by Thomas Day

safe adjective
• not able or likely to be hurt or harmed in any way : not in danger
• not able or likely to be lost, taken away, or given away
• not involving or likely to involve danger, harm, or loss

dan·ger·ous adjective
• involving possible injury, harm, or death : characterized by danger
• able or likely to cause injury, pain, harm, etc.

– Merriam-Webster’s On-Line Dictionary

The phrase “safe motorcycling” gets tossed around a lot in motorcycle books and training. Which of the two definitions above best describes motorcycling?

Be honest.

I think we all know the answer. With that answer in mind, what is going on in motorcycle safety training when we use the words “safe motorcycling?” Why even pretend there is such a thing when experienced riders believe there are only two kinds2 of motorcyclists (“those who have had an accident and those who will”)?

It’s obvious why the Motorcycle Safety Foundation/Motorcycle Industry Council does it. It never pays, in the short term, to scare off customers with reality. For the future of motorcycling–and for the scarce few of us who care about that–this is a suicidal approach. Our mortality-and-morbidity-per-mile statistics are the grossest evidence possible that motorcycling is as risky an activity as rock climbing, hang gliding, scuba diving or deep free-diving, X-games-everything, or being in a combat zone (“Top safety chiefs across the military have identified motorcycles as the No. 1 safety concern off the battlefield.” NPR Report, U.S. Military Combats Rising Motorcycle Fatalities, 2009).

The average age of motorcyclists is steadily climbing, which means a large generation of our population is not following in the Boomer’s footsteps. That is apparent in all sorts of ways.

In 2011, the average age of U.S. motorcyclists was 43 (the average age of Harley riders was 58 for that same year) compared to 1980’s 23-year-old, 1998’s 33-year-old, and 2003’s 40-year-old averages. It’s fair to speculate that the ordinary motorcycling participant will be very near 60 by 2020 and that might spell the end of motorcycling as a popular activity in the US.

I have to wonder if at least some of this avoidance is because of the disconnect between reality and the attempted marketing of “motorcycle safety?” If we accept the fact that motorcycling is “dangerous” by any reasonable definition, training and licensing change dramatically. If we pick two obviously dangerous activities, scuba diving and skydiving, and compare their training requirements to motorcycle safety training, I think we’ll see what kind if change is required.

For example, to qualify for solo skydiving a student spends a day in a classroom followed by 25 assisted jumps. That qualifies you to test and apply for a USPA “A” License. To obtain a PADI Open Water scuba diving certification (a certification required to buy compressed air from a dive shop), a beginning diver spends a day or two in class (or 12-15 hours taking the on-line class) followed by five sessions in confined water and four open water diving sessions. The U.S. MSF BRC (Basic Rider Course) consists of five hours of classroom, including a written test, plus ten hours of range time, including the state motorcycle licensing test at the end of the second day.

Any way you look at it, the time, skill, and financial commitment required to become a licensed motorcyclist isn’t close to reasonable considering the risk or complication of the skills learned. Having been a PADI Dive Master, I can say with experience of scuba diving isn’t even close to as complicated and hazardous an activity as riding a motorcycle on public streets.

Like skydiving and scuba, there is nothing natural about learning to ride a motorcycle. All of our built-in natural reactions and motor skills are next-to-useless. Learning to ride a motorcycle with any expectation of reasonable safety is a long, involved, strenuous process and a day-and-a-half of “training” is grossly insufficient.

Even worse, motorcycling doesn’t have the checks in place to prevent the untrained from smearing themselves all over the highway. If you don’t have a scuba certification, you can’t buy compressed air at a dive shop. If you don’t have a USPA license, you can’t get a ride on a plane to take a solo jump. All you have to do to get on a motorcycle is to buy or borrow one. Until this changes, motorcycling is on a collision course with public opinion. And, with the rest of our public image in the dumpster, that can’t be good for the industry or our access to public roads.



  1. This past week, a friend read this article to his buddy who was trapped in a hospital bed after crashing on a back road in New Mexico. Both guys are/were long term on and off road riders. The injured rider probably won’t be back on a bike. He’s sixty-something and will be lucky to be on crutches in a year or so. His hip is destroyed and his right hand is permanently disabled, according to his surgeons. The crash was a single-vehicle crash, no alcohol involved, no road surface excuses, just a misjudgment on a corner with no margin for error. He was lucky to have been riding with friends and to have had cell phone service in a fairly remote location. I guess “lucky” is a relative term, though.

    My friend is considering selling his bikes and going back to bicycles. Of the three of us, the injured rider was probably the most technically competent motorcyclist; if not the most cautious. That is a little sobering. This kind of thing really brings the “safe motorcycling” fallacy to the front of your mind. Like safe hang-gliding, scuba diving, skiing, skydiving, and dueling, it’s an oxymoron. You can be cautious, but you are deluding yourself if you think you are safe.

  2. Living in Red Wing, I get to see massive doses of delusion. The MIC/MSF and AMA are doing motorcycling a massive disservice by pretending it’s all about smelling the flowers and “freedom,” when it’s a very high risk activity and desperately needs the same kind of attention that car design and safety has received.

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