If You Want “Safe”, Ride the Bus
by Thomas Day
I had a conversation with a new motorcycle instructor a little while back that has been grating on my mind. Our disagreement—all of my conversations are mostly disagreements—was in the use of the word “safe” and “motorcycling” in the same sentence. I believe part of the attraction to motorcycles is risk. He thinks that is an irrational belief. It seems to me that we’ve got an irreconcilable viewpoint of human nature. He simply thinks I’m an idiot.
For most of my life a good portion of the people I know have thought of me as a “thrill junky” or simply “nuts.” To a mild extent, I think that’s true but I know how mildly I’m afflicted with this addiction because I know how radically others have it. I’ve done a little climbing, but I’ve never had the balls to climb the face of El Capitan, with or without lines. I’ve raced bicycles, but I don’t imagine myself either able to blast down Pikes Peak without brakes, or being surrounded by a pack of road cyclists in a high speed street turn, handlebars and body parts jostling for position at 35mph on tires too skinny to grip to the stickiest surface. I’ve raced dirt bikes, but Bob Hannah or Jeff Ward or Jeremy McGrath would be hard pressed to call any part of my experience “racing.” Risk is a relative thing and my risks were relatively “safe” compared to real risk junkies.
I’ve just finished reading Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker, a book about investment banking and how money moves through the fingers of real investors. In a chapter called The Art of War, he says “Risk, I had learned, was a commodity in itself. Risk could be canned and sold like tomatoes. Different investors place different prices on risk. If you were able, as it were, to buy risk from one investor cheaply and sell it to another investor dearly, you can make money without taking any risk yourself. And this is what we did.” Lewis is talking about people who play games with hundreds of millions of dollars. Their own dollars and yours and my dollars. He, and many psychologists, think they do it for the thrill they get from the risk they take. I’ve got some money in the stock market, but the more money I have, the less risk I take with it, completely unlike real investors. When I have a small pile of cash in the bank, I quit working and go riding.
Most new riders I meet know the reason they want to master two-wheeled transportation is because others will see them as adventurous, skilled, or some such image they’ve been fed by the major manufacturers marketing machine. They know this because that’s the way they see motorcyclists.
A few, and only recently, want to save some money on fuel and have some fun doing it. A lot of these new riders want to get from Point A (non-riding) to Point Z (their image of an accomplished rider) without dealing with Points B through Y (obtaining the individual skills and dealing with the mental aspect of motorcycling). I think far too many of this group of people are terrified of the risk they are assuming and want to camouflage their terror with distractions; chrome, clothes, and clatter (exhaust noise). Personally, I think any motorcycle instructor who tells beginners that motorcycling is “safe” is doing us all a disservice.
I really don’t think our activity is appropriate for everyone. While motorcycle manufacturers would like to sell everyone a motorcycle, I think that’s a short-sighted perspective based on too many executive stock options and oversized golden parachutes. Folks inclined to panic under stress don’t belong on motorcycles. Combining Attention Deficit Disorders and motorcycling is pretty dumb. Road rage and other personality defects mix poorly in traffic, but especially poorly on a motorcycle. Drug and alcohol consumption is an over-used and usually unsuccessful motorcycle-riding combination.
While some argue that safe motorcycling is 90% mental, a considerable collection of physical limitations make motorcycling impractical. Putting a gaggle of poorly-prepared, skills-and-attitude-deficient riders on the road is a formula for tipping the liability-to-benefit ratio toward a point where the general public decides that the positive attributes of motorcycles do not outweigh the negative. If we attract that kind of attention, we’re bound to lose the war for access to public roadways.
If you want safe, ride the bus. If you want safer, drive a cage. Because the speeds are lower and the roadway options are greater, bicycling is probably safer, mile per mile, than motorcycling. I’d think we’d all be embarrassed to know that bicyclists put on more miles in the US than do motorcyclists.
Balancing on two wheels in the midst of heavy and unskilled traffic, on marginal surfaces, is incredibly risky for the average rider. That probably explains why so few licensed motorcycle riders actually ride motorcycles. One of our readers wrote that because “cagers cut them off and tailgate . . . secure parking is non-existent . . . a quality fuel-efficient bike is not cheap . . .” regular motorcycle transportation isn’t worth the trouble; or the risk. I disagree, but motorcycling is an activity I think is worth assuming some risk. Those who choose to polish their garage candy might be excellent investment bankers.