When I tell people I ride a motorcycle, they're either really excited (because they ride too), or horrified that I would take such careless risks with my life. Just how dangerous is motorcycle riding, though? Before I bought my first bike I did some research and came to the conclusion: not very.
Let's look at the data.
In 2006, there were 35 motorcycle deaths per 100 million miles of distance traveled by motorcyclist. That means that, on average, for me to die riding a motorcycle, I'd have to ride 2.8 million miles, assuming I'm an average rider. Last year I rode somewhere around 1000 miles, giving me a .035% chance of death.
That's a lot of riding, and not a lot of death.
But what about accidents? A non fatal accident is 30 times more likely to occur than a fatal accident. So every year I have a little worse than a 1% chance of getting into an accident. Again, that's extremely small. The range of accidents is very minor to very severe, so even that whole percent isn't really a big deal. Maybe .7% are accidents that would still be affecting me a month later.
Of motorcycle deaths in 2006, 28% of the riders were over the legal limit for alcohol. Twenty eight percent! That is HUGE. One third of them didn't have valid motorcycle licenses. A full forty two percent of all riders don't wear helmets. What does that all mean? The TYPE of person a motorcycle appeals to TENDS to be a risk taker.
Now, I take my fair share of risks, but this is a whole different magnitude. We're talking about people who ride motorcycles with no helmet, are drinking alcohol, and/or don't even have a motorcycle license. That's insane.
My guess is that a lot of the maneuvers performed which result in an accident are maneuvers that would only be performed by someone who falls into that category. I haven't been riding very long, but even in the year and a half I've been riding, I've seen people execute some oncoming-lane passes, extremely fast blind turns, and wheelies at highway speed.
I'm probably not the safest rider in the world. I'll split lanes if the cars are stopped, or going very slowly. I speed if there's a big empty road ahead of me with no scary looking turns. I'm also nowhere near the most dangerous, though. I always wear a helmet, always wear an armored jacket, I took a safety course and read the top rated motorcycle safety book, tend to take corners slowly, never drink, and am always extremely vigilant. Using some back of the napkin calculations, I'd guess that maybe I have a .5% per year chance of injury and a .0018% chance of death.
Just for fun, here's an interesting calculation. Let's say that I'm going to live to be 90, giving me 59 more years of sweet sweet life on this planet. If I die, I lose that time. Do the math, and every year the expected value of motorcycling is losing 9.3 hours of life.
But motorcycling also saves time. A lot of time. Parking is way easier, you can cut every single light (in California), you can cut lanes (in California), and you can go around obstacles like delivery trucks way easier. Motorcycles are also fast enough that you can take lefts as soon as the light turns green, as long as there's not a really fast looking car in the oncoming traffic lane. I'd say that in an average day, I save around five minutes going by motorcycle. I actually save more than that, especially due to parking, but I also don't ride every single day, so let's be conservative and call it five minutes.
Multiply it out and that's 30.5 hours that I save every year just by riding a motorcycle. Subtract the 9.3 hours that I'm losing (on average) by accepting a small chance of death, and I still get 21 hours of extra time every year. This equation gets better every year, too, because as I get older, I'm risking less future years of life and becoming a more experienced and hopefully safer rider. The time I'm getting is also "young time", time when I'm at my fittest and most productive, which is more valuable than the time when I'm, say, 90.
Overall this is a great trade...you could even say that I'm extending my life expectancy (in terms of actual hours spent constructively) versus not riding a motorcycle. And that doesn't even consider how much more fun riding a motorcycle is than driving a car.
I've been riding for 10+ years, I'm an MSF instructor, and I teach people how to race motorcycles. If you are a 'risk taker' than you'll probably eventually get hurt on a motorcycle. If you think it's ok to have a few beers then ride a motorcycle then you'll probably eventually get hurt. Otherwise, honestly, if you pay attention and ride defensively you might never have an accident in your life. And everyone that goes to the race track on a regular basis will eventually crash. Personally I've been riding a motorcycle to work 95% of the year, 5 days a week for more than 3 years. 14 mile round trip, haven't been hit yet. I have gone down on the race track, but hey, that's the race track.
eh. tynan, i generally like your work, but this is a misuse of EV calculations.
1. EV of hours isn't a particularly sensible metric if the 1 loss case is catastrophic loss ( i assume that in the event of your death you won't be able to enjoy much more life ). EV is the sort of thing that you use to determine if it will be a win over many observations, and when you lose once in this case, you don't get future observations
2. you're paying in variance of the distribution
Anyways, I'm not anti bike, i just think its a mistake to justify it with "hours gained in expectation".
A good justification would be "I like riding bikes, so there".
"Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all" --helen keller
Great post, I can relate. I still lived with my parents when I bought my first motorcycle, and I used a lot of the same stats to persuade them it was OK for me to get a bike (or rather, let me get a bike without getting thrown out of the house). The numbers relating to people riding without helmets, drunk, and excessively speeding are especially eye opening. For my first year, I also promised not to ride at night, since that's another major factor that increases the risk. My argument was basically: "Yes, motorcycles are significantly more dangerous than cars, but a LOT of that is simply because motorcycle riders in general are more reckless. If you trust your son not to drink, speed, ride at night or without a helmet, his chances of an accident are significantly mitigated."
They did, and I did. Six years later, I'm still kicking. Not so much as a scuff from riding, aside from the knuckles I've busted fixing them. I could still slide under a tractor trailer tomorrow, but looking at the numbers makes a lot more sense to me than swear off riding based on all those "My brother knows someone who..." anecdotes you always hear people wheel out when they explain why riding motorcycles is dangerous. And at the end of the day, I've got some pretty good memories on two wheels to show for the risk accepted.
Brilliant. I love this sort of detailed analysis. Don't foget the gas savings! Efficiency is a virtue and gives so many more dividends than are seen. I'm thinking the ideal system for single/2-person transportation is to own a truck, small convertible and motorcycle... or have access to them, like zipcar. Perhaps someday we'll buy access to vehicles like cellphone minute plans, "1000 miles/month sedan use + 50 miles/month truck use for $200".
dude! found you through zenhabits... love your blog and as a fellow rider this blog post is GREAT! loved it.
Everyone I've talked to who own a motorcycle has been in an accident.
Comparing and communicating small lethal risks is a tricky business, yet this is what many of us are faced with in our daily lives. Ideally we need a "friendly" unit of deadly risk. A suggestion made in the 1970s by Ronald Howard is the use of the micromort: a one-in-a-million chance of death. This is attractive as it generally means that we can translate small risks into whole numbers that can be immediately compared. For example, the risk of death from a general anaesthetic (not the accompanying operation), is quoted as 1 in 100,000, meaning that in every 100,000 operations we would expect one death. This corresponds to 10 micromorts per operation.
In my country (the UK), about 50 people die per day of external causes (accident, murder, suicide). This corresponds to about 1 micromort per day. [In the UK, the number of deaths by natural causes (illness) is about 40 times more]. Thus, we can think of a micromort as the average "ration" of lethal risk that people spend each day, and which we do not unduly worry about.
Let's compare some activities with a risk of one micromort:
* smoking 1.4 cigarettes (lung cancer)
* spending 1 hour in a coal mine (black lung disease)
* drinking half a bottle of wine (liver disease)
* cycling 20 miles
* walking 17 miles
* travelling 5 miles by motorbike
* travelling 109 miles by car
So, if you're thinking of making a long journey, we can reciprocally compare 'micromorts per 100 miles travelled'
* by walking: 2 micromorts
* by cycling: 4 micromorts
* by motor bike 16 micromorts
* by car 0.5 micromorts
Here it's silly to include walking and cycling, because most people don't have the time or strength to travel 100 miles that way.
ps. boy this comment box is too small!
So, riding 14.28 miles is just as risky as smoking one (1, uno, en, eins) cigarette? Thats it, I'm convinced, I'm getting an MC license asap.
Great post (and comments).
Dr. Mercola likes to tout that 1 french fry is just about as bad as 1 cigarette - and I've had a lot of french fries in my day! (meh why lie I'm surprised I'm not having one as we speak) Just imagine, I could've been Evil Knievel by now...
(_\ / \ `== / /\=,_ ;--==\\ \\o /____//__/__\ @=`(0) (0)
source link for above ascii from chris.com
I think the motorcycle deal is a bit risky myself but before driving I rode a bicycle for a good number of years. As a bike rider the one thing that scared me more than my own riding ability in slippery terrain was being able to compensate for the mistakes of others in vehicles. Now I'll admit I don't have much faith in the human race in general (hence why I tend to avoid condominiums/communes/collective ownership/ anything with masses of total strangers) so in essence when it comes down to sharing asphalt with a bunch of nameless others I think a car would be the optimal choice. This reminds me of the whole SUV craze a decade ago where people kind of stacked larger cars against each other as insurance against other drivers on the road - kind of like an arms race. As a result of this US roads in general are filled with a bunch of makeshift 80mph tanks (though not as bad as the early 2000's with Hummer's dominating the roads everywhere). If we lived in another country where smaller cars were more prevalent everywhere I'd really have no problem riding a motorcycle. This is due to the fact that if another nameless one makes a mistake I'll be colliding into a lot less of a physical mass in other countries than I would be in the US.
In the battle of flesh vs. metal the person in the larger vehicle has a statistically higher chance of walking away without a scratch. On a slight segue I think this is why I don't like it when pedestrians just walk on the road without looking thinking like they own it and cars will bow to their presence. All the laws in the world that say you must yield the right of way to pedestrians won't help one bit when it comes down to a physics battle between a 2 ton monstrosity of metal and ABS plastic vs. human flesh and bone. A healthy respect needs to be given to those that are stronger than you despite our laws appeal to chivalry for the weak. Before I cross the road I well make sure all the cars are gone, yielded, or well on their way to yielding because no law of man will save me from the law of nature.
Heh going back to statistics - I have to deal with them fairly often jobwise and from my experience statistics are useful for orbital assumptions and not much more than that. Meaning that despite stats/figures showing i.e. US unemployment dropping or the stock market recovering or housing markets bouncing back NONE of those can convey the actual TRUTH of what lies behind those statistics. In other words unemployment reaching all time lows is no comfort when YOU are unemployed per se. The stats and charts and graphs tell only a PARTIAL story - the real TRUTH lies behind all of that through close and thorough examination and immersion in ACTUAL EXPERIENCE. I guess the sum of this is I believe since Tynan is very confident of his ability, is highly principled, and has come to terms with the risks that he will be an excellent rider - regardless of what random statistics and figures say. Belief bends reality (in my little thought bubble anyway) :D
I have a similar philosophy as you do to motorcycle riding. I've taken the safety course, have my license, and always wear my safety gear (full faced helmet and motorcycle jacket.) Yes there is a chance you take with someone crushing you, but you minimize the risk. You can't make risk of death zero for anything. Its the chances you take.
I think its the best way to travel and truly experience the world. I've traveled the United States on motorcycle for 2 months and recently took a three week vacation to Italy, rented a motorcycle, and traveled the whole country entire country on it. Dangerous? A bit. Worth it? Yes. While every other traveler I ran into was constrained by public transportation and walking on foot, I was able to freely explore every bit of Italy on my own accord.
Its funny, the very week I started buying the components to build my first bike two people at my workplace had close relatives who died in motorcycle accidents, and neither of them were risk takers, and both had helmets. (Which, coincidentally, did nothing for the type of accident involved.) It really gave me pause...but just pause. I'm just an around-town guy, but even still, people on my 35mph street drive like, well, drunken rednecks, mostly cause they are. Scary as the circumstances are, I'm not going to stop.
I am, also, an MSF instructor and I write about motorcycles, motorcycling, touring, and technology. Statistics are funny things, especially when the base numbers are suspect. I would heavily suspect that 100 million miles number you're starting with. Several attempts at figuring out the miles ridden for motorcycles would give you a number well under that. Even in CA, it's a safe bet that motorcycles are about 0.01% of total traffic, but we are 14-20% of traffic deaths and, as you note, about 40% of serious, disabling injuries. If someone guessed that a motorcyclist is at least 1,000 times more likely to die in a crash than a car driver, per mile driven, I would not contest that statement. It's probably worse.
As you've mentioned, many of those crashes are from foolish behavior, drugs and alcohol, poor riding skills, or all of the above. Since motorcycles are inherently dangerous, you should at least love the hell out of riding and feel a near-compulsion to be on two wheels before you even consider riding a motorcycle. It is nearly a lifestyle commitment, completely unlike driving a car or other transportation methods (other than bicycle commuting). Motorcycling is demanding, intolerant of distractions, skill-intensive, only slightly cheaper than driving a car, and dangerous. It is also fun, all-encompassing, and an adventure every day. The occasional rider is at a lot more risk than a habitual rider, purely from a skills angle.
That old "two kinds of riders" thing is true and even the best of us find that out if we ride long enough.
Last week I went skydiving. It was actually my fourth time going, but since I hadn't been in a couple years, they made me take the training again.
After skydiving, my friends and I went to an arcade. I don't really like arcade games (besides H2Overdrive), so I wandered around until I found one called "Commercial Airline Simulator". You may be surprised to know that no line had formed in front of that particular machine. I played through the entire training mode of it, and was pleasantly surprised at how similar it was to when I flew a plane a few years prior when I took a couple pilot lessons.
The following weekend I took motorcycle classes and got my license. Around that time I started thinking about how awesome first lessons are-particularly those that were swimming around in my mind.
March 10, 2010. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Late morning.
I pulled on my swim trunks, trainers, and a tank top and walked out of my little guesthouse room, sliding through the cramped restaurant strewn with tables, and out into the hot, dusty air of Phnom Penh. It's a hot day. It'll be good to swim after lifting weights.
I said, "No no, thank you" to the tuk-tuk drivers offering to take me somewhere in the city, pushed through the little crowd, and out onto the street. The streets in Cambodia more resemble alleyways than streets, and I navigate around people and vehicles.
I went down to the end of the street, turned left, and skirted along close to the local restaurants, half-tent half-storefront type places to get food. I stepped into the crosswalk, the Hotel Cambodiana rising in front of me. I check right and then left, and I watch left as I cross, watching for oncoming traffic.
A loud scream rings out. AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.