ABS – Atrophied Braking Skills?

I just heard from a rider who told me of a near death experience he recently had (well, it may not have been quite that bad but understandably it felt like near death to him). After years of riding a BMW equipped with ABS brakes he decided to add another bike to his stable for a little variety. He purchased a Suzuki V-Strom and was delighted to bring it home. What he hadn’t anticipated was the heart-stopping experience he had when he went for his first ride. While he instantly loved the bike, he was blindsided when he discovered that the non-ABS bike did not respond well to his braking inputs when rapid slowing was called for. For the past few years he had simply adopted a “mash on the brakes” approach knowing that his BMW’s ABS would take care of the rest. He claims to have nearly high sided on the V-Strom. I’ve heard from a number of folks who have said that they like the fact that they can just mash/squeeze as hard as they can on their ABS-equipped bikes without worry. But, as this individual makes clear, does that form a bad habit? Does the reliance on the technology reduce our need and desire to practice braking skills? Does it allow our skills to atrophy? I also suspect that ABS gives us a false sense of security that may even encourage us to ride faster than conditions call for. Granted, ABS technology has certainly saved lives. But does it also raise additional risk when we move from motorcycle to motorcycle or when systems fail? I fear that we as motorcyclists, as a result of the very technology that was designed to save our necks, are losing our ability to demonstrate even the most basic braking skills because we no longer feel we need to rely on them. Even airline pilots are taught how to fly planes when sophisticated technologies are disabled “just in case.”



15 Responses to “ABS – Atrophied Braking Skills?”

  1. Jane Says:

    Hear hear. I’ve just made the same change of bikes, from a F650GS to a WeeStrom, and have already experienced a little locking of the rear brake – both at low speeds so with no real consequence unless you count a committment to practice panic braking as soon as it’s warm enough to ride. Every ride. Thanks to you SS guys for teaching me what I need to do to make a safe transition.

  2. motorhead30510 Says:

    Why is it that we’re so reluctant to throw a few full-force braking drills into our weekly riding? Fear of wearing out brake pads and tires? Possibly, but what could be a better using up of refreshable equipment? It’s not like once the brake pads get down to the wear lines it’s time to trade bikes, is it? Maybe if we practice hard braking routinely, we’ll also practice looking into our calipers with a flashlight and estimating how much pad we have left, leading us to order new pads just a little in advance of when we actually need them. Or remind ourselves that 2009 being an odd-number year means it’s time this winter to drain and replace our hydraulic brake fluid. You did know the odd-year rule didn’t you? When *was* the last time you flushed the hydraulic brake lines, ridding the system of that old discolored fluid which had absorbed some water since it was last refreshed?
    Maybe that’s why we don’t practice hard braking; it leads to other stuff we don’t want to be reminded we need to do!
    Gotta go — the garage is calling my name.

  3. memama Says:

    My wife just got her endorsement, and a Suzuki GS500R. Its very lite and nimble compared to my R1100RT. I had to ride it home (40 miles on highways and
    in heavy traffic. Wife’s only had parking-lot experience. Good call on her part, I think). I did extreme breaking as soon as it was safe, BECAUSE I knew it would
    be different on this bike than on the BMW (which has ABS, GS500R doesn’t).
    So, agreed on the need for deliberate transition practice.

    Also, SS taught me NOT to just “mash on the brakes.” That if the ABS actually
    engages, it takes LONGER to stop than if you can take the breaking “just to the edge.” When I did the alpine tour and we did extreme breaking, I learned how hard I could break w/out the ABS kicking in. I try to practice this, sometimes re-discovering the limit, every few times out. And, of course, “mashing” of breaks is never going to be appropriate in a turn. As SS taught me, “slow in, fast out beats fast in, dead out.” Breaks in turns = BAD.


  4. eddie Says:

    I sometimes feel like I’m in the minority with my three vehicles (2 bikes and a car). *None have ABS*. That’s kind of odd for a 2006 model car, I believe. But, one of the first things I do with any new vehicle is take it to a secluded road or parking lot and see how it reacts to varying brake input. MY input. Likewise, I try to find out what a little wheelspin feels like on damp pavement. Leaving from a traffic light, there’s a chance of a little something slick on the road and the likelyhood goes way up when it’s raining. Ditto for any tollbooth. Oil and motorcycle tires are scary bedfellows. I managed to power a PC800 sideways coming out of the toll plaza on Ga. 400 once. I hope it looked good from afar because it scared the crap out of me.

    Having ridden a Transalp offroad a fair amount on Ft. Benning before it was closed to the public, I kinda got used to a bike slipping and sliding around. Riding in sand and not dying can be really inspirational. A little wiggle on pavement – even aboard the GL1800 I have now – is a non-event. Earlier in my riding lifetime, I have no doubt I would’ve done something stupid more than once and gotten hurt. Then again, I started out on much, much smaller machines {as should the general newbie. But, that’s another thread.}

    Bottom line? ABS or not, there’s no replacement for practice when it comes to accident avoidance & braking skills. It’s been said many times before and bears repeating. Want to be a better street rider? Get a dirt bike!! -eddie PS: Oh, yea. Then ride with Pete Tamblyn. 😉

  5. Fred Says:

    I’m a retired rider now; I owned eight bikes between 1979 (77 Yamaha 650 twin) and 2006 (BMW F650GS). Three out of the last four of those bikes had ABS, a feature I sought after becoming aware of its benefits. I have always been a ‘gentle’ rider, and while I rode 100,000+ miles, I never went down, never had a moving accident on a bike. I credit this record to my emphasis on safety during that time. On the other hand, I never practiced aggressive/emergency braking, and I know I should have. I also realize now I could have practiced it even when I had the ABS equipped bikes, since there were a few years when I owned and rode, at the same time, an ABS equipped bike and a standard bike. In the approximately 40K miles that I rode on ABS equipped bikes, I was aware of the ABS activating only three times, probably more evidence of my riding style. If I were starting out a riding career now, I would make it a point to practice aggressive braking periodically – it couldn’t hurt, and might help prepare me for that little ol’ lady turning left.

  6. Randy Kuklis Says:

    I remember seeing promotional videos by BMW touting the effectiveness of their ABS systems. The videos were impressive, showing single riders as well as two-up riders safely bringing the motorcycle to controlled stops under a variety of conditions. Coincidently, all the videos were shot while the bike was going straight. While ABS can aid in shortening the stopping distance, it’s not effective while the bike is in a lean and may actually cause a bad situation to become worse.

  7. Stephanie Says:

    I do most of my riding in a group of mixed bikes and types. We have cruisers, tourers, sport, scooters… all kinds. It’s good to question new riders about their abilities as well as not-so-new riders on newly purchased bikes. It lets everyone in the group know that we take ourselves seriously when it comes to safety. And if anyone is uncomfortable with riding with anyone else, they have a chance to change their plans. Every bike is different and no matter how many roads you have behind you, there are still more to come if you ride safe. All bikes have limitations. It is up to those who ride to educate themselves about them and ride within the limits. The price to the alternative can be very costly.

  8. Stephanie Says:

    One more tidbit… to all riders who have ABS brakes. Don’t depend on electrical systems to warn you of failing brakes. The TCLOCK routine applies to every rider.

  9. stayinsafe Says:

    Amen to that.

  10. Ian Shuttler Says:

    Interesting dialogue on the issues of braking. First, from my experience there is an interesting distinction between European and US riders regarding ABS. I cannot think of a UK or German colleague I know who would not want ABS on their machine. In fact ‘Das Motorrad’ the premier motorcycle magazine in Germany feels that every machine sold in Germany should have ABS as standard. I’ve done motorcycle and car braking courses and the best were in Germany run by the ADAC. The motorcycle course started with braking on grass, rear only, then front then both and then repeated with a pillion. You really got a feel for when either the rear or front was starting to slide on a grass surface, plus the dramatic difference a passenger made, all at a slow. safe speed and with a soft landing! Then the same procedure on the road surface, after that they got the hose pipes out and we repeated the whole exercise on a very wet road surface. We must have spent 3 hours on braking alone. It was clear to everyone on the course just how much more successful in braking were the ABS equiped bikes. I found the same conclusion on the car course. Every ABS equipped car retained control, the non-ABS were spinning all over the place.

    So for me, there is no discussion I’ll demand ABS every time. In the event of a ‘panic’ situation, I’m mature enough to know I’ll just brake full on and most probably miss the signs of slippage in the emergency, unlike in a parking lot practice when I’m thinking and pre-prepared to react. However, I’m aware of the limitations of ABS, they work great upright, but not when leaned over, the laws of physics win every time!

    That said, I still practice braking every time I ride. I want to make sure the technology is functioning. As I leave home at 20-30 mph, a quick emergency stop on my road (if safe to do so) tells me everything is OK and I’m OK too. Same in the parking lot as I leave work.

  11. Fred Says:


    Sure glad to hear someone feels as I do about ABS, for both cars and bikes. It seems obvious to this ol’ engineer!


  12. Ron Thomas Says:

    I’ve always practaiced max performance brakeing at least once early in a ride. On June 3rd 08 after riding a litle over an hour a deer poped up over a roadside railroad embankment, stoped on the side of the road, looked me in the eye and ran right into me at full speed! I remember us looking into eachothers eyes right before my headlight hit his right shoulder and I went over the left handlebar and her butt! It was not entill sitting on the bumper of the rescue truck and a fireman came back ad told me I’d left two black streaks 15 to 20ft long that I knew I had looked My brakes! In panic all practice goes out the window! After a week in intensive care and six weeks recovery I bought an R1150 RT ABS. I’ve ridden for 40yrs and now won’t ride without ABS! It’s sad as there are a lot of bikes I love that don’t have it but I’m know a beleiver!

  13. bodhi-mine Says:

    I ride a Wee-Strom (the non-ABS variety) and recently had to do a fairly quick stop on road snakes. Sure, the rear acted a bit squirrelly, but I kept the rubber side down and got the bike stopped in time. What is more, I had an amazing learning experience, and feel much better off for it. Knowing how the bike responds to rider input when doing extreme breaking is a very important part of riding and if one just sits back and lets ABS do all the work, one will indeed get a poor education. I agree with memama who mentions how to ‘properly’ use ABS – not simply mashing them because one can, but taking it to the non-abs limit and only using ABS when absolutely necessary.

  14. Mccambridge Says:

    Very good post.

  15. Scoot Uhr Says:

    Nick Ienatsch wrote a wonderful book called “Sport Riding Techniques.” In the book, he talks about a morning he spent with his friends practicing threshold braking in a parking lot. The very first person started the day by locking his front brake, falling down and busting his collar bone. Nick has another story about an experienced rider who wondered just how hard he could use his brakes in the rain. The experienced rider kept pushing it and pushing it till he finally fell down. Oops! I’m not willing to take those risks any more. I won’t practice true threshold braking again till I buy my next bike–it WILL have ABS!

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