RideApart Community: How Comfortable Are You With Risk?

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The RideApart community contains a vast array of knowledge about bikes, riding and pretty much everything having to do with motorcycles. We want to share that experience in a bigger way, so we’ve enlisted our readers to share their thoughts as guest authors. Up first, blogger Scott Otte, who asks, “How Comfortable Are You With Risk?”…

I love riding a motorcycle; it would be hard for me to imagine ever giving it up. I want to be that 80-year-old guy who is still riding and talking about the good old days. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll make it; sometimes I think I’m a bit too comfortable with the risks involved in motorcycling. I don’t mean the kind of danger a motorcyclist faces every day. I mean the kinds of things one can do on a motorcycle that might increase the chances of crashing and getting hurt.

Risk can be part of the appeal, but I think there is a line. I’m just not sure where it is. I would be lying if I said that the risk of riding a motorcycle isn’t part of the draw for me, but there is no denying it can be a dangerous way to travel. However, I also feel motorcycling is possibly the most fun way to get from point A to point B. For me, it’s worth it. So I have studied, practiced and always work to improve my riding skills and abilities to keep myself safe on the road.

Still, a few weeks ago when a friend and I had stopped to get gas on a ride, he commented that he thought some of the lane splitting I did on the freeway was a bit dangerous. “It’s crazy to split lanes at 50+ miles per hour while traffic is moving fast.” I was defensive at first, but my friend persisted with his opinion, and the discussion made me think about what made him feel this way. I am still not sure that I agree with him, but that is beside the point. It really made me scratch my head. How crazy is it that my friend, the person who got me into motorcycles, thought that I was being reckless. I ride everyday, but he has since moved to NYC and doesn’t ride nearly as much. Has something has changed?

Maybe I’m just more comfortable with lane splitting, and it’s no big deal? Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to something that really is dangerous just because I do it every day? Or maybe it falls somewhere in the middle.

Since that conversation with my friend, I have taken note of myself taking other small risks on my motorcycle and questioning my own behavior. These were things like maneuvers that weren’t really necessary or needed but employed just to make my ride more fun.

Being too comfortable riding inches away from cars can be a bad thing, especially since over 50% of fatal motorcycle accidents involve cars. Most of those come in situations having to do with making left hand turns and passing. Cars are massive moving objects whose drivers can easily harm or even kill us. They simply do not see motorcycles. That’s why I always give them plenty of space.

Still, the more you do something, the easier it gets and more relaxed you are. Think back on how crazy it felt when you first started riding. How fast 30 mph felt, or how insane it was the first time you got on the freeway. Remember that feeling of how dangerous it was to be anywhere close to a car?

I don’t want to sound like I think being comfortable on a motorcycle is bad; riding with confidence is very important. It is not enough to know how to ride a motorcycle you also have to be sure enough in your abilities to execute them when necessary. Knowing that you can lean more and turn harder when something unexpected happens is vital. Being confident with your abilities and comfortable with hard braking can save your life.

Regardless, I think it’s very important to occasionally take the time and look at your riding habits. Maybe slow down just a bit and think about something you may be doing that might not end well. Try and remember anything can happen out there and that continuing to develop you riding skills and always riding safe are key to more years on two wheels.

Do you ever take a step back and look at some of the things you do on a bike? Do you ever question your own riding habits?

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  • Luis Fernando Ponce

    Yes, I step back a lot, the question is Why I want to speed up in a city street? if I really want to try my limits the track is the place. Stay calm at the highway or street is part of mature riding.

    • HoldenL

      Yeah, I ask myself the same thing. Then, a few minutes later, I shoot gaps in traffic. It’s so hard to be disciplined about riding safely.

  • augustdaysong

    even with insurance, I like my bikes a little too much to do anything exceedingly dangerous with them. I’m more worried about them than myself getting hurt. The fastest I’ve split is 45mph or so in LA traffic (cruising at 30-40, speeding up to pass between cars quick) and I take all my sporty riding progressively faster every time

    basically, I’m a big weenie

    • Stef

      Are you? When going at those speeds is it necessary to lane split at 45mph? Why don’t you wait for a opening in traffic when a car moves out of the lane?

      • augustdaysong

        More of a safety concern than time-saving or convenience. I was rear ended by an inattentive driver at the beginning of this year and since then I take any opportunity to avoid following or sitting in traffic

  • Jason

    The more accomplished you get as a rider, the farther away that risk line is. You are proficient and know your machine better than anyone at this point. It is complacency that often times brings that “risk line” back closer to you. It is a mind exercise, to stay sharp and focused and to choose your lines safely on a busy city Hwy. There is inherent risk walking out of the door in the morning, but if you stay focused and make smart decisions, you get to come home at night. On the other hand, when it’s your time, it’s your time. Ride smart, and enjoy the open air.

  • Mark D

    Everytime I find my self shooting gaps in traffic, taking blind-ish turns at 9/10th, or generally riding aggressively, I pull up the mental image of myself in a hospital bed, shitting into a bedpan, in terrible pain, and missing weeks and weeks of work and school.
    That usually calms me back down, relatively.

  • Robert

    People need to have a healthy amount of fear. Not so much that they wont ride but enough to be scared of hitting the ground. I wear full gear at all times and still have a healthy amount of fear. I have been riding for 2 years now (all year round, no car) with many different bikes (sport bikes and cruisers) and what I have learned is that you dont have to push a bike hard to have fun or to get around. I have never scraped a peg even on the 2 different harleys I have had. why? Because I dont need to. If you take the corner properly at a good speed then you wont scrape pegs and the more verticle you are the more options you have. Yes, I have done things to make other people fear for my life but I have never pushed myself or my bike beyond my comfort level. When people crash its usually not because of the limits of the bike but the limits of the person. So I dont push beyond that limit and I have done well so far. And the best 2 pieces of advice I can give a new rider is wear high viz and start on a 250cc.

  • george

    If you are not willing to die riding your motorcycle, then don’t ride on the street. There are many ways to reduce your risk, but street riding is still one of the riskier legal things that you can do (citation needed). The specter of death is one of the things that makes riding fun. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. If risking your life is not fun for you, stop riding.

  • devillock

    As long as the skill level is increasing with the comfort, I think all is good. What might be considered risky riding by one may in fact be safer riding by an experienced rider. I think the real risk is when you go over technical abilities, whether it be speed, lane splitting, etc… Stay within your limits and respect common sense and exercise good judgement. Stay focused and risk levels drop. The unattentive straight liner rider is probably at more risk than my questionable yet well executed lane splitting.

    • Scott Otte

      I agree, but there is still a danger as a skilled attentive rider to push it too far. I think I was close to this when my friend called me out. Just trying to do the same for everyone else.

      • devillock

        Oh for sure. Riding a twisty road has it’s risks no matter who you are and the faster you go the risks are increased. But that same road at same speed has less risk for an experienced rider over a beginner. But there will always be a risk. I think that’s a big part of why we ride, is knowing the dangers involved and then walking away from it. Some are luckier than others I guess.

  • William Connor

    I ride a lot two up so it changes my risk management. What I would have done previously is totally different with my wife on the back. I find that I take less risks and ride more in control and even though I still push the limit it’s not as often or as hard. Maybe because I know my limit now and just ride instead of pushing to some edge in the distance for no reason.

  • RC51guy

    To me the risk isn’t what I’m going to do, it’s what someone is [or isn't] going to do. I feel much safer at the race track going 135mph than on the road doing 35 mph with a teenage texting right behind me. Plus at the track an ambulance is about a minute away, who knows how long it could be on the street.

    Right now I am off work for 5 months because a moron turned left across my lane. I ended up with my lower right leg in 5 pieces [not all of the pieces stayed in my leg] and I’m relearning how to walk again. I’m not afraid of what I’ll do [I know my skills], I’m afraid of what the other person will do. No more street riding for me, I’m sticking to the track..

    • runnermatt

      I can understand your wanting to stick to the track now, but would encourage you to slowly work back into street riding too. Don’t let idiots steal your joy from you.

      Good luck with your recovery. I hope it is a full recovery and goes quicker than expected.

    • Jeffrey Behiels

      Godspeed on your recovery..

    • Robert Horn

      I’m sticking to the track now – no mishap involved in that decision – just the nagging feeling that I’ve had an unusual run of good luck. I also reserve the right to change my mind. I also have no desire to tell anyone else they should do the same thing.

      There’s a big difference between activities that are risky (Somehow, I have kids…) and activities that are just brutally unforgiving for not paying attention (Motorcycling, flying, etc…). That was always part of the appeal of certain activities to me; they are engaging enought to keep my attention, and in the process, help me forget everything I’d rather not dwell on. Multi-dimensional escape mechanism, man…

    • Send Margaritas

      Best wishes for a speedy recovery.

    • Kosta Chachanidze

      wish you speedy recovery too

    • Pablo Perez

      I wish you a speedy and complete recovery as possible.

    • RC51guy

      Thanks everyone! Maybe one day I’ll get back on the street, but dealing with all this and what I’ve put my wife thru it’s not worth it to me.

    • Scott Otte

      Glad you’re mending, I shattered my leg a few years ago, not as bad, but the months not walking were tough. Hope you can get back out on a bike soon even if only on the track.

  • runnermatt

    When I was 3 I was playing tag with my older brother and while climbing on my grandmother’s loose cinder block compost pile I pulled the top cinder block off. It was about 4 feet off the ground and it landed on my lower leg, breaking both bones. I am 33 now and I can still remember that incident clearly. The cinder block landed perpendicular to my leg and its width covered my leg from my knee to my ankle. I can remember sitting there on the ground screaming with my leg pinned to the ground by the weight of the cinder block waiting for my Mom to come get me because my older brother who was only 6 wasn’t strong enough to lift it off of my leg. I can remember getting x-rayed and the cast, which went from my hip to my toes, being applied to my leg. It wasn’t until the past year that my mom told me that I basically yelled at the doctors and nurses because they kept asking me how it happened and I was getting frustrated because I thought they were starting to annoy me with the same questions over and over (they were thinking child abuse because they couldn’t comprehend how a 3 year old could break their leg that bad and child abuses cases were all over the news at the time).

    I’ve come to the conclusion that this very traumatic event has colored my psychology. I’m always looking at my situation and asking how can this go bad. I do this a naturally as breathing. Sometimes I’ll be doing something that my girlfriend will think is dangerous and while she has just started to identify the risk I’ve already played out most, if not all of the possibilities in my head. That said I still slip up and hurt myself sometimes, but not often.

    The first time I rode my bike 45 mph was scary.

  • JT

    As a new rider I try to keep my risks down. I moved from California to Illinois and lost the ability to lane split. I honestly feel less safe without that option. I am also terrifed of laying my bike down dince it has no sliders or fairings. As said it is risky to ride, but it’s worth it to me.

  • Kevin

    I manage risk by not using my motorcycle for commuting or chores. I reserve it strictly for touring and day-tripping, where minimal amounts of time are spent on the street in urban traffic. The biggest danger when touring is passing, and I’m very cognizant of the risks related to passing (watch for driveways and turnouts!). I just can’t see urban commuting as being worth the risk. Sorry.

    • John Tiedjens

      I live in Reno NV. North of my garage are 2 lane twisties of the uncrowded NorCal Sierras….. South of my garage is the city. My bike rarely heads south. I agree… my bike as well is reserved for day trips on on populated Biways. I love riding and that’s riding at it’s best. Utilitarian riding changes your odds greatly of calamity. I’m not saying it can’t happen on a day trip but I feel better on open roadways…. certainly the ride is more beautiful as well.

    • Pablo Perez

      I’m afraid the statistics (and my own experience) back up your position. I live in Panama City, Panama. It’s fairly common for my riding buddies to get taken out in traffic here (it’s third-world gnarly). Usually it isn’t too bad, but every now and then someone gets it good. 9 times out of 10 it’s car drivers making a rushed lane change / turn / distracted driving.

    • Piglet2010

      I love urban freeway riding in traffic – battle of wits and maneuverability against dumb mass. Slashing through downtown traffic on the twist-and-go scooter is also fun.

      Too safe of a life is not worth living.

  • metric_G

    This is hard, a hard choice and could not explain it even to myself. I ride 40 miles daily, commuting to work, street and freeway, plus fun rides on the weekend. I have a friend died on the bike (pushing it too hard), another one paralyzed from the waist down (colliding with a car). I have two kids at home, loving wife, dog etc. I should not be riding, right? Yet, I still hop on the bike every day, rain or shine (here in San Diego more shine than rain). I try to be safe as possible, ATGATT, hi-viz yellow helmet and vest on top, responsible riding, and all that stuff. We do it for the passion of riding I guess, can’t explain it.
    On the other hand some one can give up motorcycling and have a piano dropped on his head a month later, when your number is up, it is up.

  • Archie

    I don’t commute on my bike. I don’t use it to get from A to B. I never throw a helmet on and zip down to the shops on it. My bike is a toy, nothing more. I ride it simply for leisure. That said, I do this nearly every day, even if only for 30 minutes at a time. I am a fairly aggressive street rider, I do things a lot of onlookers would regard as “dangerous” or illegal (location dependent). I lane-split, I filter, I wring it’s filthy neck nearly everywhere I go, but I do so within strict limits of what I know I, my bike, and others are capable of doing at the time. Maybe that might make me selfish in more ways than one, but I justify it every day by still being here and not having caused myself or any other person on the road any measure of harm, either directly or indirectly. I am in control, far more so than 99% of drivers I see on the roads.

    That said, I get people asking me if I’ve ever scared myself. Truth is, whenever I’m not actually sitting on that bike I am always tormented by all the little possibilities and “what if’s” from previous rides or the day’s upcoming session. Sometimes it just scares me shitless to even think about going out and riding a bike – even like a sane person – on my local roads, because of how incredibly dense some people here can be. I like to think that my life is entirely in my hands and that every accident is avoidable, but I can’t be certain of that. It bothers me one day, I don’t give it a moment’s thought the next. The thing is, as soon as I get on that bike it all just completely disappears and the only thing I think about is riding, having fun, chasing that thrill and staying alive.

  • Lee Scuppers

    I suspect I’ll get increasingly comfortable with risk until I learn the hard way, then start over once I can ride again.

  • Dubknot

    I’ve read before that it’s actually safer for riders who do commute on the streets, than for those who only ride on weekends and such. I’d have to look it up again, but I think it was a David Hough book. The theory is that folks who drive more than ride have to take extra time to get accustomed to riding everytime they swing a leg back over their bike. I can’t say that that’s true, but I do commute, and I feel every ride makes me a better rider. I think you keep your risks down by keeping your eyes up looking far ahead, and reading traffic. I’ve only had a couple “close calls” and they really weren’t all that close because I saw the driver preparing to make an error, and gave them all the space they needed to do so beforehand.

  • Slacker

    Always good to note… Most motorcycle accidents (fatalities included) occur less than a mile from the home, and under 30 miles per hour. This is attributed typically to the rider being relaxed and less likely to observe a threat because it’s something they’re used to… I count my luck that I wear a tinted faceshield, because if someone saw my eyes when I was riding, they’d think I’d need a hospital. Eyes are always scanning and checking for something off because of my accident on a commute. Gotta learn the hard way sometimes. :P

  • DaveDawsonAlaska

    Risk is part of the sport, part of any sport or worthwhile human endeavor really.

    The amount of risk I’m willing to take on a motorcycle tends to depend a lot on how far from civilization, medical or mechanical aid in particular, I am and how many people I’m with.

    If I’m by myself, half a tank in to a long stretch without gas stations, cell service, or help (right now, somewhere lost on two track in the middle of f— nowhere Oklahoma in 2009 or halfway across Saline Valley on the Road in 2012, alone and loaded down with luggage but no food to stay the night if I get stuck, are sticking best in my mind) I become a pretty damn conservative rider. Slow and steady as she goes.

    Riding with a group of friends in the woods back home of West Virginia or PA or Maryland on an AMA Dual Sport ride? Fresh knobbies and good trail conditions? Or, a freshly serviced bike, newish tires, clean roads with good vision of what’s ahead, and a buddy to chase on a pair of supermoto’s? Balls to the wall, scraping pegs and banging off the trees.

    Commuting to work? Somewhere in between. Aggro enough to make it interesting, not so much that I’ll get arrested or end up on YouTube. I do miss riding in a big city, it can be so much fun on a bike with good sticky tires, lots of suspension travel, and just enough power.

  • Rowan

    I ride for many reasons, the thrill is tapping into a bit of risk. But I’m not a wanker about it. I don’t care about chicken strips or any of that nonsense, and I’m not going to push myself into a corner too fast just to lean over and wipe off that rubber. Ride your own ride.

  • JT

    Riding home tonight a bus pulled away from the curb and it not only missed hitting me but cars as well. Every minute there are dangers present on the road for all vehicles it’s just that on a bike you have less physical protection and less visible presence. Ride as if everyone on the road is to trying to kill because they are.

    • ThruTheDunes

      Having spent many hours on a transit bus, I am not surprised that the driver did what he did for two reasons. First, transit buses accelerate like squat. Drivers need to hit the pedal several seconds before the bus actually launches, so they anticipate a spot and launch. Sometimes they make their own spot, because…

      Second, cars don’t like being behind a bus, so they try to get in front of the bus before it pulls out, making it a battle for the driver to get away from the curb. This causes drivers to shoot for any spot possible, or to make their own.

      This is not offered to denigrate transit bus drivers (not my style; I actually have a lot of respect for them), but to try to help fellow riders understand why they do what they do.

  • Kosta Chachanidze

    my situation is very different from most of the people posting here: I´m relatively new to everyday riding, about a year and I ride in Georgia, not the state, the country and traffic here is waay too unorganized and chaotic so I do not lanesplit unless there is a traffic jam. as for the risks – I took once one and was imediately punished with a crash. It wasn´t a big deal at all, had a small scratch and bike too but I´ve learned my lesson. Bike is too unforgiving for taking unnecessary risks

  • eddi

    I am definitely no adrenaline junkie. For the most part I seek routes that avoid freeways. I also keep wide cushions between vehicles and me where ever possible. I wear light-colored clothing and I have a massive add-on brake light on my top case. I duck tailgaters by pulling over if possible or getting a clear space ahead and pulling away, hard.
    Despite all the above wimpyness, I still love to ride fast and go far. I know back ways to a lot of fun places and when certain roads are almost abandoned. I’m wiling to get mixed up in downtown traffic, even in rush hours. Oregon says “no splitting” but it doesn’t say no sneaking through residential blocks to dodge the clogs. It’s a chess board and I take a knights tour on a regular basis.

    • Dubknot

      I don’t see that as wimpyness. It’s self preservation. Nothing wrong with that. Anytime I can pull away from traffic, I do. You just can’t trust other drivers so it’s best to keep your well being in your own hands.

      • eddi

        I was being tongue in cheek about the wimp factor. Quite true about other drivers. 40 years of riding and I’ve seen most of the worst and dodged a lot of it. I just had someone try to change lanes on top of me last week. Brake and Beep scared him more than he scared me, judging by the erratic weaving and speed changes. I think he was trying to find my wreckage, but I was 2 cars back.

  • Michael Howard

    As a daily rider (until recently my bike was my only transportation), I acknowledge the dangers. I understand that every time I hop on the bike there’s a chance I’m going to be injured or even killed. I prepare myself for that possibility. I’m constantly learning and trying to improve my skills. I wear full gear 99.9% of the time.

    Riding is something I “need”. Riding makes me feel like “me”. It’s who I am. No amount of risk will stop me from riding.

  • Pablo Perez

    I think the risk in riding is something that I have a healthy respect for, but not something I’m going to allow to trip me up.

  • ThinkingInImages

    I currently live and ride in New York City. I’d rate that experience somewhere along the lines of The Running of the Bulls. It’s a challenge partially because the requirements to legally operate a vehicle apparently are based on being able to point it generally in the right direction.

  • Ivan Sims

    I thought I looked at risk until I had an accident… Afterward I re-evaluated everything… I almost stopped riding… It took sometime to heal both physically and mentally… This is what I went through… http://www.thetexasrambler.com/2012/05/23/yes-motorcycling-is-dangerous/

    • Scott Otte

      Recovering post accident is pretty hard. I really wanted to get back on the bike, but it was definitely a hard thing to do. I’m glad your still riding and doing well.

  • Diego Martinez

    I think it is not so much being comfortable with risk, but being able to gauge risk more accurately. When you’re just starting out, coming up on a hairpin will probably bring on some pucker because you can’t accurately gauge the risk and you just don’t have the necessary skills. Later on down the line, that hairpin will be a minor footnote instead of the highlight. Actually, risk aversion doesn’t change much if at all.

  • Jason

    I see what you mean. And I think I agree, for the most part. However, I think maybe I wasn’t clear in my initial comment.

    I definitely believe the consequences of an accident are more harsh for a more accomplished rider, due to the reasons you give and more. I just mean that apart from those “freak situations” (situations that could get new and seasoned riders in trouble or worse) that comfort we feel, as we grow our skills, can cause trouble for us by way of complacency.
    It’s more about keeping ourselves aware of those light poles just off the side of the road and putting them into the equation of our split decision making instead of becoming numb to their very dangerous presence. It is that element added into your riding that allows you to chose when and what risks to take.

    I think it’s great to find new roads that challenge us and grow us as riders. I’m just one to believe that thinking it through on every level will not only make us more proficient, but keep us around longer.

  • Scott Otte

    This is what I was talking about, comfort isn’t always a good thing, it can be, but it’s a fine line that we need to be aware of as motorcyclists.

  • Donnie Byers

    I ALWAYS ride thinking I’m gonna get hit. It keeps me on my toes. Takes some of the enjoyment out of it, but oh well…

  • STRTRRR

    Somewhat overlooked in this is the concept of risk homeostasis (Google it, there’s tons of articles, here’s one specifically about bikes http://www.davidpreston.biz/?p=321). In a nutshell, every human has their own perceived level of risk (high, medium, low) that results in a net median level of risk for all human beings. That net level of risk — as measured by non-natural deaths — has remained remarkably stable since the concept was discovered over 100 years ago. As life becomes generally safer, the riskiest activities become riskier. Ten years ago there were hang gliders, but there weren’t any flying suits. That sort of thing. On an individual level, if you do something to reduce risk, then your behavior compensates until you regain your ‘normal’ level of risk. Does anybody find themselves riding a little harder in full leathers and armor, than when they’re in jeans and a jacket?

    • Scott Otte

      Interesting, I suspected that there was some real term or idea behind this but was going from my gut… such is my life.