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How to Choose the Safest Motorcycle

How to Choose the Safest Motorcycle
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Safety in motorcycling is paramount and there are many ways to ride safely in all conditions that we have outlined previously. Three questions that are asked again and again is:

  • What motorcycle is the safest?

  • What attributes or features does the safest motorcycle have?

  • Which motorcycle is right for me?

All of those are great discussion topics as motorcycling is very personal and every person can have similar answers for all the questions, yet they might not be the same. Let’s look at what makes a motorcycle safe for you and what we recommend as the safest motorcycle.

The term ‘safe’ is a general term meaning limited to no risk involved, but many riders with experience will admit that riding a motorcycle involves more risk than driving a car or truck. Perhaps the term ‘safer’ is better suited for motorcycling, and defining what can make it safer should be the focus for all riders both old and new.

Fit: Height and Size

Comfort while riding is an area that every rider needs to pay attention to, and that comes with a properly fitted motorcycle for your height and size. Being able to reach all controls easily, all shift levers with your feet, and also the ability to touch the ground when standing up while stopped are key concerns that every rider should address when selecting a motorcycle. Your inseam length, the motorcycle seat width, and the motorcycle’s suspension sag under the rider’s weight should be a good indicator if the motorcycle is a good fit. You should at minimum be able to touch the ground with one foot at a stop, but the ideal condition is that a rider can put both feet flat on the ground and have a couple inches between them and the motorcycle while standing.

Engine Size and Skill Level

Advertising does a great job of wooing new riders into the latest and biggest motorcycles available, but is that really what you need? New riders are recommended to start with a smaller motorcycle engine which will allow them to grow into motorcycling as their skill level increases. Also, consider where and when you’ll be riding. If you plan to commute in a large city that won’t see more than 45 miles per hour, you might not need a motorcycle capable of 130 miles per hour.

Types of Motorcycles

There are different types of motorcycles and each one has a better fit to the riding style they are designed for. Here are a few of the more popular choices and how they are designed to be used:

    types of motorcycles

  • Cruiser – A motorcycle designed for cruising has more reclined and neutral ergonomics that lend themselves to longer rides. Storage is typically limited on the motorcycle, but they may offer additional options to add storage.

  • Sport – Sportbikes are designed for speed and agility. They typically are on the lighter end of the motorcycle spectrum to enable more speed, but the ergonomics are more of a runner ready to leave the starting blocks. The fit is well-suited for a simple commute or rides of limited length and not necessarily the best for hours in the seat for an extended period of time.

  • Touring – The touring styles motorcycles are meant to ride some serious miles. They will offer the most amount of storage of all the motorcycle types and the ergonomics are designed to be comfortable for hours on end. They will generally have the largest ride screens and fairings to offer the most protection from the elements while riding coast to coast.

  • Standard – A standard motorcycle is usually the most basic of the motorcycle design. Engine size isn’t a standard and the fairings and windscreens usually aren’t part of the design. There will most likely be limited storage available and the ergonomics are neutral (neither reclined nor crouching.)

  • Dual-Sport – Dual-sport motorcycles are meant to go anywhere and do anything. They will have all the features needed to ride on the roads (lights, horn, etc.), and also have more aggressive off-road style tires and taller suspension. Ergonomics will be more upright than leaned over and storage can be in the middle of limited to multiple storage options.

One question between all the types is if one is considered safer than another. In general, the simple answer is ‘no’. Features available on the motorcycle can lead to safer riding when comparing the different types, but the rider skill level and preparedness in the environment they are riding through is more likely a factor in safer riding experience. Engine size doesn’t necessarily equate to more or less risk, but it can have an effect on the safety of the rider if they don’t know how to use the power produced by the motorcycle. A large engine with a lot of power can be dangerous for a rider without the skills to control it.

Motorcycle Maintenance

Maintenance on a motorcycle is a key factor in riding safer. Worn tires, cables that don’t move easily, brakes that don’t slow the motorcycle well, etc. are all things that bring extra risk to your next ride. If purchasing a used motorcycle, look for evidence of performed maintenance and associated records. Maintenance on any motorcycle is generally pretty simple and it will also provide a safer experience without a breakdown or hindered feature on the motorcycle. You can then look over a used motorcycle noting which appear to have been done according to the mileage. The owner may also have documented records if they have had a professional shop do the maintenance or may have receipts for parts if they have done the work themselves.

While conducting a maintenance check on a motorcycle, don’t forget to also check the tires for overall condition and wear. Tires that are dry rotted from sitting for a long period or are generally old and out of date can cause a safety issue later on. They can indicate (but not guarantee) that the motorcycle maintenance could be lacking. Tires that have limited tread left can also be a discussion point as you will need to invest in replacements sooner than later. Both can lead to a safety issue, so take a good look at the tire condition to know if they’re ready to ride or need some attention.

Tips for Beginners

So you just passed your basic motorcycle riding course. Now what? As you shop for your first motorcycle, here are some tips to consider during your quest:

  1. Choose a motorcycle for your current skill level. Start with a smaller motorcycle that is easy to maneuver and fits your body size well enough to ride for a period of time. Most new riders will want to move to a larger motorcycle as their skills develop and they find what niche they enjoy riding the most in. Worry more about skill development during the first year or two of motorcycling rather than having the newest motorcycle.

  2. Shop for a used motorcycle. Starting with a used motorcycle should require less investment for the initial purchase. It will most likely have a few scratches and dings as it has been used by previous new riders, but after your year or two of skill development you can resell the motorcycle to another new rider and reclaim most or all of your initial investment before upgrading.

  3. Prepare yourself. As you are the main contributor to riding safely, you need to prepare yourself for safe riding as much as your motorcycle. Riding impaired is never recommended, nor is riding tired. Always get some good sleep before riding as it takes all your attention and mental faculties to stay safe on the road. Anything less than attentive and prepared riding is inviting more risk.

Innovative Safety Features

Over the last few years, motorcycle and protective gear manufacturers have started to incorporate new features that lend themselves to safer riding. Here are a handful of our favorites:

  • Onboard Diagnostics – The same diagnostic features you’re used to with your four-wheeled vehicle are now starting to be incorporated into the newest motorcycles. Active suspension, tire pressure monitoring, and flex-fuel are options starting to be researched and incorporated into new models hitting the showroom floors.

    motorcycle LED lights
    LED lights not only allows you to provide color customization to your motorcycle, but it also provides added visibility while riding at night.
  • LED Lighting – LED (Light Emitting Diode) lighting is stylish and more importantly very functional. LEDs can offer more light and visibility using less power than a standard bulb. Other motorists can see a motorcycle better with brighter lighting, and some helmets are now offering LED inserts for additional visibility to other motorists.

  • Anti-lock Brakes – ABS brakes lower fatalities in crashes by 43%, and they are now becoming more cost-effective and common on certain types like touring and sport touring motorcycles. European legislation recently made anti-lock brake systems mandatory on motorcycles over 125cc, and that could be a trend soon showing up in other markets around the world.

  • Stability Control – Stability (or lack of) through a turn is often a major contributor to accidents, but new stability monitoring systems can analyze traction and lean-angle to ensure just the right amount of braking or power entering and exiting a corner is applied.

  • Three-wheeled Motorcycles – Some riders don’t have the ability to control a two-wheeled motorcycle well, but love the freedom they feel during a ride. Aftermarket conversions were the norm many years ago, but manufacturers are now offering a three-wheel trike as an included option to their yearly line-up.

Motorcycle Recommendations

With the riding season quickly approaching, we’ve scoured the manufacturer lineups for those we consider the best and safest motorcycles currently offered for riders of all skill levels. If you are currently thinking of purchasing a used motorcycle, these will also give you a benchmark to compare the used motorcycle against to determine what the best option is for you.

Beginner:

  • Suzuki VanVan200
    Type: Standard
    Engine: 4-stroke fuel injected, 1-cylinder, air-cooled engine, automatic idle (no choke)
    Displacement: 199cc
    Transmission: 5-speed manual

    The Suzuki VanVan 200 is a retro funky standard that brings a beginner price with features that allow the rider to grow before needing or wanting to upgrade. With a wide spacious seat and a wide set of balloon tires, the VanVan offers a little more stability and comfort than a basic beginner motorcycle. It offers a single rotor disc brake on the front and a drum brake in the rear that will be sufficient for around town fun but not intended for quick stops from high speeds.

    suzuki vanvan 200
    Suzuki VanVan 200
  • Kawasaki Z125 Pro SE
    Type: Sport Standard
    Engine: 4-stroke, 1 cylinder, SOHC, 2-valve, air-cooled, direct fuel injection
    Displacement: 125cc
    Transmission: 4-speed manual

    The Kawasaki Z125 line-up is a taller beginner motorcycle with a tall 31” seat height. It is lightweight and agile enough for a beginner to enjoy a sporty ride without the big horsepower to get into trouble too quickly. A single front and rear disc brake system is capable of handling through town or a sporty country ride and return safely home after a good day of riding.

    Kawasaki Z125 Pro SE
    Kawasaki Z125 Pro SE
  • Harley-Davidson Street 500
    Type: Cruiser
    Engine: Liquid-cooled, Revolution X™ V-Twin, 4-stroke, fuel injected
    Displacement: 500cc
    Transmission: 6-speed manual

    The Harley-Davidson Street 500 has a low seat height, low overall weight and lower center of gravity, but is big on comfort and is rich in heritage with the legacy of Made in America. The Street 500 is labeled as a beginner motorcycle, but with a few options, it can easily be ridden for years for any rider starting out. Single disc front and rear brakes are standard with an anti-lock braking system being an option at purchase and fairing or storage side bags can also be added for fatigue resistance and storing everything for a long day or weekend ride.

    Harley-Davidson Street 500
    Harley-Davidson Street 500

Intermediate:

  • Suzuki V-Strom 650XT
    Type: Adventure Standard
    Engine: 4-stroke, liquid-cooled, DOHC V-Twin, fuel injected
    Displacement: 645cc
    Transmission: 6-speed manual

    The V-Strom model line has been around a few years and currently has three models in the family. The 650XT is the middle of the family and offers the same engine size and the lower model and the electronic features of the higher model. It offers dual piston calipers with dual rotors disc brakes on the front and a single disc brake on the rear. It’s considered an “Adventure” motorcycle that crosses the line between many genres from a dual sport, sport touring, and a standard. It has the ride height to go off-road, yet the sophistication and safety to do well in town or on a longer ride for the day.

    Suzuki V-Strom 650XT
    Suzuki V-Strom 650XT
  • Ducati Monster 821
    Type: Sport
    Engine: twin cylinder V-twin, fuel injected
    Displacement: 821cc
    Transmission: 6-speed manual

    The Ducati Monster line-up was developed 25 years ago but has never stopped evolving from its early roots. The 821 brings the iconic Monster naked sport styling that defined the segment and the new Bosch anti-lock braking system with a Ducati Traction Control system bring the iconic design to the cutting edge of technology. In addition to the braking system, power and riding modes are available for rider setting for additional stability and traction control.

    Ducati Monster 821
    Ducati Monster 821

Expert:

  • Honda Gold Wing GL1800B
    Type: Touring
    Engine: liquid-cooled horizontally opposed 6-cylinder engine, fuel injected, SOHC
    Displacement: 1,833cc
    Transmission: 6-speed manual + overdrive

    The Honda Gold Wing is the motorcycle that set the bar high in the touring category. First released 43 years ago, the Gold Wing is probably the first motorcycle that comes to mind when discussing the Touring category. The Gold Wing offers dual front and single rear disc brakes, maximum comfort for long rides, and upgradable LED lighting for extra visibility. The seat height is average at 29” and the Gold Wing is one of the few motorcycles that offers a center kickstand instead of the standard side stand. This will help keep the motorcycle upright as you mount and dismount rather than having to return the motorcycle upright from a parking spot.

    Honda Gold Wing GL1800B
    Honda Gold Wing GL1800B
  • Kawasaki Concours 14 ABS
    Type: Sport Touring
    Engine: 4-stroke, 4-cylinder, DOHC, 4-valve, liquid-cooled, fuel injected
    Displacement: 1,352cc
    Transmission: 6-speed manual

    The Kawasaki Concours 14 is a sport touring motorcycle built on touring agility and comfort but has the heart of a Supersport model. Dual floating 4-piston calipers on the front (think racing level capability) and a single large disc on the rear are capable of bringing the Concours 14 down from highway speeds efficiently and safely using anti-lock braking technology. Designed for a sporty winding road cross-country trip, the Concours 14 is ready to go at a moment’s notice and can carry a long weekend’s worth of gear and clothing.

    Kawasaki Concours 14 ABS
    Kawasaki Concours 14 ABS

Three-Wheeled:

  • Can-Am Spyder F3
    Type: Sport Touring
    Engine: Rotax In-Line 3-Cylinder Engine
    Displacement: 1330cc
    Transmission: 6-Speed Semi-Automatic Transmission with Reverse

    The Can-Am Spyder is the new benchmark for three-wheeled motorcycles and they have three model options to choose from. The Sypder F3 is more sport oriented without a front fascia to deflect wind but does offer stability control, traction control, and anti-lock brakes. A high-performance Brembo braking system will be on standby when you need to slow the Spyder down and does offer enough comfort to prevent fatigue on a long road-trip. Other models from Can-Am do offer fairings meant for longer touring, so there are different choices on what you want and need to do with the Spyder line-up.

    Can-Am Spyder F3
    Can-Am Spyder F3

By reviewing all the manufacturers, it’s clear that they offer competitive models for cost, performance, and safety. Those we noted above had a little something extra when we reviewed all the specification and feature sheets. We’d also recommend noting what is available in your area as not all listed manufacturer brands may be sold or supported in your area. If that’s the situation, review what is offered near you first in case you need parts or service in the future. If location is not a major concern, the door is wide open for options.

Whether you’re a new rider beginning their motorcycling journey or an experienced rider looking to start another fun filled year of riding, safety will be a paramount concern to ensure the longevity of your riding career. Always look to match your motorcycle to your riding skill level and the type of riding style you plan to do. While some new motorcycles offer exceptional safety features, consider researching if those new features can be added or upgraded on your current motorcycle instead of purchasing a new motorcycle. Somewhere between old, upgraded, and new lies your next safe motorcycling adventure, so grab your keys and get out there when the weather is just right for a ride.

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Comment(3)

  • Jaque Christo
    January 25, 2018 at 7:07 am

    Thank you for the post on how to choose the safest motorcycle. I love the look of the Suzuki V-storm and it’s more casual style. I think I’d prefer to have a cafe racer style or cruiser as my first bike, a sports bike might be too much power for me right now.

  • Scott Adams
    February 7, 2018 at 1:52 pm

    I like that you talked about choosing a motorcycle that has anti-lock brakes because it can keep you safe while driving. I have been wanting to learn how to ride motorcycles this year. I can see how it would be smart to choose a bike with anti-lock brakes because it might be hard for me to brake correctly.

  • Patrick
    March 14, 2018 at 6:53 am

    Nice article, well written, and meaningful. I would have either stayed away from brand names completely or mentioned a few more models to insulate you against potential brand-bias claims. But, overall, definitely a great contribution and a must-read for those new to our sport/hobby/lifestyle. Thank you!

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