By Thomas Day
On the way back home through South Dakota in July a few years ago, I decided to count the number of times someone said, “It’s awful hot to be wearing all that gear” or something equally observant. By the time I made it home, it happened seven times.
My favorite incident was in Platte, South Dakota at a bar where I had dinner after finding a motel and shedding my bike luggage. As I’d come into town, I spotted a huge (tall and wide) woman on a big cruiser wobbling away from the curb into traffic, looking at as uncomfortable and incompetent as anyone I’ve ever seen on a motorcycle. She had both feet on the ground, paddling along into moving traffic, hoping the universe was looking out for her, barely able to turn her head far enough to see her own hands on her ape-hangers let alone the on-coming traffic. She was sitting at one of the outside tables with six other women as I left the bar.
One of her friends remarked, “That’s a lot of gear to be wearing on a hot day.”
I repeated the response I have memorized for this silly statement, “It’s not nearly enough when you’re sliding down the road on your ass.”
Another woman said, “He got you there.”
The big cruiser rider said, “I ride too good for that to happen to me.”
The Dunning-Kruger Effect explains how “persons of low ability suffer from illusory superiority when they mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.” This lady was a classic example of that human delusion and she had no idea how ridiculous her statement would sound to anyone who had seen her ride. I have to feel a little sorry for her, though. The motorcycle she rode was way more machine than she could ever handle. She was so overweight that any sane society would classify her as “handicapped” and so unskilled that same culture would refuse to issue her a license for anything more powerful than a 50cc scooter. The Harley marketing machine had convinced her that she was a badass biker, but bad was all she could manage. If all she does with her motorcycle is wobble from her house to the bar in that tiny village, she might survive to tell stories about her “biker phase” when she’s in the old folks home. If she ever puts that thing on an open road, the chances are good that she’ll make a contribution to the single-vehicle crash and fatality statistics.
In my last basic motorcycle course of the 2017 season, we had one exceptionally marginal student, who was taking the class for the second time in a last gasp attempt at a license. As usual, that student was the most confident of the group. In a discussion about evaluating traffic hazards and escape routes, I described how easy it is to overestimate your skills and capabilities and how quickly a traffic situation can catastrophically point out your errors and limitations.
Our marginal student said, “That will never be me. I know what I’m doing.”
I replied, “In my experience, all of the really good riders I’ve ever known are more aware of their shortcomings than confident in their skills.”
She said, “Now you’re just making things up.”
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Yep, I made that up.
The real benefit to taking additional and regular training is discovering how much distance there is between what you think you know and what you actually know. That goes for anything, not just motorcycle training. Humans are notoriously lousy self-evaluators, as individuals and as groups. One of the most hilarious anti-government delusions is the fantasy of “self-regulation.” Literally, I can’t think of a single area of human activity where any industry, organization, or community has done a decent job of self-regulation. Anytime humans are left to their own isolated devices they inbreed and become stupid and corrupt. It doesn’t even take expert outside observers to provide useful advice; people mangle their intended purpose so completely and destructively that almost anyone with eyesight can provide useful corrective feedback. The South Dakota cruiser rider was a terrific example of that.
One of the things I will miss when I retire from teaching the state’s motorcycle safety classes is the corrective feedback from the students and the coaches I worked with. In particular, the classes that used to be called “Experienced Rider” often exposed me to motorcyclists with far different experiences from my own. During the discussions I picked up all sorts of ideas about how other riders manage traffic, maintain their motorcycles, and plan cross country trips. Having to demonstrate the exercises for competent riders always added a little pressure to the otherwise simple activities and gave me a solid benchmark for knowing when it would be time for me to hang up my Aerostich for good.
At the other end of that spectrum, beginning and so-called “experienced” riders often discovered that their motorcycle talents were dramatically less impressive than they’d convinced themselves. Sadly, not everyone who miserably fails to cope with the course exercises is honest enough to realize how low a bar they failed to step over. Riders who drive straight through the offset weave exercises tell themselves their bike is the problem, ignoring the fact that other riders on similar or less maneuverable motorcycles are handling the course without difficulty. Riders who never learn to use and trust their front brake pretend that they’ll avoid having to make an emergency stop by sticking to country roads and riding in a pack. One of the huge shortcomings of not having a tiered license system is that completely incompetent riders can end up on equally hard-to-ride motorcycles and won’t discover why that is a problem until seconds before becoming a statistic.
One fairly reliable indicator of riding competence is the amount of gear a rider decides is enough. AGAT riders are consistently more competent than the shorts and flipflops or bandana and pirate outfit crowd. It appears that the more you know about riding a motorcycle, the more aware you are of the risk. The opposite of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is something every good scientist, engineer, and technician knows, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” So, if you are confident that your skills are good enough to allow you to ride helmetless and without decent gear, the odds are good that you are likely to be fatally wrong.