Motorcyclists: Beware the Tar Snake, by Aaron Cortez, BikeBandit.com
Reginald Lane, NC-E Chapter Educator
You’ve seen tar snakes out on the road countless times, but probably never paid too much attention to them in your car. But when riding your motorcycle, it’s a whole different story. With only two tiny patches of rubber keeping you upright on a bike, you have to be a lot more wary about road surface imperfections, and tar snakes are among the most sinister ones you’ll find.
In this article, we’ll tell you all about what they are, why you need to look out for them, and what to do when you encounter these snakes out in the wild and they try to strike you!
The "tar snake" is shown here, lurking in it's natural habitat.
What are Tar Snakes?
As roads age, they develop cracks in the surface. As the road gets abused and traffic and weather take their toll, those cracks get bigger and bigger, and cause the road surface to degrade quickly. As a temporary fix, road crews will fill the cracks with sealant —usually a soft, tar-based substance—to fill the cracks and keep them from expanding. The result? A road covered in random, windy black lines that resemble snakes; hence the term, “tar snakes.”
Using crack sealant like this is a normal practice on roads across the country; you see them everywhere, and it doesn’t affect the vast majority of 4-wheeled vehicles on the road. In fact, you probably don’t even notice them when in your car.
But on your bike, it’s a whole different story.
Why Are Tar Snakes a Hazard to Motorcyclists?
Asphalt sealer, or tar snakes, are hazardous to riders because they can compromise your traction in three ways:
- They have a very different texture than asphalt, and your tires will respond differently to them than to the road.
- They create a bumpy road surface that can unsettle your suspension.
- They can become softer or slicker in hot weather, or when wet.
Tar snakes are generally a lot softer than asphalt, so they can easily get foreign objects embedded into them, and they can even come dislodged and stick to your tires! Again, none of this would be an issue in a four-wheeled vehicle (which is why they are used), but on a motorcycle, they pose a unique hazard.
What Will Happen If You Hit A Tar Snake?
If you’ve ever ridden over painted lines in the roadway, you may have noticed a change in traction from your tires; this is because paint lines tend to be more slippery than asphalt, and should be avoided.
Tar snakes are similar, but a lot more tricky; because unlike paint lines, you never know where they will be! They are applied on the road wherever damage occurs, so you can hit a patch of them very unexpectedly, and some of these patches can be pretty nasty.
Most of the time, when you ride over tar snakes, you won’t notice much more than a bumpy road. The trouble starts when you’re leaned over; hitting a tar snake can cause you to lose traction momentarily, causing your bike to slide.
Often, you’ll regain traction quickly and won’t experience more than a “puckering moment,” but in a worst-case scenario, you can go down. This has happened to many riders—even motorcycle cops in several cases across the country.
So what do you do when you encounter these dangerous snakes?
How to Handle Tar Snakes on your Motorcycle
Remember, tar snakes are only applied to roads that are damaged, so you’re already riding on a road surface that’s less than ideal. The tar snakes on the road make the surface better for most vehicles, but worse for us riders, so you have to be doubly cautious when riding over them. Here are a few steps you can take to deal with them:
- Always scan the road surface while riding to look for them. Try to memorize where they are on roads you like to ride, because they do tend to be clustered in patches.
- When you ride over them, reduce your speed (of course) and try to ride over them vertically, at a 90-degree angle, if possible. Avoid those that go along your line of travel.
- Your bike may wobble or shudder as you ride over them, so remain loose on the bars and let your tires find traction on their own. The more you try to control your bike with a death grip when dealing with reduced traction, the more likely something bad will happen. Tires are better at finding traction on their own than we are.
Also, remember that tar snakes respond to changes in weather very differently than normal road surfaces do. In hot weather they can “melt” and become more soft and sticky, and when wet, they can be a lot slicker than asphalt.
Tar snakes actually cause quite a few accidents for riders, most of who didn't even realize they posed such a big hazard—like this one. (Photo credit: Mattinski from pnwriders.com)
Overall, tar snakes are hazardous to motorcycles because they are simply not designed with us riders in mind. Transportation departments and road crews slap them all over aging roads across the country because they are perfectly acceptable road repairs for those in four-wheeled vehicles—the handful of us that ride on two.
Just know to look out for them, be prepared, and keep the rubber side down...where it belongs!