Recently I went over to my friend Susan’s house to help her paint. Her house was going up for rent, so there was a myriad of touch-up and repainting to do before her new tenants could move in. Her man Sam was also on hand, and soon one of his work friends came by to help out as well. Introductions were made and the obligatory small talk commenced about how lovely the weather was. I said something about it being great motorcycle weather and that’s when this guy turned on me. His body language changed, as though he were suddenly a bit uncomfortable. He all but took a step away from me — as though I had blown him a kiss or just asked him about his relationship with “the Lord.” He chuckled something about how dangerous motorcycles were, and how he’d never do such a thing, and rather than argue with him, I handed him a bucket of brown exterior paint. Not ten minutes later this same guy was climbing an aluminum ladder with a brush and bucket, pointing out with great humor that his own weight exceeded the 200 lb load capacity listed on a big red label on the side of the ladder. “Safety first.” I said to him, feeling appropriately smug.
I get some version of this “motorcycles are so dangerous” speech from people all the time. My parents even referred to bikes as “murdercycles” when I was growing up. Somehow Americans have it in their head that riding around on two wheels is recreational suicide. I’m not going to pretend that riding a scooter or motorcycle doesn’t present very real and serious risks, but I don’t understand where this persistent prejudice comes from. I say prejudice, because from what I can tell, it’s not based on actual fact. It’s peoples’ assuming perception that riding a motorcycle is so much more dangerous in some unspecific way. I’m going to challenge that prejudice here. However, rather than appealing to the pathos of “really living” or even the ethos of protective gear like helmets as a practical offset, I’m going to rely on the logos of facts and statistics. I’m not interested in trying to prove that motorcycles are “safe.” Instead, my hope is to put the dangers of riding a motorcycle or scooter into real-world perspective. Because the truth is, life in America is dangerous whether you ride a motorcycle or not. The statistics shed light on a landscape of risk so varied and hazardous, it’s amazing any of us live to see that average lifespan of 77.8 years. Let’s take a look at the numbers.1
Motorcycles vs. Cars
I’m going to make one assumption of my own in trying to get to the bottom of most peoples’ fear of motorcycling. I think the common percpetion is that riding a motorcycle is more dangerous than driving a car. With their seat belts, airbags, traction control systems and steel cage frames, driving around in a car seems like a rather safe proposition. In general it is, relatively speaking. Cars are also orders of magnitude more safe than they were just 10-15 years ago. However, automobile fatalities still accounted for around 35,000 deaths in 2002, or 1.42% of everybody who kicked it early that year. Motorcycle deaths were about 3,300 total, or 0.14% of the total. Motorcyclists accounted for roughly 10% of the overall vehicle deaths that year, while accounting for not quite 3% of total vehicles on the road. That number is certainly disproportionate. However, for me the takeaway is not how dangerous motorcycles are, but how dangerous operating any motor vehicle really still is. Furthermore, the motorcycle numbers are not, in my opinion, so disproportionate that riding ought to be considered reckless by default. Especially when we look at motorcycle fatalities in the context of the other leading causes of premature death. More on that later on.
I think the some of people’s safety worry is tied up in the nature or outcome of an accident rather than its likelihood. People have long known that air travel is statistically safer than automobile traffic. It’s that old adage “you’re more likely to be killed in the taxi on the way to the airport.” That’s because planes only actually crash very, very rarely. However, your chances of surviving a plane crash, should you be involved in one, are actually very, very small. Yet millions of people fly commercially and privately every day. If people fixated on the outcome of a plane crash, rather than its likelihood, nobody would fly. Yet I think this is how a lot of people think about motorcycles. They imagine the horror of a nasty bike accident without any real frame of reference for how often those incidents happen. They’re also probably unaware that most motorcycle incidents actually aren’t that serious and result in only minor injuries, if any. In the end, I think it’s all a matter of perspective.
Understanding the inherent, specific risks of any activity is important, but in the case of motorcycles, the common perception of danger seems to be disproportionate to the actual landscape of risk we encounter every day. As a result, the perceived risks of motorcycle riding carry grounds for cultural exclusion in a way that similarly risky, or even more risky activities do not. Put another way, I think people are more afraid of motorcycle riding than they ought to be, given that we all do things every day that are statistically much more likely to kill us.
Case in point, if I were to tell someone at the office that later today I’m going to ride my motorcycle, they might talk about safety. If instead I told that same person that I was going to cross the street, they wouldn’t give it a second thought, other than thinking I was weird for even bringing it up in the first place. Who talks about crossing the street? Yet, in 2002, pedestrian deaths totaled around 4,900, or 0.20% of total premature deaths that year. In terms of simple correlation, that would mean I’m 1.5x more likely to be killed crossing the street than riding my motorcycle. Now we’re on to something.
Shrinking the numbers
Taking a second look at the motorcycle fatality numbers, let’s look deeper and understand some of the underlying factors and glean out what the statistics say about how people get killed while riding. Using 2005 numbers2, let’s just look at the single-vehicle accidents for now — those crashes that didn’t involve another vehicle but just the rider. Of those crashes (which were 45% of total fatal moto crashes that year), 41% of operators had a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or more. That’s about 770 of the 4,600 riders killed. As much as 34% of total motorcycle deaths involved alcohol (about 1,600 of the 4,600 total deaths). I’m not a statistician, so I don’t know if I can just throw out this 34% — this contingent of drunk3 riders — and go with the smaller number, but I’m going to for argument’s sake. Here’s my logic: If we’re trying to evaluate the relative risk of just riding a motorcycle, I’d say that logically we have to omit the alcohol numbers simply because being intoxicated makes anything I’m doing inherently more dangerous. Walking, driving, riding a horse, table tennis — it’s all more hazardous if I’m that intoxicated. Or put another way, if I don’t ride drunk, my statistical risk pool is effectively smaller. I can look at the total as 3,000 riders killed rather than 4,600. It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a bike culture connection between riding and alcohol that, as these numbers bear out, doesn’t help motorcycles’ safety reputation.
I’d like to go one further though, because there’s an even more significant statistic regarding helmet use. A full 45% of motorcyclists killed weren’t wearing helmets. That’s about 2,000 riders in 2005. So forgetting completely about alcohol, if I wear a helmet, I’m now in a statistical pool of 2,600 instead of 4,600. Coming back to my pedestrian comparison, that leaves the helmet-wearing motorcyclist nearly twice as likely to be killed after he’s parked his bike.
I keep coming back to crossing the street4 because I can’t think of anything more innocuous in our road culture. We’re taught as children how to do it safely. We don’t give it a second thought as adults. Yet the motorcycle riding parallels are kind of uncanny. Crossing the street is risky, has to be taken seriously and a large responsibility is placed on the person doing it to cross that street safely. Likewise, you just can’t account for the random drunk driver or distracted motorist who might run you over while you cross the street. And yet, there aren’t any lazy, sensationalist stories calling for the abolition of crosswalks in Florida — just motorcycles.
Looking at the numbers, I’m kind of surprised there aren’t pedestrian helmet laws somewhere in the world.
Motorcycles vs. The Rest
Let me pause here and reiterate that riding a scooter or motorcycle is indeed a risky, dangerous thing to do. That’s part of what makes it so much fun. That’s part of why it changes peoples’ lives when they take up riding. In fact, I contend that if riding a motorcycle doesn’t make you consider and confront your own mortality every time you ride, then you’re doing it wrong. However, when we look at the numbers, it’s not a disproportionately more dangerous activity than many other things we encounter in our daily lives. In fact, it’s extremely low on the list of things most likely to cut you out of the general population. Let’s take a moment to look at that list and how big the numbers get.
|Total Number of Premature Deaths in 2002:||2,403,351||100.00%|
|Major Cardiovasular Diseases||936,923||38.98%|
|Chronic Lower Resperitory Disease||122,009||5.08%|
|Influenza and Pneumonia||65,313||2.72%|
|Motor Vehicle Accidents (all)||43,354||1.80%|
|Motor Vehicle Accidents (just cars)||34,105||1.42%|
|Unspecified nontransport accidents||17,437||0.73%|
|Poisoning and Noxious Substances||12,757||0.53%|
|Exposure to Smoke, Fire, Flames||3,377||0.14%|
|Other Land Transport Accidents||1,492||0.06%|
|Complications of Medical/Surgical Care||3,059||0.13%|
|Motorcycles w/helmet (estimate)||1,799||0.08%|
|Accidental Discharge of Firearms||776||0.03%|
Looking at the whole list of premature death numbers, it’s amazing how low even the unqualified motorcycle numbers really are. The whole list is important to look at because it reflects a mix of voluntary and involuntary activities. One could argue that you’re “safer” by simply opting out of riding motorcycles. By that logic, there are a lot more dangerous things I ought to be opting out of long before I’d start worrying about motorcycles. Driving, climbing, taking medication, going to the hospital, crossing the street, swimming or boating, eating fast food — the list goes on and on. As I look at this long list of things that pose such immense risks to my being alive, whether or not I ride motorcycles just seems completely insignificant by comparison. The numbers for cancer and cardiovascular disease make them feel almost inevitable, as they account for more deaths than the rest of the premature death causes combined. Looking at the facts, it seems like the question is not whether I ought to ride my motorcycle, but rather, how often I ought to be riding it to the gym or the farmer’s market.
In the end, something is going to get me. Be it old age, rogue meteoroid or random act of violence. While I can’t (and don’t intend to) make a case that motorcycles are somehow “safe”, I’d like to posit instead that the world around us is so much more dangerous than we give it credit for. Knowing that, I think all we can do is embrace the risk and simply do the things we’re passionate about doing as responsibly as we can. If you still think that riding a motorcycle is too risky an activity for you, that’s fine. However, I’d encourage everyone to make that decision in the light of facts, rather than cultural stereotype, or assumed risk. Put another way, if you’re really interested in riding a motorcycle or scooter, definitely take the risks into account, but keep in mind that they’re about on par with crossing the street. If you do it right, you can do it in relative safety.
National Highway Transportation Safety Administration findings here and here
National Vital Statistics Report
The Centers for Disease Control
Bureau of Labor Statistics
2Some sources had lots of data for certain years, some for others. All comparative numbers are taken from the same year, even if from multiple sources.
3I’m not referring to people who’ve “had a couple” but rather people who are full-on, staggering drunk. You know the difference.
4Fatality numbers are for pedestrians as an entire category, but crossing the street is appropriate shorthand, in my opinion, for the purposes of this essay.