The Decision to Ride -- Accepting the Risk
Provided by the Department of the Navy
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When people decide to ride a motorcycle, they select a unique and challenging form of transportation. However, riding is not for everyone, and a motorcycle will not always be your best choice of transportation.Image of a person on a motorcycle.

For many, motorcycling is more than a means of transportation -- it is an enthusiast's sport. The attraction of motorcycling often comes from the unique mental and physical skills necessary to operate the machine. There are many varieties of motorcycles and motorcyclists. But all motorcyclists share something in common -- an increased element of physical risk.

The first step in making a responsible decision to ride is understanding the high level of risk in motorcycling. We can lower the risk through our attitudes, with the protective gear we wear, and developing mental and physical strategies through training. But even so, the motorcyclist is physically vulnerable in a mishap. You are 20 times more likely to be injured on a motorcycle than in a car.

People who ride motorcycles: the motorcycles they ride

Many different types of people ride motorcycles, and for many reasons -- recreation, commuting, touring, image, sport riding, and competition.

There are also a wide variety of motorcycles - cruisers, touring, sport bikes, dual purpose, and standard. Since it is not feasible for one type of motorcycle to meet all a rider's needs, each of these represents a compromise between, performance, rider comfort, and other capabilities within intended use.

Often there is a connection between the rider, riding style and type of motorcycle. The young service member may be attracted to a motorcycle's price vs. the high level of performance. Others may be attracted to the cruiser with its black-leather-jacket mystique, as a break from life's routine. Motorcycle touring, either solo or with a group, may be both a recreational and social activity.

Car vs. motorcycle: advantages and disadvantages
Exposing the myths

  • Size - Motorcycles are smaller than cars. They are easier to park. But... they are harder to see (especially when you wear dark, non-reflective clothing); have limited loads; and can carry only one passenger.
  • Maneuverability - Motorcycles can be quite maneuverable (with a trained rider) at lower speeds. But... maneuverability decreases as you ride faster.
  • Performance - Motorcycles provide a high level of performance per purchasing dollar. But... require a higher level of physical skill to operate. The rider can get in trouble very fast.
  • Cost - Motorcycles may have a lower purchase cost. But... use may be limited by season extremes (hot and cold); passenger and load limits. Also, cost and frequency of routine maintenance (especially tires on high performance machines) may be much higher than a car.
  • Protection - When you ride, you become one with the environment and have the wind in your face. But... the motorcycle rider is more physically vulnerable; is more likely to be injured in an accident (must dress for the fall); and when not dressed properly, can be mentally distracted from the riding task.

Safety and risk

You ride home on that new bike. Your family, friends, and even neighbors offer their opinion, "Motorcycles. Seem like fun... ..but they're so dangerous!" And you know they are right.

Can you ride a motorcycle with no risk and free from danger, damage or injury? The obvious answer is no! There are many things we do that have risk. We fly planes. We scuba dive. We ride bicycles. We jog. We drive cars. Some activities have more risk than others.

The element of risk and our perception of it is constantly changing. We can't eliminate risk, but we can lower it. We should first understand the risk inherent to motorcycling. Next, we should be mentally and physically willing and capable to take the steps necessary to reduce the risk. Training and experience are the most effective ways of completing these two steps.

However, when we ride, we must accept the possible consequences of the risk. Even when we have reduced the risk to the lowest possible level, we are still 20 times more likely to be injured in a crash than the operator of a car.

Managing risk: mental preparation

It has been said that motorcycling is perhaps 90 percent mental. Mental preparation for the ride is critical for the motorcyclist. This begins with being alert and free from stress and other emotional distractions.

Equally important is the rider's attention. Lack of attention to the riding task is a predominate cause of many vehicle crashes. The physical vulnerability of motorcycling adds unique challenges to our attention - motorcycles offer little protection against the environment. It's hard to concentrate when we are freezing cold or hot or with rain pelting against unprotected hands or face.

Protective gear helps. Dressing for the ride can minimize physical distractions of riding so the motorcyclist can pay attention to the riding task.

There are also times when the motorcyclist might decide NOT to ride. The most obvious would include times of fatigue, stress or any type of mental or physical impairment. Perhaps less obvious, yet equally important, would be any time the rider is not comfortable with a given situation - like inclement weather or heavy traffic. The motorcyclist should always have the option to decide that the risk, real or perceived, is too high. It may be best to use an alternate means of transportation.

Managing risk: physical preparation

In the days where a car-driver's comfort in even a modest car is controlled by a computer chip, the motorcyclist must rely on protective gear. Given the rider vulnerability and the ever- changing environment, selecting, purchasing, and wearing appropriate protective gear is critical. It is may also be a time-consuming and potentially expensive task.

The section on mental preparation talked about dressing for the ride so we can enjoy the ride and better pay attention to the riding task. Research says that protective gear can sometimes reduce injury in the event of an accident. Thus, motorcyclists must also prepare by dressing for the fall.

Protective gear warrants a separate discussion. However, the minimum-protective gear includes a helmet, eye protection, gloves, over-the-ankle boots, long-sleeve upper garment and long pants constructed of a material that protects from the environment and the potential fall.

Detection of the motorcyclist in traffic is another major cause of accidents, so in addition to dressing for the ride as well as the fall, we need to dress to be seen. Bright colors and retro-reflective materials on the helmet, upper garments and vest should be mandatory components of our protective gear.

By deciding not to wear any one part of protective gear, vulnerability and risk increase. Are we willing to accept this increased level of risk? Bottom line: if you feel that you have to compromise your safety for comfort, leave the motorcycle at home and select another means of transportation. Do you have that option?

Managing risk: motorcycle preparation

A lost part of the romantic motorcycle lore of yesteryear was the rider's need to be a mechanic. Modern motorcycles are reliable and high-tech machines. In fact, many manufacturers recommend that certain maintenance procedures be performed only by certified mechanics. Manufacturers also recommend using only recognized accessories for a given model.

However, studies show that lack of maintenance can lead to mechanical failure, which can contribute to an accident. The motorcycle operator is responsible for pre-ride inspections. The most important items are lights (for visibility), suspension and tires. Motorcycles have a limited carrying capacity. Underinflation is the most common cause of tire failure.

Managing risk: knowing the limits of the rider

Motorcycle trainers often comment that questioning a motorcycle rider's skill is embarrassingly confrontational. Yet one of the most important parts of understanding risk management is knowing the limits of the rider.

Though some natural coordination is required, most of a rider's skill comes through knowledge and experience. Knowledge can be gained through formal training -- learning riding risks in the classroom and physical skills in guided on-cycle practice supervised by a professional instructor. Knowledge through training can make the experience we gain through riding less painful and expensive.

But even the most experienced rider's skill level varies. There are the physical limitations of age, sight, hearing, and coordination. There also can be physical impairments due to alcohol and other drugs.

Limits vary. Limits are not the same at the end of a long day or at the start of a new riding season. Limits can vary with a new or unfamiliar motorcycle.

Managing risk: knowing the law and limits of the environment

The environment provides limits. Things like weather, temperature and light can affect the level of risk. Riders are also responsible for knowing specific licensing, vehicle equipment, and military requirements.

Managing risk: knowing the limits of the motorcycle

Riders on new or unfamiliar motorcycles are over-represented in accidents. Through design and purpose, motorcycles have different handling characteristics, size, and control operation. Cornering clearance is not the same -- a sport bike has different handling characteristics than a cruiser. Because of limited engine displacement, some motorcycles may not be legal on interstates or freeways.

In addition to being careful when riding a new or unfamiliar motorcycle, it is probably best not to loan your motorcycle to a friend. Because of the frequency and severity of accidents, some military installations specifically prohibit anyone, other than the registered owner, from operating a motorcycle.

Managing risk: riding strategies

Riding a motorcycle is mostly mental. Strategies define the way our minds deal with the hazards in the riding environment. One of the most important strategies is to see and be seen.

Equally important is the ability to react to what we see. Strategies can help you anticipate and avoid problems before they occur. Riding strategies are the most effective way of recognizing and lowering risk.

Managing risk: in summary

Motorcycling is an activity with a high level of risk. Once recognized, the first step in lowering risk is to prepare our minds, our body, and our motorcycle.

The second step in risk management is knowing limits of the rider, motorcycle, environment, and law. We come to understand the changing nature of these limits, and their impact on the risk we accept.

Finally, our attitude provides the basis for using this knowledge effectively. We understand the risk, know the limits, and ride within these limits, using our mental strategies. Sometimes this means deciding not to ride.

Rider responsibility: who is responsible?

A typical traffic scenario: A rider is on a two-lane roadway. A car turns left in front of the rider. The rider overbrakes on the rear brake, uses no front brake, and collides with the car. Who is responsible?

Regardless of who was responsible, who had the most to lose?

Making the decision: Evaluate yourself based on how you would answer each of these questions.

  • Riding a motorcycle requires a higher level of acquired physical and mental skills. Research tells us, "more than half of all motorcycle accidents involve riders with less than five months experience. More than 90% of the riders involved in accidents are self-taught." Am I willing to accept the responsibility to develop the skills?
  • "Studies indicate that in crashes, motorcycle riders and passengers are more likely to be seriously injured or killed than automobile operators or passengers. Injury can often be avoided by wearing protective gear." What are the consequences in increased vulnerability to my work, family, others?
  • "Many motorcycle crashes are single-vehicle accidents. Crashes with other vehicles also occur because either or both drivers make errors in judgment. Injury can often be avoided by knowing when and how to swerve and brake." Why is a motorcyclist's judgment potentially more critical than a car driver's?
  • What are the "perfect" times to ride?
  • When might motorcycling not be my best choice of transportation (especially if there is not an alternate mode of transportation)?


There are many reasons for wanting to ride a motorcycle - and there are motorcycles and riding styles for almost everyone. But the prime consideration in deciding to ride is a decision to accept the risk inherent to motorcycling. This risk can be lowered. But motorcycling is still a high-risk activity. In an accident, we have a high chance of personal injury.

We can also apply the basic principles of risk management to other high risk activities. By definition, high risk activities represent increased chance of personal injury or property loss. We can sometimes lower the risk to acceptable levels, and participate in the activity.

However, there are activities, or even times within activities, where the risk is simply too high -- you can't afford the loss. Then, the best decision is not to participate. It's a personal decision. But the better you understand the risk and how it can be lowered, the better chance of making a responsible decision.