Sep 25, 2016

Motorcycling: is it worth the risk?

Looking at expected minutes lost shows just how great a discrepancy there is between risks from different sorts of transport. Whereas an hour on a train costs you only twenty expected seconds of life, an hour on a motorbike costs you an expected three hours and forty-five minutes.

- William MacAskill in Doing Good Better (on p. 61 of my copy)

I have some quibbles with MacAskill's calculation. Because he was writing a popular interest book, he didn't provide any sourcing. I suspect that whatever source he used to calculate the expected risks of train-riding and motorcycle-riding was based on old statistics, and that it grouped all motorcycle fatalities into one aggregate number. Grouping all fatalities together is silly – obviously if you ride your motorbike home from a night at the bar you are at higher risk than if you take a Sunday morning ride on an empty country road. Counting drunken-ride-home-from-bar fatalities and Sunday-morning-ride-on-a-empty-road fatalities in the same category doesn't make sense.

But I shouldn't let such quibbles obscure the point. Even if old numbers and silly categorization explained half of the calculated risk of riding a motorcycle, an hour on a motorcycle is still many times more dangerous than an hour on a train. So, is the risk worth it?

Contrary to the opinions of my mother and the current zeitgeist, I don't think the answer is an obvious "No!". Motorcycling has much to recommend it. It is the fastest way to traverse a city, and it's always easy to find parking. It is an incredibly experiential way to travel through countryside – you really see things as you ride, you feel the crispness of the air all around you as you cut through a fall day, you smell the strong tartness of laid manure as you pass worked fields. Plus, motorcycling is fun, in a visceral, animal way. Like a bicycle, the motorcycle is an extension of your body, responsive to thought – you join your soft body with this twisted exoskeleton of metal and rubber, and thus paired, you fly together.

When living in a city, it is amazingly nice to have a motorcycle tucked away in some garage or back lot. After a stressful day, the sort of day when all the humanness and bustle and bother of the social project starts to get to you, you can unveil your better half, rev it up, and leave. Just leave. No preparation, no careful analysis of traffic patterns, no stewing in highway backup. With just a thought, you find yourself 50 miles outside of town on a country road no commuter would ever think to bother with.

On a long ride, there is something purifying about cruising for hour after hour. Yesterday, I headed out of Montreal on my bike. I was distracted at first. Worried about my work, about all the emails I had to answer, about small things: when I would arrive at my destination that evening, where I should stop, whether I was wearing enough layers. The purification wasn't instant – at my first stop, I nervously flipped between Slack and gmail on my phone while trying to warm my hands on a cup of Tim Hortons. But by the afternoon, several hours of riding behind me, I was simplified. No need to worry about when I would get in, or where the next stop should be, or how things were going at work in my absence. No need to worry about anything, really.

So those are all good things. But it is undeniably dangerous. You skate over asphalt at 80+ mph, surrounded by distracted steel cages. Of course it is dangerous.

The scary part is that after you've been riding for a few months, it no longer feels dangerous. It feels very normal, just as anything that you do consistently for a few months feels normal. So you skate between distracted cages, at 80, 90, 100 mph. For hours. Hopefully you remember to check your blind spot every time you change lanes. And when you do forget to check, hopefully there's nothing in it. Hopefully all those cages remember to check their blind spots when they change lanes. Hell, hopefully they check their mirrors. And when they neglect to do so, hopefully you are out of range of their error.

There is so much of this when riding – blind hope that other drivers are reasonable and vigilant, that the road is smooth and unobstructed, that your machine is functional and all its bolts are tight. Most of the time, it's fine. You ride for a few months without incident, you get used to the speed and stress of the highway and don't fear it anymore. Everything is fine. A few years of the same; everything is fine. Eventually, it gets easy to believe that all those statistics and cultural fear are wrong, that all those people simply don't know what they're talking about, that motorcycling is objectively the best way to travel and that you, master rider that you are, are untouchable.

Alistair Farland embodies much of the spirit of motorcycling that I find so attractive. A few years ago, at age 24, he embarked on a 29,000 mile motorbike trip from Alaska to the bottom of South America. He chronicled his journey on his website (a), which has long been one of my favorite little corners of the internet. There is something immensely alluring about loading up an adventure bike with carefully selected gear, charting out a route for the day, and spending your time traveling through foreign places. Then doing this for day after day until it becomes routine. I love that. It's the same affinity I feel for Alexander Supertramp, minus the poorly specified rage against "the system".

Riding a motorcycle for hundreds of miles daily, day after day, is risky. 10,000 miles into Alistair's trip, he ran his bike into the back of a semi on I-95 in North Carolina and died. It was silly, arbitrary way to die. Alistair was traveling at 65 mph. The truck was moving at 60 mph in the same direction. Nobody did anything particularly stupid. No insane risk-taking. Just a slip in attention after thousands of miles of riding, and he was dead.

So in addition to an inspiring hero, Alistair Farland is a cautionary tale. I think about him sometimes when I'm cruising along at 75 or 85 mph. Alistair Farland died at 65 mph, and it was nobody's fault.

I'm not sure if I'll keep riding for much longer. As above, I really enjoy it, and not just in a juvenile, risk-taking way. Motorcycling makes my life better. But it also makes my life shorter, in expectation. And that's a tough decision to make.

Alistair Farland died at 65 mph, and it was nobody's fault.

But let's not close with that. Let's close with this charming post on Alistair's blog (a), written at the start of his journey.

[rereads: 2, edits: tightened up prose]