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Beating The Odds
Requires that you behave ABNORMALLY

By: James R. Davis

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is responsible for reducing accidents/injuries/deaths on our highways. They provide annual statistics which are extremely well documented in order to inform the public of how successful, or not, they have been. There is much to be learned from those statistics.

For example, there were just over 4.9 million registered motorcycles in the United States during the year 2001 and those motorcycles were ridden for a total of just over 9.5 BILLION miles in that year. Those are impressive numbers until you recognize that they mean that the average motorcycle was ridden for only about 1,943 miles in the year. On the other hand there were nearly 129 million registered passenger cars which accounted for nearly 1.6 TRILLION miles of travel in the same year, which means an average of about 12,311 miles per registered car.

So? Well, let's add some more information from the NHTSA. There were 33.38 fatalities per each 100 million miles of travel on a motorcycle while there were only 1.28 fatalities per each 100 million miles of passenger car travel. That argues that you are TWENTY-SIX times more likely to get killed riding a motorcycle than you are when riding in a car.

There were 632 injuries for each 100 million miles of motorcycle travel while there were only 122 injuries for each 100 million miles of passenger car travel. Meaning it is FIVE times as likely that you will get injured riding a motorcycle than riding a car.

But on the other side of the statistics is the following: 74,000 motorcycles were involved in an accident in the year 2001 which is only 1.5% of all registered motorcycles while there were 6,705,000 passenger cars involved in an accident in the same year which is an astonishingly large 5%. That means that the odds of your motorcycle being involved in an accident is SUBSTANTIALLY LOWER than your car being in an accident while the odds are overwhelming that if you are involved in an accident on your bike it will be catastrophic in comparison to what would happen if you were in a car.

At the very least you must conclude from the above facts that riding a motorcycle is substantially more dangerous than riding in a car. However, you know that a motorcycle is more agile than a car and should be able to, thus, avoid more of certain kinds of accidents than do cars. They can usually stop more quickly and can out accelerate most cars so there is even more reason to wonder why they don't avoid certain kinds of accidents that cars cannot avoid. Yet the statistics are not lying - they tell us that the more miles you drive your motorcycle, the higher the odds that you will be involved in an accident.

But must that be the case? Must it be true that your passion for motorcycles requires that you end up dead or injured in a motorcycle related accident sooner or later? Of course not! So, how do you beat the odds?

Statistics are only true if the population behaves 'normally.' Let me explain...

A substantial number of motorcycle accidents involve a rider who has been drinking. So, if on occasion you drink and drive, you are acting 'normally' as to the statistics and they are more closely predicting what will happen to you. A substantial number of accidents occur when 'luck' runs out - you drive through a yellow light and a truck happens to run over you in the intersection. But many, if not most, motorcyclists rely on luck to get them through a ride in just such a scenario. To the extent that you rely on 'luck' you are acting 'normally' relative to the statistics - you are trying to insure that they are self-fulfilling predictors.

What DOES make a difference in statistical outcomes is BEHAVIOR that is at variance with 'normal.' If the normal motorcyclist fails to cover his front brake while moving, those motorcyclists who DO cover their brakes tend to beat the odds. If the normal motorcyclist rides his bike once a month, and gets a couple of hundred miles of experience in the process, all of it as if s/he was a newbie each time, then those of you who take your bikes to a parking lot and practice braking or slow speed maneuvers and who ride more frequently and obtain more experience and familiarity with your bikes as a result are acting 'abnormally', and your odds of surviving the experience increases as a result.

If an incredibly high percentage of motorcycle accidents occur within the first six months of ownership and within just a few miles of home then those of you who have years of experience - not just years, but EXPERIENCED years - are 'abnormal' and your odds of being in an accident are not the same as those predicted by normal statistics.

If a substantial number of motorcyclists died when their heads hit the ground without wearing a helmet then it can be said that the statistics show what will happen to a 'normal' population of motorcyclists, including a percentage of those who do not wear helmets, so that if you DO ALWAYS wear a helmet you are acting 'abnormally' and your odds of survival increases, and if you SOMETIMES do not wear one you are acting 'normally' so that the odds more closely describe YOUR future potential as an organ donor. (And, of course, if you NEVER wear a helmet you are also behaving abnormally, but in this case you SUBSTANTIALLY INCREASE YOUR ODDS of dying on a motorcycle beyond the already dreadful statistics mentioned earlier.)

The fact is that it is more dangerous to ride a motorcycle than it is to ride in a passenger car. The way to beat the odds is to BEHAVE in ways that decrease YOUR odds of being involved in an accident or being injured or killed if you are in one. In other words, you must behave 'abnormally'. (i.e., defensively, intelligently, soberly, with learned (practiced) skills, with protective gear and as if your life depends on it, because it does.)

Relying on luck (odds) is simply stupid.

For those of you who are inclined to argue that the statistics don't apply to you - that you are less likely to be involved in a motorcycle accident because you don't BEHAVE like some you have seen on the streets racing through curves at well over posted speed limits or weaving through traffic without use of signals, or any other unsafe behavior you care to describe - you MIGHT be right, but not necessarily so. All that it takes for the statistics to closely predict YOUR odds of survival is that you closely match the CUMULATIVE average behavior of the entire population sampled by the statistic. It does not take 'bad' behavior to match the odds, it takes an 'occasional' lapse of judgement to move you towards 'normal' odds. Actually, it doesn't even take that. We already know that the average biker rides his motorcycle less than 2,000 miles per year and that the higher the mileage, the higher the odds that you will be involved in an accident. That is, the higher the mileage, the more often you expose yourself to danger. So, assuming your other behaviors tend to reduce the odds of an accident, if you ride a lot of miles that behavior increases your odds of an accident - possibly as much as you reduced the odds by your otherwise safer behaviors. YOU are already a part of the sample and make up a small portion of the total sampled. There are others in that list who have never had an accident and never will. They, like you, are the counter-weight offsetting the behavior of those that clearly increase the odds of an accident. To the extent that your CUMULATIVE behaviors are safer than those of all others in the sample, your odds of survival without an accident are better than the statistics predict.

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(James R. Davis is a recognized expert witness in the fields of Motorcycle Safety/Dynamics.)

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