We motorcyclists come in all shapes and sizes. We have different tastes in bikes. We have different ideas on gear. Some ride 50 miles a month, others ride 50 miles a day. Some like to relax and cruise while others seek the adrenaline that comes from getting their knee down. Despite all of these differences there is one thing we all have in common. We’ve all had someone lecture us on how dangerous motorcycles are. You know what I’m talking about. When people find out that you ride they feel like it is their duty (even if they are complete strangers!) to explain to you that their aunt/brother/cousin/nephew works in the emergency room of City Hospital and they see 47 motorcyclists a day come through looking like they were hit with the fog that turns people inside out. Motorcycles are donor-cycles! How could you possibly ride?
I think these folks are out of line for meddling, but there is some truth to what they are saying. According to a recent study motorcyclists accounted for 14% of all motor vehicle related fatalities, which is up from only 5.7% in 1994. You may think 14% doesn’t sound like much but we are “significantly overrepresented as a proportion of all traffic deaths.” Additionally, per miles driven motorcyclists have a fatality rate that is 28 times higher than passenger cars. In other words, we do take on some additional risk by choosing to ride a motorcycle.
I don’t think this is news to anyone reading this. I’ve considered the risks of motorcycling. You have too. And yet we still ride. Why is that? Because while riding a motorcycle is risky, there are ways to mitigate that risk. Let me share what has worked for me. I should stop here and mention that I’m not an expert. But like a certain insurance company, I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two. I have been riding for almost 25 years. I am on my bike almost every day, rain or shine, freezing or hot. It’s my life.
Let’s start by talking about risk (or gambling if you will) vs. insurance. There’s a classic Simpsons episode where a hurricane blows through Springfield and the only house that gets destroyed is the town’s famous God botherer, Ned Flanders’. When asked if the house was insured the response is “Neddy doesn’t believe in insurance. He considers it a form of gambling.” That’s funny but not quite true. When we gamble we take on risk that didn’t previously exist. When we buy insurance, we seek to mitigate risk. They are at opposite ends of the spectrum. An example might help. I found this brilliant comparison from, not surprisingly, an insurance website:
When we enter into a gambling [or risky] engagement… we create risk of loss that did not previously exist. In other words, there was no risk of losing money to gambling until we bought the lottery ticket or put the money in the slot machine.
From doing their makeup to “checking a quick email,” distracted drivers are out there, both male and female. For this reason, motorcyclist need to be extra careful on the road. Photo: MedicalDaily.com
Conversely, the risk of financial loss from other causes already exist whether we purchase insurance or not. For example, my home faces the same risk of being burned down by a fire whether I buy homeowners insurance or not. If I do not have homeowners insurance, I am faced with the possibility of having to pay completely out of my pocket to rebuild my home in the event of a fire.
Relating this back to motorcycling, it is a given we are going to ride. We are taking on the risk, therefore what are we going to do to offset that risk?
Last week I had to do some work on my motorcycle and the upshot was I would be without a bike for a week. Normally I’d rather jog home from my own vasectomy than commute to work in a car, but it gave me an opportunity to see how the other half travel. I had forgotten how distracting it can be to drive a car. In addition to trying to watch the road you have to worry about your A/C being just right, the texts or calls coming to your phone, making sure your tunes are playing, drinking your coffee and eating your breakfast burrito, and scrolling through the news. In addition, I’ve seen people putting on makeup, loading DVDs for their kids to watch something in the back of the minivan, taking a FaceTime call, reading a book, watching TV from a cell phone mounted on the windshield (seriously!) It is like DRIVING has become a distraction to everything else we are trying to do.
As safe as this looks, many riders see it as a huge danger zone. It’s not uncommon for careless drivers to jump into the HOV lane with little to no notice.
So the first form of insurance we can buy as motorcyclists is to understand that every rolling box on the road is most likely filled with someone who isn’t paying 100% attention to the act of driving. This should influence our style of riding. For example, when I’m heading to work I use the HOV lane, but I hug the very left of the lane. I’m practically on the yellow line. Why? Because I’ve noticed that when traffic starts slowing in the fast lane people have a tendency to think, “Forget this noise. I’m going to jump in the carpool lane.” And since traffic has stopped in front of them they can’t make a gradual merge into the HOV lane. They have to swing it wide. But since I am already way to the left I can simply go around these surprises.
Flying debris on the highway is no laughing matter. You need to be on the lookout for the oddest things.
What else? It’s a bad idea to tailgate. Aside from the obvious problem of someone stopping short, I’ve noticed that tailgating can hinder your ability to see debris in the road. A car will roll right over something that will cause you big problems. I hit a 2×4 once that I didn’t see coming because I was riding too close behind a car. Avoid riding behind trucks if you can. No offense truck people, but I don’t know what you’ve got in your bed that could come flying out at any moment. I once saw one of those large brown Rubbermaid garbage cans rise up out of the back of a truck, float for a second, and then waft out onto the freeway and tumble erratically across four lanes of traffic. Heck, my brother lost a full size PING PONG TABLE on the freeway and he claims it was tied down securely. Landscaping trailers are another hazard. Ever been behind one of those things and you get so many leaves and sticks in your face you feel like this? Go around these guys if you can.
The second type of insurance we can get is gear, and I’m not strictly talking gear for safety reasons. Gear helps you stay focused on your ride. I’m not gonna high horse it and claim I’m an ATGATT guy. I’m not. But at some point in my career I realized riding was much more enjoyable when I dressed up. Starting at the bottom, get some nice, sturdy, closed-toed shoes to wear. Ever ridden in flip-flops? It’s insanely nerve wracking. I’ve taken some rocks off the top of my feet that surely would have drawn blood had I been in flip-flops. Pants are helpful too. This is a true story: I was riding in shorts and I had a bee fly up them and sting me on the upper thigh. Talk about distracting. I also once had a bee in my helmet, but that’s another story…
If you’ve never been caught in a Microburst, be glad. These weather events can be extremely violent causing high winds and lots of water to fall from the sky in a short period of time.
Next, wear a jacket. I know, I know, summer is coming and it’s nice to go out for a ride in your short sleeves. Living in Phoenix, I understand that temptation. But I’ve not a nice mesh jacket that is almost as cool as going sans sleeves but I get the added benefit of protection. I remember doing a ride in southern Utah once in the middle of July. My dad and brother and I had just taken the ferry across Lake Powell and were headed across highway 276 into the middle of the desert. It was 105 degrees on the deck and we were fried. Out of nowhere a summer microburst hit us. It felt incredible and the after-rain smell was amazing. It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had on a motorcycle. For my brother, however, it was one of the worst. Why? Because while my dad and I were wearing jackets he was wearing just a long sleeve cotton t-shirt. He said it felt like he was being shot with thousands of BBs. So jackets help.
Gloves are another item that I haven’t always believed in. I used to ride with my bare hands because I hated the bulkiness of gloves. But it only takes one rock off your knuckles at 80 MPH to make you a believer. I’ve found some great gloves that are pretty thin on the palms but have some nice padding and protection built in on the tops of the hands. They are even vented a little to help with the heat.
I know this can be a controversial subject, but can we talk about helmets? I personally wear a full face helmet and I can’t imagine going without one. Some folks like the ¾ face helmets. Some wear the ½ helmets, and others can’t be bothered to wear anything. If you live in a state that has loose helmet laws you can do whatever you want, but wearing a nice fitting helmet is one of the best ways to cut out distractions while riding. It wraps you in a nice cocoon of protection. You don’t feel like someone has a leaf blower pointed at your face. You can relax and focus your attention on the ride.
Finally, I’d like to talk about an item that offers nothing in the way of physical protection but absolutely helps me stay focused while I’m riding: earplugs. If you’ve never tried ear plugs I highly recommend them. You can pick some up at your nearest pharmacy for about the price of a candy bar. Roll some up and put them in your ears and go for a 30 minute ride one way. Then take them out and ride back home and marvel at the difference. Using earplugs has taken a lot of the strain out of my rides. It honestly relaxes me and allows me to focus.
As I mentioned above, I’m not an expert on motorcycle safety. I just happen to ride a lot and I wanted to share a few things that have worked for me over the years. I would love to hear what has worked for all of you.