The Impossible Reality of Numbers Part Deux

The impossible reality of numbers is rooted in the fact humanity as a group   is inextricably tied to the numbers but individuals are not.  Whether by fate, luck or call it what you may, when people “beat the odds” what have they really done?  I’m not a fatalist  but try and wrap your frontal lobe around this:

Why didn’t you die or get maimed by your motorcycle last year?  Here’s some numbers I found in the Governors Highways Safety Association 2010 preliminary report:  In 1975 there were a touch over 3000 motorcycle fatalities.  In 1980 there’s a trend that peaks just over 5000.  In 1997 the numbers bottom out back around 2000 before starting a climb that peaks above 5000 in 2008.  By 2010 numbers suddenly drop well below 5000.

Governors Highway Safety Association Report

Why?  There’s plenty of conjecture and you can read the report above and make up your own mind or create your own hypothesis but, for me, I’m more interested in the riders who lived than I am in those who died.  That may sound callous but my interest is in the fact that loads and buckets and boodles of people survive their riding experience.


All through motorcycling history the hopelessly uncoordinated, under-skilled, reckless and wild have survived.  Sure, racers like Marco Simoncelli died on the track as did Norifumi Abe–but my mother told me that happens to anyone who races.  Jeremy Lusk cashed his chips in doing Freestyle–ask most folks and they’ll say “Duh…what did you expect those guys are crazy!”

They are also trained professionals in controlled situations.

Motorcycle safety expert Larry Grodsky took his final ride in 2006 and ended it with a fatal collision with a deer.

Bruce Rossmeyer was no rookie when his ticket was punched in Wyoming.

Is the motorcycle reaper no respecter of persons?  Smart guys die.  Knuckleheads die.  Professionals die both on road and track.  Really, what does it take to catch a serious case of “death by riding”?  Or is the better question, “Is there any inoculation or vaccine that guarantees survival?” After 10 years of teaching & writing and 30 years of riding I’m pretty comfortable in saying this:

Luck is both dumb and blind.  There are times you’re just snaked and there’s not a whole heck of a lot you can do about it.  On occasion it seems that when your number is up…your number is up.  The fatalist view extends this to all human activity which is boiled down to:  “There’s nothing you can do about it, fate will do what fate will do–“.  This is a philosophy I’m cool with.  I’m not going to fight you on it.  If you’re a tested and true fatalist my hat is off, you have more conviction than the average human.

Part of the impossible reality of numbers is that folks have to crash.  Folks have to die.  100% safe is a mirage and unattainable.  Safe means to be absent of risk and that I know is impossible.  The truth about constant, unavoidable risk is that it we do not have to cede ourselves to some fatal view that “If it’s my time?  It’s my time.”   The numbers may be fixed.  They may be a simple part of the fabric of riding–however I believe that the people who populate those numbers are not fated to be there.   You have control over yourself.  Sh*t happens.  No argument, however if you park yourself in a septic tank or under an outhouse it’s much, much more likely to fall on you.

The truly impossible reality of  the numbers is that you can lessen your risk of being one–even though they have be.  You can take control of your riding and affect where you land in the big pile of risk (or pooh, your choice).  If you’re truly worried about getting hurt or killed on a bike?  GET OFF THEM.  You might still be killed by a motorcycle, they make wonderful ballistic weapons, but the odds of your being the author of your own demise while riding fall to zero.  You’ve removed yourself from the numbers pool.  OH!  And after you’ve retired your bike remember that according to the CDC about 10 people per day die of unintended, non-boating related drowning in the US.  That’s about 3500 a year…running close to the death by motorcycle numbers so stay away from your bathtub, swimming pool and garden hose too.  You may get a little smelly but an occasional sponge bath will help with that.

If you ride you’re buying a lottery ticket, you’re in the office pool now and the question is how to avoid winning it.  Just like controlling your motorcycle that lays fully on you.  The number one thing you can do is separate your drinking from your riding.   Gear up.  Train.  Avoid high risk situations.  Behave like you know it’s risky.  Don’t cop out and go all neo-fatalist and buy into the “If it’s my time?  It’s my time” crap.  You have some control over that damn clock so exercise it.

Somebody’s got to die, it just doesn’t need to be you.  Cliched though it may be you don’t have to be a statistic.  Control your risk–control your fate.

Be Safe.


The Impossible Reality of Numbers

Math sucks. It is the incantation of every human confounding formula. On the whole as a society we seem almost programmed to dislike the manipulation and use of numbers. We add layer and layer of math to our children’s scholastic diet for no clear reason except to punish them for our own pleasure. Makes me wonder how many of them will break their teeth on numbers and be victims of the cruel calculus of failure and disappointment.

I have had my ass kicked by math. Fun it was not.

Part of the problem with numbers is that we know that they are true. We may not be able to decipher them but we know that someone, somewhere can and if we doubt that we can be bludgeoned by someone schooled in the dark art of numerals, fractions, and square roots. Part of the peril of numbers is that if you can’t get it there’s a sour and certain knowledge that someone else can. Pisses me off. Sorry. Just does. I don’t hate you I just hate the wiring in your brain.

As a culture motorcycling is plagued by numbers. Statistics are the mysterious weapons of the motorcycle political skirmish.  In the warfare of performance, economy and even safety you can  be bullied into retreat and then besieged as both sides of an argument fling numbers real and imagined back and forth over the wall at each other. A number that may mean middle aged riders are underrepresented in the stats is suddenly is intercepted by “years of experience” then pelted with multi v. single vehicle accidents and then hewn to bits by a “per capita” which is gored by the fact that those numbers are too old to be valid and besides, were gathered in New Zealand.

Two factions can even smack each other around with the very same numbers. A blunt instrument is a blunt instrument no matter who wields it.

When I speak of the impossible reality of numbers I have a very pointed meaning. I mean that no matter how you want to parse it motorcyclists die. To twist the Lizard King, no one here gets out alive and transport to the great beyond isn’t guaranteed to be a bike, no matter how recklessly you ride. The numbers are impossibly real: people die on bikes. The reverse is equally valid: not everyone who rides dies riding. People get maimed. More come away unscathed, and as I have said before death is not guaranteed. The impossible reality of the numbers isn’t found in the medium, mean or outlier, it is found in that all motorcycle numbers are fixed in the past. Numbers are things that happened not things that will happen.

The importance of knowing that numbers are fixed in the past tense is important because although you can extrapolate and estimate the future there is no guarantee that future will happen…to use a statistical term, you may have an “outlier” year. A good example of how a number is cast forward without context is the great motorcycling fear of left turning vehicles. Hurt found that in multiple vehicle accidents that left turning vehicles are the enemy. Since those numbers were released there’s been a constant mantra of “look out for left turners, they are the number one cause of accidents”…which they aren’t The number one reason we crashed and died last year is because folks on bikes tend to crash all alone in single vehicle accidents. Yup, we run wide in turns. The numbers are pretty clear that we’re a danger to ourselves.

The past now tells us we have taken more control of our future. There is only one way to drive down single vehicle motorcycle crashes: ride better & ride smarter. It’s a thing called “Individual Responsibility”. Unfortunately we aren’t a culture or country of self-reflection & introspection; we look for someone else to put the blame on. In RiderWorld we do that by almost solely fixating on the other vehicle, the one we have no control over. I am not saying that another user (be it car, pedestrian or stray UFO) can’t ruin your day I”m saying that the numbers dictate you are a bigger danger to yourself than some faceless “cager”.

This does not mean it’s time to get all hung up on single vehicle accidents; that was the mistake we culturally made with left turners. We pushed the blame fully somewhere else. To the converse we cannot then pull the blame over ourselves and hide under it figuring the left turning boogie man can’t get us because we can’t see it. That was the mistake we have made with left turning vehicles, we pulled our heads down and ignored all other problems because it is damn easy to pass blame around.

You want to manage your risk better? Ride longer and less frightened? Then quit pulling your Star Wars blankie over your head and thinking you’re safe. Get up, put on your boots, look around, shine the flashlight into every corner and realize you need to be wary of everything out there–including yourself.

Be Safe.

Yes, I’m THAT good aren’t I?

Today students we will be discussing assessment.  Assessment is that magical time where, after instruction, we assess to see how much was retained.  It’s the fancy way of saying “test”.

Assessment can be formal or informal–you can have a sit down test or practical examination or you can assess simply by watching the student perform a given task.  In motorcycling we have very, very few formal assessments.  Odds are the only formal assessment you’ll ever have is a practical, hands on licensing examination.  For you California types that means the Keyhole or Lollipop.  For a bunch of us that means the Alternate Motorcycle Operator Skills Test (Alt-MOST).   For the rest of you?  I do not know.  Your state may subject you to anything that they feel requires you to demonstrate basic controls needed to turn you loose with an endorsement.

One of the important things about assessment (especially for licensing purposes) is that there needs to be objective standards.  An objective standard is one that has a baseline of some kind that you either can or cannot meet.  Getting stopped from Y speed in X feet is a good example.  Either you can–or you can’t.  There’s nothing subjective about it.  Subjective tests are much, much more open to answers.  In a subjective test you may be asked to demonstrate understanding but in the evaluation there are more than one correct answer.  In other words, instead of stopping from Y speed in X feet you simply are asked to demonstrate appropriate braking skills.  What does that mean?  It could mean you didn’t crash.  It could mean you looked well ahead, used both brakes, didn’t skid either wheel, and didn’t downshift.  In fact in a truly subjective test the examiner could look at you and say, “I liked it.  You’re good to go.”

For example, I was told a story just last night by a gentleman from a small farming community.  At age 7 his father dropped him into the seat of a tractor and said, “Drive.”  By 12 he was running loaded trucks from the farm to the grain silos.  When he turned 15 he went to the DMV and took the written test.  When he walked out to take his driving assessment he recognized the examiner who said, “Andy?  What brings you by?”

“Got to get my license.”  Andy replied.

“How’d you do on the written?”  Asked the examiner.

“100%!”  Said Andy.

“Good!  Here let me sign you off.”  This was confusing to Andy because he wasn’t sure what was going on.  He hadn’t taken the practical (driving) test yet.  He must have looked confused because the examiner said, “Andy, I’ve been watching you drive for years.  I know you and your Dad.  You’re good.  I’ll just sign it and save the time.

That is a textbook subjective test.

Unfortunately most motorcyclists, especially new ones, do self-assessment.  We ride and then we decide, “Damn, I’m good” or “Dude, I suck”.  Both these opinions (which is what a subject evaluation is) are generally, completely, dead nuts wrong.  Why?  First we can be awful, awful judges of ourselves.  We may be unduly harsh or ridiculously self inflated and unable to look at ourselves without either bashing or blowing smoke.  If you are my age you may have thought velour looked good on you at some point.  It didn’t.  OR if you’re a little younger you may have fallen victim to a Members Only jacket or (ladies) low rise jeans and a belly shirt.

Assessing yourself cleanly and reasonably is possible.  The trick is to use objective standards.   If you’ve been out riding and you come home and sit on the couch, crack a beer and say, “I owned that.  I am soooo smooth and fast.”  How do you know?  You felt fast?  You really, really felt fast?  No, dude, I mean you reeeeeally felt fast.

Who cares?  You may be fast.  You may be as fast a molasses in January.  You might be greased lightening–I don’t know.  I wasn’t there.  I can’t apply my subjective judgement because of my lack of attendance.  You, on the other hand, probably don’t have an objective measure to work with, it’s all about how you felt not how you rode.

In the past few years I have run into a rider or two (often on the web) who are convinced that they are the shizz.  That they are stonking around big footing everybody because dude, they’ve been riding almost a year, or a year, or a year and a half and they just know how good they are.

My very first reaction is to smack them in the face.  It’s annoying to be told by someone how accomplished they are when odds are they aren’t.   My hackles come right up.  Back in the day?  (And this is pure evil) I would invite folks like that out for a ride and sucker them into nasty corners to scare the piss out of them.  A couple of poor outcomes for the other rider and I broke myself of that behavior.  Nowadays I type a lot and then delete even more.  I bite my tongue.  I still want to turn around, pat the tailpiece and give them the finger and then light it up down my favorite road.

Instead I give them objective tests to work with.  A few years ago I had a go around with a gentleman in Michigan.  It was brutal.  In the end he started appearing in every forum I post in.  One day he was bragging about his braking skills and claiming he was reaching impending skid with regularity.  (Impending skid?  Look it up.)  I realized that was very, very unlikely.  He videotaped himself stopping and all he was doing was skidding the rear wheel.  I then gave him objective, nationally recognized standards to use.

He realized he really wasn’t that good at braking.

As much as I like to gloat I didn’t.  It was a breakthrough moment for him.  He realized he wasn’t as good as he thought he was.  False securities were washed away.  Skills were improved.   He was made safer for the exchange.  Things didn’t end well for our internet association but last I checked he is still riding and enjoying himself while braking better due to the exchanges.

Self-assessment is a tough thing.  Usually we’re wrong.   Take an advanced course.  Look up some numbers to work with.  Find the objective numbers or the honest, responsible subjective observer.  Bottom line is that you’re probably not as good/bad as you think you are.  But don’t trust yourself–If you can go out and find a better measuring stick.

Be Safe.


Buying Time

When the big circle of metaphors meets around the campfire, the idea of “Buying Time” is a confusing two faced son of a gun.  When he talks to authority figures like your mom or math teacher he’s all, “You can’t buy time!”  Same with Dietitians, Dentists and that guy trying to sell you an IRA.

“You can’t buy time!  It’s finite!  Don’t waste it!”  Lying sack of dog food.

Get “Buying Time” turned around and chatting with terminally ill people and he’ll sell you a year or a few months or even a week; spendy though.  He’ll sell you time on April 15th—just file the paperwork, get the extension and turn in your taxes in May.  Time is sometimes a commodity and you can purchase time, often for the cost of a stamp, occasionally for a fortune, and everything in-between.  In a tight spot a few extra seconds can make a world of difference, changing outcomes and saving lives.

Time is especially precious on a motorcycle and the price is paid with attention and with throttle control.  If you’re unwilling to trade attention or speed for time then just bail out right now because I cannot help you.  All can do is nod empathetically when you are in that bind where you are thinking, “Sh*t.  If only I had a couple more seconds.”  I say empathy because I’ve been there too, standing in the wreckage of bike, mind and pride; considering where things went wrong.  Then thinking that frustrating thought of “If I only had a couple more seconds…”

I am not a physicist and I do not claim to know how the theory of relativity works, and I’m not really sure what happens when you turn on a flashlight when you’re traveling at the speed of light but I do know this: If you’re going you’re going 55mph and slow to 50 then it’s gonna take about 10% longer to get where you’re going.  If you are riding a motorcycle that means you just bought yourself some extra time on the road–about 5 minutes worth.  Since, in the end, this is a zero sum game you will have bought 5 minutes on the road in exchange for 5 minutes at your final location.  (This means travelling to your in-laws you might want to run at, say, 30-35mph.)

Right now I am more interested in the tiny transactions where your skin is on the line.  You know, that moment when “if I only had more second, moment, chance” to think.  As a rider I know I have pondered on those moments of lament where I wish I had been faster and quicker when instead I should have been slower and smarter.  We riders spend a lot of time putting a premium value on our skill set.  Things as important as:  How fast can I go?  How fast can I corner?  How quickly can I stop?  How’s my swerve looking?   Or things that sound trivial but seem important like:  Can I balance the bike, feet up, at a stop?  Should you dismount to fuel up?  Are my chicken strips too big?  I’ll admit.  There are times we are a truly weird bunch of humans complete with all the questions, quirks and quacks any group of enthusiasts have.

It is vitally important to have a skill set that can get you out of tight spot however it’s equally important to be able to put a tight spot a little farther into the future.  To buy a little time, perhaps only a second or two to allow you time to kill that startle response which wants to steal between a half and a full second from you in an emergency.  You can safeguard, buy that time back and even buy more if you can master two simple tricks:

First, keep your head and eyes up, looking well ahead.  I know that’s boring, old school advice and that yes, things can happen right there in front of you but generally you’ll get a clue like a flapping tarp, brake lights or sudden lane changes by other users.  If you can catch that 10 seconds before you get there you can formulate a plan to entirely avoid the problem.

Second (and this is the part many of us forget) if things up ahead are looking hinky you need to slow down.  Slowing down—a simple roll off of the throttle and gentle press to activate the brake light—buys you time and that can change a tight spot to a non-event.  Slowing is different than braking.  Braking is actively scrubbing off speed.  You may have to brake but before that you need to have the sense to look up, say “That ain’t right” and roll off so you can evaluate the situation.  Since rolling off decreases speed without letting folks behind you know you’re slowing a gentle foot on the brake communicates you actions and alerts those behind that something is happening up front!  When you see brake lights, especially when you’re not expecting them, your head wakes up and you start asking, “What’s going on up there?”  This simple act generally results in the following vehicles actively braking which gives you separation from them and they in turn get more time to react.

Beauty, eh?

With the simple act of slowing you can avoid things like violent swerves, sudden threshold braking, or surmounting.  With 2 or 3 or even 4 seconds you can completely defuse a situation and cut your risk dramatically.  Time is related to distance—the longer it takes you to get somewhere the more time you have to gather information and decide on the best plan of action.  If you’re not paying attention well ahead, if you’re just focused on the vehicle in front of you and how to get around it or how hideously ugly the paint is then you’re set to have to react immediately when it’s brake lights come on…or don’t and that thing is braking!

Time is essential.  Distance is time.  Creating time by simply slowing and taking longer to cover the distance to the threat gives you time to minimize or eliminate it.

Be Safe.