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Harley Davidson Motorcycles: When the Brakes Are What’s Broken


When you’re headed out the door, you’re focused on your destination. You don’t think about whether your car or motorcycle is going to work; you just expect that it will. We’ve all had that moment of frustration when we’re greeted by an obvious problem – a flat tire, a dead battery, no gas. While such issues are disappointing, they aren’t dangerous, not like those that appear while the machine is in motion. When the difficulty involves a feature as fundamental as the braking system, the potential for a serious accident goes up exponentially. Currently, a minimum of 430,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycles is experiencing just such a problem.

Most motorcycles on the road today have front and rear brakes that operate individually. Between 70 and 80 percent of the stopping power is provided by the front brake. When the brakes fail, the motorcyclist can lose control of the bike and cause an accident. In early July, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) revealed that it had received 43 complaints from motorcycle operators whose brakes had failed without warning. The NHSTA also received three reports of crashes and two reports of injuries due to failing brakes, with numerous riders mentioning that severe accidents had only been narrowly avoided.

The majority of the reports stated that either the front brake hand lever or the rear brake foot pedal did not work, although a few claimed that both systems failed at the same time. All of the reports concerned Harley-Davidson bikes with anti-lock braking systems, which has prompted the NHSTA to launch an investigation into model years 2008 to 2011. Harley-Davidson is aware of the investigation and is cooperating.

The NHSTA acknowledges the possibility that the loss of braking power may be due to the fact that some motorcyclists chose to ignore or are unaware of Harley-Davidson’s recommendation that the brake fluid be changed every two years. The recommendation is based on concerns that as the old brake fluid becomes contaminated by moisture, it can corrode the actuator valves in the anti-lock braking system. Still, the NHTSA considers the “consequent sudden and complete loss of brake(s) … a concern.” Although a recall has not been announced yet for this problem, Harley-Davidson has had some difficulty with recalls recently, issuing a record number of them last year and recalling ten times as many units in 2014 as it did in 2013.

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