Risks and Perceptions

A recent post in a motorcycle blog got me thinking more about this whole area of risks, perceptions of risk and uncertainty, and how my attitudes have changed over the years.

What concerned me about the post by Steve Rose in Bennett’s BikeSocial blog is that it is misleading and misinformed. Yes, it is entertaining and not a scientific review but this kinda stuff remains quite influential. So, let’s have some balance here. (If you want tips on how to improve your chances in this TL;DR article, just jump straight to here.)

While I agree that biking has been misrepresented in its dangers, Steve’s article appears to show the classic Denominator problem: confusing how often something bad happens compared to how often that activity is performed.

“More than twice as many people in the UK are killed by sexually transmitted diseases each year as they are falling off motorbikes”, he states, while blithely ignoring the number of people doing “it”. Amusing? Yes. Informative? No.

If you are interested in this stuff, there is a quite readable piece here about micromorts, an easier way to understand the risks around how likely something is to kill you. Basically, one micromort is a one in a million chance of something killing you. The article is worth reading because it gives some simple comparisons:

  • heroin use (for one day) = 33 micromorts
  • hang-gliding = 8 micromorts
  • motorcycle trip (10km) = 1 micromort
  • car trip = 3 nanomorts

It also talks about the problem in such comparisons about what you use as your denominator, or how much you do “it”. As noted in that blog piece:

“It is worth noting that assessing the risk of different modes of travel can be controversial. It is important to be very clear whether comparisons are being made based on risk per annum, risk per unit distance or risk per trip. These different approaches will result in very different figures. For example, for most people plane trips are relatively infrequent (which will make annual risks look better), but the distances travelled are much greater (so the per unit distance risk will look much better than the per trip risk).”

Again, if you are interested, there is quite a decent article in good old Wikipedia on Micromorts. It generally agrees with the stats presented, with some interesting other comparisons. Ironically, your risk of death from motorcycle riding is roughly the same as marathon running, an activity normally presented as the epitome of health and being good for you. So, indirectly, Steve Rose has a point.

Time for some full disclosure here. I came late to motorcycling, just taking it up as I turned 60. For those who called it my mid-life crisis, I am grateful for, but doubtful of, their expectation that I will live to be 120. Before this, having worked in an emerg room and rural medicine, to me motorcycles were “donor-cycles”: thank you for your kidneys, young man. I wouldn’t be seen [dead] on one… hmm, maybe not the best phrase. Another emerg doc, whom my wife has since forgiven, persuaded me that the risks were manageable and to take a course with Too Cool Motorcycle School in Calgary.

I was immediately impressed by their safety mantra, as well as their sound adult learning principles. Great instruction and tips, which have since saved my life. I rationalized, with my skeptical wife, that the risks or micromorts were about equivalent to back-country skiing, an activity in which we have both participated for over three decades (yes, she started when she was minus one).

Looking at Steve Rose’s article again, and the comments generated on social media, which prompted me to write this piece, it also got me thinking about our attitudes to risk. In teaching medical students, we find that micromorts are a useful concept and easier to get your head around than probability ratios, for the reasons given above. This is quite well summarized in a Wikipedia article on Motorcycle safety, where they point out the wide variation in attitudes.

I can see that I have moved from the ‘Quit riding’ group to the ‘Hyper-reflective self-disciplinary’ group: I take a very active and conscious stance on improving my chances.

Reducing your risks

So, how can you also reduce your own risks as a motorcycle rider?

  • Training → 2-3 fold risk reduction
  • Air vests → 83-91% risk reduction
  • High viz kit like vest, lights, white helmet
  • Avoid impairment
    • Alcohol
    • Marijuana and other recreational or prescription drugs
    • Fatigue & sleep deprivation
  • Safety features like ABS, traction control – not much evidence but hard to study
  • Attitude → how it translates to riding style, risk assumption
    • Take more care in your local neighbourhood
    • dusk/dawn/night riding, esp when there are moose/deer around
  • Age: <40 = 36x higher than other drivers of same age; >40 = 20x higher

Yes, all of these things help. We can’t change the last one but I don’t want to revisit my teens for many reasons, not just this one.

So many air vests in one team!

Air vests, in particular, are a game changer. Our own particular group has strongly adopted these.