Life, Death, and Motorcycles
A cacophony of sounds. Quick images, hard to decypher. What is that? Forest. Jungle. Narrow roads. An old woman smiles.
Something is wrong. I was somewhere, doing something. I was excited about it. Why can’t I put it all together?
Suddenly I snap to, deep breath in.
An old man squats in front of me, looking me in the eyes. He’s worried. I am sitting on the side of a narrow road, deep in a jungle somewhere. There is only the man. No other people, no buildings.
“Where am I?” I ask. “What happened?”
“You had an accident,” he says, in a tone that says that he’s told me this already.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I can’t remember.”
“I know,” he says, and he does. He explains it again: I am in Indonesia. I was riding my motorcycle. I had an accident.
I look around. My motorcycle stands at the side of the road, on its kickstand. No other vehicles are around.
The man is the owner of Warung Bucu, just down the road. He asks me if I can walk. I can, it turns out, and we walk to the Warung. He feeds me nasi goreng and tells me what had happened.
I had tried to pass a truck on the narrow mountain road, and hit an oncoming scooter while doing so. A couple of snapshots come back: - the winding road - getting stuck behind a truck - starting to pass it - being disappointed how little power the motorcycle has. “This is going to take longer than I expect,” I thought, and then… nothing
After the accident, the police had come and gone, the other rider had gone to the hospital… and they left me there. I had been out for a long time. The accident was my fault, they said, and I had no reason not to believe them.
I messaged Julian, my friend who lives in Bali, and he helped me sort things out. He dropped everything he was doing and came to pick me up, wired money to the injured rider for the hospital bills and damaged scooter, and took me back to his place so I could sleep on the couch that night.
I am eternally grateful to Julian. If you are ever in Bali, please visit TYGR sushi, his restaurant. The sushi is great, and Julian is a great dude.
According to JD Power, chances of a fatality in a motorcycle accident are approximately 30 times higher than in a car. This is an oft-cited number.
Let’s zoom out for a little bit and talk about micromorts. A micromort is “a unit of risk defined as a one-in-a-million chance of death”.
Here in the US, the average person has a baseline exposure of 22 micromorts every day. Surely this average masks a huge distribution, but let’s use it as the best helpful baseline we have.
Traveling 6 miles by motorcycle increases the risk of death by roughly a micromort, as does riding ~15 miles on a bicycle, walking 17 miles, traveling 230 miles by car, and 1,000 miles by jet.
That implies that riding a motorcycle is about 38 times more dangerous than driving a car. Ooof.
I think actually a different metric from JD Power might be more meaningful: “the occupant fatality rate was 10.5 for every 100,000 registered cars and 59 for every 100,000 registered motorcycles. Based on these figures, the risk of a fatal crash was almost six times higher among motorcycle riders.”
I suppose that this accounts for different riding and driving habits. For example, many riders also have a car, and they might drive more than they ride.
Let’s make it personal. I average about 1,300 miles on my motorcycle per year - an increase of 217 micromorts.
The average American, meanwhile, drives 12,724 miles in a year (per KBB), for a marginal risk increase of about 55 micromorts. So the risk from my motorcycle hobby is only about four times as high as the average American’s driving habit! I get far more joy out of my time in the saddle than Joe Schmo gets out of his commute, so this is starting to look like a half-decent trade.
Even further, according to the Insurance Journal, the first thirty days of riding a motorcycle are about four times more risky than the entire second year. 22 percent of collisions occurred in the first 30 days after an insurance policy took effect; the rate dropped one-third in the second month and almost two-thirds after six months.
I think the Lindy effect might be in play here (when ignoring the adverse effects of old age): the longer you’ve been riding motorcycles and not died, the lower your risk of dying from a motorcycle accident per mile ridden. Experience, wisdom, and skill go a long way.
The takeaway from the numbers is therefore much more encouraging than I expected when I stared the research for this post.
The Highway of Angels
There was an immeasurable distance between the quick and the dead: they did not seem to belong to the same species; and it was strange to think that but a little while before they had spoken and moved and eaten and laughed.
– W. Somerset Maugham: Of Human Bondage
The above photos were taken about 15 minutes apart, the top at Newcomb’s Ranch, and the bottom a few miles down on Angeles Crest Highway. The motorcycle belonged to Priyam.
Priyam grew up riding small motorcycles in India, and here in Los Angeles, not long after getting his first full-time job after grad school, he bought a Kawasaki Z900, a beautiful beast of a motorcycle. I told him to start small, but Priyam could not contain his excitement and splurged.
On the ride down from Newcomb’s Ranch, Priyam took the lead. I was riding behind him, and did not want to keep up with his fast pace, so he soon slipped out of sight. Then I came around a corner to see him and his motorcycle 8 feet up in the air, spinning, before landing in the dirt shoulder of the highway.
He’d entered the turn too fast with bad lane position - far on the right in a left turn. Then a pothole in the road caused him to panic and freeze up. From there, perhaps target fixation took him right into the massive boulder he wanted so badly to avoid.
Priyam got lucky that day. After being airlifted to a hospital, he was discharged a week later and has no major ongoing health issues.
His was a clear case of rider error. He was riding beyond his skill level, ecstatic with the thrill of so much power available at the flick of the wrist.
25% of motorcycle crash fatalities occur due to striking fixed objects (source); it seems like it would be safe to attribute most of them to rider error.
Even though I suspect rider error accounts for the majority of motorcycle accidents, as it did for Priyam’s accident and the one I’d had in Indonesia, it surely does not account for all of them.
Some five years before Priyam’s accident, I was riding up Angeles Crest Highway, alone. I was in a right-hand turn. Coming down in the other direction was a column of slow-moving cars.
Suddenly a tricked out Subaru was flying down my lane, in the wrong direction, heading right for me. I tightened my turn as much as I could - which was not much. Luckily, the driver swerved halfway back into his own lane, creating just enough space for my motorcycle on the inside of my lane. If anything at all had been wrong with my lane position, or his reaction, it would have been bad.
Had we gotten into an accident then, it would not have been due to rider error.
Who in their right mind would ride a motorcycle after that?
“The function of man is to live, not to exist.”
– Jack London
People do things they love, and that’s a good thing. Some do it recklessly; others fully aware of the danger inherent in what they do.
Climbing Mt. Everest carries a risk of 37,932 micromorts per successful ascent. On K2, one person dies for every four that reach the summit. Are those who climb it unaware of that? Surely not.
Are they, then, insane? Arguably so. Who in their right mind would try such a risky thing? In fact, who in their right mind would try something that hadn’t been done before? Why risk standing out from the crowd?
And yet some do. Does, in fact, progress and discovery depend on these insane people? Would a Europe filled only with the sane have ever discovered America?
When thinking about this blog post, I asked riders on reddit to share stories of their motorcycle accidents, whether they came back or not, and why. Here’s what people had to say:
Why would I give up on something that brings me such joy. I’m good at riding. You can get hit by a car walking on the sidewalk. - FranklinTBiggies
I’m back now and enjoying it. I know what my mistake was. Too much bike and very little experience. I’m older and more mature-ish. - achoowin
I enjoy the riding, there is something that fills my soul by riding. It just puts my mind in a better place, I want to say relaxing, but that is NOT the correct word…..it just has that “thing” that seems to fill me back up. - fpgt72
Honestly, I couldn’t tell you why I keep doing it. All I can say for sure is that I ride motorcycles. - No_Willingness9952
I don’t think I could just not ride anymore, the love for it is too strong. Do normal people understand that? No, not at all. But my wife supports my choice and ultimately that’s the only person who matters. I’ve been hurt much worse doing much less ‘dangerous’ things and I refuse to live my life in fear of what could happen. I’m not gonna reach the end of my days and regret not doing the things I love and enjoy. - ArmoredAlchemist
When I ride, I focus just on the riding itself. Where should I be in the lane? How should I take this turn? Pull the clutch in… what gear should I be in? What’s coming up over there? I don’t think about my job, or my bills, or some bullshit form I have to file somewhere. - Marek
I still ride… How did it change me? I hate people. They’re fuckwits who will not take responsibility for their mistakes. 1st big accident: drunk driver. 2nd accident: Farmer who left gates opened combined with meth addict who had been disqualified from driving. - AFSAlameda
[T]his last crash has me pondering my mortality and realizing that as 50 creeps up on me I’m not going to heal as fast as I used to. And it’s hard to pull in a clutch with a titanium plate in your wrist. I have a kid to haul around now. Groceries for three can’t fit in a backpack. In other words, life has intruded upon my fun. - frankentriple
I’d gotten lucky in the accident in Bali. I walked away with a concussion, some cracked ribs, a sprained wrist, and a burn on my leg.
The first few days after the accident were some of the most joyful of my life. I didn’t do much: I walked barefoot around Canggu Beach, meditated, watched people around me. The simplest things made me smile. The gratitude I felt for being alive was overwhelming. Life was so beautiful, and I was so glad to be around to experience it.
I was keenly aware that I’d been flirting with death, and that luck was a key part of my being around to reflect on it. I thought that this might be the moment I give up motorcycles, but I didn’t feel a need to rush to a decision. I’d let things play out, and I felt that it was about fifty-fifty if I go back to riding.
Soon, that joy of the everyday started to fade. I kept walking around the beach, and meditating, and people-watching, but it was impossible to hang on to that feeling of gratitude; even as I tried hard to do so as I felt it slowly slip away.
My thirst returned, my hunger. I wanted more. Adventure called to me; life called to me. I wasn’t ready to slip away into a mellow, contented existence quite yet.
So I started traveling again. I joined the regular tourist crowd on planes, trains, and automobiles. A month or so later I’d start getting a wistful look every time a motorcycle passed me.
Two months later, Stephanie and I rented a scooter in The Philippines for a day. I felt nervous at first, but soon those feelings faded. We had a lovely time riding around Bohol, and we were both happy to be on the scooter rather than a crowded tour bus. It’s such a great way to get around.
Another month later I rented a dirt bike for a day in Cambodia and rode around through some forests and fields and to some temples. It was a good time.
And another month after that, about four months after the accident, I rode from Saigon to Danang in Vietnam, a thousand kilometers or so, and then 1,500 km in Thailand the month after that.
One day I will die. It is good to be aware of it, and to keep reminding myself of it. Some even argue it is precisely this what gives life meaning.
A few weeks after Priyam’s accident, I rode back up to the spot where it had happened. Out of the debris the tow truck had left behind, I fished out a piece of the passenger grab bar that had been violently sheared off in the crash. I keep it as a memento mori near my helmet so that I look at it each time I go for a ride.
Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.
– Marcus Aurelius
I try to keep this awareness of death with me always, and when the situation calls for it I try to share it with others. The responses to this vary.
A couple of years ago I was part of a group whitewater rafting down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The Colorado is mighty, and about 12 people die rafting it each year.
We were a few minutes from entering a big rapid, and I brought it up - people die up here, and there is a non-negligible possibility that it will happen to us, too.
One of my friends responded very negatively - why would I be such a downer?
I invited our crew to be positive about it instead: think about what is good in life, and tell those you care about that you love them, because it’s possible you won’t get a chance to say it again.
That same friend didn’t bite, but my other friend kissed his wife and told her he loves her. That’s the right response, I think.
Relentlessly prune bullshit, don’t wait to do things that matter, and savor the time you have. That’s what you do when life is short.
– Paul Graham, Life is Short
The careful weighing of the scales
So where does this leave me?
I still ride, and it still brings a smile to my face. I really do love it.
I am cognizant of my own mortality, but also of the shortness of life and the futility of spending your days trying to prolong them.
I try to make good decisions. I don’t ride at the edge of my ability, and I wear ATGATT - All The Gear, All The Time - something that makes a huge difference in the outcomes of motorcycle accidents.
I’m happy to say that I don’t have a long commute anymore. I loved the fact that I could do it on my motorcycle back then - it saved me over half an hour every day, and it was certainly more fun than in a car… but compared to the other places I could be riding my motorcycle, it wasn’t that fun, and I think it was on the dangerous side of riding, too, what with rush hour traffic and in the dark sometimes. I had a big sheet of plywood hit me square in the face one time and stay pinned against my helmet until I threw it off with my hand. That wasn’t a good time.
Maybe I’ll finally get an adventure bike and go off roads and into the backcountry. That sounds fun, and I hope that by virtue of there being fewer cars around it will be relatively safe riding.
I have a young daughter now, and when we were awaiting her arrival, a few friends told me that I’d probably give it up when she was born, and that I should.
Well, I haven’t given it up. How would I explain it to her?
I’d tell her that I love her, very much. I’d also tell her that I don’t want to let fear paralyze me into a life of dull mediocrity, and I would encourage her to live the same way. I’d tell her to maximize the experience of her life, not the biological age at the time of her death. Here’s hoping that we’ll get to have that conversation one day.
Artwork other than photographs accompanying this post was generated by AI - some by DALL-E, and some by Stable Diffusion.