Motorcycle Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS)

anti-lock braking systemABS was first developed in 1929 for aircraft and entered into general use on automobiles in the 70’s. In 1981 BMW introduced ABS on a motorcycle. Here in the 21st century, ABS is now becoming more routinely available on motorcycles, either as standard equipment or as an option.

But what the heck is ABS? To begin with, an Anti-Lock Braking System incorporates computerized sensors to determine when a wheel is on the verge of locking-up. It then gives instant instructions to the brakes to release and re-apply braking pressure (pumping) a whole bunch of times per second, while you are steadily engaging the brakes.

What results is slowing and/or stopping without skidding. (A skidding tire has less traction than one that is not skidding).

And they are very easy to use. In an emergency situation on an ABS bike, just apply the brakes hard! Do not manually pump your brakes. Aggressive braking will initiate the ABS system automatically and the rider can concentrate on the immediate threat — and not the brakes.

That’s the good news.

On the other hand, many experienced riders can bring their non-ABS bike to a stop faster than an ABS equipped bike, by way of well-practiced, efficient, front and rear braking — particularly on clean, dry pavement. The question is can you do that under the stress of a life-threatening, panic-braking scenario? And even more to the point, how refined are your emergency braking skills on wet or dirty roads?

If you have attended a motorcycle event in which BMW was one of the participating vendors, you may have seen their demonstration and/or video where they compare the braking performance of ABS and non-ABS equipped bikes on flooded pavement. The demo-motorcycles are equipped with outriggers, to prevent the bikes from completely going down. The bikes are each ridden into several inches of water whereby they apply emergency braking. The non-ABS motorcycle loses control, falls over onto the outriggers and spins out. However, the bike with ABS makes a controlled, straight-line stop.

Is ABS or non-ABS best for you?

87 thoughts on “Motorcycle Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS)

  • John, I went to a demonstration quite a few years ago by BMW on anti-lock brakes at a local racetrack. They had rented the track for the day and they were teaching BMW owners how to drive there bikes on a track as oppose to on the street. During the presentation they basically flooded pit road and had their driver come down the track and onto pit road at about 100 MPH, hit both brakes at full power and the bike came to a stop in a straight line without dumping. Pretty impressive considering the condition of pit road. After the presentation I asked the driver, what happens if the road turned instead of being straight, how would you have handled that. His response was, well we can’t solve every issue, but it would be no worse than if you didn’t have anti-lock brakes. I laughed and moved on. I understand in a car how anti-lock brakes helps you turn, but on a bike the physics behind turning are much different. A car has four wheels and all you are trying to do with anti-lock brakes is keep the wheels turning so they don’t lose traction. On a bike, yes you want to keep the wheels from losing traction, but depending on which wheel is being braked, dramatically affects how the bike turns. In a turn you always only apply front brake to a bike, because that causes the bike to lean further into the turn and rear brake will cause the bike to stand up straight. Now as I understood the anti-lock brake demonstration it alternated between front and rear wheels depending on which wheel was losing traction, doing that in a turn could have serious adverse affect on the bike’s ability to turn.

    Not looking for an argument, just looking to see how they solve that issue. I learned how to drive both cars and bikes before either had anti-lock brakes, but wouldn’t drive a car without them and have never owned a bike with them. Any accident I have had on my bikes or in my cars, not many but a couple, had nothing to do with brakes and everything to do with being young and stupid. Age solved that problem, now trying to find what problems anti-lock brakes will solve on the bike.

  • You left out a direct reference to the most important feature of ABS… by preventing a skid, it allows you to maintain directional control (i.e. steer) and thereby avoid the thing you are braking for. If you activate your ABS and do not steer, you are still in trouble. Think of ABS as also standing for “Always Be Steering”.

    When ABS became standard equipment in cars, accident rates increased because the drivers were NOT told that they still had to steer. Activating ABS will usually cause you to stop further down the road than if you skidded to a stop; the selling point and the BIG difference is, you now have the ability to steer around the object.

    Why anyone would NOT choose ABS for paved surface riding is beyond my comprehension.

  • Dean, yes it has. BMW again has been at the forefront of incorporating this technology in the “racing quality” ABS and traction management systems used in their S1000RR Superbike. While that bike has not done all that well in US racing, in Europe it has been more than competitive, and the other manufacturers have now followed suit with rider adjustable throttle management, stability control systems.

    It is typical of the Germans to push the technological boundaries forward. I just hope that they build back in some of the legendary reliability German products used to represent.

  • I have one question: Do they use ABS in (motorcycle) racing? I haven’t read all the comments and maybe it’s been mentioned. From what I have read it sounds like it’s a no-brainer good thing to have.

  • ABS rocks! I have 40 years of riding under my belt and now that I have a bike with ABS I would NEVER go back to a vehicle without it. It is far superior to any typical rider with on the street. Its a reliable system proven on the streets and in combat with military vehicles (including aircraft) I have full control of my brakes with one exception, I cannot lock up by brakes (skid) when at operating speed – oh wait – why would I ever want to do that????? Too bad its not a standard YET on every vehicle sold for street operation.

  • One other thing that just hit me….BMW introduced their ABS-1 in 1989 in the U.S., on their pearl white/blue K100RS. I had one! In 1981, they were only building Airhead twins, and I doubt that they would have the alternator capacity to work that computer…or had developed that computer by then.

  • The biggest issue, for me, is to commit your fate to the ABS system. You MUST put in 100% force at the lever or it won’t work right. I’ve spent years learning to finesse my front/rear brakes; on and off the race track. With ABS, there’s no finessing; it’s 100% and I’ve never been there on a bike but, in a car it worked fantastic. My life passed before my eyes and it seemed hopeless but the Caddy stopped with a tap on the other car’s front wheel. I’ve never gotten over that!

    You just have to be ready to give in to the master system and good luck!

  • I have now owned and ridden four BMWs (1989 K100RS-ABS “Spezial”), 1994 R1100RS, 1996 R1100RT, and 2002 R1100S that had ABS braking systems of varying sophistication.

    The only one that I actually activated in a panic stop situation was the ’89 K-RS, the slowest cycling and crudest of the lot. Yet…it kept me from plowing into the errant driver exiting a parking lot driveway (no, I was not speeding at the time, either).

    The ’02 S model had those darned electric power assisted and linked brakes, and I wouldn’t own another one-very little braking feel, overly sensitive, and doesn’t work with the power off.

    I consider ABS a good thing, unequivocally. I do not understand how others who claim that they are so highly skilled that having ABS is “an insult” to their prowess, can state that their skills wouldn’t diminish on a long ride, or with age. Reflexes do get a bit slower with age, and recovering from injury is also slower with the passing of time, so I figure that riding a motorcycle is risky enough.

    I do not fear ABS, or its reliability. These systems are so well tested and proven by the time they are installed on inherently unstable, single-track machines like our bikes are, that one should hardly lose sleep over this. Besides, if the ABS fails, you still have full control of conventional braking if your skills are truly that good.

    For the rest of us, ABS may keep us upright and riding longer, and isn’t that the point?

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  • Have aK1200LT good luck without ABS and linked braking
    System. Moving to a GS hope the ABS and linking works
    As well. Rode for years and many bikes without ABS and
    I won’t go back to non ABS unless it’s a very special retro bike.

  • Been riding a while….40 years and around 200,000 miles in the last 12 yrs…….as if that makes a differance. Crashed twice, no ABS on either bike that i crashed, and i don’t think the Deer was my fault. (the gravel may have been) But my last 3 bikes ( I trade every 3 years – sometimes two) have had ABS brakes. I can attest that when a deer jumps out in front of you your gonna grab a hand and foot full of brake. The ABS system has saved me several times. It’s a good deal. Learn to brake hard, cause your going to need to, but also, for me anyway, I’ll take all the help i can get to stay out of the “Road Rash ” gang.

  • Have them on the k1200s…

    Only activated them twice in anger. Both times in the rain and both times I would have gone down without them.

  • ABS, despite the hype, is quite simple. At the wheel is a generating scheme, producing voltage as the wheel turns. When the wheel stops, there is no voltage, and this releases the pressure in the braking system to that wheel. The advantages of ABS are only realised if there is traction available for the tyre when the brakes are released. No friction means no grip, and no technology will alter the laws of physics.
    I’ve not had it operate on my Suzuki DL659A, but I have on my car. On a dry surface, it pulled the car up quickly, no marks on the road surface, in a very short distance. The whole car vibrated and shook, and if I wasn’t aware that it was normal, I would have backed off and braked in a far longer than normal distance. On loose dirt, I wouldn’t let it kick in.
    For those interested, the kangaroo triggering the demonstration was not harmed in the operation of the ABS. Neither was my Commodore (although it felt as though it was).

  • The 2 metal plates in my leg tell me that I will never ride without ABS again. Go ahead and call me lazy, but after 16 months of not riding and previously riding 15-20,000 miles a year, I will be going for ABS in a few months.

  • This is just not clinically or medically correct. People who stop in a panic and don’t use specialized techniques are not “lazy”. The part of your brain that responds to emergencies is an older, earlier, faster set of circuits underneath all the great learning you might do to perform a quick stop. ABS responds in a way that your own panic circuits could, if they were equipped to do so. . .which they aren’t. It’s great to learn how to stop quickly; nobody would argue with that. But it’s just flat out wrong to call people who can’t respond in a few 10th’s of a second “lazy.”

  • My fear with ABS on bikes is the same thing as on cars. It is the dumbing down of the public. When I learned to drive there was no such thing as ABS, so you had to learn what to do in a panic stop. I live in the northeast so when it is cold and the road is covered with snow and ice, it isn’t just panic stops it is every stop. When you got your license your parent or older sibling took you out in an empty parking lot and taught you how to handle a car in bad weather. Then you practiced it whenever you could, and you did practice because not only did your life depend on it, but your wallet.

    Now I understand a car is a necessity and people have to drive, so anti-lock brakes help those who don’t invest the time stay alive. I get that and I understand that. None of my kids are allowed to drive a car that doesn’t have anti-lock brakes and other safety equipment. That is all well and good, but a bike is a completely different animal.

    There is no logical reason for riding a motorcycle (I have been riding for over 30 years, and just took a 700 mile ride this weekend). No one has to ride a motorcycle. You need to understand every time you ride your bike, there is a strong possibility that you are going to be involved in a crash (no such thing as accidents, they are crashes. An accident is when a tree falls on your car, not when you screw up and hit a tree) and that crash could take your life.

    So if you are going to ride a bike, it should not be taken lightly, you should be willing and wanting to invest the time to learn how to do it right. Anti-lock brakes and other safety items only allow the lazy to feel comfortable while riding. Anti-lock brakes help you stop in a straight line, most panic stops don’t involve stopping in a straight line. To avoid an object in your direct path, you need a lot more than anti-lock brakes, you need experience and practice. So stop looking for technology to keep you alive and start investing time and effort into keeping yourself alive.

    While riding this weekend, no less then three people tried to ride away with their kickstands down, and off course due to the safety items on their bikes their bikes stalled. Then they proceeded to restart and stall and restart and stall, until someone told them that their kickstands were down. Now if when they were learning to ride on a small bike and they left their kickstand down if their bikes allowed them to ride away and then fall over 20 feet down the road they would never forget to check there kickstands again. They would have learned that if you are in a hurry, get off the bike and take a car, because riding a bike in a hurry will get you killed. So in this case they put up their kickstands, but still rode away in either a hurry or not fully concentrating. So did the safety device help them or only allow them to get up to full speed before they screwed up?

  • I have been riding for 50 years and to this date have had no serious mishaps from a motorcycle. If at all any mishaps have been completely my fault. Safety while riding a bike is up to the rider. Those “cagers” feel all cozy inside their ‘cages’ and are not too concerned about that biker if an accident situation should occur. After all they are surrounded by metal and air bags whereas the biker out there has chosen to ride free of all of those encumberances. The point I am trying to make is this, ALWAYS ride as though the other vehicles are out to run over you: BECAUSE THEY ARE!

  • There is no ‘Bad News ‘ about ABS on motorcycles..I have a 2012 Heritage Classic which I ordered with ABS and had to wait for Harley Davidson to build it..I had heard that most riders do not want to spend the money for ABS as an add on..My feelings after having ABS on my new bike it that ABS is worth every penny that it costs and after having experienced the time when you have stop on a dime “ABS can save your life”. I can only add that North America will act like Europe and make ABS mandatory on motorcycles..Not every rider who likes speed can be as careful as some riders..

  • Christine,

    Not a dumb question, just a technical one…:) Brake systems are complex and designed into the bike. There is no easy, inexpensive way to do an ABS refit. Harley seems to have ignored ABS on most of their bikes but this may change by 2014 when the European requirement starts to make an impact. In the meantime, the only realistic way to get ABS is built in; which usually means BMW, Ducati, Honda, some Triumphs, prob a few others.

  • So, not knowing a darn think about the mechanics of motorcycles, I ask you: Do I have to go out an buy a new bike to get the ABS? Or can my current bike (Sportster) be fitted for them?? Can you put ABS brakes on a motorcycle that wasn’t manufactured with them?? Sorry if this is a dumb question…

  • My BMW 2012 Classic R1200r has ABS and traction control. They almost never intrude on the ride, but like others, I feel safer knowing they’re there and my bike can stop on half a dime.. ABS is going to be required in Europe, I think, in 2015, so my guess is that almost bikes that have a world market will have ABS by then.

  • My 2012 Honda NC700X DCT has ABS brakes. I feel safer knowing I have them. The trade off is I had to get the automatic transmission version of the bike to get them. I don’t mind that though, it’s a great bike!

  • Any riders experience a flat with ABS? The riding course I attended taught no breaking on the flat tire.

  • Honda ST1300A and Honda ST1100A to add a couple more models to the list of ABS models. And both models have linked brakes and the 1100A has traction control as well.
    Also the 1100A was the first bike on the planet with linked braking sytem.

    In the 6 years and 130,000kms I’ve had my 1100A there may have been only two situations where the ABS may have activated. The traction control isn’t a concern as I never accelerate hard enough to cause wheel spin.

  • ABS can actualy be a detriment for a newbie on a sport bike it allows the ride to ride build bad habbits that should not be promoted. Let’s face it if you enter a fast corner and oyu apply the brakes in a manner that engages the ABS you are doing the wrong thing.

    Unless you are riding an all terrain motorcycle in Rain or Snow ABS is a waste of money and adds extra weight. Liter Calss supersport motorcycle have no business putting ABS,

    the latest Traction control systems are another issue this is a new technology that gives the rider the ability to power out of a corner without worrying about his rear tire breaking and causing him to low side or high side if he tries to counter steer because lets face it if oyu have never had the rear tire break on you and lived ot talk about it you are not experinced and hope you never will.

  • My last machine has it and am extremely happy with italso on the car. with this it avoids any cadence braking

  • It’s good to have a good technology; but it comes with a price & whether you can afford it is another point.
    I guess people who started riding now or a few years back might be the one’s who would obviously like to take this advantage into their steed.

    But like you said MCg, we who have been running without ABS for quite some time now and have gone through enough ( well, never say enough 🙂 ) hard braking on mud or gravel or black-ice would emphasise, a little extra caution and care towards the surface on which one is riding is usually enough to prevent any fall apart from occassional mild fish-tailing that one must be ready to counter with hard handle grip & leg positioning. It is certainly not desirable to ride in higher speeds than what shall obtain efficient friction from the surface of riding, which INCLUDES Emergency situations. For bikers too indignant to adjust their riding style with conditions & still wish to zoom, well, for them ABS is nodoubt good.

    I personally woudn’t mind NOT having ABS on my bike if it helps me reduce that much dependency on sensors ( plus reduced electronics weight & space ) and lets me be more sure of my braking actions on the less-intelligent (mechanical) systems. Particularly on tours of prolonged riding in desolate hilly terrains, where I would prefer my bike to function exactly as I require & not possess a mind of it’s own.

    Happy riding.

  • I have not ridden a bike with ABS but I had a company Chevy van and did not know it had ABS. I was coming down a snowy road when a guy ran a light and I was forced to make a panic stop. I jammed on the brakes and the pounding of the ABS scared the hell out of me. The van came to a straight stop and the guy running the light escaped me plowing into him. I was impresses with the ABS but the pounding of the brakes pulsing was a hell of a surprise.

  • Yes ,ABS system for bike is an ipressive technique. total skidding of bike is elimanateed . the cobined braking system of ABS . it has a well feature scope.

  • I will be buying my next bike abs and not because it stops me any quicker than none abs, although I truly be believe it does.
    Sometime back , approx 20 years I was running downhill in Oldham when an elderly gent pulled out of a junction and stopped only partially out. As I was in a 38 tonne tanker loaded with hazardous waste it was inevitable who was coming off the worse. Even though the wheels didn’t lock up directive control was limited and he got the full benefit of secondary braking from my liquid load.
    Moving on a few years to 2005 on the Chester bypass a woman missing her junction pulled across the front of me with no warning or indication. I out braked the car she was in and safely manoeuvred around her as she made her escape closely followed by many mancunian expletives. This time in a Scania ABS equipped setup running empty so no weight to give tyres traction. Her life was truly in the hands of Professor Scania and their R+D team in Sweden. Except for the raised adrenalin levels and heart rate, no harm done.
    It’s only the one chance on your bike, if it locks up or skids your off anyway, panic braking along with fixation does not allow for errors. I’m paying the extra £600 for ABS. I hope I never have to put it to the test as one commentator put earlier “it’s a no brainer really”.

  • Seriously, what’s the point of mailing me an article that already got commented on in 2007?

    You could brake faster than some ABS systems if you correctly estimate the braking threshold. ABS lets the tyre skid and release so it results in a fraction of braking power being lost to remain in control. It does that even if road conditions vary and leave the rider to concentrate on other things. More advanced ABS systems better anticipate locking and keep the bike closer to the actual threshold so the chance of an experienced driver having a better ‘estimate’ is small.

    I HATE the fact that some manufacturers pimp a brake ‘dampener’ as ABS. You can get that exact effect by being smooth on the controls and it does F-All if you still apply too much pressure.

    In some cases (off-road for one IIRC) the ABS is not the better option. I understand that on loose dirt locking up the wheel allows a little ridge of dirt to build up in front of the wheel which helps slow you down more efficiently than figure to keep the wheel spinning on a loose surface.

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