Three Disadvantages of ABS: Debunked

written by David Mixson

If you’ve listened to the Motorcycle Mentor Podcast or read one of my skills books, you know I like to present both sides of every argument. I’ve already presented the advantages of motorcycles with anti-lock braking systems (ABS). In this chapter, I’ll present the disadvantages. 

Starting in 2012, all new cars and light trucks sold in the United States have come with ABS as standard equipment. The technology is simple, mature, and relatively inexpensive. 

So why haven’t bike makers embraced ABS like the automotive industry? Simple economics suggests it’s because riders aren’t demanding it. 

Hopefully, I can change a few minds by addressing some of the arguments I hear against ABS.

Before we dive in, let me assure you that none of the arguments I’m about to present sway my strong belief that motorcycles equipped with ABS are significantly safer than those without.

ABS Disadvantage #1

The argument against ABS I hear most often is this.

“A riding friend said my first motorcycle shouldn’t have ABS because it encourages poor braking habits.” 

My Thoughts:

ABS allows you to grab (squeeze) more brake than you could with conventional brakes. But just because you have ABS doesn’t mean you’ll be forced to brake incorrectly. ABS doesn’t change the way you brake; it just keeps you from locking up your tires. 

The most important thing to know about motorcycle braking is that you should predominately use your front brake. A bike without ABS won’t teach you this, and it certainly won’t slap you on the butt when you use your rear brake too much.

The second most important thing to know about motorcycle braking is that you should avoid locking up your rear tire. ABS prevents this. 

Proper braking techniques are first learned with your head and then developed with practice and repetition until the correct way becomes a part of your muscle memory. 

This process is the same whether you have ABS or not. 

ABS Disadvantage #2

The second argument against ABS I hear is this.

“Some riders can stop faster on a motorcycle without ABS than they can on the same motorcycle equipped with ABS.”

My Thoughts:

This might be true for top riders. But while we would all like to believe we’re in the top rider category, few of us are. I’m certainly not, and I presume you’re not either. I’m not particularly motivated that MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi can stop faster without ABS. 

I’m more moved that you and I can stop more quickly with ABS. 

Every study I’ve seen shows that most riders (from beginner to experienced) can stop more quickly with ABS in panic situations than without it. As ABS technology improves, I predict that even MotoGP racers will use it. I promise they understand what will happen if their rear tire loses traction at 150 mph. 

Hello, highside! 

ABS Disadvantage #3

The third argument against ABS I hear is this. 

“Motorcycles with ABS don’t perform as well in dirt and gravel.”

My Thoughts:

There’s some truth to this argument, but it’s not always the case. Some tests have shown that motorcycles with off-road ABS stop just as well or even better than their non-ABS cousins in off-road situations.1 

Many adventure motorcycles designed for on-road and off-road use, like the BMW R1200GS Adventure (my current bike), allow the rider to disengage it. 

Perfect. Turn ABS off when you go off-road—if you want to. 

NOTE: I usually keep my ABS on even when I’m riding in off-road conditions. But that discussion is for another time.

The Bottom Line

I don’t profess that current ABS technology is perfect. But the advantages—shorter stopping distances in most situations, fewer lowside and highside crashes, easier to use in panic stops—far outweigh the disadvantages. So much so that I’ve made a personal commitment never to own a motorcycle that doesn’t have ABS. 

Think about it this way. If a car spinning out of control is coming across your lane in front of you, do you really want to have to worry about grabbing the correct amount of front and rear brake—the amount that stops you in the shortest distance but doesn’t lock up your rear tire? 

I don’t (and won’t)—because I have ABS.

I can grab both brakes and let ABS do its thing. 

Leading the Way

BMW embraced ABS before most others. When I started looking for my first motorcycle, the only used motorcycles with ABS in my price range (motorcycles old enough) were BMWs.

I didn’t fully understand the advantages of ABS back then, so I ended up buying a motorcycle with linked brakes.

BMW continues to lead the way. In 2013, BMW Motorrad was the first manufacturer to equip all new motorcycles with ABS as standard equipment.

ABS has been available on most touring and sport-touring bikes for years. Recently, other manufacturers (including Harley Davidson) have started offering models with ABS—sometimes as standard equipment and sometimes as an upgrade.

That’s awesome!

I want my Harley friends to have the same advantages I do.

* A portion of this article is an excerpt from my book Motorcycle Hacks.

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About the Author

David Mixson writes about the topics other motorcycle books gloss over. He worked as a NASA engineer for over thirty years and is the author of three books.

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