Motorcycles and Motorcycling: Do all motorcyclists really "go down"?
When I first started riding, my parents and others often said I had a deathwish. Au contraire – I had a living exuberantly wish.
I love the feedback of the road, the exposure to the elements, the sense of immediacy and urgency, and the lack of insulation between myself and my physics. "Motorcycling is so daaaaangerous!" they said, and that is true: if you do go down, you are far more likely to be injured, even fatally, than you are in a car – regardless of whose fault it is.
I was a motorcycle rider—full-time and everyday commuter— for about 6 years in San Francisco, then over the following 19 years or so, I owned a car as well, which meant I skipped riding in truly foul weather. In the last 15 of those years, the only time I've gone down was standing at my mailbox on my motorcycle. I just shifted my weight slightly, and under my heel, a small branch rolled across the gravel surface, and down I went—instantly—in full moronic glory, and at the roaring speed of STATIONARY. Burned a hole right through my wildly overpriced yoga pants and it's been the Costco brand ever since. It's worth noting that you can still hurt yourself and do considerable damage to your bike even in a non-event like this.
So am I doomed to know the cruel embrace of the asphalt?
If you ride daily or near-daily for years, yes, you and your ride likely will be torn asunder at some point, and, as above, it may not even be dramatic.
That said, I believe that 99% of motorcycle accidents are totally avoidable if you get proper, and extensive training as you embark on riding – and if you're constantly vigilant. To be absolutely clear, by “constantly vigilant,” I mean constantly, during every ride near or far, assuming everyone wants to kill you. It's not enough to assume they do not see you. You must assume every car is an active threat intent upon your destruction.
Remember the arcade game "Asteroids?" If it's in proximity, you're imperiled. Your hyperspace key is having more torque than they have, so use it to get ahead and away. Did they throw on their right-hand turn signal? Assume they'll speed up and switch into your lane on the left. If they came to an immediate stop in front of you, would you smash into their bumper? How about the drivers who suddenly—and without moving their heads at all—swing simultaneously into the same lane? They're the human equivalent of psycho cats who suddenly bolt into another room. Your job is to not be in that lane when they kiss.
Let's go over it again. The golden rule is:
If a car is nearby, assume it wants to smite you.
But wait. What about the 1% of accidents you can't avoid?
Yep, mechanical failure, a sleeping driver crossing over a freeway median, a tire blowing out, an oil slick, unforeseen ice – those are the "anvil falling from the sky" scenarios that you will almost never be able to foresee. If that happens, your time is just up — but those can happen to anyone, anywhere – not just riders. It is hard if not impossible to ride your way out of something tragic or unforeseen like this, no matter your experience level.
Even some of these (like mechanical issues) can be minimized with maintenance and pre-ride checks. But actively avoiding worst-case scenarios doesn't mean you shouldn't also be adequately prepared for them. My ABS system went out entirely on my BMW K1200R last summer. Very dangerous, to say the least, but I was on flat ground. I picked the LEAST bad outlet off of the road and did not go down. Which leads to the other Golden Rule: Always have an "out."
Further tips for avoiding Rapid Deceleration Trauma (crashing):
📌Take the motorcycle safety course in your area.
Statistics used to indicate that accident rates went down by 40% for people who took this class. They'll put you through real-world challenges on tiny, maneuverable bikes under controlled circumstances, so you don't freak out when they happen in real life under less controlled ones. Rear-wheel skids, super-tight hairpin and nautilus turns, pushing your bike and straddling it while standing still (hey hey, don't check your mail!) and everything in between.
📌For godsakes, just don’t drink.
Something like 40+% of motorcycle accidents occur when the rider has an illegal blood alcohol content. Your balance is everything on a bike. While you should just not drink and drive ever, even one drink in an hour – which you can likely “get away with,” both legally and in every other sense as a car driver – can impair you enough to cause an accident when you’re on two wheels.
📌Beware of the ever-deadly left-turning motorist
In 2011, almost half of 2-vehicle motorcycle accidents were caused by someone making a left turn when the bike had the right of way in the oncoming lane. Since my original writing of this answer, this happened to me. The guy looked right at me, had no doubt I was entering the intersection, and still turned left directly in front of me. He later said he panicked he’d miss the light.
📌Wear clothing that makes sense
Leather jackets have taken so much aggravation intended for my skin, it's unreal. There's also Kevlar and other engineered fabrics that help with abrasion and impact should you suffer from a sudden, high-speed introduction to asphalt.
📌Yes, you should wear a full-face helmet
It may be a crime to hide that clean, strapping jawline in a full-face helmet, but if you use a bucket helmet, your jawline may not last all that long, anyway. Those helmets you see a lot of chopper riders wear don't do much (and often come off the head) in the hairier accidents.
📌Ride in better weather
Seems obvious, but if you are new to riding put luck and logic on your side by avoiding the road when visibility is bad, rain is torrential, or in the ice and snow (which even good riders often dread). Honestly, one of the worst days to ride, in my book, is the mild drizzle day after a long period of no rain whatsoever. Why? Because lots of oil and grime has deposited on the roads, and the rain isn't sufficient to wash it away yet. Instead, there's a nice, slick coating atop the grease, making an off-balance moment or shaky turn infinitely more dangerous.
📌Do not ride with asshats
Motorcycle riding sometimes attracts a certain personality. "More balls than brains" is a gentle descriptor for these types. You'll know them by their highway wheelies and gratuitous throttling, always checking back to see who's looking. Need more identifiers? Look for Oakley Blades sunglasses.
About 1/4 of riders (in my personal experience) fit this description. It's the type of personality which often self-eliminates from the riding population, and these guys make us all grimace a little. But what's important here is that you NOT RIDE WITH THESE TOOLS. If you do, their habit of foolish risk-taking, one-upsmanship and ego-jockeying will get you into as much trouble as they themselves get into — and probably more, because you're newer at it.
I grew up part-time on Chuckanut Drive in Washington State, a super-twisty cliffside road that car ads are sometimes shot on. Both good and asshat riders alike love to stretch out on this road. I can think of at least three different riders we had to pick out of the trees below this road near our house, and those are just the ones I happened to be there for.
My own first and only serious accident was trying to keep up in unfamiliar territory (this was before GPS systems and ubiquitous cell phones) with a guy who was a cockfighting showoff. I'd only been riding for about two weeks steadily, and he led me into the twisties, then blasted off like a rocket through the corkscrews. My novice turning skills just weren't enough at high speeds and I was very lucky to have gone OFF the road rather than crossed INTO someone oncoming.
When you first start out (and really, how about always?) ride expressly with people who want what's best for everyone in the group, and who ride as a means to enjoy life – not to unnecessarily extinguish it through seizures of unbridled jackassery.
Have fun out there, sailor!