Motorcycles Are Scary

December 23, 2014

All Posts, News

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a six page report last Friday titled “2013 Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview” accompanied by six pages of statistical tables.

Normally that wouldn’t qualify as what eyewitless television programmers call “breaking news.” But except for the merry pranks and hollow threats of Pillsbury Doughboy body double Kim Jong-un this is a pretty slow news week. So yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran a feature titled, “Uneasy Rider: Boomer Deaths in Motorcycle Crashes Rise.” The story was subtitled “More Older Riders Take to the Road, but Reflexes Aren’t as Fast.”

The Journal piece is mostly blather. The story is personalized with the tales of Benjamin Garrett III who died after a Mustang turned in front of him and Randall Dowell who was hit by reckless driver in Ohio and lost a leg. The Journal mostly worries that motorcycles are more dangerous than cars and encourages readers to worry, too. It cites last Friday’s NHTSA report as a major factual source.

James Hedlund

The Journal feature also leans heavily on the debatable opinions of “traffic safety consultant” James Hedlund who proclaims that older riders are more vulnerable. “Their reflexes and their vision aren’t as good as they were,” Hedlund says. Nor, he asserts, are older riders, who are Harley-Davidson’s core customers, as generally robust as younger riders. “The same impact will cause more damage to a 55-year-old than a 25-year-old.” The Journal doesn’t question or try to prove anything Hedlund says. The Journal’s writer, Steven Turville, simply assumes that Hedlund is an authority on gerontology as well as traffic safety.

In fact, Hedlund is not entirely comfortable with the idea of people riding motorcycles. “The way to make a motorcycle safe is to put four wheels and a body on it,” he said. And according to the Journal he favors “mandating helmets for all riders in the 31 states that don’t have such laws.” The Journal doesn’t acknowledge the possibility, that mandatory helmet use is an issue about which informed people can disagree.


The Journal did a sloppy job. The paper ran an ill-informed editorial masquerading as a news feature. But the fallout from the Journal piece is going to be worse than it should be because the United States is now a nation held together mostly by propaganda and paranoia and because later yesterday the webzine Gawker ran a slightly snarky response to the Journal story titled “If You Buy a Motorcycle, You Will Die” Gawker, in case you’ve never heard of it before, calls itself “the source for daily Manhattan media news and gossip” and its slogan is “today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news.” Gawker is much more influential in television newsrooms than it probably should be.

“You’ll get that beautiful chopper, you’ll take it out on the open road, you’ll open up that throttle and feel the wind in your hair and a heart-bursting sense of freedom and declare that you’ve never felt more alive,” Gawker explains. “Then you’ll get distracted or hit a pebble or feel a momentary wobble in your front wheel driving over some oil and before you even know what’s happening you’re sliding along the asphalt right into a fucking guardrail and you’re dead.”

“Don’t take my word for it,” the Gawker writer, an astoundingly important and influential guy named Hamilton Nolan (Batman above) argues. “Look at the cold hard facts: old folks like you are going out and buying motorcycles and then launching themselves over the handlebars and straight into hell, now more than ever.” Then Nolan quotes from and links to the Journal piece to substantiate his “cold hard facts.”

Twist the story a little more and you might be able to imagine what television is about to make of Gawker’s version of the Journal’s version of what NHTSA actually said.

Actually, NHTSA didn’t say what both news outlets allege it said. It didn’t imply what either the Journal or Gawker said it implied and in some cases NHTSA said the opposite.

Here is what the report said.

What NHTSA Said

“A particularly notable decrease was seen in the number of motorcyclists who lost their lives in 2013, down over 6 percent from 2012—318 fewer motorcyclists’ lives lost. Although the fatalities and injuries decreased from 2012 to 2013, the total number of crashes that occurred on the roads increased slightly – primarily a result of an almost 3-percent increase in crashes that resulted in no injuries, only property damage.”

Four thousand nine hundred eighty-six motorcyclists died in 2012. Four thousand six hundred sixty-eight motorcyclists died in 2013.

“One notable decrease was the 6.4-percent decrease in the number of motorcyclists who lost their lives on the roadways in 2013 – 318 fewer motorcyclists. This was the first decrease in motorcyclist fatalities since 2009, the only other decrease since 1997.”

“As was seen with motorcyclist fatalities, the number of injured motorcyclists also decreased in 2013 by an estimated 5,000 from 2012 (not statistically significant), or 5.4 percent.”

“Motorcyclist fatalities now take up 14 percent of total fatalities, compared to nine percent 10 years ago.”

“Motorcycle riders showed the greatest decrease in the number of alcohol-impaired drivers involved in fatal crashes from 2012 to 2013, dropping 8.3 percent or by 117 riders. This was both the greatest percentage drop and the greatest drop in actual alcohol-impaired drivers.”

“There was a large decrease in motorcyclist fatalities for the 50- to 69-year-old population: 190 fewer fatalities in 2013 than in 2012 (60% of the total decrease for motorcyclist fatalities).”

“There were 11 times as many unhelmeted motorcyclist fatalities in States without universal helmet laws (1,704 unhelmeted fatalities) as in States with universal helmet laws (150 unhelmeted fatalities) in 2013.”

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60 Responses to “Motorcycles Are Scary”

  1. sherides Says:

    Hey Austin,

    Wet grass as well as loose sand will definetly make a bike do strange things.

    Thanks for sharing your tale of the truck with me. It has given me a little more confidence that should the unexpected happen, I can find the best out.

    In about 8-10 weeks I should be back riding again. Winter blows!!



  2. Austin Says:

    @ sherides;
    Road Whore makes great points.
    I’ve been down twice – both times – absolutely due to inattention and not seeing all the signs.
    First time – age 20, following a little too close, in town @ about 35 mph – then the guy is stopped – he had no brake lights. My conscious choices were- just run into the truck, or try to leap up into the bed. I had about a 1/2 second which I used to stand and attempt to jump up. What happened was I got completely clear of the bike, which slid under the truck. I flew off to the side and rolled my quite pregnant ass over teakettle into a front yard. The second time was three years ago and involved wet grass.
    The best way to prepare – is to learn absolute control over the variables. Friction, Mass, Velocity, Acceleration, Torque, Gravity and Fatigue are a few. You need to be so familiar with them, that your reflexive action saves you before your mind processes the threat.

  3. WheresMyBoots Says:

    @sherides: my pleasure – if I am able to give anything back here at all that makes my day. I love crash bars: my right took out a 3 ft. steel pole – ripped it right out of the sidewalk, and saved my right leg and kept me from making a dashing arrival through the plate glass of a cafe.
    BTW, for the more enthusiastic ‘lurkers’: when I said ‘boot party by Motorcycle Enthusiasts’, I was of course referring to when you fall asleep at such a party and your boots are replaced by too-small flip-flops made in a place called Olongapo, and autographed by Jax Teller. The rumor by a certain Canadian ‘author’ that said flip-flops are first urinated on by said bikers is untrue. Just to clarify. Cheers.

  4. sherides Says:


    Thanks so much for sharing this. I always appreciate any tips.

    I’ll have to try this….once the crash bars go on the bike this Spring.


  5. WheresMyBoots Says:

    Oh, forgot to say ‘cue Slow Ride by Foghat – live version’. Be well all.

  6. WheresMyBoots Says:

    @sherides: I had an epiphany of sorts lately, and if you are familiar with all this please forgive me (and it’s damned likely you are). Anyway, after my mishap on my Wide Glide, my Harley mechanic friend took me to a parking lot and said: ‘You are crash, so now you are terrorized. Watch this…’ (Eastern European accent). He proceeds to get on my bike with the left hand on the clutch and the right on the handlebars, to demonstrate that he’s using no throttle. Then he starts riding around in circles using just the clutch (granted, it’s got a 103, but…) and the wiseass even had the nerve to stop, lock the fork and turn in the same fashion. I hated him. The rake and the forward controls made slow riding a nightmare for me. Anyway, he gets off and says: ‘Now you. And feather rear brake. You must no longer be terrorized or bike will eat you.’ So, lo and behold, in no time I was riding around in tiny circles using just the clutch, feathering the ‘control brake’ (I have to call it that now in my head), body upright, leaning the bike underneath me, outside arm all stretched out – grinning like a bastard (and no feet down, thanks to Austin’s warning about fused ankle bones). Still couldn’t do the locked fork and go thing that way, in spite of being called a ‘poosy’ by aforementioned wiseass mechanic. Anyway, I’ve been in (snow and ice on the streets) a dark, tiny, dusty underground garage practicing the shit out of this slow, no throttle thing. Still can’t stop/go on the locked fork without Fred Flintstone feet, but I’ll get there. Baby steps for this dude. Just thought I’d throw this in for what it’s worth – all respects intended.
    I hate not being good at this; good news is I’ll get the bugs out before I get back to the good ‘ol US, possibly avoiding a boot party from authentic Motorcycle Enthusiasts for riding like a richard cranium. Cheers to ya’, Ride Free all.

  7. sherides Says:

    That dude got very lucky, didn’t he?


  8. Ride On Says:


    You could always dismount this way

  9. sherides Says:

    I have learned that while it is no longer considered a good thing to lay down a bike, it used to be taught in rider courses prior to 1980. The consensus now is that the brakes on bikes built today are much better – especially those with ABS brakes.

    I did find this technique on a Sporty Forum and thought I would share. It goes something like this:

    1. Point your front wheel in the direction you want to slide.

    2. Stomp on the rear brake to induce a rear tire skid.

    3. Use body English to command the sliding rear tire to kick out to the right side.

    4. Keep your upper body upright as the rear wheel starts to come around and the bike starts to go from vertical to horizontal.

    5. Quickly pull your left leg up to your chest while shifting your weight to your right leg.

    6. Simultaneously grab whatever part of the right side of the frame that is handy and pull.

    7. If all has gone well, you are now clear of the road and riding on top of the bike while it is sliding on its left side.

    8. Jump up on your feet, knees bent, keeping feet, hips, and shoulders in perfect alignment. Now you’re surfing boys and girls. If conditions allow, feel free to express yourself in the surf mode. For example, wave to passing traffic, run your fingers through your hair, point at your hard nipples and wink, lick your finger and make a sizzling sound when you touch your ass, etc.

    9. Dismounts are optional; ride it until you stop; handspring to a double back flip over an SUV; dismount early and outrun the little old lady in her Mercedes; grab yourself, whatever, it’s your moment.

    So yeah, paying attention to your surroundings with your head on a swivel, and knowing how to stop your bike quickly makes tons more sense to me. I’m no stunt rider, that’s for sure!


  10. Smiley Says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Road Whore. I been down twice but both were my fault, one was speed and the other was me not anticipating what a cage was gonna do at a 4 way stop. I love the website Rebel keep doing your thing and giving us the real news.


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