It is a fact that in a crash, motorcycle riders usually come off worse than car drivers. Riders avoid some problems, like being trapped in a burning or sinking car, but in general an accident that dents a car can put a motorcyclist in hospital. However
Why a motorcycle can be safer than a car
Safety depends on how likely an accident is and how damaging it is. A bicycle is considered safe because falling off a bike doesnt usually hurt much, even though kids often fall off bicycles. On the other hand, planes are considered safe because air accidents are infrequent, not because planes can crash safely. So there are two ways to make a vehicle safe: by reducing accident likelihood or by reducing accident consequences. Likewise risk is both the likelihood something bad will happen and the threat involved. So people looking only at threat refuse to fly because they might die, but in safety terms they are 30 times more likely to die in a car! Currently, the Internet and media feed a web of fear of what might happen but probably wont. What if airlines armor plated planes to protect passengers in a crash but ignored the factors that cause crashes in the first place? That would be silly, right? Yet that is exactly the approach taken for cars when sellers say “Buy our car because you can crash safely in it”! In contrast, the riding safely approach is that used for planes. Sureaccidents in the first place because they:
- See more
- Evade better
- Attend more
- Assume less
A rider is usually higher than a car driver and so has a better view. A better view means you see danger earlier and so can avoid it better. Riders have no car body around them to create vision blind spots. Just turning their head gives a clear all round view. If a truck blocks your vision, a bike can move left or right in the lane for a better view, while a car driver is stuck in the lane. When I drive a car, I feel low down with a constricted field of view. A motorcycle rider’s field of vision is further and wider than that of a car, and this lets you see trouble coming earlier. If a person in a car three cars ahead stops suddenly, as a rider I see it earlier and so have more time to avoid a crash. Seeing risk situations better lets you avoid it better, so in this regard a motorcycle is safer than a car.
A motorcycle is smaller than a car, and so less of a target to be hit. Being smaller, it also has more places to go safely. If the car ahead stops suddenly, a bike can swerve to the side and avoid while a car just has to crash. Highway pile-ups occur because cars in a lane have nowhere to go in sudden stop. A bike can also divert onto the safety shoulder if necessary to places where a car cannot fit. In every case, a motor-cycle has evasion options not available to a car. In addition, it can often accelerate better to get out of trouble. In general, a bike being smaller and more mobile has more evasive choices, so in this regard a motorcycle is safer than a car.
There is something about traveling at high speed a few feet above hard ground that gets your attention. When the body is right there in the situation, the brain tends to be right there with it. By comparison, a car driver is separated from the world by an air-conditioned of comfort. In that bubble, drivers are distracted from the road by:
- Coffee and food
- Talking on cell-phones
- Listening to the radio
- Talking to passengers
- Adjusting seats or windows
- Disciplining children
- Adjusting make-up
- Interacting with “smart” dashboards
The above happen all the time in a car, but not on a motorcycle. Studies confirm that the main cause of road accidents is inattention, because attention is a limited resource. People have only so much attention, so attending to one thing degrades your attention to another. Distractions reduce your attention to the road, which leads to accidents. Cars have many distractions, but on a motorcycle, it is just you and the road. Motorcycles are safer because they increase attention and reduce distractions.
People driving large vehicles with life insurance think they are “safe”. People would understand life insurance better if it were called what it really is – death insurance. Death insurance is when your family gets money if you die. Its not life insurance because money cant replace life. There is no such thing as life insurance, in the sense of a policy that replaces what you had. Car safety features cannot avoid the “nut behind the wheel” problem. Safer cars are no use if they make people more careless. If drivers with anti-skid brakes just drive faster in the rain, what is the safety benefit? The accident rate depends as much on attitude as on mechanical safety features. Motorcycles create a better attitude, because on a motorcycle, you know you are vulnerable. No matter how big the motorcycle, what happens is going to happen to you, personally. Motorcycle riders assume less and so take more care, so in this regard a motorcycle is safer than a car.
When a motorcycle is definitely safer than a car
One danger that happens in car accidents but not motorbike accidents is being trapped in the vehicle. Often in accidents the big problem for first responders is getting the driver or passengers out of the car. Perhaps the seat belt has locked or the body has buckled around the driver. In such cases, the protective cage around the car driver has become a prison. The metal body designed to protect passengers can become a tomb if the car is on fire and they are burned alive because they cant get out. Just as bad is a car sinking in a river, when the electronics that control doors and windows fail and the people inside cant escape. If you ride a motorcycle into a river, it might sink but you can always swim ashore. I like my motorcycle, but if its headed into danger I am free to depart from the seat at any time.
The Motorcycle Mentality
There are two approaches to avoiding accidents:
- The SUV Mentality: Have accidents but avoid the consequences.
- The Motorcycle Mentality: Avoid accidents entirely.
America’s current approach is the first – buy cars so big you are unhurt in a crash. But for every big vehicle, there is a bigger one. If your Mercedes meets a truck/trailer combine, you will be crushed whatever your safety rating. Metal is not a cure for carelessness. While SUVs seem safe, studies show they tip easily, maneuver poorly, waste petrol, hog the road, make bigger targets, and overfill parking spaces.
Whatever the metal around you, a bigger vehicle can always penetrate it. The SUV mentality is to put a barrier between you and the world, so others (not you) pay the price of accidents. The result is a vehicle arms race, where everyone drives bigger cars with bull bars. That such vehicles also cause more damage is ignored. If we all drove around in main battle tanks, would the roads be safer? Protection is part of safety, but avoidance is better.
Riders follow the motorcycle mentality, which is to avoid accidents in the first place. The strength of a motorcycle is its ability to avoid accidents, not its invulnerability. The aim is to avoid accidents not to “safely” have them. I prefer the chances of a “ready” but vulnerable motorcycle rider over a careless protected SUV driver any day. Equating “safety” with protection is a mistake, as no car is invulnerable. Safety is about avoiding accidents as well as surviving them.
A motorcycle rider is more vulnerable than a car driver, but they can be safer because riders see more, evade better, are more attentive, and assume less. This is why I say that riding a motorcycle can be safer than driving a car, despite all the current hype.