Open Letter to Congress and NHTSA: A Case for Mandatory ABS (and ESC)

written by David Mixson

I‘m a huge proponent of anti-lock braking systems (ABS) for motorcycles, and it has nothing to do with stopping distances.

So much so that I believe Congress should Federally mandate ABS on all on-street motorcycles sold in the U.S. And while you’re at it, go ahead and mandate Electronic Stability Control (ESC), also referred to by some as Motorcycle Stability Control (MSC).

The technology exists and is readily available. 

Folks who have read my books or listened to my podcast know I like using my engineering background to break down topics in an easy-to-understand format. In this article, I’m going to attempt exactly that. 

Executive Summary

Nearly half of all motorcycle fatalities are due to rider error, and the numbers are increasing—even with mandatory training, better brakes and tires, and plenty of books on the subject. In 2021, motorcycle fatalities in the U.S. reached an all-time high of 5932 deaths (and 82,686 injuries).1 We need a fresh approach.

Two of the most common crash scenarios are when a rider lowsides or highsides. I explain lowsides in-depth here and highsides here. What’s important to note is that these crashes are almost always triggered when a rider (1) locks up (skids) their rear tire by over-braking, or (2) spins their rear tire by over-accelerating.

ABS prevents tires from skidding. ESC prevents the rear tire from spinning. Mandatory ABS and ESC for all on-street motorcycles would prevent thousands of crashes every year and save hundreds of lives—more than mandatory helmet laws in every state would (opinion).

And note how I didn’t even mention stopping distance as an argument for ABS—mainly because it’s not its main benefit.

I believe we still don’t have a Congressional mandate for ABS on motorcycles because we’re using the wrong argument. ABS proponents argue that ABS shortens stopping distances for most riders, while anti-ABS proponents argue that top riders can stop more quickly with conventional brakes. In this case, neither side wins because both sides are right. So, Congress does nothing.

Avoidable Crashes

Of all the topics I write about, I’m the most passionate about explaining lowside and highside crashes (what are they, what triggers them, and how riders can avoid them).

This is partly because the old-school motorcycle mega books from the past gloss over the topic like it’s the plague. But mostly, it’s because lowside and highside crashes are almost always rider-induced and avoidable. I explain lowside and highside crashes in more depth in these articles.

› The Ultimate Guide to Preventing Most Rider-Induced Crashes

› Lowside Crashes: Understanding and Preventing Rider-Induced Lowsides

› Highside Crashes: Understanding and Preventing Rider-Induced Highsides

Quickie Definitions

In a nutshell, a lowside is when your motorcycle slides on its side, and you slide onto the ground behind it. See Figure 1 (below).

Figure 1 Lowside Crash

(Bike Dumps Rider)

highside is when your motorcycle tosses you up and over the handlebars. See Figure 2 (below). Also, see the crash videos below.

Figure 2 Highside Crash

(Bike Launches Rider)

I go into more detail in the articles mentioned above about what triggers lowside and highside crashes. Here, I’ll just make the point that bad things happen when you lock up (or spin) your rear tire.

The crash data doesn’t lie. What we’re doing isn’t working. We need a fresh approach—and ABS and ESC on every new motorcycle sold in the U.S. should be a part of this approach. 

Strong Opposition

I like to present both sides of every argument because it often leads to a resolution. I presented (and debunked) the most common arguments against ABS that I hear from riders in Three Disadvantages of ABS: Debunked.

I spent my morning looking at online motorcycle forums, and there are certainly some passionate riders against ABS.

The arguments against ABS seem to focus on stopping distances and the rider having full control (pop a testosterone pill, beat on chest) of his motorcycle without electronics getting in his way. The loudest folks chanted,

“I don’t need any stinking electronics to help me ride better.”

I hypothesize these are the riders who need ABS and ESC the most— perhaps the same riders who brag their bike has never seen the rain? Just a guess.

I wrote about this in The Wrong Argument for ABS: Why Proponents Are Losing the Debate. Here, I’ll just make this point.

If the naysayers would look past the stopping distance argument and instead focus on the fact that ABS and ESC prevent rider-induced lowside and highside crashes, I think some might reconsider.

ABS and VSC on Automobiles

I’m sure folks argued against mandatory ABS and Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) for automobiles and light trucks too. But Congress found a way to pass that legislation over a decade ago. 

I’m not a big fan of government regulations, but if ABS is good for automobiles (which it is), why isn’t it good for motorcycles? I would argue that ABS is even more beneficial for things with two wheels.

It’s time to extend the same courtesy to motorcycle owners—even if some riders don’t understand why they need it.

Examples of Real Avoidable Crashes

To get a feel for lowside and highside crashes, I’ve included five examples of real crashes captured on video.

In each of the crashes below, the motorcycle didn’t have ABS or ESC. How do I know? Because all the crashes below were triggered by a skidding or spinning rear tire. ABS and ESC would have made both triggers virtually impossible. ABS would have prevented a skidding rear tire, and ESC would have prevented a spinning rear tire.

Note: Nearly all of the single-vehicle lowside and highside motorcycle crashes on YouTube could have been prevented with ABS and ESC. This is why using shorter stopping distances as the only benefit of ABS misses the mark. The main benefits of ABS and ESC are that they prevent lowside and highside crashes triggered by a skidding rear tire (due to over-braking) or spinning rear tire (due to over-accelerating). ABS keeps you from skidding your tires. ESC keeps you from spinning your rear tire.

Here’s something to ponder. If Congress had mandated ABS and ESC years ago, none of the riders below would have crashed.

Real Lowside and Highside Crashes

I’ve watched hundreds (maybe thousands) of videos on YouTube showing riders lowside and highside crashing alone. In the videos below, none of the riders were badly hurt.

Note: Keep watching past the initial crash scene. Ken shows each one in slow motion part-way through each video. Those are really interesting. 

Avoidable Crash: Illustration One

In the video below, the rider triggered a highside crash because he spun his rear tire, accelerating out of the curve.

ABS and ESC would have prevented this crash.

Avoidable Crash: Illustration Two

In the video below, the rider triggered a lowside crash.

ABS and ESC would have prevented this crash.

Avoidable Crash: Illustration Three

In the video below, the rider triggered a highside crash.

ABS and ESC would have prevented this crash.

Avoidable Crash: Illustration Four

In the video below, the rider triggered a highside crash into the guard rail. Of all the videos I have here, this is the most uncomfortable one to watch. But he walked away from it, albeit with a few broken ribs, I imagine.

ABS and ESC would have prevented this crash.

Avoidable Crash: Illustration Five

In the video below, the rider triggered a lowside crash.

ABS and ESC would have prevented this crash.

Just the Facts

I think it’s worth noting that I didn’t have to cull through lowside and highside videos on YouTube to find ones that could have been prevented with ABS and ESC. Rather, nearly all the single-vehicle lowside and highside crashes shown on YouTube could have been prevented with ABS and ESC.

I’ll say it again. The biggest benefit of ABS for motorcycles has less to do with stopping distances and more to do with keeping riders from crashing all by themselves in rider-induced single-vehicle crashes.

Stopping Distance and Control

While I’ve said the most significant benefit of ABS and ESC has little to do with stopping distances, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this. Study after study has shown that most riders (like all but the top riders in the world) can stop quicker and with better control with ABS and ESC.

I’m not moved that MotoGP racer Valentino Rossi can stop quicker with conventional brakes. I’m moved that the vast majority of riders (including myself) can stop in a shorter distance (with better control) with ABS and ESC.


I’m not the only one who has studied the data. In November 2023, The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) filed a petition asking the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to mandate ABS on motorcycles sold in the U.S. for on-street use.

IIHS-ILDI filed a similar petition ten years ago. The NHTSA failed to act on it back then. Here’s the first paragraph of the most recent 2023 petition.

“The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute (IIHS–HLDI) first petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to require ABS on all new on-road motorcycles in 2013 (Moore & Teoh, 2013). In the 10 years since then, evidence of ABS effectiveness has continued to accumulate, and it has become far more common among new motorcycles in the U.S. Despite this, NHTSA has taken no action to require this life-saving technology. Therefore, IIHS–HLDI hereby petition NHTSA to upgrade Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 122, Motorcycle Brake Systems (49 CFR 571.122), to require ABS on all new on-road motorcycles sold in the U.S.”2

The petition continues:

“[The] NHTSA should follow the lead set by all European Union member states, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and India in requiring this life-saving technology.”3

You can read the full petition here. While this is a great move by IIHS and HLDI, I think they should have included ESC in their request to save even more riders’ lives.

ABS and ESC in Action

I explain ABS, Traction Control (TC), and ESC in more detail here. Below, I’ll share two illustrations to show how these systems keep riders from crashing.

ABS and ESC: Illustration One

In the video below, notice which bike has arm extensions to keep the bike from crashing—the one without ABS. That pretty much says it all.

ABS and ESC: Illustration Two

In the video below, Bosch explains how their Motorcycle Stability Control (MSC) can keep riders from crashing. MSC and ESC are the same thing. This technology already exists.

Final Thoughts

I’m still confused as to why Congress and the NHTSA haven’t acted on this legislation. I’m sure there were passionate naysayers when you mandated ABS and VSC on cars and light trucks over a decade ago. I don’t hear those haters still complaining, probably because it was the right thing to do.

And what happened to the naysayers against mandatory seat belt laws who lobbied that they might get stuck in a burning car if their seatbelt got stuck?

Answer: They faded away and found something else to complain about.

If you want to keep everyone happy (actually, that’s never possible), make it so riders can manually deactivate ABS when they want to—even though most never will.

I understand that if riders demanded ABS, manufacturers would already be providing it. That’s not happening because no one seems to be talking about ABS preventing riders from triggering crashes.

There’s no doubt in my mind that ABS and ESC on all motorcycles made for on-street use would significantly reduce the number of single-vehicle motorcycle crashes and fatalities—and the crash data supports this claim, as does the physics.

Final Appeal

Let me close with this thought. ABS is such a critical part of preventing riders from triggering a lowside or highside crash that I would still choose to only ride motorcycles equipped with ABS even if it took me a few feet LONGER to stop than it would with regular brakes.

At some point, I believe ABS and ESC will become mandatory. If I can make this day happen one day sooner, I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do.

Let me know if I can help.

On a personal note, I’d like to thank Ken Snyder for the videos I used above. I scoured hundreds (maybe thousands) of crash videos on YouTube to show lowside and highside crashes, and his videos are the best. You can find all of his videos here.

NOTE: I’ve never (knowingly) watched a video on YouTube that shows a rider being seriously injured or killed. That does me no good, and I think it’s disrespectful to the rider and their family. But YouTube can be a great tool if used properly—because there’s usually a lesson buried in every motorcycle crash.

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

Read Next

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.

We hate SPAM too.

Unsubscribe at any time.