Risk, Reward and Rider Responsibility

Big Apple Motorcycle School
By George Tranos

I’d be rich if I had a quarter for every time someone asked me, “Aren’t motorcycles dangerous?” I’ve thought long and hard about how to answer. If you’re a regular rider, you probably have been asked this question and have given lots of different responses. Most people who ask already have preconceived notions about riding and motorcycles. Their ideas color how they view and manage risk in their own lives.
There are some who think that we should be protected from risk at all times. To them, stepping off the curb and walking across the street is a hazardous task. Is it possible to insulate yourself so much to avoid all risk in life? If so, would you really want to do this? To most people, the sheer joy of doing overcomes the modest risk involved in normal activities.

Do you think driving a car is a dangerous activity? If so, what makes it that way? Are there things you can do to minimize the risk? How about sports? Did you or do you play a sport? Football, baseball, basketball or hockey all have inherent potential for injury. As an avid ice hockey player I’m on two teams year round. Hockey is a fun sport, but you are literally skating on thin ice. Besides the possibility of falling, there are side boards to run or be checked into, a puck that is hit at up to 100 miles-per-hour and sticks that can be used to spear, hook or slash you. I minimize that risk by using proper protective equipment such as a helmet with face guard, elbow pads, gloves, etc. I practice my skating skills to have good balance, keep my head and eyes up to have good situational awareness and try to stay in decent physical condition to prevent injury.

Motorcycling is no different. Ask anyone who rides what they get out of it and you’ll hear many answers. For many, it’s the personal freedom of moving through the wind, being at one with your machine and feeling the motorcycle respond to your inputs. Ask these same motorcyclists what they do to manage their risk and you’ll also get myriad responses. All of them, though, regardless of their risk reduction strategies, will tell you that the rewards they get riding a motorcycle are worth the risk.

In this space, I’ve talked about some of the things you can do to manage risk. We in the motorcycle training community regard motorcycling as serious fun. It’s serious because of the danger of a powerful machine in the wrong hands. Riders are more vulnerable to weather, exposed to the elements and less protected than those driving in cars. Motorcycles are less stable than four-wheeled vehicles, turn differently and require more training and practice to become proficient. Motorcycling is fun because of the exhilaration you feel when you’re in control of your own machine. Raw, responsive, elemental – riding can give you joy and help you feel free. There’s a sense of adventure you feel when riding a motorcycle that you can’t get from a car.

On the other hand, riding is less tolerant of mistakes. Making a mistake on a motorcycle can kill you. You have to be on the ball all the time. Anything that interferes with your balance, coordination, judgment or reaction time can contribute to a crash. As the cliché goes, stupid hurts and stupid on a motorcycle can really hurt. Examples are easy to find. Just the other day, three riders passed us while we were on a training ride. They were easily doing over a hundred MPH and passed us on the shoulder of the road of a three lane highway. Needless to say, this was not smart. Add in other factors such as alcohol, debris on the shoulder or a car changing lanes at the wrong time and these riders would become a statistic. The fact that they were riding with T-shirts and no gloves doing these insane acts would add to their misery if they ever crashed. The odds are not with them if they continue to tempt fate in this way.

The sad part of this is that these same riders will blame the other guy for causing their crash. The car driver should have seen me (while I was passing them at one hundred MPH). The highway crew should have cleaned up that shredded tire that was on the side of the road. Better yet, the motorcycle dealer should have kept me from buying that high powered bike when the rider told them they were a beginner (even though they insisted that was what they wanted). They’ll go and sue everyone they can and then say, “Motorcycles are dangerous,” all without ever thinking of their personal responsibility.

So to answer the original question, “aren’t motorcycles dangerous?” I always answer yes. But I always add that there is risk in everything we do. I am willing to accept that risk to gain the many rewards of riding. However, what you choose to do is your choice. Riding a motorcycle is not for everyone and being minimally competent is not good enough to protect yourself. You only live once, so you should enjoy yourself, but choose wisely or the choice you make could be your last.