Are ape hanger handlebars dangerous?

Michael Madsen looks cool as "The Gent" with his ape hanger bars in Quentin Tarentino's Hell Ride

The safety of ape hanger handlebars is back in the news with one American state considering axing a three-decade ban and other states closely watching the outcome.

High-set ape hanger bars were banned in 30 American states in the 1960s. The American was on the pretext of safety, but was more likely introduced so police had reason to pull over and search riders believed to be members of outlaw motorcycle gangs.

Remember, this was during the height of media hype and public fear about bikies/bikers after the 1966 release of Hunter S. Thompson’s book, Hell’s Angels, and the 1969 cult film Easy Rider.

Easy Rider Rider personality test ape hanger
Easy Riders

The ape hanger rules are strangely reminiscent of the current Australian profiling laws which allow police to check for tattoos and other “outlaw” club insignia.

(By the way, in Australia the rules vary from state to state, but they are generally that the lowest part of the hand grip must not be higher than 380mm above the rider’s seat or bar connection point and/or the bars must extend not less than 250mm nor more than450 mm on each side of the centreline of the bike.)

Now New Hampshire Democrat Senator Andrew Hosmer has introduced legislation to repeal the state statute restricting the height of handlebars.

Laconia Motorcycle Week Association spokesman Charlie St. Clair applauds the Senator’s Bill.

“I have never heard the height of handlebars presented as a safety issue,” he says. “There is no history of accidents caused by high bars.

“Law enforcement pulled people over for high bars as a tool for probable cause; an excuse to stop motorcyclists.”

Currently, 30 American states have various handlebar restrictions and as you ride across some state borders there are signs warning that handlebars have to be below a certain height or no higher than the rider’s shoulders.

St. Clair says many of these states are now repealing restrictions under motorcycle club pressure while 18 states impose no limits.

South Dakota, which hosts the famous annual Sturgis Rally, became the most recent state to repeal its shoulder-level law in July.

There are all kinds at the Sturgis Motorcycle RallyThere are all kinds at the Sturgis Motorcycle RallyThere are all kinds at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Whether ape hanger bars are safe or not is debatable.

We have ridden several motorcycles with “mini ape hangers” around shoulder level, such as the Harley-Davidson Street Bob, and a couple of custom choppers with bars set around eye height.

Harley-Davidson FXDB Street Bob
Harley-Davidson FXDB Street Bob

We found they are surprisingly good for urban slow-speed manoeuvring because you have close hand/eye co-ordination.

Ape hangers are also usually associated with raked-out forks that provide high-speed stability because it makes them “slower” to turn. However, it can also increase fork and handlebar flex which is not conducive to precision steering.

Anything above your heart level will also introduce some fatigue in your hands over long distances and you will often see riders drop their hands to get the blood pumping into their fingers again.

Perhaps there needs to be some flexibility in the laws, but still some upper limits to avoid ridiculous handlebar heights that might prove a danger to the rider and other road users.

What do you think? Show us photos of your ape hangers and why you like them.

5 Comments

  1. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the individual rider. If you are a safe rider, then you have less to worry about. If you like to live on the edge and roar around at a hundred mile an hour everywhere, then there is a higher chance that you will or may be involved in an accident, in which case the handlebars (ape hanger or not) could possibly cause serious injury and or death. I think that the ape hangers look cool, but I would only ever use them if I personally knew, that I would be capable of handling them for whatever distance I may be travelling. Again, personal choice. People need to ride to their ability, not to the ability that they think they have. I’m a trike man and I love the 10” Mini Apes. They are nothing too high and extreme, but they still have that classic Ape Hanger look and styling. Ride safe, keep the wind in your hair and the sun at your back.

  2. Any size bars are equally likely to impale a rider, the ends point out so the wheel would have to be full lock and even then they don’t point back to the rider. If the rider was entangled with the bike during a collision it is possible that they could be impaled but again, no matter how tall your bars are, the ends or grips point the same direction. Actually, on apes they tend to be at more of a right angle to the rider while stock bars are angled back toward the rider slightly. If you hit something head on then the taller bars are going to possibly be in the path you are taking as you fly off the bike but not likely to be your biggest problem at that point. Most apes I have seen are wide enough for a pretty large person to pass through.

    I think some people don’t like them for the same reasons they were made illegal in the 70’s, they see them as a sign of a dirty criminal biker which is just profiling. I have apes on mine which keep my hands just below shoulder level and it helps with back and wrist fatigue. I know a lot of people who will only run apes because of comfort. None of us are in biker clubs nor are we criminal. Other than the retired ones we are all professionals and have very good paying jobs.

    People who are adamantly opposed to apes should talk to some people who have them and get a better understanding of what they are and what they do before issuing blanket statements about how unsafe they are. Motorcycles are unsafe by nature but the reasons are mostly because of the way people in cars drive. Apes aren’t the problem.

  3. When our neighbour hit a steer, what killed him was the ape-hanger bar penetrating his chest and lungs. The Nazi-style crash helmet also meant that the bottom half of his head was twisted to one side, but it was the handlebar penetration that ultimately killed him. Still, all part of the Harley-Davidson “experience” I suppose.

    1. Ape hangers are not inextricably synonymous with “the Harley-Davidson experience.” I love Harley, but I don’t like gigantic ape hangers. Your story is tragic, poignant and potentially carries an important message for people considering the ape hanger look, but it is not indicative of a general reckless stupidity at Harley-Davidson or among their overall customer base.

      Just some food for thought. Thanks for the informative anecdote. Ride safe.

  4. They’re a danger in as much as they cause fatigue but also they don’t afford proper control in all situations as they are above the level where you can exert the most force.
    Also they are dangerous in an accident as they have impailed riders and wrapped around them trapping them , not what you want when the thing catches fire.

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