt for.
While it is a given that a motorcyclist is far more vulnerable to injury in an accident than other road users, recent developments in safety and their now widespread application in all aspects of the industry have brought motorcycling safety forward by leaps and bounds compared to the turn of the century.
The most common safety feature for motorcycles was first pioneered by BMW for motorcycles in the 1980s. ABS braking has long been a standard feature in cars due to its unarguable effect of improving control under emergency braking situations but has only in the past decade become widely used in motorcycles.
The motorcycle world has been slow to implement the technology, in part due to the size needed for the ABS pump module, but with units developed by Bosch and Continental now weighing as little as 2kg, ABS is an option on all but the most budget motorcycles today.
In the past decade, ABS braking has gone from being optional equipment to an unquestionable must-have for motorcycles with even the last holdouts in the mainstream even offering it in their most basic models
While there are still limitations to ABS braking’s usefulness for motorcyclists under certain conditions (such as on gravel roads) the systems used by today’s motorcycle manufacturers have come a long way since the technology first hit the scene to the point that an ABS-equipped bike can outperform a rider and bike without it in almost all circumstances.
As of November 1st 2021, all new motorcycles sold in New Zealand over 125cc will need to have ABS braking fitted as standard equipment, while motorcycles and mopeds under 125cc will need to feature a combined braking system if ABS is not available.
The next step in making motorcycles safer comes in traction control. While still seen primarily in motorcycles above 600cc, some bikes in the Learner Approved Motorcycle class such as KTM’s 390 Adventure also now feature traction control.
Just as in the car world, motorcycle traction control uses sensors at the wheels to monitor and compare wheel speeds and prevents the bike from lighting up the rear wheel under power with the primary difference between the car and bike worlds being that bikes often gave multiple stages of traction control where on a car it is simply on or off.
Traction control is slowly becoming standard equipment on most new models, particularly from European manufacturers.
THE BRAINS BEHIND IT ALL, THE IMU
While rudimentary safety systems have been in development since the 1980s for motorcycles, the advent of the Inertial Measurement Unit and its popularisation in new motorcycle models has brought more control than ever to motorcyclists.
The IMU is a computer that determines the current movement status of the bike including yaw, pitch and roll rate and longitudinal, lateral and vertical acceleration.
This is combined with ABS and Traction Control systems to allow for increased functionality and control, particularly while the bike is leaning. In addition to Traction Control and cornering ABS, but is also used by (Semi-) Active Suspension, Adaptive Lighting and other advanced rider aids.
THE SLIP AND ASSIST CLUTCH
There aren’t many mechanical solutions to some of motorcycling’s safety challenges, but one comes in the form of the slip and assist clutch.
This style of clutch has two functions (hence the name) with it primarily preventing the rear wheel from locking up (also known as tyre chatter) due to engine compression as a result of fast or accidental downshifting.
It achieves this by featuring ramps built into the clutch pack which force the clutch plates apart if the rear wheel starts to drive the engine.
The other benefit is a lighter clutch lever, which reduces rider fatigue. It’s a win-win system and after being only seen on superbikes in the early 2000s is now seeing widespread use.
MOTOGP MEETS THE ROAD - AIRBAG SYSTEMS
Cars have benefitted from airbag technology for decades, but adapting airbags to motorcycling has taken some development.
Currently, Honda is the only manufacturer to have developed a system similar to that of cars, which currently only features as an option in the brand’s flagship tourer the Goldwing and deploys over the handlebars during a frontal impact, while the remainder of the industry has focussed on rider-worn airbags.
The rider-worn system is usually found as a vest or built into a jacket and is generally activated by a propellant which is activated by either a tether on cheaper systems or by a complex arrangement of sensors and computers on the more expensive ones. That’s the rub, airbags are another additional expense to add to your riding kit and aren’t a replacement for your abrasion-resistant layers.
While there is even more technology at our hands one of the biggest contributing factors to motorcycle safety is literally at the hands of the rider – training. Never before has training been so readily available and easily accessed by the Kiwi rider than today, with ACC’s Ride Forever program subsidising training for thousands of motorcyclists to date and crafting rider’s skills to match the ability of their bike.