Controlling your machine

Controlling your machine

Before you start riding your motorbike, make sure that you understand what the gauges, indicators and warning lights on the instrument panel mean. If you’re not sure about any of them, check your motorbike handbook.

Warning lights

The warning lights let you know when there’s a problem with your motorbike. Knowing what these lights mean and what to do when they are lit will help you protect the engine and other equipment from damage.

The lights will vary from one machine to another but these are the most common ones

  • ignition
  • oil pressure
  • engine management
  • neutral light
  • indicator repeater
  • ABS (anti-lock braking system).

Red warning lights show a fault that affects safety and needs immediate attention.

Some motorbikes have on-board diagnostic systems that tell you when there’s a problem with your motorbike. They differ from one machine to another. Check your motorbike handbook to find out more about the diagnostic systems on your motorbike.

Starting your bike

In general, you’ll need to take the following steps to start your motorbike, although you may need to tweak the process slightly to suit your machine.

  • Make sure that the gear selector is in neutral (the neutral light on the instrument panel will glow when the ignition is turned on).
  • Turn the fuel tap to ‘on’.
  • If the engine is cold, move the choke to ‘on’.
  • Make sure the engine cut-out switch is in the ‘on’ position.
  • Turn the ignition key to the ‘on’ position.

The next step depends on whether your motorbike has an electric starter or a kick starter.

  • With an electric starter, press the starter button. Release the button as the engine starts.
  • With a kick starter, fold out the kick-start lever. Put your foot on the lever and tread down sharply. Let the lever return to its upright position. Repeat this until the engine starts. When it’s started, fold the lever back to its resting position.

Whichever starter your machine has, you should open the throttle to give a fairly high engine speed when you’ve started the engine. As the engine warms up, move the choke to ‘off’.


Unfortunately motorbikes can be quite easy to steal. They usually have a steering lock that’s turned off when you put the key in the ignition. When you leave your motorbike, make sure you lock the steering and take the ignition key with you.

You can use other security measures too, such as

  • using a high-tension steel cable or chain with a high-quality padlock, ideally to attach your motorbike to an immoveable object or another motorbike
  • having an alarm fitted
  • having your motorbike security marked with its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).

When you’re about to move off, it’s vital to check all around you to make sure it’s safe to go. Use your mirrors and look all around you to see what other road users are doing and to check the road.

Although your mirrors help you see behind the motorbike, there are blind spots your mirrors can’t reach – in particular, the areas behind you and to your right. You must turn and look behind you before you move off to check these areas.

It’s also easier to judge how far away other road users are and how fast they’re travelling when you turn to look rather than using your mirrors.

Observation – Signal – Manoeuvre

Whenever you move off, use the Observation – Signal – Manoeuvre (OSM) routine to keep you and other road users safe.

  • Observe the road all around to check it’s safe to move off.
  • When you’ve decided it’s safe to go, signal to other road users what you’re going to do, eg turn on your indicators to show you’re going to pull out.
  • Manoeuvre your motorbike onto the road.

Using the clutch

If your motorbike has manual gears you’ll need to use the clutch to keep full control of your motorbike when moving off. Practise finding the biting point of the clutch: this is the point at which you can feel the engine trying to move the machine. The biting point differs from one machine to another.

Checking the controls

As soon as possible after you set off, check the motorbike controls are working correctly.

  • Turn the handlebars to check they move freely.
  • Choose a safe spot on the road to test your brakes.


Slowing down and stopping your motorbike in a controlled way is vital for good riding: it reduces wear and tear on your motorbike, saves fuel and keeps you and other road users safe.

The distance your motorbike will take to stop depends mainly on how fast you’re going and the road and weather conditions.

  • The faster you’re going, the longer it takes to stop.
  • It takes longer to stop in wet or icy conditions.

The stopping distance is made up of two parts

  • thinking distance – the distance you travel from when you decide to brake to when you start braking
  • braking distance – the distance you travel from when you start braking until your motorbike stops completely.

Check the typical stopping distances in The Highway Code.

Anticipating the need to brake will help you brake smoothly and safely: watch out for things around you that might need to brake for, such as pedestrian crossings or cars pulling out of junctions.

Using the front and rear brakes

Use both brakes to stop your motorbike. In good road and weather conditions,

  • apply the front brake just before you apply the rear brake
  • apply greater pressure to the front brake.

If the road is wet or slippery, apply a more equal pressure to both brakes. Always avoid braking on a bend: see 'Steering and manoeuvring' below for more information about riding around bends.

Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) can help you brake safely and effectively by helping to prevent skidding but they won’t shorten your stopping distance. 

Using the cut-out switch

The engine cut-out switch lets you stop the engine in an emergency, such as if the motorbike falls over. When you’re stopping the engine normally, it’s best to use the ignition switch because

  • you’re less likely to leave your keys in the ignition when you leave your motorbike
  • leaving the cut-out switch in the ‘off’ position can cause problems when you try to start the engine next time.


Whenever you park, make sure the place you choose is

  • safe – eg could it cause an accident by being too close to a junction?
  • convenient – you’re more likely to cause damage, either to your motorbike or someone else’s vehicle, if it’s an awkward spot
  • legal – check The Highway Code for more information on parking rules.

Park your motorbike on firm, level ground. If you leave your motorbike where it’s unstable, it could fall onto another vehicle or a passer-by, or fall into the path of other road users.

Use the centre stand if you’re leaving your motorbike for some time.

When you’ve parked your motorbike, you must turn off

  • the headlights
  • the fog lights (if fitted)
  • the engine.

Make sure you also switch off the fuel tap, lock the steering and take the ignition key with you.

If you’re parking at night on a road where the speed limit is more than 30 mph, you must leave the parking lights on.

Before you set off, make sure you know what the warning lights on your motorbike instrument panel mean: check your motorbike handbook for more information.

Make sure you know where to find the switches and controls you’re likely to need while you’re riding, such as the controls for the indicators, headlight dip and horn. You’ll need to be able to use these without losing control of the motorbike while it’s moving. Look in your motorbike handbook if you’re not sure where to find any of the controls.

Using dipped headlights

Use dipped headlights

  • at night
  • whenever the light is poor, even during the day, to make your vehicle more visible to others – eg in rain, drizzle or mist.

Many modern motorcycles automatically turn on the dipped beam headlight when the ignition is turned on or the engine is started. If your motorbike doesn’t do this, you can fit daytime running lights to help make your motorbike easier for other road users to see.

Fog lights

Only use fog lights when visibility is reduced to 100 metres (328 feet) or less. You must not use fog lights at any other time because they can dazzle other drivers.

Flat and convex mirrors

Adjust your mirrors to give you the best view of the road behind. If your elbows block your view, try fitting mirrors with longer stems.

Mirrors are either flat or convex.

  • Flat mirrors give a ‘true’ reflection of what is going on behind you.
  • Convex mirrors are slightly curved so they give a wider field of vision. However, this also makes it harder for you to judge the speed and position of vehicles in the mirror. A car behind you will look smaller in a convex mirror so it could be closer to you than you think.

Changes to road and weather conditions

The road surface and the weather can change while you’re riding so you may need to change controls on your motorbike or change how you’re riding in response. For example, if it starts raining, the road surface will be more slippery so you’ll need to increase your distance from the vehicle in front and reduce your speed, and possibly turn on your headlights. If the weather changes from being cloudy to very sunny, you might need to stop and put on sunglasses.

If necessary, stop when it’s safe to do so to change controls or settings.

Always try to use the throttle smoothly and steadily: this will

  • reduce fuel consumption
  • reduce wear and tear on your motorbike
  • make your riding safer
  • reduce the amount of damage your motorbike does to the environment.

Make sure you sit so you can reach the throttle comfortably and use it smoothly.

Be careful not to over-rev your engine when moving away (ie don’t open the throttle more than is needed to make the motorbike move) or when your motorbike is stationary because it will waste fuel and make it harder to control your motorbike.

Using cruise control, if it’s fitted on your motorbike, can help to save fuel because it keeps your speed steady. Only use cruise control if you can travel at a steady speed for a long period, eg on a clear motorway. Check your motorbike handbook for details on how to use cruise control.

If you get very cold while riding your motorbike or if you get tired, you’ll find it harder to use the throttle smoothly and accurately, and this could make your riding less safe. Make sure you wear suitable protective clothing to keep yourself warm and take breaks to avoid getting too tired.

Using the gears

The number of gears motorbikes have varies: most modern motorbikes have five or six gears. The speed at which you’ll be travelling when you need to change from one gear to another will vary depending on the number of gears on the machine and how they’re configured.

Choosing the wrong gear can

  • make the motorbike accelerate too slowly or too quickly
  • make it difficult to control the motorbike effectively
  • increase fuel consumption and wear and tear on the motorbike.

Travelling in the highest suitable gear will help you save fuel and reduce wear on the engine.

The gears on a motorbike work sequentially so you have to change to the next higher or lower gear in turn. However, if you want to miss out a gear – sometimes called selective changing or block changing – you can do this by holding the clutch while you change from one gear to the next, and on to the next. This can give you more time to concentrate on the road and can increase the effect of engine braking.

When you’re braking and changing down gears, it’s best to brake to the speed you need to go and then change down into the appropriate gear so you may be able to miss one or more gears.

You can also use selective changing when you’re changing up gears, but be careful not to accelerate too fiercely or for too long in the lower gears.

Riding on hills

Use the gears to help your motorbike work efficiently when you’re going up or down hills, especially if you’re carrying a passenger or a heavy load.

When you’re riding uphill, change down to a lower gear to avoid the engine struggling to give enough power.

Riding downhill, you can use a lower gear to increase the effect of engine braking and reduce the risk of overheating the brakes.

You’ll need to anticipate when a gear change is needed to avoid making the engine struggle and to keep control of your machine.

Semi-automatic and fully automatic transmission

Semi-automatic motorbikes don’t have a gear lever. Instead the clutch works automatically when you use the gear-change pedal.

Motorbikes with fully automatic transmission have no gear lever: the rear brake lever may be fitted in place of the clutch lever.

To steer your motorbike around bends, you’ll need to use the throttle and the steering, and lean the motorbike. Using these together takes practice.

Before you start your journey, put your hands on the handlebars to check you can comfortably work the controls. Adjust the hand controls if necessary.

If you’re carrying an extra load such as a pillion passenger, the motorbike will handle differently when you’re steering. You’ll need to adjust the way you ride so you can steer safely.

Adverse camber

A road with adverse camber slopes downwards towards the outside of a corner. This can make your motorbike less stable because of

  • the increased angle between the tyre and the road surface
  • the road sloping away from the direction of the turn.

You’ll need to reduce your speed and how far you lean your motorbike when riding a bend with adverse camber.


Being able to manoeuvre your motorbike accurately is an important part of riding: you need to be able to guide your motorbike exactly where you need it.

Before you start to manoeuvre your motorbike, you need to check it’s

  • safe – eg is there enough room; can you see where you’re going?
  • convenient – other road users shouldn’t have to slow down or change course to avoid you.

Always use the Observation – Signal – Manoeuvre/Position – Speed – Look (OSM/PSL) routine to make sure you can manoeuvre safely.

  • Observation: use your mirrors and look behind you to check blind spots.
  • Signal: give a signal if it will help other road users understand what you’re doing.
  • Manoeuvre: carry out the manoeuvre using Position – Speed – Look
    • Position: move into the correct position on the road in good time to make the manoeuvre.
    • Speed: adjust your speed so you can make the manoeuvre safely.
    • Look: keep looking ahead and around you for possible dangers such as other road users or pedestrians.

You’ll need to use the clutch, throttle and brakes carefully while you’re manoeuvring to keep your motorbike under control at slow speeds. Avoid using the throttle, brakes and steering suddenly or harshly because this will make it difficult to carry out the manoeuvre correctly and you could end up getting in the way of other road users.

For some manoeuvres you’ll need to wheel your motorbike rather than riding it: make sure you practise doing this before you take your motorbike out on the road.

You should be able to

  • make a U-turn
  • turn in the road.

If you’re unsure about how to do these manoeuvres, speak to your trainer or take a look at The Official DVSA Guide to Riding – the essential skills.

Never make a U-turn

  • on a motorway
  • in a one-way street
  • where there’s a ‘no U-turn’ road sign.

If you need to brake suddenly to avoid a hazard,

  • keep your motorbike upright – don’t try to brake while cornering
  • shut the throttle
  • use the front brake just before the rear
  • use the right amount of braking on each wheel, depending on the road and weather conditions.


Avoid coasting: this is when your motorbike is moving but it’s not being driven by the engine – either when the clutch pedal is held in or the gear lever is in neutral. If your motorbike is coasting you have less control over it; doing this while you’re travelling downhill will mean you’ll quickly pick up speed, and you’ll then need to brake harder than should have been necessary.


Skidding is when tyres lose their grip on the road surface and veer off course. It can be caused by a number of different factors including

  • heavy or uncoordinated braking, which locks one or both wheels
  • too much acceleration, causing the rear wheel to spin
  • swerving
  • leaning over too far when cornering, causing one or both tyres to lose grip.

To avoid skidding,

  • don’t accelerate suddenly or harshly
  • don’t brake harshly
  • don’t brake while cornering
  • watch out for slippery road surfaces and keep your speed down if you think the road is slippery
  • use engine braking as well as the brakes to slow the motorbike down
  • keep your motorbike in good condition – brakes that are in poor condition can snatch or pull unevenly, which can cause skidding.

If your motorbike begins to skid because you’ve accelerated too quickly

  • steer in the direction that your machine is sliding
  • ease off the throttle.

To stop a skid caused by braking

  • don’t try to brake harder
  • release the  brakes so the wheels can start turning again
  • reapply the brakes as firmly as you can in the road conditions.

If your motorbike skids when you’re cornering or changing direction

  • steer in the direction that your machine is sliding
  • keep your feet on the footrests: trying to put your feet on the ground could upset your balance.

Engine braking can be useful when you’re riding in slippery conditions because the motorbike is less likely to skid under engine braking than when using the brakes.


You can tow a trailer behind your motorbike if

  • you have a full motorcycle licence
  • your motorbike has an engine capacity of at least 125 cc.

For more details about the rules on towing with a motorbike, see GOV.UK.

Remember to check your insurance policy before towing: not all policies will cover it.

If you need to use a recovery service while towing, check whether it can recover a trailer. It’s a good idea to carry a spare wheel for your trailer and other equipment so that you can make minor repairs if necessary.

Use your motorbike handbook to check the maximum size and noseweight of trailer that your machine can safely tow and how to attach a trailer to it. It’s important to follow these recommendations otherwise you could damage your machine or cause an accident.

Coupling and uncoupling a trailer

Take care to couple the trailer to your motorbike correctly, following the instructions in the motorbike handbook. Before you set off, check

  • the trailer is loaded correctly, with the right noseweight on the tow bar
  • the lights and indicators are connected and working properly
  • the jockey wheel and assembly is fully retracted and stowed
  • the tyre pressures are correct, the tyres are the correct sort and in good condition.

Riding with a trailer

Towing a trailer may create extra blind spots around your motorbike. Make sure that you check carefully all around you before manoeuvring your motorbike. If the trailer blocks your view in your mirrors, you may need to use extra mirrors.

There’s a lower national speed limit for all vehicles towing trailers

  • on a dual carriageway or motorway, maximum speed 60 mph (96 km/h)
  • on a single carriageway, maximum speed 50 mph (80 km/h).

If there are three or more lanes on a motorway, you mustn’t ride a motorbike towing a trailer in the right-hand lane.

Towing a trailer will change the way a motorbike handles. You’ll need to

  • allow more time for braking
  • allow for the extra vehicle length, particularly when turning or emerging at junctions – you might need to take a different position on the road to give you enough space to turn.

If you use your brakes too heavily, eg when going downhill, your motorbike may suffer brake fade – a loss of braking power caused by the brakes getting too hot. To help avoid brake fade,

  • change to a lower gear
  • use engine braking to slow the motorbike
  • don’t allow the motorbike to coast.

‘Snaking’ is when the trailer begins to swerve from side to side while you’re riding. If this happens,

  • ease off the throttle slowly
  • reduce your speed gradually until the snaking stops.

Riding with a sidecar

Before fitting a sidecar to your motorbike, you’ll need to

  • check that your motorbike is suitable for use with a sidecar – speak to your motorbike dealer
  • make sure that the sidecar is fixed correctly to the mounting points and aligned correctly
  • fit the sidecar on the left-hand side of your motorbike if it was registered on or after 1 August 1981.

You’ll need to use a different riding technique when you have a sidecar attached to your motorbike. The sidecar will affect the braking, steering and overall dynamics of the machine.

  • When you’re turning, you’ll have to steer using the handlebars because you can’t lean the machine over.
  • On left-hand bends, the sidecar wheel will tend to lift as the weight is thrown outwards: take care to keep the wheel on the ground.
  • The extra weight of the sidecar will increase your machine’s stopping distance so brake earlier.
  • The sidecar will tend to pull to the right when you’re braking heavily unless it has its own brake.

Most motorbikes used in sidecar combinations are specially adapted for this purpose – for example, the suspension settings or tyres may be changed. If you want to ride the motorbike without the sidecar, it’s likely to need changing again so it’s suitable to ride on its own.