Motorcycle Issues 101

HIGHLAND PARK, Illinois -- Whenever I tell a non-motorcyclist that I ride a bike, the responses are virtually automatic:

1. "I used to have a friend whose wife's cousin-in-law drank a 12-pack of beer one night, then got on his bike and stood up on the seat at 80 miles-an-hour.  Got hurt reeeeal baaaad...."

2. "Do you wear a helmet when you ride?"

People who don't ride have developed some media- and Hollywood-fed misconceptions about motorcycling.  So we who do ride tend to get a bit defensive about our chosen hobby, lifestyle, obsession, transportation mode, or whatever you want to call it.  As a public service, I'd like to address the two misconceptions outlined by items 1 and 2 above.

Get licensed, get trained, get sober, get in gear!

A lot of people think motorcycles are so dangerous that only someone with a death wish would ride one.  Anecdotal evidence and -- truth be told -- highway safety statistics confirm that bikes have a higher rate of injuries and fatalities per vehicle-mile than cars, buses, and trucks.  But the raw stats are highly misleading.  If you look at most instances of someone wadding up a motorcycle and getting killed or banged up, you'll usually find that the rider was (a) unlicensed, (b) untrained, (c) drunk, (d) not wearing decent safety gear, or (e) some combination of the above.

You'd be amazed at the number of people who ride motorcycles without benefit of license.  They can't be bothered to get a motorcycle license, because it would require them to go back to the DMV and ride around a bunch of rubber cones, like a teenager getting a driver's license for the first time.  And they know that if a cop stops them and finds that they're not licensed to ride a bike, all it's going to cost them is a fine.  So they don't bother to learn some basic skills and take the silly DMV test to get a motorcycle license.

Unlike driving a car, however, operating a bike requires more than just common sense.  For example, when you're driving a car, if you step on the brake too hard and lock up one or more of the wheels, you get off the brake and get the wheel(s) rolling again.  On a bike, that strategy can get you pitched onto the road -- with the bike tumbling after you -- should you lock up the rear wheel.  (Solution: keep the rear wheel locked and bring the bike to a stop, if you can.)  Steering, too, isn't always intuitive.  A lot of self-taught motorcyclists try to steer the same way you do on a bicycle: by leaning over.  Well, that does make the bike turn somewhat, but there's no way you can make a quick swerve or a tight corner that way.  (Solution: Use "countersteering," which involves pushing on the hand grip that's on the side toward which you want to go -- push the left hand grip to turn left. Counterintuitive, isn't it?  That's why it's called "countersteering.")

A weekend training class, such as those offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, will teach you enough skills to help you keep the rubber side down in most traffic situations.  The classes are free in many states (e.g., here in Illinois).  Yet a lot of people are too proud to admit they could use a little instruction -- just as they're too proud to go to the DMV and take a riding test -- so they do without.

It hardly needs mentioning that riding drunk is a bad idea, and that wearing a decent helmet and some leather gear is a good way to bounce back, should you hit the pavement.  If you've ever seen a motorcycle road race like the Daytona 200, it's amazing how much protection a leather riding suit provides -- those guys take some pretty nasty spills, then get up and dust themselves off as if nothing had happened.

The bottom line, though, is that if you take those scary motorcycle safety statistics and throw out the data points involving riders who were unlicensed, untrained, drunk, and/or not wearing good safety gear, riding a bike is much safer than you think.

Big Brother Knows Best

The other hot-button motorcycle issue that's commonly misunderstood by those on the outside is that of laws requiring helmet use.  Most non-riders don't give the issue much thought -- they just automatically assume that since any sensible person wouldn't get on a bike without a helmet, it follows, as if by natural law, that requiring helmet use is right up there with baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.

Well, this is another one that's more complicated than you might think.  That's because although it's definitely a good idea to wear a helmet -- I never get on my bike without one -- I get nervous when people who've never been on a bike start telling me what I should do when I ride.

Most non-riders accept as a given that riding without a helmet -- being a stupid thing to do, on the face of it -- must cost society a lot of money, in extra medical expenses (borne by health-insurance companies and, in the case of uninsured riders, state and local governments).  Well -- surprise, surprise -- this isn't true.  Numerous studies have tried to figure out why, but there is no clear indication that riding without a helmet adds to society's medical costs.  Your guess is as good as mine as to why this is so -- one theory holds that unhelmeted riders tend to get killed when they crash; and dead people's medical bills tend to be low, because all you need to do is scrape them up and plant them in the ground.  In any case, though, people who ride without a helmet do not cost you a penny, no matter what the Big Brother safetycrats might tell you.

Eat a Bigger Burger, Pay A Bigger Premium?

Recent laws enacted in Texas and Kentucky allow motorcyclists to ride helmetless, provided they carry extra health insurance.  Again, this sounds like a good idea -- but once we start trying to manage people's behavior and minimize the risk involved in the things they do, where does it stop?  (And this is even if you accept the idea that riding without a helmet increases society's costs, which I've just argued it doesn't.)

If we're going to start legislating which activities people can undertake and how much extra they need to pay as a result, we're going to have to start charging extra insurance rates for people who do any number of things: work dangerous jobs (my health insurance carrier didn't ask and has no idea what kind of work I do -- should they charge me more if I take a job in a sawmill or a chemical plant, or refuse to pay a claim if I take such a job and don't tell them about it?), eat a high-fat diet, disobey doctors' orders to exercise more, etc.

Maybe I should have to pay my health insurance carrier a quarter every time I have a cheeseburger.  On the other hand, I should get one back for downing a bowl of oat bran or running a mile.  Maybe I get a dime rebate for playing a round of golf, but only if I walk the course -- if I ride a cart, I have to pay (for the lost exercise and for inhaling exhaust, unless it's an electric
cart).  I get a rebate for taking a vacation where the air pollution is low.  But I have to write a check to my insurance company if I go to L.A., because of the smog.  Get the idea?

Sure, there are already cases where some of this is being done -- for example, you have to pay more for life and health coverage if you smoke, and rates vary depending on where you live; my health premium went down when I moved from Massachusetts to Illinois, for some reason (the company wasn't sure why, when I asked them).  But if we, as a society, are going to decide that every activity a person engages in needs to be micro-managed and risk-adjusted by fine-tuning their insurance rates, well, the folks who write laws and insurance policies, and litigate cases related to same, are sure going to be busy.  Is this what we want?

These are the sorts of questions non-riders tend not to think about -- and understandably so, since they're not obvious to the casual observer.  There's certainly some risk involved in riding a motorcycle, as in a lot of activities -- but if you do it right, it's really not inherently unsafe.  And although I'd never ride without a helmet, there are good reasons why a lot of us get upset when do-gooder legislators, most of whom have never been on two wheels, claim they know how to make us safe.

Copyright © 1998 John J. Kafalas

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