Arbitrary maximum heights and widths for motorcycle handlebars have no basis in science or safety research, yet many jurisdictions enforce maximum measurements with no relationship to rider posture.
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 than 450mm on each side of the centreline of the bike.
As for widths, the Australian Design Rules increased the maximum in December 2015 from 900mm to 1100mm.
However, none of these measurements has anything to do with the rider’s height and arm length, nor the ergonomics of the bike or trike.
Ape hangers that are above the eyes of a short rider, may be quite comfortable and safe for a taller rider.
The lack of substantial evidence and the variances in rider/bike sizes is the reason some American states are repealing maximum handlebar height restrictions.
To understand the reasoning for handlebar maximum measurements, we have to go back to the ban on ape bars in 30 American states in the 1960s.
It was implemented 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.
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.
Laconia Motorcycle Week Association spokesman Charlie St. Clair says American cops have also pulled over riders heading to their rally “as a tool for probable cause; an excuse to stop motorcyclists”.
Chris says there are three documents affecting vehicle standards: ADR, the Road Management Act (vehicle standards) in each state and the National Code of Practice for Vehicle Construction.
“In all three documents there are particular things that do not match,” he says.
“One example is mirrors. In all three they are different in size configuration.
“If you go to the National Code of Practice for light vehicle construction and search for mirrors on motorcycles, the size stipulated is almost as big as the mirrors on a Ford Territory.
“But there are other examples, so we obviously have a problem with laws and standards that get tied together that don’t match because of mismatched and badly written legislation.”
Ape hanger and wide handlebars are usually deployed to look cool, although current hipster trends may actually make them uncool!
However, there is little research to say they are unsafe.
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.
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, tingling and numbness in your hands and fingers over long distances. You will often see riders drop their hands to get the blood pumping into their fingers again.
We have also ridden many motorcycles with wide handlebars and, so long as you can comfortable reach them, they are very stable at high speeds.
The only impediment is in tight turns where one hand may come away from the bars on full lock.
There is also the concern that high or wide handlebars could be an obstacle in a crash. However, again there is no unequivocal information or scientific studies that establish that as fact.
Perhaps there needs to be some flexibility in the laws that account for rider posture to avoid ridiculous handlebar heights and widths that might be a danger to the rider and other road users.
What do you think? Show us photos of your ape hangers or wide bars and why you like them. Leave your comments below.