Thursday, April 10, 2008

Born To Be Mild

An awful report today in the New York Times about Death and the Older Biker.

Not surprisingly, a study has found that motorcycle fatalities have increased substantially since several states began weakening helmet laws. The troubling part was this:

"Notably, nearly half of the riders killed in 2006 were age 40 and older, and nearly a quarter were older than 50. The average age of motorcyclists killed in accidents was about 38.

Transportation officials told the news service that the age trends reflect the growing popularity of motorcycles among older people with increasing incomes but decreasing physical dexterity and reaction times."

Even though I fall well into the "past 50" group I'm a devoted rider. That said I regularly see plenty of bikers, including older guys, who are just newspaper reports waiting to be printed. I've even pulled over a couple of fellows and told them just that, urging them to get some proper training.

For a lot of older riders, those motorcycle licenses were pretty easy to get when we were kids. In my case I was already riding when Ontario introduced its first motorcycle licensing regime. Back then you could just go down, sign a document attesting to having ridden a bike 1,000 miles and - voila - you had a license, no testing involved. You might have gotten a couple of tips from your dad but that was about it. I actually got a few pointers from a guy who'd been a motorcycle dispatch rider in Europe during the war - good stuff if you ever find yourself being raked off the road by a German machine gun.

Many older riders put away the two-wheeled toys while they go through the "family and career" thing. Then, once the kids are on their own, the lure of that glossy paint and blinding chrome becomes too much to resist. For a lot of these guys they now find themselves with the cash to buy the sort of bike they could never have hoped to afford in their youth. Suddenly it's Motorcycle Mardi Gras. This guy may not have been on a bike in 20-years but he still has his motorcycle license so there's nothing standing in his way.

Motorycles have changed enormously since I bought my first Honda shortly after Lyndon Baines Johnson became US president. Even the powerful machines like my BSA Lightning and Norton Atlas were clunkers compared to the bikes on the market today. Back then a 650 cc. machine was Top Dog. Today's equivalent bikes run 1,400, 1,800, even 2,300 ccs. Where 40 horsepower was once dazzling, today it's 170 plus hp. A superbike that once came in at 400-pounds is now creeping up toward 700 lbs.

Riding a 21st century road warrior is not the same thing as bashing around on a hunk of mid-20th century technology and yet guys with lousy riding skills are plonking down their money and riding off on machines they don't begin to know how to handle. In a heartbeat (and that's all it takes, believe me) they find themselves in a situation with the bike getting away from them and it's all over save for the landing. Good luck on that, by the way.

The solution? Fortunately there is one. Through the initiatives of our provincial safety councils there is now an excellent motorcycle training programme available in every province in Canada. Every rider 45 or over should be required to attend and pass one of these courses.

I took the BC Safety Council motorcycle course when I hit 50 and it was the best money I ever spent on motorcycling. Not only did I learn a lot of vital things I'd never known before - "conspicuity, conspicuity, conspicuity" - but I also "unlearned" a lot of the bad and dangerous habits I'd collected over the years. I didn't even know these habits were bad or dangerous until that was shown to me and suddenly it was all wisdom and light.

Oh yeah, another thing that study found was that fully half of all motorcycle fatalities did not involve collisions with another vehicle but simple loss of control. That's what happens when riders aren't properly trained and, also, when they indulge in the trendy practice of "bar hopping." Here's a tip - motorcycles and booze don't mix, not at all. Maybe 0.08 is okay for car drivers but it's a lethal limit for a lot of bikers.


WesternGrit said...

The stats may also be a bit skewed... They also indicate that 1/2 of accidents are with riders less than 40yrs old. I think older riders are more responsible and aware, due to less reckless speeds...

The Mound of Sound said...

It's hard to know if they're skewed or particularly American oriented. I agree that older riders tend to be more responsible in some respects but here's something else that's not mentioned - they're also the high-mileage riders.

Last year I rode from Vancouver Island to Cabo san Lucas at the bottom tip of the Baja and back. I met plenty of motorcyclists along the way, the overwhelming majority of them well over 40. Older riders tend to be more likely to have the time and money it takes for a 4-6 week trip.

I guess it stands to reason that the biker who logs 10,000 miles in a month travelling on unfamiliar roads in all weather conditions through foreign countries is bound to be at greater risk of an accident than the guy who rides 200-miles at home.

Canajun said...

Great post.
Although I was always pretty active in the motorcycling scene (including running the advanced safety course in Ottawa for a few years), the 15 or so, non-street-riding years, have certainly left me with a skills deficit. Currently contempalting acquiring the-bike-I've-always-wanted, my first stop will be the Ottawa Safety Council for their refresher program.
But this reminds me of a conversation overheard in Ypres (Belgium) this past summer, among a group of British motorcyclists who were arguing whether an older and thus more experienced rider was "safer" than a younger rider with quicker reflexes. Although the conversation got rather heated,there was no clear winner. What was interesting though, is that this argument also involved the consumption of several pints, making moot the whole point. Then they got on their bikes and rode off.

The Mound of Sound said...

Great story C, thanks. Yeah, the refresher training is definitely helpful even, I suspect, for a former instructor.

BTW, what's your dream bike? I began with a Harley and had a lot of fun on it for a few years but that sort of machine just wasn't right for the sort of long-haul, Third World riding I had in mind. In 2006 I switched to the R1200GS shown above. Talk about a dream machine! When the road suddenly stops, you can just keep going. It's extra capabilities have gotten me out of a couple of jams that could've spelled trouble on a Harley or Gold Wing or even a sport bike.

Canajun said...

Well after years of Japanese stuff - Honda 550's, Kawa Z-1's, Yamaha 350-LC's, etc. I spent several years riding a variety of Norton's, ending with a '74 Commando which I absolutely loved. But deep in my heart I've always wanted a Harley - Fat Boy to be specific. So I guess that would be my dream machine, although my BMW-riding pals all think I'm nuts!

The Mound of Sound said...

I think HD updated the Fat Boy this year. Pretty good ride if you're into cruisers. My big gripe with them was the forward controls. You carry all your weight through your spine (butt)and you can't stand on the pegs when those moments arrive as they always do. But they're sure popular and infinitely better looking than my Beemer. If you're into HD, check out the Street Rod, Harley's improved-handling V-Rod (better forks, suspension, geometry).

BTW, did the Commando have the featherbed frame?

Canajun said...

Thanks for the info - never really considered the weight transfer thing. Something to think about for sure.
The Commando had the isolastics mountings, which took a LOT of the vibration away. An Atlas I had for a while did not - shook like mad. Very tiring to ride after an hour or so. Hands were numb to the elbows!

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