Opinion: Reducing the risk

Regular readers of this column know that I also write about motorcycles for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. Last week, it published my review of the Honda Rebel 1100, and it didn’t take long for reader OldBanister to add two cents in the comments.

“1/4 of all people who ever ride a motorcycle will be involved in an accident on one,” he/she wrote.
“1/40 of all people who ever ride a motorcycle will be involved in an accident in which they are killed or suffer a permanent injury.
“It is simply irresponsible of the Globe to run articles such as this one that are essentially advertising for dangerous products.
“To do so without providing an indication of the risk to health and safety that their use entails is beyond irresponsible.”

OldBanister didn’t mention a source for these statistics, but a quick scan of Wikipedia does provide credible figures sourced to the Departments of Transportation in both the United States and the U.K, among others.

In 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an American motorcyclist was 28 times more likely to die in a collision than a car or truck driver. As well, the motorcyclist was roughly twice as likely to be involved in a collision than a car or truck driver. In the U.K. in 2017, the motorcyclist was roughly 16 times more likely to be either injured or killed in a collision than the four-wheeled driver.

None of this should come as a surprise to any motorcyclist. A car driver is protected by seat belts, air bags, and tonnes of metal that’s cleverly designed with crumple zones to insulate the occupants from any impact. A motorcyclist can only hope to be thrown clear and away from other traffic.

I had a graphic demonstration of this just yesterday, when I was eating lunch on a patio near my home in Cobourg. The patio looks out onto a busy intersection where the four-lane north-south highway intersects the four-lane east-west highway. Traffic flow is managed with traffic lights that include advanced greens.

Just as I was ordering a club sandwich, there was an almighty bang on the highway and I looked up to see that a Ford SUV had gone into the back of a BMW SUV. The force was enough that the BMW’s back wheels were almost off the ground, with the Ford’s crumpled hood beneath it. There were a couple of vehicles ahead of the BMW, and the likelihood is that the front car was waiting to turn left into a parking lot. The cars behind it stopped, but the Ford driver didn’t notice for whatever reason and was still accelerating from the intersection.

I watched the Ford passenger literally stagger out of the SUV, which had all its airbags inflated. The BMW driver got out to check on the Ford occupants, and paramedics arrived within a minute or two. Other than that, nobody hurried. It was a fender-bender that probably wrote off the Ford, and the occupants were taken to hospital to check them out, and everything was cleared up before I even finished my sandwich.

This would have been very different if a motorcycle had been involved. If the bike was rear-ended, chances are the rider and perhaps passenger too would have flipped up and onto the hood of the Ford, and then may have rolled under the wheels of traffic in other lanes. The bike would also have been pushed into the car in front and its riders might have been crushed between the vehicles. If the bike had hit the BMW from behind, it would have been the same thing, except flipping forward. The rider and passenger could have been severely injured and perhaps even killed.

As riders, we know this and we accept it. All The Gear All The Time helps protect us against slides down the highway, and inflatable airbag jackets might help for hitting the ground, and helmets certainly help for hitting anything, but if we’re thrown into traffic, it’s all down to luck.

When I was 16, I T-boned a car that ran a red light in front of me. I was riding my scooter flat out at 100 km/h and tried to swerve instead of brake, and I was thrown clear over the vehicle and landed in the otherwise-empty road. My bike was a write-off, but I was fine, thanks to ATGATT. And when I was 17, I was flat-out on my Honda 250 late at night when a car pulled out from a side-street in front of me. It stopped just in time, but was so close that my knee skimmed its front bumper at 130 km/h. That was the nearest I’ve come to death on a bike.

So count me among the one-quarter of all motorcyclists who apparently will have an accident on a bike, and only luck kept me from being among the one-in-40 to not be killed or permanently injured. I accept this, and I believe my life is better for it.

Since then however, 40 years ago, I’ve learned to make the most of the motorcycle’s advantages. I’m more focused while riding my bike than I am in a car. If I’m waiting at the end of a line of traffic, then I’m in gear and watching my mirrors for vehicles approaching too fast. If I’m accelerating away from an intersection, I’m watching the road and not chatting to my passenger alongside or tuning the radio or adjusting the a/c or checking my phone. And to be honest, riding a motorcycle makes me more attentive in a car, too.

Yes, we’re considerably more vulnerable out there on the road, but we’re also capable of mitigating that vulnerability. As Dustin wrote last week, it’s about attitude more than anything else, and that attitude comes down to the rider alone.

So take care out there. It can be dangerous on the road. Just how dangerous is up to you.


  1. Of course, statistics include everybody. The untrained, the pissed, the foolhardy, the guy in shorts and sandals, the poorly maintained bikes, etc. If you avoid all that, you can greatly improve your odds, but it’s still more dangerous than sitting on the sofa, but hey, we love it!

  2. My friend, when we all ride motorcycles, we become obsessed with speed, and this is the cause of many accidents I wish you safety my dear

  3. OldBanister is obviously a member of the cult of outrage. This nanny state nonsense is out of control (well, we are in Canada after all I guess). I don’t need Justin to “keep me safe”. People should be free to assess the various risks in life for themselves and act as they feel appropriate for own circumstances. I’ve never read an industry article claiming motorcycling is safe so there is no disinformation. It’s doesn’t take much brain power to see the obvious risks even if one doesn’t take the 10 minutes to Google the data. sigh

  4. I agree with Mark’s comment that being a motorcyclist makes you a better (car) driver…(should anyways…) , viewing road navigation from the more vulnerable perspective…

  5. https://tc.canada.ca/en/road-transportation/statistics-data/canadian-motor-vehicle-traffic-collision-statistics-2019

    Percentage of Fatalities and Serious Injuries by Road User – 2019
    Road User Class Fatalities Serious Injuries
    Motorcyclists 10.6% 12.2%
    Drivers and passengers 66% 65%

    Total, vehicle registrations 2019 = 25,422,635
    Motorcycles and mopeds = 736,216 (2.9%)

    Roughly speaking, Canadian motorcyclists and scooterists are 3.66 times more likely die, and 4.2 times more likely to suffer a serious injury than drivers and passengers of cars, trucks and buses.

  6. “1/4 of all people who ever ride a motorcycle will be involved in an accident on one,” he/she wrote.

    “1/40 of all people who ever ride a motorcycle will be involved in an accident in which they are killed or suffer a permanent injury.”

    I call bullshit.

    • There’s no chance that 2.5% of riders wind up dead or permanently injured. (1/40 = 2.5%) That’s just pulling numbers out of one’s butt. The 25-percentile being involved in an accident is, however, believable.

    • Looking at the 2018 Canadian road Safety statistics there were about 730,000 road-licensed motorcycles in the entire country and a recorded 200 fatalities. A theoretical “risk of fatality” with the assumption of only a single person to each motorcycle, would give a 1-in-3,650 figure or 0.00027 chance.
      Personally, I have tried, for many years, to follow the riding technique advice in the book “Motorcycle Roadcraft, British Police Rider’s Handbook” and have found it very helpful. Apparently there is a 2020 edition now available with some new riding techniques.

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