I was fortunate to have spent my career riding motors in California. The climate here has got to be among the best in the nation for being a motorcycle officer. Most motorcycle officers will tell you there are about three weeks a year that are perfect riding weather. The rest of the time it’s either too hot or too cold. In California, we’re fortunate, we get about four perfect weeks a year, two in the spring and two in the fall.
Even with all the great weather, at some point most of us will find ourselves performing our duties in the rain. When that happens, the risks for motorcycle officers goes up exponentially. Slick roadways and impaired visibility can cause serious problems for the motorcycle officer. Rain will loosen a lot of contaminants from the road surface and create slicks.
What the Rain Brings
Knowing this, you need to be extra diligent in judging your roadway surface when it’s wet. Avoid the center of the lane, especially at intersections where roadway contaminants are heaviest. If you’re able, the best idea may be to find a place of cover to wait out the first 15 – 20 minutes of rain. This will give the rain time to wash some of those contaminants off the roadway.
As you know, many drivers won’t adjust their driving habits to suit the limited visibility and compromised roadway surface. Some drivers will actually become more aggressive in their effort to get where they are going as others are slowing down around them.
This increases the risk for everyone, but especially for motorcycles. Leave plenty of room between you and other vehicles on the road. Open up your following distance to give yourself more opportunity to see ahead of you and more time to react. By recognizing hazards early, you’re able to react safely and in time. Tap your rear brake a couple of times to get the attention of vehicles behind you, then use a controlled and steady combination brake application to slow or stop your motorcycle.
When I was learning how to drive a car, my teacher told me to imagine there was an egg between my foot and the pedal. I would accelerate and brake with controlled pressure, so as not to break that imaginary egg. This analogy is especially important when traveling on wet roadways. A modulated throttle or brake application will greatly reduce the potential for your motorcycle to lose traction, or hydroplane.
Hydroplaning: This occurs when your tires are no longer able to displace the accumulated water on the roadway and begin to travel on top of the water.
The two factors that that result in hydroplaning are speed and the depth of the water. Since you cannot always know the depth of the water on the roadway, speed is the factor that you will always control. Most modern enforcement motorcycles are capable of reaching a speed where the motorcycle tires will no longer be able to displace or shed enough water to avoid hydroplaning. Keeping your speed down on wet roadways is your first defense. If your motorcycle begins to hydroplane, slowly roll off the throttle. Avoid making sudden changes like chopping the throttle or braking, until you’ve regained control of the motorcycle.
Be prepared: Have a good rain suit with you. Not only that, make sure the rain suit is one that sheds water. Other rain suits may keep you dry, but they also may retain water and get heavy, impeding your ability to do your job. A rain suit that incorporates high-visibility safety vest, or similar type reflective material, is a good idea and might even be required by your policy.
Also have good gloves. A gauntlet is great for keeping your hands warm and dry, and they’re easily shed for performing your duties. If you’re wearing a helmet with a face shield, use a defogger to keep the face shield clear. Being able to see clearly will allow you to maintain your high visual horizon and make a good surface appraisal. Remember: During inclement weather, it’s just as important for you to be seen as it is for you to be able to see clearly.
Daily care: Performing a daily safety check on your motorcycle is important, but with the potential for wet weather, it can be critical. The two areas that are the most critical are the lights and the tires.
Lights: Wet weather reduces visibility for everyone on the road. Your best defense, aside from your good riding skills, is your ability to be seen. Aside from wearing your high-visibility vest, make sure your standard and emergency lights are working properly. Check those components daily. You may not be able to control how close a driver is following behind you, so working taillights, brake lights and turn signals are essential for your safety.
Tires: Motorcycles are single-track vehicles. This simply means for the motorcycle to maintain balance and smooth operation, the rear tire needs to follow, as closely as possible, in the same track as the front tire. That’s why you’ll see more rear flat tires than front flat tires. The front tire will run over an object and stand it up, then the object will puncture the rear tire. This sometimes results in motorcycle tires being replaced one at a time. It’s critical for you to ensure the front and rear tires are a matched set. Even when purchased at different times, both tires should be a matched set for the motorcycle to track and perform properly. Additionally, most motorcycle tires are directional, so make sure the tire is installed to rotate in the proper direction.
The contact patch is the portion of your tire that is in contact with the roadway. The contact patch is generally about the size of your handprint. There are several factors that can negatively affect your tires ability to displace water and maintain contact with a wet roadway.
Tire tread depth is a key factor in displacing water from under your tires. Replace your tires when the tread depth reaches 3/32″. You can easily check your tread depth with a penny. Place the penny in the tread with Lincoln’s head toward the tire. Run the penny along the tread groove. If at any point you can see the top of Lincoln’s head, you have less than 3/32″ of tread depth. Replace that tire!
When the tire, especially the rear tire, starts to wear, it can develop a flat spot of shallow tread depth in the center of the tread. That flat spot creates a ridge where the shallow tread depth meets the deeper tread depth around the circumference of the tire. That ridge can compromise your tire’s contact patch with the roadway, especially when you lean the motorcycle. The front tire can develop a feathering, or cupping, that will negatively affect how the tire sheds water, increasing the chances of hydroplaning. Your individual riding style will exaggerate the wear pattern on your tires. Officers who regularly patrol freeways, or similar roadways, will usually see flat spots in the center of their tires. Officers who ride a lot of curves will see more feathering of the tread. Either wear pattern will show more wear in one part of the tread, than another. It’s important to check the tread depth across the full length of the tread.
Tire pressure is also a factor in your tires ability to effectively shed water and avoid hydroplaning. Under-inflated tires will fail to maintain your tire’s contact patch and increase the likelihood of a hydroplane. Over-inflated tires can do the same, by reducing the area of the tire that is in contact with the roadway. You should check your tire pressure when the tire is cold. A tire is considered cold after it sits still and out of the sun for two to three hours.
By practicing safe riding techniques, and maintaining your motorcycle in good condition, you’ll be able to continue to safely patrol and perform your duties effictively on wet roadways.