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How To Recover From And Prevent Motorcycle Speed Wobbles

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

Riding a motorcycle offers an unparalleled sense of freedom, but encountering a speed wobble, also known as a tank slapper or death wobble, can transform this joy into a harrowing experience. This phenomenon, predominantly associated with both 2-wheel and 3-wheel vehicles, can be extremely dangerous, especially when cruising at high speeds.

Video of a Speed Wobble

For those unfamiliar with speed wobbles on a motorcycle, watch the video below. At around 20 seconds into the video you will see the motorcycle begin to shake rapidly, causing the rider to nearly lose control and be thrown from the vehicle. Fortunately, in this video, the rider was able to recover and avoid injury.

What Exactly is a Speed Wobble?

A speed wobble refers to the rapid, side-to-side oscillation of a motorcycle’s handlebars when riding at high speeds. The initiation of this unsettling motion often happens when the front wheel of the motorcycle gets temporarily elevated – perhaps due to rapid acceleration, performing a wheelie, or hitting an unexpected pothole.

As the front wheel reconnects with the road, it ideally should align straight. However, if the alignment force is too great, the bike might overshoot this alignment, causing the handlebars to swing like a pendulum at high frequencies. Notably, while low-speed occurrences are rare, the danger amplifies significantly as your speedometer rises.

What Triggers Speed Wobbles?

motorcycle rider going down a forested road at high speeds

A motorcycle consists of two core sections: the front and the rear. Disturbances can originate in either, leading to a wobble. Here are some of the most common reasons:

  • Speed Constraints: Some specific motorcycle models might have inherent speed limitations. Exceeding these speeds, or even cornering at high speeds, places undue stress on the motorcycle parts, potentially inducing a wobble.
  • Wheel Bearings: Worn-out bearings can cause lateral axle movements which may initiate a wobble. It’s worth noting that replacing these bearings can range from $10 to over $60.
  • Front wheel losing traction: When a motorcycle is accelerated quickly at high speeds, the front tire may begin to lose its grip. This phenomenon is attributed to the engine’s power being directed to the rear wheel. When a rider suddenly engages the throttle from a stationary position, the engine transfers an immediate burst of power to the rear wheel, causing it to move more swiftly than the front. As a result, the motorcycle’s nose may lift, giving the sensation of a jump during sudden acceleration. Over time, this will cause the front tire to be slightly smaller than the rear tire, which contributes to speed wobbles.
  • Low Tire Pressure: Similar to the point above, having low tire pressure in one or both tires can result in a speed wobble, so it is vital to ensure your tires are well maintained before every ride.
  • Swingarm Issues: Excessive movement of the swingarm, particularly in sportbike suspensions, can lead to an unstable ride.
  • Lateral Axle Movement: This can be a byproduct of deteriorating wheel bearings or other structural issues.

Distinguishing between front and rear wobbles is critical. While rear wheel wobbles might be more subtle, especially with heavy loads, front-wheel disturbances can escalate quickly, leading to potential accidents. It’s of paramount importance to be attuned to how your motorcycle feels, both when it’s empty and when bearing a significant load. Recognizing any irregularities early can be a life-saver.

Recovering from a Speed Wobble

In the unfortunate event that you find yourself in a full-blown wobble, immediate intervention is necessary. Experiencing a high-speed wobble, characterized by rapid side-to-side movements of the handlebars, can be both alarming and challenging to manage. In such situations, the following steps are advised to enhance your safety:

  1. Grip the Handlebars: Securely hold onto the handlebars. Refrain from trying to manually correct the wobble; it often exacerbates the situation.
  2. Reduce Throttle: Gradually release the throttle, halting any further acceleration. Given that these wobbles manifest at high speeds, accelerating might intensify the instability.
  3. Do Not Brake: While continuing to decelerate by easing off the throttle, you should never hit the brakes as this can often cause the bike to wobble even harder. Reducing speed gradually is the safest method to avoid being thrown from the motorcycle.
  4. Lean forward over the gas tank: Lean forward so that your weight is over the gas tank. This puts more weight onto the front wheel, which helps to stabilize the motorcycle when it is wobbling. This stance optimizes the motorcycle’s aerodynamics, aiding its natural course of correction.
  5. Safely Pull Over: Once the motorcycle stabilizes, carefully navigate to the side of the road and halt.

To summarize the recommended actions:

  • Securely grip the handlebars without over-correcting.
  • Gently ease off the throttle.
  • Avoid braking.
  • Adopt a forward-leaning posture over the tank.
  • Stop safely off the roadway.

However, it’s essential to note that even when following these steps there’s no guarantee that you can avoid all speed wobbles. Try to accelerate slowly to feel for signs of speed wobbles before accelerating faster and avoid going at excessive speeds. Also ensure that your motorcycle’s maintenance is always a priority before riding.

Remember that the onset speed for wobbles varies. While 75 mph is a common starting point, issues like loose steering bearings can trigger it at speeds as low as 45 mph.

Proactive Measures Against Speed Wobbles

Prevention is undeniably better than trying to stop an in-progress speed wobble. Regular maintenance is your best defense against speed wobbles. Periodically inspect critical components, such as the suspension, aerodynamics, steering damping, steering bearings, tire pressure, and wheels. This vigilance is doubly important for those investing in used motorcycles.

In addition to determining your motorcycle’s worth, conducting a vehicle history search can shed light on any prior accidents, possibly revealing specific mechanical vulnerabilities. Moreover, regularly consulting with a professional to ensure your bike’s key components are functioning optimally can significantly diminish the chances of encountering destabilizing wobbles.

Stay safe on the road and ensure that your motorcycle is always in prime condition.

Have you been injured due to a motorcycle speed wobble?

At J&Y Law Firm in Los Angeles, CA we have helped hundreds of motorcycle riders who have been injured due to speed wobbles, vehicle collisions, and unsafe road conditions. If you have been injured due to a speed wobble on a motorcycle, there is a good chance that you have a claim worth pursuing to help you pay for medical bills, pain and suffering, and loss of income. Call us today at (877) 469-1281 for a free consultation about your unique situation.

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.