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Motorcycle Factors: Braking Table of ContentsHomenhtsa

Introduction to Motorcycles

Motorcycle Design


Vehicle Modifications


Lane Use


Although motorcycles have sufficient braking power and traction to enable them to stop in as short a distance as a typical car, panic-braking a motorcycle poses unique hazards and requires greater operator skill than stopping a car in panic situations or in a skid.

The vast majority of motorcycles use an independent system for the front and rear wheels, with a lever on the right handlebar controlling the front brake and foot pedal controlling the rear brake. A small number of motorcycles link the controls and an even smaller number have a handlebar lever to control the rear brake. We know of no current research that indicates which if any of these is more effective.

Braking seems to be one of the most difficult skills for a motorcyclist to master. It is also one of the most critical. It is difficult because most motorcycles have two separate brake-control systems, one for the front wheel and one for the rear wheel. As the front brake is applied, weight transfers to the front tire, which causes available traction to vary as weight shifts, requiring the rider to adjust pressure on each brake control in a maximum-performance stop. As found in the Hurt Report, in a situation the motorcyclist typically overbrakes the rear and underbrakes the front, even though weight transfer means the front brake must do the majority of the braking. Overbraking can either cause loss of steering control or total loss of control. If the rear wheel is locked, the rider typically loses directional control. If the front wheel locks, the rider is likely to crash due to loss of stability.

Rider training courses, available for the last two decades, have sought to develop improved motorcyclist braking skills. Greater emphasis has been focused on proper braking technique and the importance of the front brake. There seems to be a greater recognition of the importance of front brake use than there was 20 years ago when the Hurt Report was conducted. Failure to brake effectively and loss of control during panic-braking continue to play a role in motorcycle crashes.

Continued rider training and practice are key elements in assuring maximum rider performance in a panic situation. This allows riders to learn brake control during a maximum-braking stop, internalize the process of a hard stop so they react automatically in a panic situation, and deal with events such as rear-wheel lock-up. However, even panic-braking practice involves risk, because locking the front wheel can cause an immediate loss of control and a fall. This makes it difficult for rider training organizations to train riders to use the front brake to its full capability.

Motorcycle braking systems have steadily improved in terms of power, control, and reliability and continue to do so. Virtually all street motorcycles now have hydraulically actuated disc brakes, at least on the front wheel. Most motorcycles use this type of brake—which is self-adjusting for wear and more resistant to fade and wet conditions than drum-type brakes—on the rear wheel as well.

Many street motorcycles also have powerful dual disc brakes on the front wheel, which provide more stopping power where it is needed most. This is particularly true for sportbikes and touring motorcycles. Cruisers, despite weights that are normally heavier than other styles except touring motorcycles, often have just a single disc brake in front, although this seems to be changing.

Two technical developments have sought to simplify braking control and provide more effective braking. Linked braking slows both wheels with a single control. Antilock braking systems (ABS) allow the rider to apply maximum braking force without fear of wheel lock-up and the resulting loss of control, providing the bike is not leaned over. Under many pavement conditions, antilock brake systems allow the rider to stop a motorcycle more rapidly while maintaining steering control even during situations of extreme, panic braking.

Although incidental and first-hand experience indicates either of these systems can be effective in countering the problems faced by a motor-cyclist in a panic stop, we know of no research that shows how they perform in the field compared with similar bikes fitted with standard brake systems. The added costs (particularly for ABS) and reluctance to accept them by some experienced motorcyclists have limited the adoption of these potentially effective systems.


We want motorcyclists to possess the skills to use their brakes fully while maintaining control under all riding conditions, thus avoiding some crashes.

We would like developments in brake systems, which offer better, safer panic-stopping capability for motorcyclists, to continue and be more widely adapted to all classes of motorcycles.


Assuring that motorcyclists get maximum braking performance requires training, research, and deployment of equipment that can provide maximum-performance braking while minimizing the danger of a braking-induced crash. To obtain the level of braking that is available even on current machines, both experienced and inexperienced motorcyclists need recurrent training (see Rider Education & Training, page 17).

Several braking issues invite further study:

• The new technologies seem to promise shorter stopping distances and overall safer stopping for motorcyclists. ABS in particular can do much to eliminate the dangers of overbraking in a straight line.

• Studies of how effectively linked-braking systems perform in the field would tell whether they should be employed more widely.

• The effectiveness of braking systems that combine ABS with a linked control should be explored.


• Study the effectiveness of linked and antilock braking in the field. If these technologies prove valuable, deploy them more widely.

• Use information from research to implement other braking-related countermeasures.

• Provide additional training and education on proper braking and panic-braking techniques.

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