Sep 6, 2023

Why I Think They Are Wrong

The constant reminder that the “Normalcy Bias” plagues motorcyclists into making fatal and foolish decisions is one of many reasons I decided my Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF)/Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center(MMSC) instructor career was not worth continuing. Years ago (2006), I wrote one of my all-time favorite essays, “Panic Reactions,” where I described a phrase I came to use almost as often as “good job” in my motorcycle safety classes, "Every panic reaction you have on a motorcycle will be wrong." As part of my answer to every question a student might have had would be my constant hunt for “escape routes.” The latest version of the MSF’s Basic Rider Course (BRC) de-emphasizes risk to the point that instructors were reprimanded for talking about things like escape routes. There, of course, is a reason for that: 1) The MSF is owned by the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) and their overwhelming incentive is to put butts on seats; 2) The MMSC is funded by motorcycle license endorsements and their overwhelming incentive is to make it easy for anyone in the state to obtain and retain an endorsement. Years ago, I was asked to present a “This I Believe” talk to the Unitarian Universalist society to which my wife and I belonged and what I believe in is that “Incentives Are Everything.” Sadly, I find absolutely no evidence that humans are anything more than a slightly evolved animal and that 99.99…% of human activity can be explained by self-interest and incentives.

I get why the MIC is uninterested in actual motorcycle safety. Like every corporation on the planet today, today’s profits over-ride any future self-interest; you gotta satisfy those “equity investors” first and everything else be damned. The MSF’s mission statement is pretty clear, “MSF is the country's leading safety resource and advocate for motorcyclists. We create world-class education and training systems for riders of every experience level. We raise public awareness of motorcycling to promote a safe riding environment.” “Public awareness” is not motorcycling’s main problem: incompetent motorcyclists is overwhelmingly the biggest problem, illegal noise is second, and a close third is the outright hostility toward the motorcycle gangs that largely represents motorcycling in the public eye. Neither of the two groups I was once associated with have a reason to care about those problems. The state’s civil servants are all old enough that they’ll be long retired before any change happens and the MIC’s executives will be long golden parachuted out when the economics behind US motorcycling finally drops the coffin lid on motorcycles and public roads.

In the past couple of months, I’ve had to listen to at least a dozen motorcyclists and ex-motorcyclists describe their “had to lay ‘er down” stories. Not a one of those fairy tales was even slightly believable. If you can’t competently use your brakes, you sure as hell can’t pull of that stuntman bit, but what you can do is panic, scream, and fall over and, then, make up some bullshit story about how you planned it all and it either worked out or didn’t. At least three of the goobers telling me their sob story were hobbled for life from their motorcycle episode. Even they imagined doing something other than simply and stupidly fucking up and falling down when they crashed and disabled themselves.

Back to the “normalcy bias,” one of my favorite books (and podcasts) is You Are Not So Smart and the chapter on normalcy bias describes people frozen in their seats as a crashed airliner catches fire and burns down around them, while their brains chant “this can’t be happening, everything is normal” until the air is sucked from their lungs and they are fried or blown to pieces. The only way to avoid being trapped by your disbelief is to prepare in advance, to consider the options in a disaster, to look for escape routes, and to think about the steps necessary if escape becomes necessary. Every place you go and everything you do should be accompanied by this process, especially in Crazyville, USA where the NRA has armed every nitwit, fanatic, and pissed-off momma’s-boy incel with enough weapons to empty an auditorium. On the highway, an intelligent motorcyclist knows that bicyclists and pedestrians are the only road users who present a lower threat than a motorcycle and, as such, we’re invisible. The only protection we have are escape routes and a vehicle capable of using them [sorry cruiser and trike guys, you’re likely dead since your invalid bike can barely manage asphalt].

You could argue that riding while constantly worrying about being run over by a distracted, incompetent, and/or angry cager takes all the “fun” out of riding a motorcycle. You could delude yourself into imagining that riding rural highways minimizes those risks. The only real protections you have are your skills, your preparation, and luck. [Never discount luck.] An insurmountable obstacle for me to consider continuing my “safety instructor” career was the organizations’ discounting risk in favor of “more butts on seats.” I love motorcycling and motorcyclists (not bikers, they aren’t the same people) and my life was greatly enhanced by 60 years on a motorcycle, but filling the roster with untrained, unprepared, and unskilled riders is going to kill this form of transportation and I don’t want to be part of that.

The best guess is that motorcycle crashes cost the US economy $16B and the entire US motorcycle industry produces a gross income of about $5.6B in 2022. The damned industry and our idiot licensing systems and godawful training approach produces an income that is not-quite 1/3 of the cost of motorcycling to the nation. In comparison, the automotive industry produces $1.53T in gross income and the cost of automotive/truck crashes is about $340B, or one-fourth the national revenue from cars and trucks. Any half-rational nation would start purging motorcycles from public roads a few minutes after absorbing those numbers. We are closer to half-witted than half-rational, but that just means it will take longer to happen. But it will happen.