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Is Motorcycling Dangerous?

The recent death of a young motorcycle rider in an horrific freeway accident sent shockwaves throughout the Melbourne community. As a Harley Davidson rider, responsible for taking people for Harley Davidson Joyride experiences (Harley Rides) I found this distressing, not only because I am a rider, but also for the impact it would have public perceptions of what I do. Talkback radio was besieged by people (many unqualified to ride a motorcycle) calling for bans on motorcycling. Its a natural reaction when something like this happens. To assume that riding a motorcycle is "just too risky" appears to make perfect sense to those who have never ridden one. So? Is motorcycling dangerous? Why did this riders death not convince me that I should stop riding my Harley Davidson? Trying to make people who have booked a Harley Ride for their loved ones understand that sending someone out for a ride with me is 100% safe, is a constant frustration. Every time the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) initiates a Motorcycle Safety campaign business dies and booking cease. All too often I get asked the same questions, to which I give the same detailed response... This article is my attempt to address this sad fact - that what most people think the know about motorcycles is wrong - or not quite what they assumed to be true......

Answering these questions occupied my thoughts for many years. Consciously and sub-consciously, almost every moment riding my Harley Davidson I'm consumed with thoughts about Motorcycle Safety. This article is my take on this difficult controversial subject.

The first thing one discovers about motorcycling, is how easy it is to actually ride one. You quickly discover the freedom to manoeuvre in traffic and garner advantages over car drivers. Its exhilarating. Riding a motorcycle is fun and un-stressful. Nothing beats a ride commuting to work. You arrive refreshed and relaxed. There is a brotherhood with others who ride. Riding with a group of other riders feels similar to flying in formation. As the saying goes, "If I try to explain, you won't understand." The culture is very social. Friends who ride will call you to invite you to go out for a ride with them. Clubs exist for the sole purpose of organising "group rides". There are many rewards that outweigh the risks. Joining the brotherhood requires that you accept the responsibility to keep yourself out of trouble. To survive a motorcycle rider needs the Skills of a WW1 Fighter Pilot. Its imperative that a rider can see everything that is a threat. Its a "hun in the sun" mentality. Its the ability to know how to automatically react and respond to dangers and hazards that, like a dogfighter, keeps one alive. Motorcycle riders are often labeled "Risk Takers". "Risk Managers" is nearer to the reality. Failing to adequately manage all the risks associated is what gets riders into trouble.

Radio 3AW Afternoon Drive Host Tom Elliot, lamented on the day of the fatality, that an incident he once had riding motorcycle had convinced him that it was just too dangerous to ride. But why? My answer is that he, at that time, may not have undertaken the necessary rider training to have armed himself with the skills to stay out of trouble. Controlling a motorcycle in motion is a skill. Steering a motorcycle is the opposite of steering car - its called Counters Steering (a subject that I could dedicate and entire article to). Riders who don't understand Counter Steering are the ones who find themselves losing control in corners or running into objects they didn't expect to. I often demonstrate how it works to my Harley Ride passengers when the subject of getting a motorcycle licence arises in conversation. We have come a long way from the time, forty-five years ago when I first qualified for my motorcycle licence. In those days there was no skills test (compared to the rigorous skills tests one must pass to qualify for a motorcycle licence today). It was a matter of answering a few questions, proving that one could ride without falling off, and you were given a licence - to go out and make mistakes. If one survived the first few years, then more than likely one would live a long life. My early riding years were trial and error. I quickly learned how to stay out of trouble. I survived the "over confidence" stage and have lived to tell the tale. Today I describe my self as a "paranoid rider" - paranoid about making a mistake that will get me into trouble (more importantly one that result in me damaging my expensive Harley Davidson!).

Training, Training and More Training. Today, it's a requirement that all riders undertake rigorous training to obtain their licence. It starts before they get on a motorcycle and head out onto the road and on road skills tests are now incorporated into licence qualification. Its conducted by rider trainers who have to gain a formal post graduate instructor qualification before they can accept responsibility for students. Rider Training has, over recent years, become the focus of Motorcycle Safety. As I often say to anyone who seeks my advice, "time spent with a qualified rider trainer is never wasted". Training, even for the most experienced rider, is important to identify bad habits, the ones that riders develop in their overconfidence phase. I was fortunate to have undertaken a Rider Skills Course many years ago while I was in the Army. It taught me about cornering and counter steering, and identified bad habits I had developed. It made me a safer rider.

Understanding Driver Behaviour. A skill developed during my riding career is the ability to read diver behaviour. Its that sort of dogfighter mindset that arms you with the knowledge of your enemy and what they are going to do next. The approach I take is to scan from left to right, front to rear. I look at the vehicles around me and ask myself, "what are they going to do next". Sometimes its a conscious thought, other times it simply becomes instinctive. Many is the time that my "built in radar" sees a threat and reacts automatically. Survival relies on much more than just looking at the road ahead and relying on others to obey the road rules.

People who have never ridden a motorcycle, often jump to conclusions about why anyone would continue to ride in the face of all the evidence. Rider's in turn counter with a reaction that, "If you have a car accident, or have had a friend die in a car accident - why don't you apply the same logic to driving a car?" Armed with the knowledge that riding is risky and understanding how to manage those risks is why passionate motorcycle riders continue to ride.

One of the most important factors to apply in this Risk Management approach is Fear. Fear is healthy and it keeps you on your toes. As I alluded to earlier, overconfidence is a riders biggest enemy. Fear is my friend. Motorcycles have, as stated earlier, many advantages over cars. Motorcycles don't have Blind Spots. Seated on a motorcycle the rider is able to command a view of everything around them - even down the road within inches of the sides of their machine. There is no parallax involved. This gives a rider the ability to negotiate tight spaces with relative ease (this is the reason why motorcycle riders Lane Filter). Most importantly, it gives them the ability to see threats and hazards long before they become a problem. That's where "predicting driver behaviour" becomes a critical skill. I treat it as a game, and constantly strategise my road position and actions on what I expect car drivers will do next. Once you start to treat it as a game, you quickly learn why car drivers do certain things. Seated inside their protective "cage" ( a term motorcycle riders use to describe car drivers is "cage drivers"), they are having trouble seeing many objects outside through the many blind spots - window pillars etc, which stops them from seeing small objects like motorcycles. Their brains are preoccupied with looking for objects which are the same size and shape as other cars. When they see a motorcycle, its size confuses their brain as to how far away it is and at what speed it is approaching (riders who don't understand this fact are the ones who collide with cars). One just doesn't realise how blind they are inside a car, until they have ridden a motorcycle. This may be hard for some to believe - I feel safer riding my motorcycle that I do driving a car. Understanding this fact, determines how I manoeuvre my motorcycle in the vicinity of other cars and trucks. So? In conclusion, is motorcycling dangerous? I don't feel in danger when riding. I am conscious of the risks and I ride to stay out of trouble. Motorcycling demands the right attitude and application of skills. It can be safe - safer than driving a car.

Do you know someone who wants to get their motorcycle licence? Its not for everyone. Many can't fit it into their lifestyle or it may conflict with family commitments. These are the ones who you should give a Harley Ride. Give them an hour with me and I will give them good advice (sometimes not what they want to hear). Allow me to arm them with the knowledge required. We need people to book a Harley Ride with us. Our future is under threat - we love what we do and we want to share the joy - please don't let our industry die. Call John at any time on 0419359628

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