Exactly how dangerous are motorcycles?
August 9, 2006 4:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm in my early 20's and I've wanted a motorcycle (the street bike kind) for a very long time. Now that I can afford one i'm being pressured every which way not to get one because of how"dangerous" they are. My question is just how dangerous are they?

I'll be honest and admit that I am going to be looking for answers that highlight how overblown these concerns are, but I want to know the truth either way. I know I will regret not getting a bike for the rest of my life. Hard facts to prove that they are irrefutably not worth the risk is the only thing that will change my mind.
posted by pwally to Travel & Transportation (52 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
According to the Insurance Information Institute Motorcycle crash statistics, "Motorcyclists were 34 times as likely as passenger car occupants to die in a crash in 2004, per vehicle mile traveled."

I ride a scooter, and it's obvious when you are on the road that the stakes are much, much higher on two wheels than on four. If you are a good rider, you will fear for your life, often with good reason. The important thing is to know the risks, and how to minimize them. Take the MSF Basic Rider Course. Read Proficient Motorcycling. Practice your riding skills regularly, even after you are an experienced rider. Wear full safety gear every time you ride.
posted by mbrubeck at 4:22 PM on August 9, 2006

"For example, approximately 80 percent of reported motorcycle crashes result in injury or death; a comparable figure for automobiles is about 20 percent."

From here.

Via here.

And this coming from someone who wants to buy a Vespa...
posted by autojack at 4:27 PM on August 9, 2006

Well, you've likely heard the old saw 'there are two types of motorcyclists: Those that have crashed, and those that are going to crash.'

I'd heard 'em all when I, in my early 20s, decided I had to have a motorcycle. Bought it anyway. My parents called it the donor-cycle. Had lots of fun, but many, many close calls until a serious crash three years later that totalled the bike, shaved off a pound or so of skin, cracked my shoulder blade (now that hurts!) and broke my collarbone. That was 10 years ago or so, and I've never been back on a motorcycle since. I tell people I like to quit while I'm ahead, but in truth, I've been deathly scared of them ever since.

You can look for the statistics, but like any numbers, you'll find the ones that support the conclusion you're looking for. Suffice it to say, there's no debating the fact that you're pretty vulnerable on a motorcycle, more so than you'd be in a car. And if you get in an accident, you're probably more likely to be maimed than you would be in a car.

But motorcycles are lots of fun. Like anything else in life, riding one is a calculated risk, just like it is when my wife and I ride our bicycles around the neighborhood without helmets on. You only live once, might as well enjoy your new motorcycle.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 4:29 PM on August 9, 2006

Like mbrubeck and autojack said, they're dangerous. Really dangerous. But you can take the MSF course mbrubeck linked to even without a bike of your own (they usually have loaner bikes), so you could take the course and get a bit of real-life motorcycle experience before you decide.
posted by vorfeed at 4:37 PM on August 9, 2006

I would advise you against it. Others will tell me to shut up. (The question has been asked before.)

I had a bike for 3 years. I took safety courses for both car and motorcycle and scored perfect in both.

In my third year of riding I was on an off-ramp on the 401 (one of Canada's largest highways) when the muffler and tailpipe fell off the car in front of me. The pipe went one way, the muffler the other, and I tried to avoid them both. Tried.

I survived (obviously) unscathed (though 2 grand damage to the bike). I was extremely lucky that I was on an off-ramp as I was going relatively slow and there were no cars to my left and right that were also trying to avoid the flying metal. At the same time, being on an off-ramp left little room to maneuver.

The point is that you can't account for everything. How much is your life worth? Mine's worth more (to me) than gambling it that the other drivers on the road know what they're doing and their vehicles aren't going to fall apart in front of me.

That said, I really miss riding. However, I'd say that on 50 - 70 percent of my rides there was an idiot in a car who put my life in danger (from trying to share my lane to not seeing me to not being able to properly gauge speed of a bike).

If you do get a bike, please wear proper safety gear regardless of the weather. There is nothing stupider than the people who ride motorcyles in shorts, flip flops, sans t-shirt. Nothing.
posted by dobbs at 4:39 PM on August 9, 2006

I've known three motorcycle riders in my life: my father, my father in law and my uncle. Two quit riding after nasty crashes. The third died in a nasty crash.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:50 PM on August 9, 2006

There is nothing stupider than the people who ride motorcyles in shorts, flip flops, sans t-shirt. Nothing.

...except the scantily-clad girlfriends who ride on the back of these bikes in shorts, tube top and heels. Now that's stupid.

As to your question, you can either go with statistics (in which case, yes, bikes are very dangerous) or anecdotes (in which case, you'll find as many stories of people who hurt themselves on bikes as you care to read, and also as many stories of people who never crashed [or who escaped significant injury].)

Either way, you won't find an answer to your question that will satisfy everybody. However:

I know I will regret not getting a bike for the rest of my life.

You're likely to have plenty of life left, and you can always get a bike later. I suspect it's better to pick up the skills when you're younger, but you probably won't get the judgement until later anyway.

Why not take the MSF rider's course? That'll give you a chance to ride around in a parking lot, get the basic skills, and see whether it's something you really want to pursue.

Also, you might consider off-road riding. You'll fall a lot more often, but at least you won't have as many cars running you over after you do. Riders with dirt experience also tend to be able to handle street conditions (except for traffic analysis) better.
posted by spacewrench at 4:56 PM on August 9, 2006

I rode a motorcycle for almost 18 years without an accident. Then I hit a deer running across the road. I was lucky to survive.

The trouble with motorcycles is, as mentioned above, the high cost of crashes. Had I been in a car, it would have taken the bulk of the damage, not me. I stopped riding because, despite having worn proper clothing, going under the speed limit and the weather being perfect, there was too much out of my control. In such an environment, I'd rather have the steel around me, thanks.
posted by tommasz at 4:58 PM on August 9, 2006

An activity you can try at the office - of the motorcyclists that you can talk to (ie, not the ones that have already died :), every one of them will have had an incident in which they barely avoided death or dismemberment. Test this yourself :-)

If you buy a bike, put serious money into safety gear. Thousands of dollars. State of the art full-body body armour, extra lights, the works. Don't ride without that gear. Even when it's hot. Even when you're in a hurry.

Be prepared for the ten minutes or so it takes you to get geared up - and expect that the gear-up time will mean that using the bike will take longer to get you from A to B than, say, a car will.

I other words, a bike will be slower, as well as more dangerous, than a car. But obviously if the fun is worth that to you, then the fun is worth that.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:02 PM on August 9, 2006

Video regarding my comment about car drivers judging speed of bikes.
posted by dobbs at 5:08 PM on August 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

I had a motorcycle in my early twenties. Loved it. Realized very quickly that any accident that I had was not going to be because of something I did, but rather someone else. Can't tell you how many time I was almost creamed on the road because someone didn't see me or did something stupid.

So no matter how good a rider you are, you are going to be taken out eventually by something outside of your control. You just have to decide if it will be worth it in the long run.

In my case my ride was stolen about a year after I bought it. I used the insurance to by a small car. I still miss the bike and ponder on getting another one (I'm in my 40s now). I know for a fact that a motorcycle is great fun and the surest way to die on the road. Take that for what it is worth. In my mind, you just hope whatever happens to you does kill you and doesn't just leave you a lump of flesh barely hanging on to life.
posted by qwip at 5:08 PM on August 9, 2006

I went through exactly what the poster is describing about 6 months ago. After talking to everyone I could and reading all the available (AskMe and other) info, I decided against it. Until motorists (myself included) learn that the universe doesn't revolve around them, I want my two-ton stupidity shield wrapped around me.
posted by lekvar at 5:21 PM on August 9, 2006

Hard facts to prove that they are irrefutably not worth the risk is the only thing that will change my mind.

The hardest fact to swallow is that you have absolutely, positively no control over your fellow drivers. That's the problem right there.

You can take as many motorcycle safety courses as you wish, but you can't avoid accidents that aren't your fault, by definition. So the question to ask yourself is not "how safe can I be?" but rather "how safe is everyone else", and I think you know the answer: not very.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:26 PM on August 9, 2006

Years ago my girlfriend woke up and said "I want a motorcycle" a week later we found one for her and I rode it about 15 miles from the burbs into the city on I-55 in Chicago. Scariest 30 minutes of my life, bar none.

About six months later I bought myself more or less the same bike. I rode it for a year, moved it with me to New Mexico and enjoyed it very much. Had one or two "ya flipping idiot" moments, and only one that pulling over and dismounting to pull myself back together.

Couple years pass and I get a call from aforementioned (now) ex-girlfriend. She was hit by a van which jumped the gun on red light. If she hadn't been wearing her helmet I wouldn't have been talking to her. As it is she has some facial scars, permanent thumb damage and a back that's a little outta whack.

I rode my bike just one more time. Across town to sell it. That was enough for me.

All that said? I still get a twinge to get back on a bike. New Mexico was practically made for bikes.

You live in Boston, the riding season is short, the traffic is horrid and the stakes are much higher. Take the MSF course and get your license then come to a state like NM and rent a bike for a week. You'll enjoy it MUCH more than trying to keep yourself alive while all the cages around you are trying to kill you.
posted by FlamingBore at 5:45 PM on August 9, 2006

Nothing in life is perfectly safe, and I think we all need to remember that. I'm not sure who said it first, but in order to truly live, you must risk dying.

Only you can decide if the risk/reward ratio is right for you. For me, it most certainly is. I'm 27, I've been riding for almost 5 years and it's one of the few visceral experiences left in modern life. I advise you do it, but take it seriously, don't be irresponsible. Learn the skill well. I see many unskilled riders, and it's the lack of skill that gets you in trouble when you either a) push it too far (squids) or b) are presented with a situation that is not entirely your fault, but you still have to evade.
posted by knave at 5:55 PM on August 9, 2006


You can't control other drivers, but you can control yourself. If the idea of going 80mph down the highway appeals to you, this probably isn't for you

Wear a shiny white helmet. Full gloves and proper boots. Stripe your jacket and boots with retroreflective strips. Wear your leathers no matter what; if it's too hot, don't ride.
posted by waldo at 6:15 PM on August 9, 2006

Try a simple experiment. Start asking experienced motorcyclists this question: "Tell me about the time you dumped your bike."

Whatever the answer actually is, realize that ALL OF THEM WILL HAVE AN ANSWER. As in, they've ALL dumped their bike at one time or another.

Then do the stats on actually getting injured in accidents, and you have your answer.

In other words ... Get a convertible roadster. I recommend the Honda S2000.
posted by frogan at 6:18 PM on August 9, 2006

We buried my cousin 3 weeks ago. He was killed riding his bike, minding his own business, definitely not his fault. Anyway he had been riding for many years. Then again I'm totally into skydiving and sold both of my Harley's when my best friend was run over riding one of my bikes by a little old lady that just didn't see him in the mid 1990's. I rode for many years and gotta say the New Mexico Ride definitely is a highlight as well as Roosevelt Lake area near Phoenix. My personnel experience tells me exiting aircraft is a safer pursuit however I have buried friends from my skydiving world also. I totally understand the draw you feel. I say you got some excellent advice, life is to short to live with regrets. Good Luck with whatever you decide.
posted by xenophanes at 6:22 PM on August 9, 2006

A motorbike has no crumple zones. If you've ever seen a motorcycle accident then I'm sure you know this, but it is something to think about.
posted by maxpower at 6:23 PM on August 9, 2006

frogan: Nope, never.
posted by knave at 6:28 PM on August 9, 2006

pwally, as someone who has more than 250,000 miles of road experience on motorcycles, and who has lived in Boston (well, Waltham) while owning a motorcycle, eastern Massachusetts is a very dangerous place to learn to ride. It's a very dangerous place to ride even after you learn, and while a determined rider can ride year 'round, with proper gear, it's only recreational about 5 months a year. So, there's that (fun per mile is more expensive, as the season is short).

As to the relative safety of motorcycles and cars, there are so many factors that go against the safety of motorcycles, that I'm not sure we're telling you anything factual if we say that motorcycles have a 26 times higher fatality rate per passenger mile than cars, but you can read most the recent national stats and continuing motorcycle safety research at NHSTA's Web site. But even they say:
"... In the debates over helmets and motorcycle safety, both rider groups and safety advocates are increasingly framing their arguments in terms of statistics from published studies. The complexity of the methods required to analyze data covering limited subsets of motorcycle crashes, however, often makes the results of the studies difficult to interpret. Moreover, sometimes the studies themselves are flawed by data limitations or inadequate methods. In this context, the present survey is intended to aid in evaluating extant studies and arguments based upon them. ..."
There are about 4 million motorcycles registered in the U.S., and about 2,500 people die riding motorcycles in the U.S. in an average year. Another 20,000 or so are seriously injured ("seriously" meaning injuries that require medical aid). If you're one of the unlucky 2,500, too bad for you. If you're one of the slightly luckier 20,000, even not being dead may not be so great.

For the number of miles I've ridden, I've had remarkably little injury. But I've totaled a BMW in an accident where someone just didn't see or hear me, and pulled out 60 feet in front of me, when I was doing 45 mph. Took me 6 months to walk normally thereafter. I've been down seriously 4 other times, only one of which was "my fault." In 2 of those cases, I broke bones, lost work time, and dealt with pain for months. That is what it costs to road ride a quarter of a million miles.

And I rode full fairing motorcycles with anti-dump bars that protected my legs, full face helmets and full leathers always, and had every form of visibility improvement known to man. And air horns. And I rode top quality rubber, and was a maintenance freak. And I rode rural highway as much as possible, and planned trips intentionally for low traffic density and hazard mitigation whenever I possibly could.

I still went down seriously 5 times, and should have been dead 1 of them. I quit while I was still walking. I miss it, some days a great deal. But the odds are worse now, than when I was riding a lot in the late 80's, and I'm older, with worse reaction times, eyesight, and reflexes now.

But I did finish reproducing before I bought my first motorcycle. I'd really suggest that as a strategy, and keeping up life insurance as long as your riding, sufficient to raise your kids, just in case.
posted by paulsc at 6:33 PM on August 9, 2006

Take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course!!! I'm 51 years old, I have well over 200,000 miles on motorcycles. Take the MSF course, they will tell you exactly how dangerous it is and you will be made aware things about motorcycling that you would never have thought of. And if you take the course, you will be well prepared for your first bike.
( And just so ya know, yes, I've been taken down hard by stupid drivers. )
posted by BillsR100 at 6:40 PM on August 9, 2006

Speaking as a rider who went through the same process that you are currently going through a while ago, the question you ask is pretty hard to answer.

Motorcycles are clearly more dangerous than cars. This has grown even worse over the past decade and a half or so as cars have grown safer and motorcycle mandatory helmet laws have been repealed. Beyond that there are some interesting statistics about fatal crashes. The proportion of crashes that involve alchohol use, unlicensed driving, or less than a years experience in riding or having no training is surprising. The Hurt Report (summary here) though now very out of date is probably the most comprehensive study of the issue ever conducted, and really needs to be repeated to update its findings.

All that being said, when motorcycles wreck the trauma is hard to imagine. If you want to understand how horrifying the result can be google "live to ride ride to die" and take your time looking at the first link result. (I'm not posting the link directly here because it is truly horrifyingly graphic and I don't want anyone to see it who doesn;t work to see it.) It may make you puke, but the reality is that is part of what you are risking.

For me, it has been worth it so far. It has become one of the passions of my life. The days I can't ride to work are never as good as the days that I can. I say get the gear, get a reasonable first bike, get training, get more training,practice your skills, and have fun.
posted by tcskeptic at 6:50 PM on August 9, 2006

I'm not sure who said it first, but in order to truly live, you must risk dying.

Why is that?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:51 PM on August 9, 2006

Because otherwise you're just existing.
posted by FlamingBore at 6:58 PM on August 9, 2006

I skimmed the responses and I didn't see an obvious mention of non-fatal consequences, such as traumatic brain injury. I'd like a bike too, but my mom has worked many many years with a variety of retarded ("consumers" is the PC term these days) people including TBI people and the horror stories/stats I hear about bike accidents are enough to keep me off of one. Although I admit there is a strong appeal, how stupid/guilty would I feel if something ever happened. I think she would secretly have it towed in the night if I got one. (And I'm an adult and don't live at home)
posted by unsigned at 7:04 PM on August 9, 2006

Pretty damn dangerous. Fun too. Commute on one in Boston and you are asking for trouble. Go for a ride every now and then, especially somewhere out of traffic where the only person putting your life in danger is you, not so much trouble.
posted by caddis at 7:38 PM on August 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

My parents felt that way too -- "You're gonna shoot your eye out, kid!" was the general reaction from friends, family, and peers.

5 years later, I'm still riding old 80's bikes that I rebuild and flip. The danger bugs me, as many of my friends have been injured, but there's one huge key: None of us have been *killed* or seriously injured in a way that will keep us from riding. Why? We ride safely, take MSF training classes as mentioned above, and

Look, *everyone's* got a story about knowing someone or seeing someone who has gotten seriously maimed or hurt. I can point out the guys that have been, are being, or will be hurt in about ten seconds flat -- one of my previous coworkers was riding around on his learner's permit on a bike that I wouldn't buy for any amount (the thing was ready for the graveyard) in a 12 year old helmet, a ski jacket, and a pair of garden gloves. He hasn't had more than a half dozen parking lot spills yet, but his days are numbered. Thankfully, the bike's in the shop a large amount of the time and it keeps him off the road... but still.

When you take classes REGULARLY and pay attention to what they say, practice emergency response skills in parking lots REGULARLY like the MSF instructors say to, wear GOOD GEAR... including a good lid (not a $99 helmet -- a $400 Shoei or Arai, and FULL FACE), a leather or textile jacket and pants with certified armor, and gloves and boots meant for motorcycling -- you'll come out of most accidents ahead. Many friends of mine have been in BAD wrecks ... wrecks that would've killed an unprotected motorcyclist ... (i.e. rear ended at a stopsign and being vaulted over the Ford Explorer in front of her (she needed a back brace for a month, but is otherwise fine), or nailed from the side by a car running a stopsign (broken leg, he's up and walking), tire blowout at 90 degrees on the freeway (walked), or my very own low-side and tumble off a cliff on Mt. St. Helens (a mountain rescue team threw a rope over the side and I climbed up it.)

A good forum to ask this question at is Sport-Touring.net ... when the site's up, that is. The owner of the site is kind of letting the server degrade, much to the chagrin of the membership. However, the community is very much focused on reasonable riding, safe speeds, wearing good gear, keeping your bike maintained, and stopping to smell the roses.
posted by SpecialK at 7:42 PM on August 9, 2006

dobbs, that video has been discussed and debunked on the front page, How Close?
posted by Chuckles at 7:50 PM on August 9, 2006

Lemme see...I have a brother in law turned into quadralapegic due to racing motorcycles and a brother with permanent injuries from a street bike accident and a friend deaf in one ear due to a motorcycle accident. All three say they would ride a bike again. Go for it man.
posted by oh posey at 8:33 PM on August 9, 2006

Just to add to my earlier post, and to everyone else's excellent comments, here are some things you can do to help control the risks if you do ride:
  • Don't rely on your bike. Be ready not to ride if you have a bad headache, or find a possible mechanical problem, or the weather is bad, or it's too dark out, or anything else that reduces your safety margin below your comfort level.
  • Be ready for anything. Other drivers will do stupid things. Mufflers will fall off. Deer will leap at you. Shadows will conceal oil slicks. All these things are forseeable, if not predictable. It doesn't matter that it's not your fault; you're still the one who dies. Do whatever you can to ride in a way that will keep you alive even when these things happen. (But remember that you will still someday meet a situation that exceeds your skill and planning.)
  • Learn from others' mistakes. Read books, magazines, and web sites. Pay special attention to crash stories, and think about how you can practice skills or habits that would keep you out of those situations.
You can't make a motorcycle as safe as a car, but it can be safer in your hands than in the average rider's.

"I'm not sure who said it first, but in order to truly live, you must risk dying."

Why is that?

Because every time you cross the street (leave the house; drive a car; eat at a restaurant...) you risk dying. Hell, when I commute by bicycle I think I'm at higher risk of a collision than on my scooter—and then I don't even wear body armor. Based on the per-vehicle-mile statistics, I'm more likely to die in a car than on a motorbike. But no one harasses me about how safe I am bicycling or driving, because those risks are "normal" and therefore invisible.

posted by mbrubeck at 8:59 PM on August 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Re-reading this thread, I forgot a few things.

I forgot to tell you what it feels like to finish a tune up on a classic motorcycle, swing a leg over, kick it into life, and hit the street. I forgot what pride feels like, when someone looks at a machine you own, that doesn't have a single bolt that isn't needed, or anything shiny that doesn't need to be, and thinks he's seen, finally, sculpture. I forgot to tell you how dancing with 100 horsepower in your right hand makes your heart light, and face happy on any given Sunday. I forgot how living like you'll die tomorrow makes living this sucky Thursday morning bearable. I forgot what a crisp fall New England morning in the White Mountains smells like, a half hour before daybreak, leaning through the curves of the Kancamagus Highway, with the even pulses of a big flat twin pleasantly drubbing beneath you.

I forgot what it feels like to have twenty-something balls swinging between my legs.

Thanks for reminding me. I hope this makes amends.

But don't do something stupid. Oh God, (if there is a benevolent, interested God) please, don't do something stupid.
posted by paulsc at 9:00 PM on August 9, 2006 [3 favorites]

I quit smoking around the same time I started riding. The riding yields a much greater enjoyment in return for its risk than cigarettes did.

I have been downed by a car and its something you will never forget (but so is riding a beach highway in autumn at night).

Take the MSF, and along with the sport-touring site mentioned, check out MCUSA.
posted by iurodivii at 9:12 PM on August 9, 2006

I've been riding motorcycles 11 years. I've never had an accident, but I've been so incredibly close to destruction so very many times, and escaped by the skin of my teeth, that I just don't ride big fast bikes any more.

Everyone on the road will try to kill you. Even the road itself will try to kill you.

All. The. Time.

Really, every day. Taxis will try to kill you, women taking their kids to school will try to kill you, bits of wet cardboard on the road will try to kill you, the truck that went through the wet intersection a while ago and drizzled a tiny bit of diesel on the road will try to kill you.

Motorcycles are good fun, but you will die. I strongly urge you to reconsider.
posted by The Monkey at 9:15 PM on August 9, 2006

But don't do something stupid. Oh God, (if there is a benevolent, interested God) please, don't do something stupid.

Very poetic, but you're disguising what has become the central theme of this thread: it's not what you do on a motorcycle that gets you killed.
posted by Hildago at 9:17 PM on August 9, 2006

"Very poetic, but you're disguising what has become the central theme of this thread: it's not what you do on a motorcycle that gets you killed."
posted by Hildago at 12:17 AM EST on August 10

I know, and you're not wrong. It's the twenty-something year old balls that put you there, that put you in a grave, or in a powerchair, for the rest of your days.

But you know, it's twenty-something year old balls that put most of us here, too. Hard to speak to the brains above either, if testicles are left totally out of the conversation.

I think someone with a nic like Hildago understands that.
posted by paulsc at 9:32 PM on August 9, 2006

I understand the itch you need to scratch. Make a list of things that will scratch that itch without risking mutilation. There are win-win solutions. I like this:


Also, I'm curious about how safe flying is compared to riding a motorcycle, also paragliding.

I used to have a scooter. Now I drive a minivan. I miss driving a small, nimble car but not the scooter. Too much stress. I miss being 20, but not being that stupid (no offense--I was very clueless).
posted by mecran01 at 9:39 PM on August 9, 2006

An activity you can try at the office - of the motorcyclists that you can talk to (ie, not the ones that have already died :), every one of them will have had an incident in which they barely avoided death or dismemberment. Test this yourself :-)

Nup. Not even close. Not in 4-5 years of riding Sydney streets. Having said that, I no longer ride & am glad I quit while I still had a head. Not that I would ever do anything differently, though.

Try a simple experiment. Start asking experienced motorcyclists this question: "Tell me about the time you dumped your bike."

Whatever the answer actually is, realize that ALL OF THEM WILL HAVE AN ANSWER. As in, they've ALL dumped their bike at one time or another.

Yep. In a deserted back street in the rain one time, I wondered how hard it really is to recover from a locked-up front wheel. Rolling along at about 10kph, I tested this & promptly landed flat on my face before I know what had happened. Easy lesson not to lock the front wheel.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:32 PM on August 9, 2006

When I look at the statistics, I wonder how I survived 5+ years of commuting on a scooter without a scratch.

My father taught me to ride as if I was invisible. During my scooter years, I learned to be an intensely defensive driver.

The Hurst report is a facinating thing (thank tcskeptic!). It supports the "drive as if invisible" technique, along with helmets, formal training, eye wear, and dirt bike experience (!) :

7. The failure of motorists to detect and recognize motorcycles in traffic is the predominating cause of motorcycle accidents.

24. The motorcycle riders involved in accidents are essentially without training; 92% were self-taught or learned from family or friends.

25. Motorcycle riders with dirt bike experience are significantly underrepresented in the accident data.

37. The likelihood of injury is extremely high in these motorcycle accidents-98% of the multiple vehicle collisions and 96% of the single vehicle accidents resulted in some kind of injury to the motorcycle rider; 45% resulted in more than a minor injury.

40. The use of heavy boots, jacket, gloves, etc., is effective in preventing or reducing abrasions and lacerations, which are frequent but rarely severe injuries.

43. Seventy-three percent of the accident-involved motorcycle riders used no eye protection

47. The use of the safety helmet is the single critical factor in the prevention of reduction of head injury
posted by gmarceau at 10:34 PM on August 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

"... Also, I'm curious about how safe flying is compared to riding a motorcycle, also paragliding. ... "
posted by mecran01 at 12:39 AM EST on August 10

I'm going to take a shot at answering this, hard as it is to do so, simply because I've dipped into thousands of sweeping turns on two wheels, and remember, quite well, my heart in my throat, shooting practice landings in a Cessna 172 at Briscoe Field.

The big difference between motorcycles and fixed wing aircraft is the third dimension, and a sense, from the very beginning, that in aircraft, it is vital to avoid becoming stupid, later. There are so many ways to become stupid, later, in the air. And whenever you get stupid enough in the air to bend metal, or cause other people enough fright, the FAA will convene a panel of experts to explain to posterity, as far as they can reconstruct from available data, just how stupid you became, minute by minute, right up until you died, if that's how stupid you got. But the fear of stupidity in airplanes starts from Day One. When you show up for your first lesson, with your physical examination paper in your sweaty hand, and a skeptical instructor, who is going to have to go up with you, looks you over, and decides whether it is worth risking life and limb for $30 an hour instructor money.

First of all, in aircraft, at a very minimum, if you are really sharp, and very, very talented, you are going to have to convince, through demonstration, to at least two experienced people (your instructor and an FAA check ride examiner), over an minimum of 40 hours (for a regular private license) that you are competent to operate an airplane. But frankly, most people wind up training with 3 or 4 people, and getting criticized a lot, and building up 50 or 60 hours of observed instructor time in fixed wing aircraft, before they check ride with the FAA guy (or gal, although I've never met an FAA gal, except my mother).

During flight training, you also spend a fair amount of time personally investigating many (but not all) of the ways aircraft quit flying. You do a lot of stalls, to practice stall recovery. I hated stalls. I hated the shaking yoke, the sense that the prop was becoming dangerously unloaded, the fight the airplane was making in the air to fly, and being so hateful as to force the nose still higher, beyond what the engine could possibly pull, until the yoke quivered with trying, and the stall horn cried, and it was time, past time, to push the nose down, and hope.

You practice emergency landings, when your instructor reaches over, slams the throttle closed, dumping your engine to idle, and tells you that you have just smelled smoke, and have an airborne fire. You have 90 seconds to put your airplane on the ground, or die aloft, burning, in your mutual imagination. And he is watching you do your best, hoping you won't panic, hoping, still, you smell the imaginary smoke, against some future day, when you'll need to remember, and do, not think. So you take in the world in 10 seconds, make a mental plan you start communicating as you make it, push the nose hard down, harder than it wants by far, pull your flaps, and look, oh please, please look, for open grass, and no trees.

There's nothing like that happening on two wheels. I recommend the MSF training course, but you don't stall a bike, and hope it doesn't devolve into a fatal spin, in the MSF course. And until you are faced on two wheels with awful, painful choices, you can't know the terror every trainee general aviation pilot comes to know in stall training, falling out of the sky, with pedals and yoke failing to answer, and hard physics your only hope to breathe again.

Still, it's amazing what a cushion 7,000 feet of vertical altitude can be, in an airframe that is designed to fly, wants to fly, needs well beyond it's inexperienced pilot's needs, to fly. Let go the yoke, let the nose fall finally, and a good airplane will fly to safety, if there is plenty of air beneath it, and its pilot is scared enough to let it.

Not so the master of his fate, borne on two wheels. The standard lane is 12 foot wide [PDF file linked], there is no friendly cushion of invisible air beneath you, and you wrest your life from each second with far less approval of seasoned elders than any pilot. You can't quit thinking ever, on two wheels. And even if you do nothing wrong, you can die. Die, and be buried, and no one will convene an accident investigation board to see how stupid you were, for the edification of others, when you can no longer explain.
posted by paulsc at 10:49 PM on August 9, 2006 [8 favorites]

Because otherwise you're just existing.

I see. Let's see how that logic works:

You can't truly eat unless you've starved.
You can't truly play music unless you've been deaf.
You can't truly program unless you've spent a few months living in the woods away from power outlets, foraging for food and sleeping in caves.

You're right. That's good logic.

Also, paulsc, very well said.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:47 AM on August 10, 2006

Do you have access to motocross or some kind of track racing? That'd probably be safer than riding on the street.
posted by concrete at 1:44 AM on August 10, 2006

I have been riding since 1993. I've had all kinds of bikes, from a 160mph sportbike to a low, loud cruiser. I've ridden all over North America, and I would say my six of my top ten best life experiences were on a bike. But I, like every single one of my friends who has ridden a bike, have been in an accident. The results of the worst one are a permanently separated shoulder and a permanently broken wrist (both still completely functional, just a little off). But you know what? To me, it was worth it. I wouldn't trade a completely unscathed body for my motorcycle experiences. I'm not riding right now (for location and financial reasons), but I plan on getting back on the bike and taking a trip to South America in a few years.

And I'm with the rest of the people that say: please take the MSF safety course, and always, always, always wear your safety gear.
posted by greasepig at 4:22 AM on August 10, 2006

I've been on a bike once and there's very little to compare with the open air and acceleration of a bike.

I have a close friend who rode a bike and has judgement and skills that are about as sound as you'll get. The driver of the car that ran the red light didn't. He went over the hood and has a plate in his arm and a killer scar (chicks dig scars!). He doesn't ride a bike anymore.

At a mefi meet up, ask me about his experience in an airport with the plate.
posted by plinth at 5:37 AM on August 10, 2006

You really have to be much, much more aware on a bike than in a car. There are a million hazards out there and even at 100% awareness there are many things that will fuck you up regardless. Even things that would be minor to a car like a fender bender from the driver behind you that wasn't paying attention can send you to the hospital for a long stay.

The best thing you can do is to take motorcycle safety courses and try to drive assuming every car is going to hit you. The car at the stop sign at the cross street ahead of you will not see you, the car driving alongside you will ignore you, oncoming cars will make left turns in front of you, etc.

The worst thing is when there are several oncoming cars making left turns in front of you. The first one will do the cute thing and make a quick left turn at the last moment in front of you. Then like clockwork, the drivers behind him not having seen you at all will follow him right into you. That scares the shit out of me all of the time. The best thing is to slow down in these situations and prepare for evasive maneuvers. Always remember that it is better to slow down when confronted with potential blind drivers. You have a better chance of surviving a low speed impact without broken bones than a high speed impact.

Just to counterpoint some of the replies, I have ridden a bike for about 6 years. Granted I have only put on around 12k miles but I have done almost all urban driving. I have never had a crash but have had some close calls. But I have a friend that was in a horrific accident where someone broadsided him without there being anything he could have done. Unfortunately he wasn't wearing a helmet....
posted by JJ86 at 6:15 AM on August 10, 2006

Also depends on how much you will need to depend on this bike and where you'll be driving it. Communting via interstate highway is a whole different ballgame of danger than tooling around the city.
posted by desuetude at 6:28 AM on August 10, 2006

I'm a pathologist. I do autopsies on dead people. I've done quite a few. I would say that, bar-none, the group of deaths with the worst injuries is motorcyclists. Spend a couple of days in an emergency room or a medical examiner's office anywhere in the states and you will be quickly cured of any desire to ride a motorcycle. There is a very good reason why they are called donor-cycles.

I'll run down a few of the worst ones that I can remember off the top of my head:

- Worst case: 19 year old kid on crotchrocket T-bones a dodge neon. Bike enters the passenger compartment and strikes the driver breaking his neck, his skull base and killing him instantly. The cyclist flies over the car. The car flips onto the motorcyclist and pins him against a guard rail. The force strips his chest plate off and eviscerates his chest cavity. Car driver and motorcyclist have autopsies performed side-by-side the next morning.

- Rider dumps bike, squeeze lever of handlebar enters cranium. Makes brain soup.

- Rider looses control, goes off the road, is decapitated by roadsign. Body and helmet arrive with head still in helmet.

- Rider thrown from bike, face-plants on a guard rail. Everything above the neck fractured.

- Rider hits guardrail, right leg amputated.

Those are the most impressive cases that I can specifically recall. I've also done a bunch of motorcycles vs. cars with massive internal injuries/head trauma. Not quite as dramatic but quite fatal.

Don't get a bike. Enjoy seeing your children grow older.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 7:19 AM on August 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think you should take a critical look at yourself, I can't because I don't know you. First, are you an excellent driver? Do you ever make mistakes? Do you have very fast reflexes? If not, you have to consider that you could put yourself into a deadly situation (that would not be deadly in a car).
Secondly, would you be willing to ride with extreme defensiveness? By this, I mean always going slow enough to avoid a stalled car on a blind corner, always leaving a long distance in front of you, and while braking keeping an eye on how fast the car behind is coming up (you don't want to be the filling in an suv sandwich).
I've been riding for 24 years without a problem, but then I'm not a normal person. The statistic mentioned above about bikes being 34 times as deadly as cars includes everyone. You can make your odds much better, some of those in those statistics were drunk, going too fast for the corner, racing, those kids on crotch rockets who are always either pulling a wheelie or braking into a reverse wheelie, following too close, etc.
posted by 445supermag at 7:53 AM on August 10, 2006

Yes, you will regret it if you don't try it. Here's a plan to determine if motorcycling is for you from a seventeen year motorcycle rider:

1- Call The Motorcycle Safety Foundation closest to you and sign up for their beginning rider course to find out if its for you or not. They provide the bike and the gear. If you don't like it, or feel unsafe, don't get a motorcycle.

2- If you enjoy it, ignore what people say. They mean well, but it's not their decision. Start figuring out what kind of street bike you prefer, talk to people who ride the kind of bikes that you think you prefer, and budget in enough money to buy a high-quality, full-face helmet. It is the most important purchase you will make so that you are comfortable and safe. Expensive helmets are quieter and lighter so that they are more comfortable to wear.

Repeat this mantra. "Helmet, jacket, boots, gloves." This is the absolute minimum that you will need to wear each and every time that you get on the bike, no matter if it's 120 degrees, or you are only riding ten feet. Wear these items so that you won't die or suffer road rash. Then consider that you should probably wear a full moto-riding suit, (especially if you live where there is real weather), and get an Aerostitch suit or leathers. And a spine protector. Now you are truly as safe as your riding gear can make you. (but you still need to practice riding and become proficient at turning and stopping the bike.)

3- Get a bike. Make friends with smart, safe-riding motorcyclists that don't do dumb stuff, and watch what they do. Learn from them and ask questions.

4- Ride, ride, ride. Ride to work, and ride in the country on weekends. Ride a lot and take advanced rider courses.

5- Some important and simple safety rules:

a- "Two-fingered braking" means covering the front brake with two fingers at all times so that you can stop fast. Find somewhere to practice stopping hard. It will save your life.

b- never ride faster than you can see. Don't go fast into a corner if you can't see the exit. "Slow in fast out" is the safer and better way to go. This will become clearer to you on those weekend country rides.

c- I repeat. Helmet, jacket, boots, gloves. You are very likely to fall down at some point (I have many times), and you won't get any advance warning. This gear helps.
posted by scottr at 8:49 AM on August 10, 2006

Being a former rider myself, I'd just like to say this: MeFi represents a relatively good cross-section of the general population. The general population has this belief that riding motorcycles is dangerous and that you will get seriously hurt or die. There are even a lot of responses here from current or former riders echoing that same belief.

It's all true (to some degree or another) but it is skewed and sensationalistic. Riding does not automatically equal death. Riding does not automatically equal serious injury.

I rode for six years in all types of weather on highways, bridges and city (San Francisco) streets and have never been seriously injured, nor did I die. I was in one accident where a car turned into my lane in an intersection, but it was at low speeds and I walked away fine.

I guess what I'm saying is, listen to the good helpful folks here, but also talk to people in a motorcycle riding forum as well. I belonged to a Bay Area VFR list that was extremely helpful and supportive. I'm sure you can find second opinions that skew the other way and are more realistic and less fatalistic.

BTW, I stopped riding because I couldn't win the argument with my wife, even though I'd been riding for a long time before I even met her. There are no good statistics to suport that safe, present and defensive riders are less prone to accidents. The is only that belief that I mentioned above that permeates almost everyone's thoughts about riding, including my wife. We do have a deal though: I can get one in about 10 years.
posted by lunarboy at 9:19 AM on August 10, 2006

Perhaps you just need a bigger bike.
posted by caddis at 9:35 AM on August 10, 2006

Total derail, one week on:
You can't truly eat unless you've starved.
You can't truly play music unless you've been deaf.
You can't truly program unless you've spent a few months living in the woods away from power outlets, foraging for food and sleeping in caves.

One of these things is not like the others, c_d.
You can't truly x unless you've y is generally understandable where x is a sensation (not a task like programming) and y is the potential loss of the ability to y.

All it means is that coming very close to losing something makes you value it even more. Have an accident and lose your sight for two months? The world is going to look fantastic. Ever heard the phrase "hunger is the best sauce"? Same thing.

If often find that if I get something free, I'm careless with it. If I buy it with my hard-earned, I'm v. careful with it. Its value increases. Coming close to death increases the value of life, for most.
posted by bonaldi at 7:18 PM on August 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

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