There are some similarities between the causes of plane crashes and the reasons for motorcycle accidents: it’s often a combination of factors, or risks, that cause incidents in both cases. And in both, the fundamental cause can usually be traced back to “human error.” Just as in doing a preflight check before flying your own airplane, a motorcyclist should take stock of his or her risk factors before their ride. Unlike the airline industry, which has many rules, regulations, and certifications in place to help prevent accidents, the motorcycle rider is pretty much on their own.
The Venn diagram below shows one way of thinking about four fundamental categories of rider risk and how they can overlap to create even higher levels of accident risk to riders.
The Four Rs For Evaluating Motorcycle Riding Risk
You, The Rider: The question here is, are you physically and mentally prepared to ride safely? Here are some of the most important considerations:
Physically Fit? Physical impairments, like injuries or lack of sleep, will compromise alertness and safety.
Emotionally Fit? Riders should not be preoccupied with emotional distractions.
Chemically Unimpaired? It goes without saying that motorcycle riding and consumption of controlled substances is often a lethal combination. I cringe when I see a bunch of motorcycles parked outside of a bar. An ambulance should be on-site, like at racetracks, to pick up the pieces!
Wearing Proper Gear? Because the risks of motorcycling can be mitigated—but not eliminated—it’s imperative that riders wear all their protective gear all the time. That includes a full-face helmet, proper boots and gloves, and riding jackets and pants with armor.
Have the Right Attitude? Riders should display a proper attitude, enjoying the ride, but doing so responsibly. Wheelies, stoppies, riding with legs draped over the handlebars, excessive speed, or other high-risk behaviors, inevitably, will lead (sooner or later) to a rider going down and endangering themself and others.
Bike Mechanically Fit? Like the pilot who does a walk around of a plane before takeoff, riders should make sure their bike is ready to ride: properly inflated tires, turn signals and brake lights working, no obvious mechanical issues, etc.
Familiar Bike? When I ride an unfamiliar bike, it usually takes me at least 30 minutes of riding before I feel “dialed in” and fully in control of the new motorcycle. It’s important to take it easy and not push any limits until your confidence level is at 100 percent.
Visible to Others? Are you riding a blacked-out bike (without reflectors or auxiliary lights) in black leathers, wearing a graphite color helmet at night? One of the leading causes of accidents is other motorists not seeing the motorcyclist. Be visible!
Hauling Cargo? If you will be hauling human or other cargo, the bike will handle differently: directional changes will be slower, braking distances will increase, and acceleration will be degraded. A slower responding bike requires adjustments to speed, following distances, and other similar riding considerations.
Road Conditions/Hazards? Bad pavement, tar snakes, pot holes, animals, poorly maintained railroad crossings, road debris, and plastic strips used to denote cross walks can all increase the risk of a crash. Speed and caution should be adjusted accordingly when these are present.
Level of Difficulty? If you’ve just gotten your motorcycle endorsement, riding technically demanding roads with steep elevation changes, switchbacks, and hairpin curves should be avoided until your skill level progresses to meet such demands. The Tail of the Dragon will still be there when you’re ready for it.
Services Available? Riding in remote areas, where gas stations are few and far between and emergency medical service is not readily available, requires more planning and riding caution.
Your Riding Environment:
Time of Day? Riding into the sun, either in early morning or late evening, can severely limit a rider’s ability to see where he or she is going and avoid hazards. I usually try not to ride at night, because my ability to see and be seen is greatly compromised. It’s also at these times of day that deer and certain other members of the animal kingdom are most active, further increasing risk.
Weather? Fog, rain, snow, freezing temperatures, extreme heat, thunderstorms, and other types of severe weather pose a much greater threat to a motorcyclist’s ability to avoid hazards and be visible to other motorists, not to mention the danger of being injured or killed by the severe weather itself.
Traffic Congestion? With drivers talking on cell phones, texting, trying to read while driving, and the myriad of other distractions available in the 21st century, the heightened exposure of riding in heavy traffic is pretty obvious. Because many of those other drivers may not be alert to your presence, riders have to be extra alert to the rapid-fire succession of threats developing around them.
If you start combining some of these hazards (and I’m sure you can add to the list), as illustrated by the areas of overlap in the Venn diagram, then it’s apparent that your risk profile can increase dramatically. Riders should continuously assess their riding perils, both before and during the ride, so they can mitigate them. Sometimes, when the threat level is just too high, the best mitigation may be to just not ride.