By Alton “Al” Wagnon
As you all know by now, I’m writing this President’s Message as a stand-in for Jeff Thurmond, our recently elected club president, who has passed away as a result of a motorcycle accident around Thanksgiving. All of us who knew and loved Jeff will certainly miss him, yet we also feel honored for the privilege of being his friend and will cherish his memory.
One of my favorite motorcycle magazine articles was a motorcycle safety series called “Stayin’ Safe” written by the safety expert Lawrence Grodsky. In addition to his safety columns in Rider magazine and others, he also had a safe riding school through his Stayin’ Safe Motorcycle Training Program. In the fall of 2006, Larry was killed when he struck a deer on his motorcycle in Texas on his way home from a motorcycle safety conference.
More recently, Jeff, who has ridden countless miles and years more than I have, was critically injured in a motorcycle accident. I have to keep asking myself, if accidents like these can happen to more experienced riders, then is riding a motorcycle worth the risk? In fact we should all be asking that question from the time we first get on a bike until the last time we throw a leg over the seat, because the balance of risk verses rewards isn’t static, but rather changes with time and circumstances. As a physician, I was taught to always weigh the benefit of any treatment, whether it’s surgery or medicine, against the risks. This is the so-called “risk-benefit” ratio taught from the first day of medical school.
That same risk-benefit ratio applies to nearly everything we do in life. Fortunately, most activities have such a small risk, the decision is easy and instantaneous. But for sports, that usually isn’t the case. When I took up skydiving, I thoroughly studied the dangers and compared the risk statistics with other activities and found it was actually relatively safe. In fact, skydiving is statistically much safer than riding a motorcycle. However, two free-fall accidents later requiring five surgeries, and I’ve come to question that risk-benefit equation and my decisions.
The risk-benefit or risk-reward ratio of riding a motorcycle is harder to define, mainly because the reward side of the ratio is so subjective. Studies consistently show that riders are extremely poor in assessing the risk. Many times we make choices based on emotional biases born of personal experience. After all, if we’ve been riding all these years without an accident, then it must be safe. On the other hand, many people feel the risk is just too great because they knew someone who was seriously injured or killed in a motorcycle accident. In my case, I didn’t begin riding until I was 57 years old. By that time my children were grown and self sufficient, I was nearing retirement and had a new partner to assume my patient care if something happened to me, and I knew my wife would make it alone just fine if I was no longer around.
January Breakfast – The Golden Corral 665 E 7200 South, Midvale Jan 13 – 9:30 AM
I based my decision not to take up riding sooner because of my perception of the danger based on seeing and treating motorcycle accident victims during my neurosurgery rotations in medical school and later while working in emergency rooms. To me, the perceived risk was just too great until my responsibilities to family and job were less than the risk.
Even though the benefits or rewards of riding are different for all of us, the objective risk statistics are clear and well defined through reports by the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), state reports, and a couple of motorcycle safety studies in the US, Europe and New Zealand.
– Per vehicle mile traveled in 2015, motorcycle fatalities occurred nearly 29 times more frequently than car occupant fatalities in motor vehicle crashes, and motorcyclists were nearly 5 times more likely to be injured.(NHTSA 2017 data)
– A motorcycle rider has a 1 in 26,000 chance of being killed during a 100 mile ride compared to 1 in 877,000 over the same distance in a car.
– The number of significant injuries per 1000 hours of activity is 0.25 for a motorcycle rider, 0.15 for a skier, and 0.04 for a car driver.
– A person’s lifetime risk of being killed in a motorcycle accident is about 1 in 925. This is almost the same as the chance of being killed in a car crash, even though motorcycles make up only 0.6 percent of registered motor vehicles.
– According to the NHTSA, in 2015 there were 25.38 fatal motorcycle accidents per 100 million vehicle miles compared to 0.89 over the same distance in a car.
But when it comes right down to it, these statistics are for all riders and much of the risk comes from avoidable behavior. According to the NHTSA, 27% of fatal motorcycle accidents had a rider with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or over. So you can reduce your risk potentially by a fourth by not drinking and riding.
33% of all motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes were speeding. Perhaps one can improve their risk odds by a third by not riding too fast for the road and conditions.
27% of motorcycle riders involved in fatal accidents did not have a valid motorcycle license or endorsement. Could initial training and subsequent advanced training improve your odds another 27%?
A 2007 report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) showed the death rate per 10,000 registered vehicles for sport and super-sport bikes was four times higher than that of riders of cruisers, standards, and touring bikes. Granted, sport bike riders are also generally younger. There was also a direct relationship between motorcycle horsepower and fatalities. So riding a sensible bike can improve one’s risk-benefit ratio.
According to IIHS data, bikes with ABS brakes are 37% less likely to be involved in a fatal motorcycle accident compared to bikes without ABS brakes, and riders with ABS brakes are 30% less likely to file an insurance claim for an accident.
So maybe it’s time to get a newer, safer bike. A disclaimer: according to the “risk homeostasis” theory, ABS brakes may not be safer for everyone because of the tendency to take more risks with each safety improvement until we reach our usual acceptable risk level again.
Of course I have to mention motorcycle helmets which are also 37% effective in preventing fatal injuries for both motorcycle operators and passengers. The riding risk-benefit ratio is clearly shifted towards the benefit side of the equation by wearing an approved motorcycle helmet.
Unfortunately, according to the NHTSA, in 2015, older motorcyclists accounted for more than half of all motorcycle fatalities. 54% of motorcyclists killed in crashes were age 40 or over. There isn’t much we can do about getting older other than knowing when, due to age, our riding risk increases to the point that we should quit. When to quit riding could be the topic of a full-length article and I won’t go into it further here. I would highly recommend a book by Reg Kittrelle, titled Motorcycles and Our 2nd 50 Years. An Owner’s Manual for Riders Over 50. The cover of the book contains a warning that “The contents may be inappropriate for those under 50 years of age.”
I’m not going to get into the benefits or rewards side of the risk-benefit ratio because it is so subjective and different for all of us. There are many different perfectly sane and healthy reasons to be a motorcycle rider. For most of us, that decision is driven by multiple reasons and we each need to weigh them according to our own passions and responsibilities. The answer lies in our perception that the risk is worth the reward. For me, the reward is the feeling of freedom, the challenges, the adventure, the experience of being closer to the environment, and the association with people I truly like and would not otherwise have known. Like Jeff who always made me smile and glad I was a member of the riding community.
Alton “Al” Wagnon