Are ABS (Anti-Lock Braking System) brakes really a leap forward or just another technical complexity used to sell the most current motorcycle models? More important to the average rider, are ABS-equipped motorcycles safer than standard braking?
Yes, the facts are clear, ABS brakes prevent accidents and are worth the extra cost and added complexity. When you have to make a panic stop, with full braking force in less than ideal weather or road conditions, then you will want and appreciate ABS assistance.
FACT – According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Association ( NHTSA) 2015 study – ABS-equipped motorcycles are 37% less likely to be involved in a FATAL accident.
FACT – Published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a 2013 report states that ABS-equipped motorcycle riders are 31% less likely to be involved in a FATAL crash.
No matter how experienced you are there’s always the chance of that “perfect storm” of bad events that can come together at just the wrong time, and this is were ABS shines.
How ABS Works
The front and rear brakes of the motorcycle are monitored and braking pressure is regulated depending on feedback conditions. The key input to the ABS is from each wheel sensor that indicates when a wheel is starting to lock up. This signal causes the ABS controller to release & apply braking pressure at an optimum rate for the shortest stopping distance possible. The ABS controller pulses brake pressure in microseconds, far faster than a human rider could.
ABS pulsing under hard braking is what gives that distinctive brake-chatter feedback to the rider. This also indicates your ABS is working, if you can lockup and skid either wheel get your ABS system checked and serviced.
Why ABS brakes work so effectively is because they optimize braking AND handling in extreme conditions. The key is the ABS pressure modulator, it maintains maximum braking pressure, while never letting the wheels lock up. Braking efficiency drops when a tire is skidding on the road surface. Under extreme braking conditions, your wheels & tires are still turning and making full and proper road contact, providing more control.
ABS for Touring Motorcycles?
ABS has a lot of benefits for the average touring rider. One unique benefit is to counter the fact that touring rigs are usually big, heavy and the rider has reduced visibility of the front wheel. Making it more likely that the rider could apply too much front brake for the unseen road surface.
Touring riders are on the road for extended periods and may suffer from fatigue more often than the occasional weekend rider. ABS can compensate for a moment of low rider performance or focus. You are also more likely to encounter a wide range of weather conditions and road surfaces while touring, so once again making ABS a worthwhile option.
ABS Growing Popularity
Availability of ABS-equipped motorcycles has been steadily increasing for decades. In 2007 less than 4% of motorcycles sold in the USA had ABS as standard or as an option. By 2017 the same ABS availability had increased to just over 22%. In the EU there now is legislation that requires ABS on all motorcycles 250cc and greater. ABS availability is steadily growing and very likely to become a standard motorcycle feature in the near future.
- “ABS limits performance”. ABS does not limit performance, and unless skidding out of control is “your thing”. ABS doesn’t impact riding style either. Many old-timers talk about ABS like it was similar in concept to a top speed limiter. ABS only operates at the extreme end of braking. Braking is completely standard up until that moment when a wheel locks up.
- “Novices should learn on non-ABS machines”. It doesn’t make sense to expose a new rider the dangerous “learning” process of finding out when their standard brakes will lock up. And then expecting split-second reactions and high levels of skills to avoid crashing. A newbie can enjoy the safety of ABS, AND get feedback through the system (ABS chatter-pulse sensation) when they have over-applied the brakes, and stay upright.
- “ABS is heavy”. Components do not add a large amount of weight. ABS components will add at maximum 4 to 8 lbs (1.8 to 3.6 Kg) to overall motorcycle weight.
- “ABS is expensive”. It can be offered as an overpriced option. Honda Gold Wings went this way until it became a standard feature. Competition among manufacturers has made it a relatively inexpensive option, considering the benefits. ABS as an option is typically priced from 300 to 800 dollars.
- Avoid using the ABS! It is designed for emergency situations and not meant to be relied on for normal riding.
- Keep the area around both front and rear ABS wheel sensors clean.
- If the ABS warning light comes on – service the system. Do not ignore the warning light.
- Brake fluid changes, brake pad inspection, and general maintenance are the same as standard brakes.
- Test the ABS occasionally by attempting to lock the rear wheel. You should feel the distinctive ABS chatter and pulsing feedback, and of course, the wheel doesn’t lock up and skid.
Braking without ABS
As with any critical braking situation, the key is to constantly be prepared and be calm & consistent with your technique. Stay alert – scan ahead, anticipate traffic flow, watch for erratic drivers. Slow down in bad weather or poor road conditions.
Response time is very important. I ride with at least one finger resting on the front brake lever at all times, and my foot stays in the same place, very near to the rear brake pedal, always ready. When I come on potential fast braking situations like intersections I move my foot to hover over the pedal. I also increase the number of fingers resting on the front brake lever.
When braking hard keep the motorcycle as vertical and traveling as straight as possible. I stiffen my arms, so the handlebars are in a semi-locked in position. This keeps the front wheel from being forced to either side and possibly swaying off course. As the braking force pushes me forward I push back and try to move my weight back on the seat. Since the forks will compress and the rear will raise up, my weight distribution towards the back helps balance things out.
If you can, pick a line of travel that is free of obstruction and offers the best way through or past what is in front of you. Look at the point you want to go to, and you will go there. Do not look at the object you are trying not to run into!
Make downshifting as you are braking second nature. Always shift down trying to match your decreasing speed with the correct gear. If the rear tires chirps or the revs go too high and you lurch forward you have downshifted too aggressively…it should be a very natural process and feeling. Another real benefit of proper downshifting is that you will be in the correct gear ready to accelerate if needed in a defensive maneuver.
Practice locking the rear wheel, on dry pavement. Get a feel for what it takes to lock & unlock the rear brake during a skid. The front is a lot more difficult to practice with. Progressively apply more pressure, until you are comfortable that you are reaching as much braking pressure you feel safe with. It is possible to lock up the front wheel and skid, but you are just as likely to have the rear come off the ground. Do not go beyond what you are comfortable with during practice.
When it comes to braking safety – focus, stay aware and be calm.
Can ABS be Retrofitted?
In most cases no. ABS systems are designed into the overall motorcycle. If you are building a custom machine then there are options. You may also be able to fit an ABS system from a donor bike. In the end, it is far simpler to find a motorcycle with ABS from the factory.
What is LBS braking?
Linked Braking Systems (LBS) connect the front and rear hydraulics. Braking force is proportioned between the front and rear brakes in a fixed amount. Properly designed systems make it very hard to lock up either front or rear brakes.
LBS brakes have a cost advantage over ABS since there are no sensors and monitoring electronics required, they are completely hydraulic systems.
Honda, BMW, Harley Davidson, and many others now offer LBS combined with ABS for higher performance. LBS by itself contributes to a safer ride, better than standard brakes, but less effective than ABS.
Does ABS need more maintenance?
Over the long run, yes, since ABS has more components to possibly fail. However, in most cases, there is no added maintenance other than keeping the wheel sensors clean and clear of debris that could interfere with the sensor.
How do I know if a motorcycle has ABS?
Surprisingly ABS and non-ABS setups look identical. The ABS controller is usually hidden inside the motorcycle bodywork. Most manufacturers put an ABS badge or decal on the bike.
ABS is a great safety feature. In normal operation, you will not even notice that it’s there. ABS doesn’t interfere with braking in normal conditions and motorcycle operation. But, it is like an insurance policy, you will be glad to have it when, and if you ever need it.