Motorcycles, Mattresses, and the Art of Risk Management

A few days ago, an old lady very nearly killed me while making a left-hand turn out of a Home Depot parking lot. The woman had been waiting for a gap in the traffic in busy, rush hour traffic in a 4-lane suburban road with no median. She looked at me, through me, past me, and abruptly began her turn. I applied both brakes, and the ABS promptly engaged. I came within ten feet of impacting the driver side door, after maybe 2 seconds of preparation for a major lifestyle adjustment. She stopped and looked at me, grimaced in acknowledgement of her mistake, mouthed “I’m sorry,” and drove off.

I understand that, when I ride a motorcycle I accept a significant degree of physical risk. For me, riding is a means of mitigating another posed be another formidable and, for me, deadlier hazard: My own mind. The sensations I experience and the rituals I perform are a very real and necessary component of my own mental health. When I can’t ride, I become a reckless and self-destructive person. Having recognized this pattern in myself, I have an extraordinary incentive to ride safely: If I got injured and couldn’t ride, I’d undoubtedly lose my mind. I’d go downhill, and quickly.

Lawrence

I enjoy discussing the science and art of risk management. In the past five years, I can’t remember a single conversation on the topic in which I wasn’t reminded that the “real” threat is inattentive or generally incompetent drivers. There’s a reason it’s a recurring theme, as illustrated by my Home Depot story. However, bikers often cite the reality of incompetent drivers as leading towards a fatalist conclusion: That such accidents are not their “fault” and as such, they shouldn’t be expected to modify their behavior to mitigate that risk.

This attitude – which I wholeheartedly reject – mirrors the stance many sexual assault activists have towards the suggestion that people should actively attempt to protect themselves from rape and other forms of sexual assault. We know, for example, that binge drinking is a behavior which, all other factors being held constant, increases the likelihood that a person will be sexually assaulted. A causal relationship is well-established. However, since the mid-2000s, it’s become increasingly verboten to cite this information as supporting the (blindingly obvious) recommendation that people should moderate their drinking in order to reduce the likelihood that they’ll become a victim of sexual assault. Suggesting that a person change their behavior in order to mitigate risk is now stigmatized as “victim blaming,” and is a capitol ideological sin in online discussions of gender violence.

In the hours/minutes prior to the Home Depot Incident, I made the following decisions:

– I was riding with my engine set on the “Standard Mode,” rather than the more-tame “B Mode,” which is recommended for urban riding.

– I was wearing an open-faced (3/4) helmet, with significantly less protection than a full-face motorcycle helmet.

– I was wearing Levis and Doc Martens, neither of which are designed to provide any degree of crash protection.

– I chose to ride after disengaging from a uniquely unpleasant email exchange, which left me both angry and anxious.

Each of these decisions either made a crash more likely or increased the likelihood and severity of any injuries I might have suffered. For a variety of reasons, ranging from practicality to simple indiscipline, I made those decisions and accepted the associated risk. Had Mrs. Depot and I collided, however, there would’ve been little question as to who was at fault; she was, she was dangerously inattentive and failed to operate her vehicle in accordance with simple traffic laws.

I would’ve been on very solid moral and legal footing as I discussed the incident with my physical therapist, as he taught me to walk again. I would’ve felt very confident as my wife guided me into court in my wheelchair to testify in a civil lawsuit. Or perhaps my survivors would’ve been blessed with the luxury of mourning me without any awkward caveats; after all, it wasn’t my fault.

A sign on McClure Pass outside of Carbondale marks a spot near where Dillon Jett died in a motorcycle accident in 2010. Courtesy of Staci Bishop (mother)
 

 

We need to rediscover the distinction between identifying risk and determining guilt. Rapists do cause rape. Between a rapist and his victim, we can confidently direct 100% of our contempt and anger at the rapist. However, we are willfully deluding ourselves and lying to our children if we refuse to acknowledge that risk is in large part a function of behavior, and that risk can be reduced and mitigated by changing our behavior.

Yes, Americans have got to learn to be more aware and engaged while driving. Yes, I support enthusiastic and vigilant enforcement of traffic laws. Yes, I support aggressive prosecution and unforgiving punishment of drivers who are unwilling to comply with those laws. But these positions are entirely unrelated to the real-world consequences of the sudden, chaotic collision of flesh, steel, and asphalt. Independent of any moral or legal outcome, I will suffer. It’s my responsibility to manage my own risk. That’s a responsibility I accept when I enjoy the freedom of participating in any dangerous activity. It’s part of the deal with being an adult in a free society. We’d be well-advised to teach our youth that this principle is as valid in a dorm room as astride a motorcycle.

Mattress

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