By Thomas Day

A friend, Scott Jarrett, who has had a storied and impressive career as a professional musician once told me, “If you can imagine making a living any way but through music, you should.” For years, I took that as a semi-friendly put-down. It felt like he was telling me that, since I had regularly left the music world for the more regular income from electronic engineering and education, I shouldn’t consider myself worthy of being called “a musician.” I have no excess of confidence regarding my musicianship, so I took that advice and when someone asks me if I play or if I’m a musician I always say, “Sort of.”

Recently, Scott was explaining to me his current financial dilemma that is mostly forced by the serious competition he receives from his past and current music students. These kids have the advantage of having had him as a step-up into music and the music business, plus they have the motivation, energy, and commitment and the advantage of of being young, footloose and unencumbered by obligations. He simply said, “I can’t keep up anymore. I can’t do the practice time or put in the hours to keep these kids from getting the jobs I used to own.”

Scott described his situation as being similar to a scene in Douglas Adam’s Life, the Universe and Everything, where Arthur Dent, Slartibartfast, and Ford Prefect were watching some robots destroy a planet. Ford was explaining why the robots would win and destroy the universe while the three of them stood idly by observing their own demise.

“We’re not obsessed by anything, you see,’’ insisted Ford. “And that’s the deciding factor. We can’t win against obsession. They care, we don’t. They win.’’

“I care about lots of things,’’ said Slartibartfast, his voice trembling partly with annoyance, but partly also with uncertainty.

“Such as?’’

“Well,’’ said the old man, “life, the Universe. Everything, really. Fjords.’’

“Would you die for them?’’

“Fjords?’’ blinked Slartibartfast in surprise. “No.’’

“Well then.’’

“Wouldn’t see the point, to be honest.’’

When I heard that, “If you can imagine making a living some way other than as a musician, you should” suddenly made sense to me, in a non-insulting way. Scott is not the kind of jackass you know me to be and I had always assumed that he meant this as a parable; unfortunately a parable that was simply beyond my comprehension. But I get it now. I was obsessed by music and, particularly, playing music on my guitar for about five years of the fifty-plus years I pretended to be a musician. Not nearly enough to count for the kind of obsession required to be a professional musician.

In the United States, motorcycles account for 15% of highway deaths and an equally disproportionate number of serious injuries. If, as I’ve argued more than a few times, we amount to no more than 0.01% of highway traffic and, more likely, closer to 0.001%, the odds of dying in a motorcycle crash are somewhere around 1,500 to 15,000 times greater than in a cage. I know that traditional media claims the number is somewhere between 18 and 37 times more likely, but I think their math skills are suspect. 15% is 1.500 times greater than 0.01%. For motorcycling to be 37 times as dangerous as driving a car, we would have to drop our fatality contribution to 0.37% of total highway fatalities.

So, with those lousy odds in mind, how obsessed with riding a motorcycle are you? If you are absolutely convinced that magic and your biker stare is going to protect you from lousy riding skills and your distain for motorcycle protective gear, you’re an idiot and one of the many reasons we are so overrepresented in highway crash statistics.

Motorcycling requires a similar obsession to being a professional musician. A motorcyclist is someone who constantly works on all aspects of his riding skills. She keeps her motorcycle in excellent condition by regularly inspecting the machine and spending the necessary money to keep it all in order. He reads books and magazines about riding, maintenance, and takes regular skills refresher courses to stay sharp and on top of his game. She rides as soon as the ice is gone in the spring and doesn’t put her bike away until the snow falls in the winter. He would rather ride his motorcycle than drive a car, ride a bicycle, walk, take the bus, or fly. She keeps herself in good physical condition so she has the strength, stamina, flexibility, and physical capacity to ride competently. He is obsessed with going places by motorcycle. When she rides, the only thing she is thinking about is riding a motorcycle safely, competently, and because it makes her feel more alive than any other thing she does.

Anything less than that is an unacceptable risk for minimal reward. If I thought it would help, I would repeat that sentence.

To paraphrase Mr. Jarrett, “If you can imagine going from point A to point B any way other than by motorcycle, you should.”

I do not encourage people to become motorcyclists. I train people who think they want to ride a motorcycle, but I don’t give them a lot of encouragement. I am not a motorcycling cheerleader. I didn’t try to put my wife, kids, or my grandkids on a motorcycle. When they asked about it, I told them to get really good on a bicycle and get back to me. My wife tried off-road motorcycling for a few years, but never had any interest in street riding. They all had a few biking crashes, lost some skin, and decided that was fast and dangerous enough. I agree with that decision.

If I didn’t work at turning my kids into motorcyclists, I’m sure not going to try to convince a stranger or, even, a friend to take on riding. It is dangerous, expensive, complicated, and a lot of hassle. If you are not obsessed, you should take the bus, ride the train, drive your cage, bicycle, or walk. They are all much safer and cheaper than motorcycling. If you are obsessed, I will try to help you in any way I can to become a better, safer motorcyclist.

If obsessed people were the only people on motorcycles, we would drive that 15% down to 0.37% and keep pushing it lower until we approach zero.

MMM

2 Comments

  1. Hey Tom, Down, down, down. It sounds as if you’re out of here! Pretty negative. I say, hang in there. To get to the crash statistics you quote, I think you have to do a lot of things ‘Geezers’ don’t do. When I see the way a lot of bikers ride I wonder why there aren’t even more accidents. They’re riding like they want to get it over with — in more ways than one. Drink a lot before you ride; ride at night and after the bars close; be a new biker with just a few miles under your belt; be unfamiliar with your bike; ride a little or a lot faster than traffic and weave in and out finding all of the car drivers’ blind spots; assume car drivers see, or hear you; follow other bikers who ride faster than what you’re comfortable with; and, most importantly, believe that it (a bad accident) can’t happen to you.
    I enjoy your columns and hope you don’t give up on us.
    — Ross, aka ‘The Ol’Dad’,(ie a lot older than you!)

  2. Ross,

    I’m not dead yet. I am, however, on the way out of a few things. This coming summer, 2016, will be my lightest MMSC/MSF schedule since I started teaching in 2001: 2 BRCs and 2 BRCIIs. Down my my usual 12-25 classes and my all-time-high of 34 (in 2008). Chances are pretty good that I’ll retire from teaching MSF classes when the new program hits Minnesota. The time commitment is beyond my interest level and I’m not convinced the MSF is all that serious about improving motorcycle fatality and injury statistics.

    I agree with all of the things you listed as risk factors and a few more. However, I do believe that the premise of this column is one of my best. “If obsessed people were the only people on motorcycles, we would drive that 15% down to 0.37% and keep pushing it lower until we approach zero.” It’s a lot harder to be obsessed at 67 than it was at 30 or even 50. Getting back up after a crash is a lot harder, too.

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