“Motorcycles are dangerous”: the first myth all new motorcyclists must unlearn.

“But motorcycles are dangerous!”

Your dear parents will have almost certainly said these words the moment you sheepishly admitted that you wanted to ride a motorcycle. And despite all their best intentions, if your parents had said this, they’d have been as wrong as only parents could be.

Logically, no motorcycle is intrinsically dangerous. Even though they’re routinely left chained to urban lampposts like banned breeds, it’s their human owners who really make the difference.

Human interaction with its own creations has always had its two sides. There’s the side the motorcycling industry likes to promote; a side defined loosely by the rainbow word ‘freedom’ overlaid onto an image of a carefree biker wearing the wholesome grin of someone who’s clearly never stepped barefoot on a piece of Lego first thing in the morning.

Then there’s the other; the side that American writer Bill Bryson chronicles in his Notes from a Big Country. Based on the official Statistical Abstract of the United States, Bryson provides eye-opening commentary on what happens when less competent humans involve themselves in seemingly simple interactions with innocuous everyday objects.* It does not provide comforting reading for those who worry for the survival of humanity. Each year:

  • 400,000 Americans suffer injuries involving beds, mattresses or pillows.
  • 163,000 people are injured by ceilings, walls and inside panels.
  • 142,000 receive emergency-room treatment for injuries inflicted by their clothing.
  • 50,000 Americans are injured by pencils, pens and other desktop accessories.

As unlikely as these numbers seem, what this tells us is refreshingly obvious: humans (I fear it is not just Americans) are always the weakest link in person-object relations.

If you’re a nervous new rider staring down the barrel of a career in motorcycling, Bryson’s statistical foray might seem especially worrying.

It needn’t be. Provided you take proper precautions and ride responsibly, there is no more reason for you to arrive on a statistical abstract than anyone else – that’s statistics! But there is one thing every new motorcyclist should be aware of which will greatly help in this, and it relates to your chosen motorcycle’s personality.

Let me explain better. As a wet-behind-the-ears new rider long ago, I remember the trepidation with which I rode my first ‘proper’ bike, a modified Yamaha RD250E, shortly after passing my Part Two test. I’ll admit now, I was more than a little scared of it at first.

I’d been primed by its previous owner to its various attributes: its Jekyll and Hyde power delivery, its appetite for spark plugs and petrol and most importantly, I was warned of its personality.

Apparently, my bike was a somewhat “temperamental old girl” which might test my patience for any number of unspecified reasons (though the previous owner did say these tests would usually occur in the morning, especially if I was already late for work). And how right he turned out to be – except in one little thing. The bit about my motorcycle having a ‘personality’.

The RD didn’t have a personality. No motorcycle has a personality. They have worn out parts and parts which are wearing out and nothing more. The failings of that particular machine were nothing to do with personality but were simply down to the long line of ham-fisted owners, of which I had become the latest.

Blaming the object – in this case a motorcycle – for your own failings as a motorcyclist or mechanic is the logical equivalent of a bad carpenter blaming their tools. Attributing human personality traits to motorcycles – anthropomorphism to give it its proper name – is just another way of excusing our own failings as motorcyclists.

On your own journey through motorcycling you’ll see this ‘personality excuse’ popping up everywhere. It might spring from the lips of an embarrassed seller as they desperately thumb at a starter button “She’s always a bit temperamental first thing in the morning heh!” (Oh, how refreshing it would be to hear instead “As you can see, I have never once serviced this bike.”)

You may also come across it in magazines and online forums where certain bikes achieve mystical status in biking lore, bikes which throw unwary riders into hedges for a lack of perceived ‘respect’. This, again, is hardly the result of a demonic Christine-like presence in the Kawasaki Mach III 500. No matter how badly something handles, unplanned forays through undergrowth are ninety-nine times out of a hundred a rider issue.

So remember this at the start of your career and it’ll serve you well: a motorcycle is no more possessed by any complex personality disorders than is a food mixer. 

Motorcycles are simple mechanical machines which respond to highly complex and subtle inputs based on the rider’s perception of prevailing road and traffic conditions – and that’s really it.

It might sound more boring than out-psyching Optimus Prime every morning on your driveway, but at least you can rest safe in the knowledge that on every ride it’ll be you calling the shots, not the bike.

Riding a motorcycle is a learned skill which, if you can ride a bicycle, you’ll find to be a breeze. Over time, you’ll get better at it too. You’ll begin to recognise differences between different bikes’ characteristics. Hopefully you’ll recognise these differences as engineering decisions, compromises, failures even – rather than something supernatural that you cannot hope to control or influence. This will be especially helpful if you ever buy a Mach III.

But what’s most important as a new rider is that no matter what you ride, the relationship between you and your machine must always boil down to the same thing: motorcycle – dumb, rider – in control. The moment this relationship is reversed, motorcycling becomes a highly dangerous occupation – no question about that.

But motorcycles, dangerous? I’d say the humans have a pretty good head start on that one.

*Copyright Bill Bryson “Well, Doctor, I was just trying to lie down…” in Notes from a Big Country, 1998

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