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The Debate on Antilock Brakes for Motorcycles

Annual motorcycle fatalities more than doubled from 1998 to 2007. Motorcycle deaths in 2007 exceed 5,100 compared with 2,294 fatalities in 1998. Both government and industry groups are looking at ways to reduce these numbers. A recent study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) shows that equipping motorcycles with antilock brakes could lower the number of fatal motorcycle crashes. The IIHS study showed that the number of fatal motorcycle crashes involving antilock-brake-equipped motorcycles were 38 percent lower than that for motorcycles without this equipment.

Braking a motorcycle is much more complicated than stopping a car. A motorcyclist must use a hand brake to stop one wheel while slowing the other wheel with a foot brake. If either wheel locks during the braking maneuver, a complete loss of vehicle control is likely. Antilock brakes help reduce brake pressure when a lockup is about to occur. The IIHS is pushing for antilock brakes to be required equipment on all new motorcycles.

However, not all agree with the IIHS position. Antilock brakes usually add about $1,000 to the cost of a new motorcycle. A spokesperson for the Motorcycle Industry Council also noted that the effectiveness of antilock brakes can vary based on road conditions, driver skill, and type of riding. In some situations, an experienced rider can come to a stop quicker on a motorcycle without antilock brakes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued its own report on July 19 that concluded that there were not "statistically significant results to suggest that ABS [antilock braking system] affects motorcycle crash risk." The IIHS responded that the NHTSA study was "junk science" and relied on flawed methods.

Antilock brakes are not widely available on all models at present. They are typically found on larger touring motorcycles. In 2008 this equipment was either standard or an option on about 40 motorcycles. BMW, Harley-Davidson, and Honda were the major manufacturers of vehicles with antilock brakes.

Although more costly and not a guarantee of safer stopping in all conditions, antilock brakes certainly appear to increase a rider's chances of avoiding a fatal crash. As one motorcyclist noted, keeping a bike from sliding out of control on just one occasion is worth it.

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