Motorcycle ABS: Skepticism Debunked

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Lieback’s Corner (#17) / 5.16.2012

When testing new motorcycles, judging the worthiness of a bike’s Antilock Braking can become quite enjoyable.

The ultimate ABS system will act almost undetectable, and the ultimate test of such a system involves the fun factor of trying to lock up the wheels at high speeds, both on dry and wet pavement.

BMW was the first to master the art of undetectable ABS; take a ride on a S1000RR and you’ll quickly understand. And there’s a good reason why BMW is a leader in undetectable ABS – the Bavarian company has much experience honing its antilock braking system, considering it was the first manufacturer to offer ABS back in 1988 on its K models. And today, it’s the only company to offer ABS as standard equipment across its entire motorcycle lineup.

But many other manufacturers have also become leaders (though not masters) in undetectable ABS, such as Harley-Davidson. I’ve recently been testing a Softail Slim equipped with ABS, and am satisfied with the worthiness of Harley’s latest system. Testing notes aside, the Softail Slim’s ABS engages very effectively, even if a rider needs to emergency brake at speeds over 100 mph…

Tests on bikes equipped with ABS such as the Softail Slim have helped debunk my skepticism in motorcycle ABS, but it took some time.

Since the turn of this century, I’ve practiced hard braking in various situations, finding that fine threshold of ultimate braking ahead of wheel lockup. This practice was a must for me considering I wanted to be one of the safest riders on the street, and also one of the hardest on the brakes at the track.

So when the Antilock Braking craze began in the two-wheeled world, I was a bit skeptical. Would this make street riders lazy, and hard-braking practice futile?

But the more and more I tested bikes with ABS, the more and more I began to see the positives of the ingenious system. And my positive outlook recently gained traction while gathering some information for a safety book I’m working on.

As part of the data acquisition, I’ve been asking all the non-riders I know why they don’t ride. After talking with around 100 people, I was shocked to find out that about 30 percent of them had tried riding before.

And the reason this percentage didn’t ride anymore is because each potential motorcyclist had one of those “Oh Shit” moments (all on the street). And many of those OS episodes occurred due to going over the bars or high siding while grabbing too much front brake.

Yes, proper training from the beginning would have helped (think a simple MSF course), but imagine if each were piloting a bike with ABS – maybe those riders would still be riding today.

That info helped deter my skepticism in motorcycle ABS, but there was one more thing that really helped – a study released in 2010 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Following a lengthy study (2003 – 2008), the IIHS found that motorcycles featuring ABS are 37 percent less likely to be involved in a fatal crash over models without ABS.

That’s impressive data that needs to be delved into more, but it helped further debunk my skepticism in motorcycle ABS. If something can potentially save a motorcyclist’s life, I’m all for it.

So let all bikes have optionally ABS, but I’d require one stipulation – the choice to shut the system off, as the S1000RR allows.

This would allow the sportbike rider to optimize track times by using techniques that require standard brakes, the adventure motorcyclist to have more fun in the dirt, and the cruiser rider the opportunity to lay long strips of rubber in town when stomping on the rear brake.

Lately I’ve missed the latter; that Softail Slim’s ABS is so effective it just won’t allow me to have that kind of fun…

Stay Twisted; Throttle yr Soul

– Ron Lieback

Lieback’s Corner is the Online Editor’s column, which delves into RL’s recent motorcycling mind breaths and wanderings.