MOA member Alan Romefelt emailed me a question for The Ride Inside podcast (you can, too, at [email protected]) and I felt it deserved a response. He described an experience he’s found common, puzzling—and vexing—throughout his 44 years as a BMW rider. When non-motorcyclists learn Alan or one of his buddies rides a motorcycle, they jump at the opportunity to “relate” by telling a story about someone they knew (or knew of) who’d been seriously hurt or even killed while riding. Alan noted he might greet a successful entrepreneur or athlete with a comment about a person of like mind he knows—but never one who came to a bad end in their similar endeavor (and many in those categories have). He wondered why so many non-riders feel compelled to tell this kind of story, presumably as a way to connect with a newly-discovered motorcyclist. I’m sure Alan isn’t the only one who has observed this phenomenon; I’ve encountered it many times. Witness this admittedly hyperbolic excerpt from an article I wrote for Motorcycle Consumer News way back in 1996:
Friend of mine had one of them things. Ran underneath a train at 350mph with his wife and kids on the back. All of ‘em burst into flames and died instantly. Killed some people who weren’t even there at the time. They’re still finding pieces of that motor-scooter all the way across the state line. You’d never catch me on one of them things. Death traps, I tell you!… Did I mention a friend of mine had one of them things? Got run over by a Greyhound bus in his own driveway. Broke every bone in his body. Left him a vegetable that couldn’t eat, drink, or sleep—it was terrible! A nurse I know says the same thing happens to somebody in town every eleven minutes…
We’ve all heard the stories. It seems just about everybody who hears you ride a motorcycle always knows someone somewhere who had a hair-raising, godawful crash that either prevented the person from ever riding again or convinced the rider and all his or her friends, neighbors, and relatives that motorcycling is the most surefire way to incur extensive physical injury known to man. And they feel compelled to tell you about it. Again and again. Punishment for youthful exuberance comes swiftly, surely, and severely—if you believe these stories. Which I don’t.
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In that ancient column, I went on to say it wasn’t that I didn’t believe motorcyclists ever took damage while riding; of course they do! What I rejected was the implicit or explicit message that horrifically tragic consequences are an obvious foregone conclusion to the act of swinging a leg over a motorcycle. In much of the non-riding public’s mind, the subtext of these stories is motorcyclists are self-destructive fools, as proven beyond any shadow of doubt by the anecdotal evidence they’ve just recounted. This is why such stories can feel insulting and accusatory to the rider listening to them, even when they’re ostensibly about someone else.
What might propel a stranger to lead with this kind of offensive gesture when getting acquainted with a motorcyclist? Obviously, I can’t speak to any particular individual’s motives, but here are my thoughts on the topic.
First, I’m certain most of these remarks are made with no intention to offend us, although I’m equally sure there are exceptions. Undoubtedly, there are people who turn up their noses at motorcycling and motorcyclists, viewing us as clinging to adolescence in a most ridiculous manner, as grossly irresponsible regarding our health and safety and the welfare of our loved ones, and maybe even as filthy, criminal-minded menaces to society. These images may have come from Hollywood, Hells Angels documentaries, or a genuinely factual account of some miscreant rider in their family, community or workplace, or they could be part of a more generalized snobbery regarding motorsports as low-class and worthy of suspicion and contempt. Let’s assume, however, the story isn’t told with sneering disdain, then what could be driving it? “Driving it,” is likely an important turn of phrase here, as these speakers often seem “driven” to blurt out their awful tales, probably even before they realize their potential to offend. A person who would normally be polite and circumspect when meeting someone new might suddenly inject this content into the interaction impulsively. If so, what’s behind the impulse? I suggest it’s the same thing that propels (or helps propel) most impulses: Anxiety.
I’m not talking about anxiety related to death and destruction. These are more likely cause for sadness or reproach. I suspect it’s anxiety rooted in something like unconscious/disavowed FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), mixed with secret envy and nagging regret. People who are risk-averse often need to bolster their justifications for taking the path most traveled and having thereby forfeited the excitement and vitality they might have found going the other way. Their “good judgement” in avoiding motorcycles is confirmed by a horrific story about what happened to one of those who took their chances in pursuit of forbidden pleasures—forbidden, that is, by something internal the speaker dares not consider timidity or laziness, but rather labels “wisdom.” Who would want to conclude they’d opted out of joyous adventures in favor of tepid mediocrity, and done so unnecessarily?
No, they need to view this as a choice between insanity and sanity, hooliganism and being a respectable good citizen, guaranteed catastrophe versus the freedom from pain and loss promised by prudent reserve. The anxiety about possibly having chosen mundane conventionality when they might have survived a life of electrifying thrills may be what drives folks to blurt out “evidence” nobody gets away with that kind of mischief. If they’re talking with a motorcyclist who hasn’t yet succumbed to this ineffable law of nature, they must reassure themselves of that person’s doom, lest they consider the possibility they, themselves, have missed out—whether by eschewing motorcycles or any other venue for embracing risk and challenge, and enjoying the many benefits that come with surviving same. Our very existence poses a substantive threat to their view of the world and the place they feel they must take within it.
Back to that original column:
Sure, motorcycling is a dangerous activity and accidents really do happen, sometimes with very serious consequences. But that’s only part of the story. Non-riders tend to leave out (maybe because they never heard) other important factors, such as the seventeen beers ingested immediately prior to the ride of death, the absence of appropriate riding gear, or the lack of good training and experience (or common sense and maturity) on the part of the rider. Nor is there any accounting for the millions of riders who do not instantly detonate upon contact with the doomsday device supposedly lurking within each and eve-ry motorcycle.
For most who offer their unsolicited horror stories about a friend of a friend, the facts about motorcycle safety won’t mean a thing. Try as he may, my friend Bill [who crashed during a track day described in the original article] will be wasting his breath explaining that he really wasn’t hurt that badly and that he gained a very valuable learning experience on the way to increased mastery. It won’t matter that he hasn’t had a wreck on the street in nearly four years of riding, or that the racetrack is by far the very safest place to practice and improve one’s skills (no oncoming traffic, medical crew at the ready, manda-tory full leathers and track-worthy machinery, same corners over and over, etc.). And he had better not even mention anything about the exhilarating freedom, grand camaraderie, and thrilling adventure which make the expenses, risks, and injuries all worthwhile. They’ll have none of that, thank you. Which is too bad… The typical anti-motorcyclist’s anxieties aren’t about risk, damage, and injury; they’re about missing out on life. They need to reassure themselves that taking chances always ends in disaster; this is the justification for all the “safe” (read: boring) conventions they’ve adopted. Never mind all the lost opportunities for enriching experiences, important discoveries about one’s own abilities and limits, or the bonds that form between people who face challenges together—what they want is certainty, safety, and security. As if these really exist.
The only guarantee in life is death. Risk is everywhere all the time; it is simply a part of life. To spend one’s life eradicating risk is to hurry death, not avoid it. People can be dead long before they die. If something can be said about motorcyclists as a group, it’s that we understand security is an illusion. This doesn’t mean all things are equally dangerous or that potential consequences should be disregarded arbitrarily… But it does mean that a respect for danger can allow the pursuit of wondrous and exotic pleasures with a minimum of cost.
All choices involve risk, including the decision to avoid something. “Opportunity cost” is just as real a loss as physical damage, and it’s actually the guaranteed price of saying “no,” as opposed to merely risking an injury with “yes.” Once risk is accepted, we can take responsibility for managing it—not with omnipotent control, of course, but with many truly effective countermeasures, such as high-quality protective gear, regular training and vehicle maintenance, and not riding beyond our abilities or when we’re compromised by intoxicants, sleep deprivation, or emotional turmoil. Categorically avoiding risk means abandoning desires and goals, resigning ourselves to much less from life; with desire squelched, how can there be satisfaction? And what about the opposing “risk” (actually a guarantee) of missing out on the associated rewards of embracing a challenge? Clearly, this doesn’t only apply to motorcycling.
Instead of having a death wish, I believe most motorcyclists have a life wish. Those who take seriously the risks involved and do what’s possible to manage them aren’t irresponsible, they’re being quite responsible—not just for their safety, but also for their own vitality. They’ve rejected the spirit-deadening abstinence prescription those horror stories are meant to promote and justify post hoc.
I’m not ridiculing non-motorcyclists for choosing not to ride; everyone is entitled to their own preferences and priorities. Many people—probably most—are unsuited for motorcycling because they either can’t accept the risks involved or they don’t take them seriously enough (sadly, the latter group actually are riders). The joys available on two wheels don’t hold universal appeal, but I’d guess those who need to spontaneously highlight the dangers of motorcycling haven’t chosen other risky activities for recreation, either. My point here is simply to offer a possible explanation for the odd behavior of immediately launching into a negative depiction of something a potential new friend just revealed as a love of theirs. This defies normal social graces and begs for some accounting. I think it isn’t really about establishing some common ground with a new acquaintance, but is instead about fending off the self-doubt a motorcyclist can stimulate by proving others have managed risk successfully and reaped the benefits. This is not welcome news to those who’ve chosen otherwise.
Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.