The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Office of Defects Investigation announced on July 6 that it would begin looking into several complaints of brake failures on Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The NHTSA was aware of 43 reports of anti-lock brakes failing as a result of brake fluid absorbing moisture, and two of those incidents had caused injuries.
About 430,000 motorcycles manufactured between 2008 and 2011 may be affected. The NHTSA press release about the investigation said that Harley-Davidson “has a two year brake fluid replacement interval which owners are either unaware of or ignore,” but that even if owners didn’t follow that maintenance recommendation, “the consequent sudden and complete loss of brake(s), without warning, is a concern.”
As of late July, the investigation had not been elevated to a formal recall, and no additional details had been published.
How Anti-Lock Brakes Work
ABS technology works the same way in both cars and motorcycles. When a driver applies sudden, hard force on brakes, as in an emergency, ABS technology prevents the brakes from locking up. On slippery surfaces, ABS systems also prevent a dangerous loss of traction.
BMW first introduced ABS technology for motorcycles in 1988. That initial version of ABS, available as an upgrade in K 100-series motorcycles, had some flaws. ABS systems pulsate to control wheel-lock, and that pulsation caused a high level of vibration that interfered with control of the vehicle.
The technology has been greatly improved since then and is standard on many modern motorcycles. It has been shown to reduce the number of motorcycle crashes that result in fatalities and serious personal injury, so some manufacturers have been eager to incorporate ABS technology in new motorcycles.
Many motorcyclists have some degree of mechanical aptitude and are able to perform basic maintenance tasks. But maintaining ABS brake systems may require special tools and professional expertise.
Avoiding Hard Braking
Motorcyclists may have to brake suddenly to avoid another motorist that crosses their path. But there are some driving habits that can increase the likelihood of a hard-braking moment, and the risk of crashing.
On winding roads or blind curves, motorcyclists should slow gradually to avoid losing control of their bike. Following too closely, or excessive speed, can also necessitate hard braking, and ABS systems aren’t a substitute for safe driving behavior.
Over the years, Harley-Davidson has recalled several hundred thousand motorcycles with defects, shelling out millions of dollars to replace parts. Some of these problems could have caused fatalities, but no deaths were associated with any of the recalled bikes. Some minor injuries were reported.
In Europe, all new motorcycles must be equipped with ABS, effective this year. The United States has not adopted a similar standard, but more manufacturers are making bikes with ABS systems.
NHTSA investigators may ultimately find that Harley-Davidson brake failures were the result of improper maintenance, or a formal recall may ensue. Either way, Harley-Davidson at least appears to be trying to improve driver safety by making ABS systems available on its motorcycles.