When people decide to ride a motorcycle, they select a unique and
challenging form of transportation. However, riding is not for everyone,
and a motorcycle will not always be your best choice of transportation.
For many, motorcycling is more than a means of transportation -- it
is an enthusiast's sport. The attraction of motorcycling often comes
from the unique mental and physical skills necessary to operate the
machine. There are many varieties of motorcycles and motorcyclists. But
all motorcyclists share something in common -- an increased element of
The first step in making a responsible decision to ride is
understanding the high level of risk in motorcycling. We can lower the
risk through our attitudes, with the protective gear we wear, and
developing mental and physical strategies through training. But even so,
the motorcyclist is physically vulnerable in a mishap. You are 20 times
more likely to be injured on a motorcycle than in a car.
People who ride motorcycles: the motorcycles they ride
Many different types of people ride motorcycles, and for many reasons
-- recreation, commuting, touring, image, sport riding, and competition.
There are also a wide variety of motorcycles - cruisers, touring,
sport bikes, dual purpose, and standard. Since it is not feasible for
one type of motorcycle to meet all a rider's needs, each of these
represents a compromise between, performance, rider comfort, and other
capabilities within intended use.
Often there is a connection between the rider, riding style and type
of motorcycle. The young service member may be attracted to a
motorcycle's price vs. the high level of performance. Others may be
attracted to the cruiser with its black-leather-jacket mystique, as a
break from life's routine. Motorcycle touring, either solo or with a
group, may be both a recreational and social activity.
Car vs. motorcycle: advantages and disadvantages
Exposing the myths
- Size - Motorcycles are smaller than cars. They are easier to
park. But... they are harder to see (especially when you wear dark,
non-reflective clothing); have limited loads; and can carry only one
- Maneuverability - Motorcycles can be quite maneuverable (with a
trained rider) at lower speeds. But... maneuverability decreases as
you ride faster.
- Performance - Motorcycles provide a high level of performance
per purchasing dollar. But... require a higher level of physical
skill to operate. The rider can get in trouble very fast.
- Cost - Motorcycles may have a lower purchase cost. But... use
may be limited by season extremes (hot and cold); passenger and load
limits. Also, cost and frequency of routine maintenance (especially
tires on high performance machines) may be much higher than a car.
- Protection - When you ride, you become one with the environment
and have the wind in your face. But... the motorcycle rider is more
physically vulnerable; is more likely to be injured in an accident
(must dress for the fall); and when not dressed properly, can be
mentally distracted from the riding task.
Safety and risk
You ride home on that new bike. Your family, friends, and even
neighbors offer their opinion, "Motorcycles. Seem like fun... ..but
they're so dangerous!" And you know they are right.
Can you ride a motorcycle with no risk and free from danger, damage
or injury? The obvious answer is no! There are many things we do that
have risk. We fly planes. We scuba dive. We ride bicycles. We jog. We
drive cars. Some activities have more risk than others.
The element of risk and our perception of it is constantly changing.
We can't eliminate risk, but we can lower it. We should first understand
the risk inherent to motorcycling. Next, we should be mentally and
physically willing and capable to take the steps necessary to reduce the
risk. Training and experience are the most effective ways of completing
these two steps.
However, when we ride, we must accept the possible consequences of
the risk. Even when we have reduced the risk to the lowest possible
level, we are still 20 times more likely to be injured in a crash than
the operator of a car.
Managing risk: mental preparation
It has been said that motorcycling is perhaps 90 percent mental.
Mental preparation for the ride is critical for the motorcyclist. This
begins with being alert and free from stress and other emotional
Equally important is the rider's attention. Lack of attention to the
riding task is a predominate cause of many vehicle crashes. The physical
vulnerability of motorcycling adds unique challenges to our attention -
motorcycles offer little protection against the environment. It's hard
to concentrate when we are freezing cold or hot or with rain pelting
against unprotected hands or face.
Protective gear helps. Dressing for the ride can minimize physical
distractions of riding so the motorcyclist can pay attention to the
There are also times when the motorcyclist might decide NOT to ride.
The most obvious would include times of fatigue, stress or any type of
mental or physical impairment. Perhaps less obvious, yet equally
important, would be any time the rider is not comfortable with a given
situation - like inclement weather or heavy traffic. The motorcyclist
should always have the option to decide that the risk, real or
perceived, is too high. It may be best to use an alternate means of
Managing risk: physical preparation
In the days where a car-driver's comfort in even a modest car is
controlled by a computer chip, the motorcyclist must rely on protective
gear. Given the rider vulnerability and the ever- changing environment,
selecting, purchasing, and wearing appropriate protective gear is
critical. It is may also be a time-consuming and potentially expensive
The section on mental preparation talked about dressing for the ride
so we can enjoy the ride and better pay attention to the riding task.
Research says that protective gear can sometimes reduce injury in the
event of an accident. Thus, motorcyclists must also prepare by dressing
for the fall.
Protective gear warrants a separate discussion. However, the
minimum-protective gear includes a helmet, eye protection, gloves,
over-the-ankle boots, long-sleeve upper garment and long pants
constructed of a material that protects from the environment and the
Detection of the motorcyclist in traffic is another major cause of
accidents, so in addition to dressing for the ride as well as the fall,
we need to dress to be seen. Bright colors and retro-reflective
materials on the helmet, upper garments and vest should be mandatory
components of our protective gear.
By deciding not to wear any one part of protective gear,
vulnerability and risk increase. Are we willing to accept this increased
level of risk? Bottom line: if you feel that you have to compromise your
safety for comfort, leave the motorcycle at home and select another
means of transportation. Do you have that option?
Managing risk: motorcycle preparation
A lost part of the romantic motorcycle lore of yesteryear was the
rider's need to be a mechanic. Modern motorcycles are reliable and
high-tech machines. In fact, many manufacturers recommend that certain
maintenance procedures be performed only by certified mechanics.
Manufacturers also recommend using only recognized accessories for a
However, studies show that lack of maintenance can lead to mechanical
failure, which can contribute to an accident. The motorcycle operator is
responsible for pre-ride inspections. The most important items are
lights (for visibility), suspension and tires. Motorcycles have a
limited carrying capacity. Underinflation is the most common cause of
Managing risk: knowing the limits of the rider
Motorcycle trainers often comment that questioning a motorcycle
rider's skill is embarrassingly confrontational. Yet one of the most
important parts of understanding risk management is knowing the limits
of the rider.
Though some natural coordination is required, most of a rider's skill
comes through knowledge and experience. Knowledge can be gained through
formal training -- learning riding risks in the classroom and physical
skills in guided on-cycle practice supervised by a professional
instructor. Knowledge through training can make the experience we gain
through riding less painful and expensive.
But even the most experienced rider's skill level varies. There are
the physical limitations of age, sight, hearing, and coordination. There
also can be physical impairments due to alcohol and other drugs.
Limits vary. Limits are not the same at the end of a long day or at
the start of a new riding season. Limits can vary with a new or
Managing risk: knowing the law and limits of the environment
The environment provides limits. Things like weather, temperature and
light can affect the level of risk. Riders are also responsible for
knowing specific licensing, vehicle equipment, and military
Managing risk: knowing the limits of the motorcycle
Riders on new or unfamiliar motorcycles are over-represented in
accidents. Through design and purpose, motorcycles have different
handling characteristics, size, and control operation. Cornering
clearance is not the same -- a sport bike has different handling
characteristics than a cruiser. Because of limited engine displacement,
some motorcycles may not be legal on interstates or freeways.
In addition to being careful when riding a new or unfamiliar
motorcycle, it is probably best not to loan your motorcycle to a friend.
Because of the frequency and severity of accidents, some military
installations specifically prohibit anyone, other than the registered
owner, from operating a motorcycle.
Managing risk: riding strategies
Riding a motorcycle is mostly mental. Strategies define the way our
minds deal with the hazards in the riding environment. One of the most
important strategies is to see and be seen.
Equally important is the ability to react to what we see. Strategies
can help you anticipate and avoid problems before they occur. Riding
strategies are the most effective way of recognizing and lowering risk.
Managing risk: in summary
Motorcycling is an activity with a high level of risk. Once
recognized, the first step in lowering risk is to prepare our minds, our
body, and our motorcycle.
The second step in risk management is knowing limits of the rider,
motorcycle, environment, and law. We come to understand the changing
nature of these limits, and their impact on the risk we accept.
Finally, our attitude provides the basis for using this knowledge
effectively. We understand the risk, know the limits, and ride within
these limits, using our mental strategies. Sometimes this means deciding
not to ride.
Rider responsibility: who is responsible?
A typical traffic scenario: A rider is on a two-lane roadway. A car
turns left in front of the rider. The rider overbrakes on the rear
brake, uses no front brake, and collides with the car. Who is
Regardless of who was responsible, who had the most to lose?
Making the decision: Evaluate yourself based on how you would answer
each of these questions.
- Riding a motorcycle requires a higher level of acquired physical
and mental skills. Research tells us, "more than half of all
motorcycle accidents involve riders with less than five months
experience. More than 90% of the riders involved in accidents are
self-taught." Am I willing to accept the responsibility to develop
- "Studies indicate that in crashes, motorcycle riders and
passengers are more likely to be seriously injured or killed than
automobile operators or passengers. Injury can often be avoided by
wearing protective gear." What are the consequences in increased
vulnerability to my work, family, others?
- "Many motorcycle crashes are single-vehicle accidents. Crashes
with other vehicles also occur because either or both drivers make
errors in judgment. Injury can often be avoided by knowing when and
how to swerve and brake." Why is a motorcyclist's judgment
potentially more critical than a car driver's?
- What are the "perfect" times to ride?
- When might motorcycling not be my best choice of transportation
(especially if there is not an alternate mode of transportation)?
There are many reasons for wanting to ride a motorcycle - and there
are motorcycles and riding styles for almost everyone. But the prime
consideration in deciding to ride is a decision to accept the risk
inherent to motorcycling. This risk can be lowered. But motorcycling is
still a high-risk activity. In an accident, we have a high chance of
We can also apply the basic principles of risk management to other
high risk activities. By definition, high risk activities represent
increased chance of personal injury or property loss. We can sometimes
lower the risk to acceptable levels, and participate in the activity.
However, there are activities, or even times within activities, where
the risk is simply too high -- you can't afford the loss. Then, the best
decision is not to participate. It's a personal decision. But the better
you understand the risk and how it can be lowered, the better chance of
making a responsible decision.