The arguments are over - ABS is a lifesaver

The arguments are over - ABS is a lifesaver

It’s time for pub bores everywhere to put a sock in it. With ABS now widespread on motorcycles there is now endless information validating its effectiveness.

Over the past decade or so, ABS has become more common on motorcycles. Especially since January 2016 when the EU made it mandatory on all motorcycles over 125cc. With such a large market insisting on it, very few manufacturers went to the trouble and extra expense of offering non-ABS versions of their bikes. Meaning the vast majority of over-125cc bikes sold worldwide have had ABS for nearly five years.

As more and more motorcycles have joined the ‘fleet’, it has given researchers ever more significant numbers to play with, and guess what? The fitment of ABS reduces injury crashes by between 24% and 34%. For serious injury crashes the numbers are even higher, cutting them by up to 42%. Who says? Well, a number of people actually. There are now several studies worldwide that have all arrived at the same conclusion, and very similar numbers.

Effectiveness of motorcycle antilock braking systems (ABS) in reducing crashes, the first cross-national study, published in 2015 by Matteo Rizzi, Claes Tingvall et al, was one of the earliest truly authoritative studies on the matter. It reviewed official data across Sweden, Spain and Italy from 2003 to 2012. So, before ABS became mandatory. Interestingly, they dug into data in smaller capacity machines including scooters, with and without ABS. The results were almost exactly the same.

In the USA, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety concluded in 2013 that ABS fitment was associated with a 31% reduction in the rate of fatal motorcycle accidents. A 2015 study by Monash Uni in Australia found ABS reduced injuries by 33% and severe injuries by 39%.

So, pinning a tail on the donkey, let’s call it one third. That’s how much the fitment of ABS will, broadly, reduce accidents that result in an injury or death. Who wouldn’t want that?

Fun factor

Some of the favourite proclamations by those pub bores include that ABS robs the rider of feel at a crucial time; that it’s heavy, complicated and liable to fail; that stopping distances are longer than without ABS which is why racers didn’t use it, and that it would ‘let off’ and let the bike ‘run on’ on the approach to a corner.

Clearly these people haven’t ridden a new bike since 2008. That was when Honda launched their compact race ABS. It added just 2kg to the weight of a CBR600RR but it set a new standard. With the front tyre squashed onto the tarmac, you could indulge in tyre-howling stops with the rear floating just above the ground while the ABS was in full operation, with the feel at the lever akin to a small amount of brake fade. The feel for grip and turn-in were undiminished trail braking into a corner on track. Within months, every major bike manufacturer hit the same benchmark and since then there’s been no looking back, with breakthroughs like cornering ABS from Bosch and Conti.

Game changer: the Honda CBR600RR from 2008 had ‘sports’ ABS that lived up to its name

Game changer: the Honda CBR600RR from 2008 had ‘sports’ ABS that lived up to its name

The most salient fact, though, is not how an ABS system can be as good as non-ABS for fun, feel and speed in extremis. It’s how it saves your life when you need it. Braking at the same point every lap, on a track you know like the back of your hand, has nothing unexpected about it.

ABS acts as an invisible hand in the background for when you need it most. When a pedestrian runs out from crowded pavement. When a car turns in front of you on a soaking wet road. When that corner ahead starts to look tighter than first thought and you didn’t see the slippery damp patch in the shade on the approach. For these and a thousand other scenarios, ABS provides a margin of safety that’s extremely helpful in the unpredictability of road riding.

Ride Forever instructor demonstrating the difference ABS makes

Ride Forever instructor demonstrating the difference ABS makes

The unprotected

However desirable ABS may be, a lot of riders are simply not going to get the benefit. Sub-125cc bikes sold new in NZ can get away with a combined braking system, linking front and rear. And as you go through the back-catalogue of used bikes, ABS fitment becomes rarer and rarer. With LAMS regs now allowing learners to ride bikes up to 660cc, that’s a fair number of less-experienced riders going without lifesaving technology on some pretty potent machines.

Can we fix it? Probably not. Retrofitting ABS to older and smaller machines would be ridiculously impractical and prohibitively expensive. So we will have to rely on a few things. One is the slow attrition of bikes dropping out of active use and being replaced by newer models. Another is that we all encourage buyers of new, smaller-capacity machines to choose ABS over CBS. And there’s one other thing that’s also proven to reduce accidents and injuries by around one third ...

Taking a Ride Forever course.