Every study on motorcycle braking I’ve seen said the same thing—that motorcycles stop faster and more predictably when riders use their front brake.
Tests show that 70 to 90 percent of a bike’s stopping power (depending on how aggressively you’re braking) comes from the front tire because weight is transferred when you apply your brakes. When this happens, the front tire has more stopping power (friction), and the back tire has less—pure physics.
It’s the same in a car. The front tires provide the vast majority of the stopping power. Have you ever driven with your emergency brake engaged (by accident) and hardly noticed it? That’s because most emergency brakes on automobiles engage the rear brakes only.
NOTE: Before we go any further, it’s worth mentioning that everything I’m saying here about braking only applies to motorcycles designed by engineers for on-street use. In other words, if you ride a chopper, this probably doesn’t apply to you. Do choppers even have front brakes?
Making the Same Mistakes
Harry Hurt, famous for the Hurt Report, said this two decades after his study on motorcycle crashes was first published.
“I still do consulting for police departments and have investigated a number of police motorcycle accidents over the years. Police motor officers get some extensive training. I mean really good training. But even professionals make the same sort of mistakes as novices, and today’s riders seem to have the same sort of accidents as those in the NHTSA [Hurt] Report.”1
Hurt continued …
“For example, an L.A.P.D officer on a police Kawasaki had a pickup truck back out in front of him. We measured a perfectly straight rear-only tire skid 200 feet long right into the side of the pickup. The length of the skid gives us a pretty good idea of his speed, something like 60 mph. But even at that speed, he could have stopped short of a collision if he had just used the front brake. It’s the same mistake riders were making in the 1970s.”
Using your front brake is simple. Convincing riders that it’s the right thing to do has proven to be extremely difficult over the years.
Using your front brake is so important that I incorporated it into the cover of Motorcycle Hacks. I also wrote about using your front brake in six chapters throughout the book. I did this hoping the repetition would convince at least a few naysayers who avoid using their front brake altogether.
Dangers of Rear Brake
Another reason to favor using your front brake is because your rear brake is dangerous. There, I said it.
As we’ve discussed in Lowside and Highside Crashes: The Ultimate Guide to Preventing Most Rider-Induced Crashes, a skidding rear tire is what triggers most lowside and highside crashes. But there’s more.
James Davis, an expert witness in Motorcycle Dynamics, said:
“The most dangerous control you have on your motorcycle is your rear brake! This is because it is easy to STOP (your rear wheel) with it. […] The gyroscopic effect of a spinning rear wheel is imposed on the frame of the motorcycle and substantially determines the attitude/stability of the entire bike except for its relatively insignificant front end. To lock the rear wheel is, by definition, to remove a substantial amount of its attitude control and stability”2
So, let’s recap what we know about braking so far.
- Your front brake has significantly more stopping power than your rear brake.
- Your rear brake (without ABS) is dangerous because a locked-up rear tire can (and will) trigger a lowside or highside crash.
- A rolling rear tire provides a huge amount of stability to your motorcycle. When you lock it up, that goes away.
A Thinking Exercise
What I’m about to say will probably strike a nerve in some. If you prefer to think inside the box, you might want to sit down before you ponder this.
Removing the rear brake on all on-street motorcycles would keep some riders from crashing because it would force riders to use their front brake (shorter stopping distances) and avoid using their rear brake (fewer rider-induced lowside and highside crashes).
In other words, doing away with rear brakes on street motorcycles would likely save lives. Crazy, I know.
Obviously, I can’t be an advocate for this because adding a little rear brake during panic stops gets you to zero quicker. Plus, removing the rear brake eliminates trail braking.
In any case, why should I have to give up my rear brake for riders who are too stubborn to accept that overusing your rear brake is dangerous?
Answer: I shouldn’t.
One Final Thought
I love what Cruiser Magazine said about braking.
“Hopefully, deliberate avoidance of the front brake [only using the rear brake] is limited to a few dinosaurs (who are likely to be extinct rather quickly). The don’t-use-the-front-brake concept shares one thing with all those other [misguided] braking theories: it’s wrong.”3
* A portion of this article is an excerpt from my book Motorcycle Hacks.