Gear up, Clear up, Heads up

By Chris O’Neil

Chris O’Neil checks his directions on his smart phone after safely pulling over during a pick up ride near Bluemont, Virginia.
Chris O’Neil checks directions on his phone after safely pulling over during a pick up ride near Bluemont, Virginia.

As a motorcyclist I’m keenly aware of the risk I accept every time I saddle up – whether it’s to run an errand around town, join the herd for an organized ride like Rolling Thunder, or to head out for a multi-state, multi-day solo ride – every time I take to the road on two wheels I’m thinking about how I can limit or mitigate the risks associated with my passion for riding. As an employee of the world’s premier accident investigation agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, I’m equally aware of the need to share the word about safety during Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month.

Distracted or impaired drivers, drivers who change lanes without signaling and drivers who simply don’t “see” motorcyclists, are among the many risks, over which motorcyclists have little control, which we face each time we mount up. It’s therefore critical that motorcyclists focus on eliminating or mitigating the risks we can control, the things we can do to avoid or better survive an accident while riding a motorcycle. In broad terms it means gearing up, clearing up and staying heads up.

You have to gear up, every time, every ride. That means over the ankle boots, riding pants or chaps over jeans, a leather or textile jacket, full finger gloves, a DOT approved helmet and eye protection. There really is something to the saying, “dress for the slide, not the ride.” Top siders, shorts and a T-shirt might be comfy and well suited for your post ride activities, but that kind of attire in no way protects you – not even from a sunburn, much less road rash – while on your motorcycle. Yes, I get hot in that gear during the sweltering Virginia summers, but I’d rather be sweaty for a while, than suffer a long recovery from road rash if I’m involved in a crash. Plus, I’ve found, those big beetles, cigarette butts, and stones sting a bit less when you’ve got the right gear on.

Distracted driving is creeping into the world of the motorcyclist and it’s not always the fault of the other drivers. The ability to incorporate the same technology found in automobiles, such as GPS navigation, CB radio, Bluetooth for cell phones, and other multi-media entertainment, continues to increase and with the added bells and whistles comes the potential for distracted driving. Consistent with the NTSB’s call to Disconnect from Deadly Distractions — a 2016 NTSB Most Wanted List issue – I make sure I clear up from all distractions when I ride, and I advocate for others to do so. When we ride, we need our senses – sight, smell and hearing – to work together to warn us of danger. Those senses don’t work as well if our mind is focused on a GPS display, the music thumping through earbuds or speakers, or a phone call. Riding a motorcycle offers you a unique state of mind that is free of the distractions of day-to-day life. Why then would you want to clutter up that moment with potentially deadly distractions? Don’t add to the distracted driving problem – before you saddle up, gear up and then clear up.

With our body properly protected, and our mind properly focused, we’re ready to ride our properly equipped and inspected bike. Once we are kickstands up, we have to be heads up. What I mean here is all throughout our ride, regardless of setting, we have to plan for the unexpected. “Where will I go if that car pulls into the intersection? Where is my escape route if this car comes into my lane? What’s on the other side of this blind curve? What’s on the other side of that hill crest? Do I have enough distance between me and the car ahead of me? What if the car coming up on me from behind doesn’t realize I’m stopped for a red light?” Being in the moment of your ride includes thinking about and planning for the unexpected. Riding defensively requires you to think 12 seconds ahead, anticipate what could go wrong, and to formulate a plan to deal with the threat. When you’re free from deadly distractions, it’s easy to be heads up and still enjoy your ride and be in the moment.

Whatever you ride, wherever you ride, whenever you ride, embracing the principles of Gear Up, Clear Up and Heads Up can help keep you safe while enjoying the greatest form of transportation. Want more tips on motorcycle safety? Check out the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s site at

For information about the NTSB’s recommendations to improve motorcycle safety visit

Chris O’Neil is Chief of the NTSB Public Affairs Division.

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