How to Become a Better Rider

You learn to ride when you first get a bike. Then about the time you think you've learned it all, you get another opportunity to learn to ride. Punching through the envelope and cartwheeling off into the landscape is a harsh wake-up call to the risks of motorcycling. I've drawn the short straw a couple of times in 800,000 or so miles of riding. And I can tell you that crashes look a lot like close calls, right up to the point where you hit or miss. So, whether you have an accident or a near miss, it should be motivation to improve your knowledge and skills. Let's back up a bit here and think about how we learned to ride.

Trial and Error: When I learned to ride back in 1965, there weren't any rider training courses available. I just got on the bike, rode off into traffic, and learned by trial and error. I looked to my buddy Ricochet Red for sage advice about motorcycling. After all, Red started riding a couple of years before I did and had moved up to a powerful Marusho 500 while I was still learning on my Suzuki 150, so by comparison he was the "experienced" rider.

Red's collective wisdom was summed up in one serious statement: There's only two kinds of bikers, Hough. There's them who have crashed and them who are going to crash. But Ken and Donna, a couple who had ridden motorcycles for many years, offered a different philosophy: If you ever stop being afraid of a motorcycle. it's time to park it. Sure, Red's folk wisdom was one. Just about every motorcyclist gets the turn to crash once or twice in a lifetime of riding. Ken and Donna had a point, too, about not getting too cocky on a bike. But l didn't find those sage statements particularly helpful. They are a lot like saying, Be careful, or, if you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch.

The question is what do I need to do to survive today? What are the right tactics for managing the risks? For instance, is it better to ride at the same speed as other traffic, at the speed limit, or faster than traffic? Should I lean the bike by counter-steering, by bodysteering (shifting my weight on the bike), or both? Should I brake just short of a skid during a quick stop, or should 1 slide the rear tire? Should I wear bright hi-viz ( visibility) yellow, or camouflage? And during a desert ride, would a nice cool beer help stave off dehydration or make the situation worse?

You've probably heard the expression. -Experience is the best teacher." That theory when applied to motorcycling means that you just get on the hike and ride. And after you've ridden long enough and under a wide enough variety of conditions, cultures, and climates, eventually you should have absorbed most of the needed lessons.

The trouble with learning about motorcycles by trial and error is that a lot of motor-cycle hazards aren't obvious. For instance, you might not appreciate how dangerous an edge trap is until the bike topples over and throws you down the road. What's more, not all control skills are easy to master. Let's say you suddenly need to pull off a quick swerve around a left-turning car. Do you think you can resist the urge to snap off the throttle?

The point is that learning by trial and error can be painful and expensive. Learning to become a proficient rider is hard work, and it takes a humble attitude. Many riders don't seem to be willing to take their learning seriously. Slithering through mud washes is nothing compared to the may many riders slither around the subject of riding skills.

A few years ago, a local rider smacked into a deer on his way home and neither survived. The rider's fellow club members wanted to do something to make everyone feel better about the situation. One of the officers called me to get the address of a national motorcycle safety organization so the club could make a donation in the rider's memory. I suggested that rather than send the money off somewhere else, perhaps the donation would be better spent subsidizing rider training for the local club members. The officer bristled. Do you really think rider training would help anyone else avoid an accident like that one? Just give 111e the address where we can send the money!

Yes, I do believe that rider training could potentially help the other club members avoid accidents, including deer strikes. But of course spending the money on local riders would have been an admission that the "experienced" motorcyclists in the club didn't know it all. The club's way to slither through the situation was to cough up some money and keep on riding the same as always. It's a modern-day version of Roman soldiers throwing coins into the baths to help ward off evil spirits before they rocket down the road on their chariots.

Cutting Through the BS A big part of getting smarter about motorcycling is cutting through all the mis-information. "Everyone" seems to know that motorcycles are dangerous. Just ask your co-workers, your mother-in-law, your family doctor, or your local newspaper columnist. If you don't believe them, look at the scary statistics from the National Centre for Statistics and Analysis, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or the National Safety Council. "Everyone" knows that motorcycles are ten times (or twenty times or whatever) more dangerous than automobiles.

Basing your riding strategies on the opinions of nonriders, newspaper articles, or statistics is unreliable. First, friendly advice may not be very friendly. Second, being a professional in some field doesn't make that professional an expert in motorcycle safety. Third. there is no such thing as an average rider. Finally, is it really worthwhile to look at what crashes did wrong, or should we be figuring out what successful riders do right?

Ignore Friendly Advice The chances are your nonriding doctor (or coworker or helpful neighbor) is probably less interested in helping you improve your odds and more interested in feeling superior to you. One day I had a coworker put his hand on my shoulder, and with a disparaging glance at my helmet plead sympathetically, / sure wouldn't want Inv son 10 ride one of those things.. This paternalistic coworker might actually have been interested in helping me avoid Hwy, but he certainly didn't have the foggiest lidea of where to start. What's more, there are a lot of people who have ai secret desire to ride motor-cycles but can't overcome their fears. Putting you down is a way of justifying their fears and jealousy. The point is you can safely ignore "sympathetic" advice from people who don't know anything about motorcycles.

Ignore the Professional Experts Let's say you finally get a few minutes with your family doctor, and he spots your riding jacket and mumbles something about "donor-cycles." Doc may think he knows something about motorcycle safety, but most medical doctors only see the results of accidents, not the successful riders. From their viewpoint, it's obvious: swing a leg over a motorcycle and BAIA! It's your turn to be an organ donor.

But consider that being a doctor, lawyer, or engineer doesn't automatically make that professional an expert on motorcycling. After all, motorcycle safety isn't taught in med-ical school. So just thank Doc for any opinions he offers about bikes, and then refocus the conversation on his specialty. If Doc can't let it go, you can always remind him that sta-tistically a human is more likely to die from a hospital error than from a motorcycle ride.

Forget the Movie Stars You should also ignore what the movie star biker wannabes do. It's tempting to think that Cher or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Gary Busey arc good role models for your own riding tactics, hut wealthy actors are some of the world's worst riders. They have plenty of bucks to buy into the biker image but don't seem to understand that motorcycling is real life, not show business. Riding a bike is not a movie stunt where the director can call cut and do the scene over if something goes wrong. Don't pattern your riding gear or riding tactics after what the movie stars do. I bring up all these examples of had advice because they contribute to consid-erable misinformation about how to manage the risks of motorcycling. The opinions of nonmotorcyclists and biker wannabes are a frequent distraction and a waste of time and energy.


On the other hand, wouldn't it be helpful to know the truth about motorcycle accidents? Well, there are a lot of statistics floating around, but the last good motor-cycle accident study conducted in the U.S. was the Motorcycle Accident Factors Study (the Hurt Report) released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) back in 1980. There have been some excellent motorcycle accident studies elsewhere in the world but not in the U.S.

Certainly there are some valuable lessons we can draw from the Hurt Report. but times have changed quite a bit since and the research was limited to the Los Angeles area. One current source of motor vehicle accident data is from the NHTSA. The NHTSA tries to collect good data, but it has never been much inter-ested in motorcycles. There aren't many motorcycle experts at NHTSA who would appreciate the subtleties of motorcycle trends, such as an increase in fatalities dur-ing a time frame in which motorcycle registrations are increasing.

Still, the NHTSA does collect a lot of data, and it's worth looking at. The National Center for Statistics and Analysis (NCSA) has considerable information available on-line. Just be aware that a nonmotorcyclist tends to sort the numbers based on the bias of an automobile driver. For instance, the researchers may note an increase in the average engine size of motorcycles involved in fatal accidents and theorize that big motorcycles are overrepresented in accidents. Well, gee, guys. If you were aware of what was happening in motorcycling, you'd know that American motorcyclists are in love with big engines. If there are more engines over 1500 cubic centimeters (cc) on the road today, wouldn't you expect more accidents and fatalities involving engines over 1500 cc?

Television and newspaper reports are usually less than helpful. The report under the headline "Local Biker Dies" will probably note whether or not Zoornie Zed was wearing a helmet but not whether Zed was drunk or sober, licensed or not, whether he had taken rider training or learned from a friend, or how long he had been riding. More to the point, you won't hear anything about Able Al (the guy who didn't crash), because riding a motorcycle safely isn't exciting enough for today's news media.

The big mistake with statistics is making them personal. Even if you think you've discovered some reliable statistics, remember that hardly any of us are "average" riders. When novice rider Zoomie Zed smacks into a Ready-Mix con-crete truck a mile away from the showroom floor, his personal averages are one fatality per mile. By comparison, Able Al may enjoy 500,000 miles of accident-free riding. For Al, accidents and fatalities average out to zero per 500,000 miles. So, unless you're close to the profile of an "average" rider, the statistics are likely to be way off for you. My actual risk or your actual risk depends on a number of important variables.

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