Thursday, July 20, 2006

Are motorcycles dangerous?

Are motorcycles dangerous?

My nephew asked me that a few days back. He said he and his sisters are suddenly “fascinated” by motorcycles. Part of it, he said, is the prospect of saving on transportation costs, part is the undeniable allure of that high-performance, exciting way to get around. But his father discourages it, saying motorcycles are dangerous.

I can identify. My fascination with motorcycles started at an even younger age. My dad bought a Suzuki 80cc “scrambler” when I was probably 9 or 10, then upgraded to a 120cc. I loved riding passenger; I can still remember looking down and seeing the ground whizzing by, directly under foot… that was a new sensation! And my friends’ dads… Dan’s dad had motocross bikes – big 360cc Husqvarnas and such. Ralph’s dad had a SWEET 650cc Triumph; I used to stand in his garage and admire that thing, chrome gleaming in the shadows.

My favorite pastime was hanging out at Herb Uhl’s motorcycle shop out on State Street. He had Suzukis, plus European dirt bikes – Bultaco, Maico, Montesa, CZ, Husqvarna. Then Carl’s opened next door. He sold Kawasakis, and Bonanza minibikes. I don’t know what the guy was thinking – he actually occasionally let us ride his “demo” minibike out on a little test circuit set up out back. (I s’pose it paid off; years later I bought a Kawasaki KH500 from him.) Across town on Vista, “Dirty” Al Russell had his Yamaha shop. Buzz Chaney sold Triumphs, down on Main Street. They all knew me. Motorcycles have been in my blood since early on, and I started riding around 12 years old. (Essentially all of my riding was off-road until I was 17 or so. That off-road riding was invaluable in giving me a set of motorcycle handling skills.)

First, let me address the cost of owning and operating a motorcycle, as compared with a car.

I’d guess you (typically) won’t save a huge amount of money, per mile, using a motorcycle. Unless you own the motorcycle free and clear, you’ll have monthly payments. (An entry-level motorcycle will cost as much as a decent used car. Of course, it all depends on how much motorcycle you need… but the more “alluring” ones come with fairly substantial price tags.) Same thing with gas. A mileage-champ motorcycle might get 60 or more MPG… but the “alluring” motorcycles get less than that. Compare with an economy car that might get 35-40MPG, in which you can transport 3 of your friends. Motorcycles have to be maintained, just like cars. (Many of the “alluring” ones are as complex as any car, with 5 or 6 valves per cylinder, liquid cooling, fuel injection, etc. … but everything miniaturized. Unless you’re an accomplished mechanic, you’ll be frustrated to maintain such a beast yourself.) And stuff wears out… chains, tires, etc. You’ll find that motorcycle tires are way more spendy than car tires. There are other cost factors to consider – insurance, parking, etc.

(Keep in mind I’m mostly addressing the “alluring” type motorcycles. If you’re shopping for a motorcycle/scooter-type vehicle strictly for economical transportation, you can get one that costs less to buy, does much better on fuel mileage, is relatively low-maintenance, and for which tires don’t cost $200 apiece. But it’s not the kind of motorcycle you see in the movies, passing cars at 200mph with a Tom Cruise look-alike laying on the tank, or rumbling through the urban jungle with Schwarzenneger at the controls.)

Also when considering cost of owning and operating… do you see a motorcycle being your only transportation, or will it supplement an “enclosed” vehicle? Will you want to ride your motorcycle when it’s 100 degrees out? Or 10 degrees? If you get snow or ice, what will you do? Are you uncomfortable if the temperature isn’t 70-75 degrees?

If it’s your second (or third, or fourth) vehicle, you’ll be paying to own and operate the other vehicle(s), too. They all need to have the oil changed, insurance, parking, etc.

I’m not trying to discourage my reader from buying a motorcycle… but please be realistic.

Now… back to the original question.

Are motorcycles dangerous?

Yes.

Everything is dangerous. Driving a car. Shoveling snow out of the driveway. Mowing the lawn. Taking a bath. (Hundreds of people die every year when they slip in the bathtub.)

I’ll forever remember the day Dad crashed his motorcycle. (It’s etched into my brain, very much like the circumstances when the news came over the loudspeaker that President Kennedy had been shot, or that day in 2001 when the planes flew into the Twin Towers.)

It was a beautiful summer day – perfect conditions for a nice motorcycle ride. The family had been at a Little League baseball game at Camel’s Back Park, and we were headed for home.

Mom, as usual, was piloting a station wagon full of kids. Dad was following, a half-block behind, on the Suzuki 120.

Mom went through an intersection. Dad followed.

I don’t know whose fault it was; it really doesn’t matter. A car entered the intersection from a side street, after Mom had gone through. Dad swerved the motorcycle to avoid a collision. It went down, and he and the motorcycle slid along the pavement. (I was in the backward-facing seat in Mom’s car, and watched it unfold.)

Dad scraped up his ankle pretty good, and gouged his shin. He was bloodied, but not seriously injured, thank goodness. The motorcycle was essentially unscathed. He righted it, and rode it home. He parked it, and if he ever got on it again, I don’t remember. Obviously his opinion of the risk-vs.-benefit ratio had changed in a split second.

After that, I don’t remember him coming right out and verbally discouraging me from my abiding interest in motorcycles. But I remember him bringing home a pair of eyeglasses that a motorcyclist had been wearing when he fatally collided with a farm truck. One of the temple pieces was jammed clear through a wooden board. On another occasion, he took me to the hospital to see a guy who had crashed his motorcycle and was lying comatose, and on life support. I respected Dad’s viewpoint, and considered the high stakes. But the lure of the chrome and twist-grip throttle held me fast. (Dad kept the Suzuki, and I’m sure I put many more miles on it – off-road miles – in the ensuing few years, than he had ever ridden it.)

How dangerous is riding a motorcycle?

Statistically… per mile traveled, you are approximately 16 times more likely to die in an accident when riding a motorcycle, than when driving an enclosed motor vehicle. And 3 times as likely to be injured. It’s common sense… you are VERY exposed and vulnerable on that 2-wheeled contraption. You need to avoid accidents at all costs, because if you’re in an accident, you almost certainly will be either injured or killed. By comparison, the majority of auto-accident victims get out their smashed car and walk away.

Can you avoid dying in a motorcycle accident?

Motorcyclists like to blame accidents on “the other guy.” And there’s no denying – drivers frequently have a hard time seeing, or recognizing, motorcycles on the road.

My strategy is simple. When I’m riding, I like to imagine that I’m invisible, and that nobody can see me. That way, I’m never totally surprised when somebody doesn’t see me.

BUT – it’s not always the other guy’s fault. In fact, it’s safe to say that in most accidents involving a motorcycle, the motorcycle driver is at least partly to blame. Consider:

45% of all motorcycle fatalities are SINGLE-VEHICLE accidents. (You’d think ALL of those accidents could be avoided.)
In 41% of all fatal motorcycle accidents, the motorcycle driver was speeding.
In 31%, the motorcycle driver was intoxicated.
In 18%, the motorcycle driver did not have a valid operator’s license.
(All of those numbers are from NHTSA 1998, but they probably haven’t changed substantially.)

This is significant – 46% of all motorcycle fatalities involve riders not wearing helmets. Head injury is a leading cause of death in motorcycle accidents.

There’s a good chance that NONE of the 2284 motorcyclists who died and 49,000 who were injured (1998) expected it to happen, on the fateful day. Unfortunately, many of them made conscious decisions to increase the risk of riding by speeding, impairing themselves, riding helmetless, etc. Motorcycling is dangerous enough under the best of circumstances; why compound the risk?

My advice for somebody who is considering riding a motorcycle for transportation and/or pleasure:

GET A BIKE! Bicycles, for day-in, day-out local transportation, are SO MUCH more “fascinating” than motorcycles! “Bikers” (the motorcycle type) like to call cars “cages,” implying that you lose some freedom by using a car rather than a motorcycle. But realistically, what do you gain if you ride a motorcycle? You’re stuck in the same traffic jams on the same crummy roads. You’re subject to the same laws. You’re still looking for a parking spot. You’re still a slave to the insurance company, Big Oil, etc. From the viewpoint of the bicycle saddle, motorcycles are pretty restrictive, as well.

But besides that…
- Educate yourself about the risk involved, and decide if you are willing to accept that risk.
- Educate yourself about how that risk can be minimized, and make up your mind to do everything possible to protect yourself.
- Take the STARS Beginning Rider Course. It thoroughly covers the risks, and how to minimize those risks. Some folks take the course and decide that motorcycling is NOT for them. It’s great to know that, before you’ve plunked down $5000 or $10,000 or more for a motorcycle.
- If you take up the pastime, get as much experience as you can without venturing into heavy traffic. Be familiar with your machine… its capabilities and limitations. Keep it in tip-top mechanical condition. Take advantage of training opportunities. Always wear a helmet, and ideally, high-top shoes and other protective gear. Ride legally, assertively and defensively. Don’t let ANYTHING distract you from your riding, and don’t let anything or anybody take you by surprise… your life depends on it. Bon voyage!

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