On Balance  

How do you like your eggs?

It's August, an uneasy time, breakfast too often comes with bad news about how it's going out there for motorcyclists.

I've been thinking about the reasons why. And eggs, but we'll get to that in a bit. 

About the motorcyclists: rider safety doesn't get a lot of ongoing attention, but when it does, a couple of themes pretty much always come up.

The first is that new riders should take a course. I teach said courses, so I'm pretty happy about that one.

The local dealerships have been helpful with getting that advice out, so a big thank you to Colin, and Jay, and all the rest of our supporters in the retail world who are trying to look after people instead of just throwing them to the wolves.

Well done, you.

And well done, too, all the family members who have pushed that message, and made sure their loved ones get safety training first, instead of just throwing a leg over and wobbling off down the road. 

The second theme is that the main problem for riders is the behaviour of drivers of other vehicles.

True enough, the mistakes and the attitudes of other drivers are a concern for every road user, not just motorcyclists, so we are going to take that seriously. Sadly, though, the main problem for riders isn't other vehicle operators’

It is us.

What we get up to on the bike, whether there's anyone else around, is mainly what determines who goes to hospital today, and who doesn't.

The BC Coroners office, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and ICBC are all pretty clear on the point, so it's well past time we started to pay closer attention to the rider.

That is what I'm doing over breakfast, or brunch actually, but  usually there's food and coffee and news.

And the news is (too often) that another rider has been killed or injured because they lost control of their bike, and wound up tangling with oncoming traffic, or some roadside furniture.

Usually without much in the way of protective or preventive equipment.

My concern about this is the "who.”

These are not, as it turns out, people who have suddenly jumped on a bike for the very first time and rushed out into harm's way. Not people who were told 20  minutes ago to take a course, but blew off the advice.  Nosiree!

These are people, overwhelmingly men, who have been riding motorcycles for a long time, who "know what they're doing,” and who evidently didn't.


The biggest group is between 40 and 60 years old, not 19; old enough to know better, you'd think.

Whenever I'm forced from the hermitage, I see before me a parade of fellow riders who may or may not have taken a course, but for whom the core elements of rider safety in the modern world remain a closed book. Plainly experienced riders, but demonstrating what so many professional riding coaches have said over the years:

you can ride for 20 years, but in terms of learning about riding, if you swallow your pride and go take a course, or another course, you find pretty fast that you just rode one year, 20 times.

Practice doesn't make perfect, it makes permanent.

To get better, you have to learn the right things to practice. See Jerry Paladino, Ride Like a Pro, on the point.

What I see confirms what I hear from our students and what I read all the time.

People ride motorcycles as a social activity; they ride because their friends or family or people they relate to ride. Their practice, if you will.

What they ride, how and when they ride, and what they wear while they're at it, are all really, really strongly influenced by other riders.

Peer pressure, as it turns out, isn't just for teenagers.

All those rugged individuals out there (that would be us, guys) are ruggedly and individualistically doing what they see a whole bunch of other rugged individuals doing.

Not so individual then. Not the lone horseman on the windswept prairies after all. 

My point is this: obviously, safety for the experienced rider isn't just about experience, and it isn't about what, or how, "everybody else" is riding. That approach doesn't get any better results than letting somebody else make other decisions for you, how you like your eggs, for instance.

Remember Julia Roberts, in Runaway Bride? Oh, come on, you watched it together, she figured out to cook eggs all kinds of different ways and find out what she liked, instead of just going with what the boyfriend ate.  

So, what the crashes and injuries out on the road are telling me is that it isn't by any means just new riders who need to take a course and learn something new, maybe something about themselves.

Experienced riders, who "know what they're doing,” should think pretty seriously about taking a step back, and deciding to go find out what the story really is about what makes actual safety and skill, and what's maybe just plain luck or somebody else's dumb idea. Their eggs.

I did, by the way. Wound up teaching it in the long run, but that's another story. You can, too.

The Safety Council has courses for experienced riders, and that's a place where you can just focus on what actually works for you, instead of just hoping your brother was right about those tires, or that bike, or that way around the corner.

Your eggs, your way. 

Saving Dad's head, and life

Motorcycle helmets, salad bowls, and prize cabbages

When was Father’s Day? Did I miss it? Did you?

Or,id you give him something kind of lame, but you never know what to get the guy anyway?

Besides, he was off riding with his buddies all day.

Well, here's a thought I want to share about Dad, and what the present meant even if it was lame.

Full disclosure, my Dad shook my hand and then passed away when I was out of the room years ago, so I tend to be working on Father’s Day and it blows right by.

The present, writing on the card, and going over to Dad's on the day meant something about being glad he's still around.

Sure, who gets along all the time? Bound to be some ups and downs, but generally that's better than funerals, so you got the card and all.

Good so far?

Now, I've been paying pretty close attention to things that can help keep dads around, if they ride motorcycles like yours does, because I'm one of the team of rider instructors at the Kelowna Safety Council.

They want me to talk about helmets as one of those things in particular, so here we go. They do, you know. Helmets do keep riders alive, and their brains functioning as well as they ever did, when said riders wear them.

Like seat belts, they save lives and prevent injuries when they're used.

But, and it is a very big but, not all of them do, and not all the time, again like seat belts.

This might be where you come in.

A good helmet, properly fitted and properly fastened, will do a good job in a crash. It can prevent brain injury in anywhere up to 60% of crashes with head impacts, and fatalities by roughly 35%.

Depending on how recent the research is that you're looking at, a full helmet protects the rider from 50-80% of the head impacts we tend to experience, all of them below the ear tops, and mostly from the ears forward.

How's Dad's face looking? Still got that chin? Think on.

The problem we need to get at though, is the fact that almost 100% of B.C. riders killed in bike crashes were "helmeted,” at least to some degree, because we have helmet laws.

There's pretty obviously a big gap in how those helmets are working out, a gap, as far as I can glean from all the research I've looked at, is about helmet design and fit.

ICBC isn't exactly forthcoming on this issue, so we have to look around the world for some guidance about the gaps in helmet performance and in our helmet laws.

Some of that guidance is this: when surgeons in Wisconsin asked why "helmeted" riders were showing up at their emergency wards with head and brain injuries, they discovered that in 64% of those cases, the helmet had parted company with the rider before it could have done any good.

So, not done up properly, or not possible to do up properly because of sloppy fit and design.

And then, as the Australians found, partial helmets offered no more than about 20% of the necessary protection in a crash. Even when done up nice and snug, they were essentially pointless.

We've known it was bad with partial helmets since at least 1991, courtesy of a Dr. Ouellet. He called it at around 45%, being American and needing to be somewhat conservative about saying bad things about that North American gold standard of (not) protection, the halfie, beanie, brain cap, whatever dad calls it.

They‘re still legal in B.C., for sort of the same reasons. Gap in our laws.

My point is about the thing Dad's been riding around with on his head. If it looks more like a salad bowl with strings attached and corny stickers than a full helmet, you may have a problem like mine come next Father’S Day. Nobody to hang out with and grouse about. 

Here's a possible solution that my fellow riding instructors - all my fellow riding instructors, all over the province - want you to consider very seriously.

Take Dad to a decent bike shop, get him properly fitted with a full helmet to replace the salad bowl, throw down the cash, and get the job done.

Use every bit of emotional blackmail you can dredge up, then some more, and make it your deal that he wears the thing.

Save the salad bowl for the prize cabbage, don't let him be one.

Upside down and backward

Wrong view of traffic safety 

Here's a party trick for you: ask the assembled multitudes what's the first thing that comes to mind about motorcycle rider safety.

Probably nine out of 10 of your closest friends are going with helmets. Trust me  — nine.

I'm hoping your answer was different, maybe something about speed, or visibility, whatever. Anything but helmets. 

When we start a conversation about motorcycle safety the way we usually do, by prioritizing helmets, we're looking at the problem upside down.

That's one of the two big issues about how traffic safety in general, and motorcycle safety particularly, bangs into all the time. Upside down thinking.

In other walks of life, say heavy industry, or firefighting, when we've realized that something we're dealing with is hazardous, could seriously hurt us, we start by looking at ways to eliminate or avoid it.

That's the first choice, the star on the top of the hazard management or harm prevention tree. Right side up: get rid of the problem, and it can't bite you.

From there, we work our way down the tree of options for dealing with hazards, from the most effective star at the top, to the least effective, which is personal protective gear. Helmets.

To begin with, I want us to think about safety for motorcyclists way further up the tree, up where we find ways to prevent crashes and to prevent the obvious major injuries that result.

After all, when you think about it, some helmets work to prevent brain injuries, but that's once the crash is happening. Not all helmets, not all crashes, not all brain injuries, just some of them.

And then there are all the other injuries. Crash prevention first and foremost  - now we're talkin'.

But get a proper helmet too, make no mistake.

I said two big issues. Now for the backward item. Motorcycle crashes are bad, bad things, with seriously harmful results for the riders. We all get this. But we also all get that there's really not that many of them, and they clearly happen because people riding motorcycles are doing something different, and obviously risky.

Anything on two wheels is always going to want to fall over and hurt someone at the first whisper of a chance, just like when we were nine years old riding Freddie's bike from next door. Him with the bandages on both knees.

There's the problem. We tend to think about motorcycle crashes as something different, something outside the main action of traffic safety, which is mostly about cars and trucks banging into each other and the odd pedestrian or cyclist.


But the fact is motorcycle riders have crashes that are, for the most part, pretty much exactly like the ones car and truck drivers have.

There are some small exceptions, but whenever researchers have had the (unusual) sense to ask the right question about motorcycle crashes, that's the result they get. Same crash, different vehicle.

In fact, same time of day, same day of week, even the month, although December's usually unpopular for being "in the wind", so numbers are lower then.

But overall? Same.

We can, and we should, take from this set of facts that it's the seriousness of the outcome of those crashes that makes them different, not the crash, not the crash situation.

Riders are seriously injured or die in 80% of multi-vehicle crashes, where only 20% of other vehicle drivers are similarly harmed.

Instead of setting aside motorcycle crashes as just the sad result of obviously risky behaviour, though, we can see them as the beacon of truth that they are about traffic safety for all road users.

When a bike is hit head-on by another vehicle, that should tell us that the roadway is unsafe, not that motorcycling is unsafe.

When a rider gets it wrong and leaves the road on a curve, we should look again at that curve. The centre line's worn off, and the shoulder's covered with gravel for a reason that's all about the road and the speeds that are sanctioned there.

Learn from our pain, and fix the problem, instead of thinking about it backward, and blowing it off as "bad rider", as usual.

There you go  - we can get traffic safety right side up and forwards if we take motorcyclists, and rider crashes, as the clearest and too often tragic signal we have about what works, and what really doesn't, for all road users.

And we can get on with fixing the problems that are affecting all of us.

More On Balance articles

About the Author

Bill Downey is a retired professional social worker in support programs for people with congenital or acquired physical and cognitive challenges, who was also a volunteer firefighter and a BCGEU health and safety advocate.

For many years, he has been a motorcycle riding coach/instructor with Kelowna Safety Council who spends too much time studying international traffic safety research and not enough time doing all the outdoor things a boy from the Okanagan should be doing.

He has lived a very large portion of his life on two wheels as a commuting and travelling cyclist, but, for the extra challenge, he is also as a motorcycle commuter.

By nature, he has a balanced approach to all things.

[email protected]https://kdsc.bc.ca

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.