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.
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