To ABS or Not To ABS?

The ABS brake option was offered first on motorcycles by BMW in 1988. In the Harley Davidson world it’s been around since 2005 in law enforcement service and in standard Touring models and V-Rods since 2008. ABS is now available on both Softail and Dyna models as well.

Often folks ask us whether or not it’s a good choice as an extra expense on their new Harley. It’s not an easy question to answer briefly, mainly because ABS on a motorcycle is a very different beast than ABS on a car. The reason is that ABS in a four-wheeled vehicle will help you maintain control in hard-braking situations even when turning or cornering; not so on your beloved Hog.

Harley Davidson’s own Anti-Lock Braking System dvd, which comes with any new Harley equipped with ABS, and can also be viewed on You Tube, is quick to point out that the system helps the rider maintain control in “straight line emergency situations,” and that it isn’t a “cure-all.” This is not merely a CYA statement the lawyers came up with; it is also an important precursor to instructing riders how to use ABS properly.

The way ABS works in both two- and four-wheeled vehicles is that an electronic sensor notices wheel speed during emergency brake application and subsequently modulates brake pressure with a pulsing that applies and releases the brake calipers on the rotors rapidly. This prevents the wheels from locking up. Wheel lockup while riding a motorcycle, particularly on wet or icy pavement, leaves, gravel or any other unstable surface, can cause a loss of control that allows the motorcycle to basically slip out from under itself. Preventing wheel lockup helps keep the bike upright.

The big difference is that ABS on a motorcycle—though a milestone safety innovation—has more limited utility than ABS in a car. The simple fact is, you have to be upright and your wheels have to be straight when braking in an emergency for motorcycle ABS to be effective. The Harley dvd is a very good teaching tool in this regard. First, the narrator tells us several times that the system only works if you apply hard brake pressure and keep it applied. Second, they show an emergency scenario where the riders have the luxury of having enough safe road surface to actually upright the bike while already leaned into a curve before braking hard. In other words, they cross lanes and head for the opposite shoulder of the road during the emergency event, which looks dangerous, but is far less dangerous than applying full brake pressure while still leaned over. But to keep things simple, let’s just say that ABS can help if you’re going straight. Period.

Bottom line? It’s your choice. For me, riding in Colorado means deer dashing across the highway once in awhile. Riding in the city limits of sunny Fort Collins unfortunately means the occasional instant traffic jam that results in a multi-car pileup. In such situations, rare though they may be, I for one will be ever grateful for the ABS brakes on my Road King.

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