31 July 2006

Chapter IV; in which I recommend that everyone gets a motorcycle

[the last 3 posts I just reposted word for word, but this one I have edited and updated. And added some fun pictures.]

  • Jul 31, 2006

Chapter IV; in which I recommend that everyone gets a motorcycle

When I drive conservatively, I get 70mpg. I always get at least 55 mpg. That's better than the Civic Hybrid, the Prius, or a diesel. It's similar to the [original] Insight [which has not been available for years].

A typical car goes from 0-60 mph in about 12-15 seconds, a sports car in 8-10. I can go 0-60 in under 6 seconds. I drive in the carpool lane all hours of the day with no passengers. I go over the bridges without paying toll [Baybridge carpool toll is now $1 instead of $6, but a motorcycle still counts as a carpool with no passengers). I park anywhere I want and never pay a meter. I never get a ticket.

I bought my vehicle new.   It cost $2,999.00

Its a Kawasaki Ninja EX250R.

Now before you think "I could never drive a motorcycle" let me tell you why you can.

Excuse #1:
"I don't know how"

If you can ride a bike and drive a stickshift, you can hop on with no experience whatsoever. If not, the class is $190 (half if you're under 21), takes three and a half days, and has more than a 90% pass rate. If you fail the first time, you can take it again free.

Excuse #2:
"It's too dangerous"

Picture a guy who rides a motorcycle.

Its one of these guys, isn't it?

Now picture the driver of a station wagon or minivan

Now, think about the drivers, aside from the vehicles.
Lets say they are all driving the same car.  Who is more likely to speed?  Who is more likely to drive drunk?  Who is more likely to drive with no formal training, or on a suspended license?

This turns out not just to be a thought-experiment, and not just a stereotype.

Statistics back it up - motorcyclists as a group tend to drive more dangerously. As a group, people who drive motorcycles have far higher rates of speeding, DUI, reckless driving, and all other high-risk behaviors.
This has nothing to do with anything inherent in the machine itself, it has to do with the sort of person who chooses to ride it.
This accounts for the majority of the difference in accident rates:  in the majority of all (US at least) motorcycle accidents, the motorcyclist was the one at fault.

 This should be obvious if you think about it, but there is plenty of data to back it up.

The vast majority of motorcyclists involved in fatal or serious accidents have one or more of the following voluntary risk factors:
-Alcohol impairment, (30%)
-Speeding, (35%)
-Reckless driving,
-No motorcycle license (25%)
-No formal training,
-Previous tickets or accidents,
-Large displacement (fast) motorcycle,
-Lack of helmet, (66% where helmet use is voluntary)

The rates of all of these are substantially higher for motorcyclists as a group than for the general population of drivers.  The more a person falls into the stereotypical idea of "biker", the higher the risk.  Even when the rider has the legal right of way, and gets hit by a car, this combination of factors is frequently involved, meaning that even if the other driver is determined to be "at fault", the accident occurred only because of the choices the rider made.
In fatal crashes that involve a car, 48% of motorcyclists were speeding, and 42% were drunk.


Now imagine how this person drives:

Based on the only two studies I am aware of that controlled for differences in driver behavior, unsafe behavior on the part of the rider accounts for 100% of the difference in accident rates: when comparing across only one demographic, they found accident rates to actually be LOWER among motorcycle riders than car drivers.

The first is referenced at: http://www.skeptive.com/sources/479/source_urls/682
I've seen the original study that website references, but for the life of me I can't find it on The Google.
That study compared police officers in England who rode in cars to those on motorbikes.  They looked through records of accidents spanning several years.  This is much more useful data than simply comparing overall drivers of each, because it controls for the personality type of the driver. It turns out that when you only compare across a single demographic, the accident rate for motorcyclist is actually...

wait for it....

That's right, lower than that of car drivers.

The second study which compares within one specific demographic is here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1478319/
It compares the injury rate for professional racers, and concludes: "Motorcycle racing injuries compared favourably with motor car racing injuries and had a lower incidence of serious head injury." 

Nearly all, (and perhaps entirely), of the difference in accident rate statistics between cars and motorcycles comes down to differences in driver behavior.

Which means if you choose to ride safely, you may actually be SAFER overall than you would be driving a car.

There are several possible factors for this surprising and counter-intuitive fact.

One, motorcycles are small, which makes them light, which gives them significantly shorter stopping distances.  The power it takes to stop from a given rate of speed is directly proportional to the weight of the vehicle.  The actual stopping distance is not correlated linearly because the specific brakes and tires play a role as well, but in general, the heavier the vehicle, the harder it is to stop.
An typical-sized passenger car takes about 240ft, or nearly 7 seconds,  to come to a stop from 70MPH (not counting reaction time).
An average motorcycle can make the same stop in  about 180ft, or just over 4 seconds.

This massive difference in stopping ability (even despite cars having 4 wheels on the ground and anti-lock brakes) is because the typical passenger 4-wheeler weighs in at about 3500 pounds, while the average motorcycle only weighs about 400-500lbs.  That's just physics.

And what it means is, if you are on a rural highway, and a car were to suddenly pull out of a driveway or intersection in front of you 185ft away (about 1/2 a typical city block), if you are driving a car you will impact it at around 45MPH - fast enough to be a very serious accident; if the same thing happens while on a motorcycle, you will be able to safely come to a complete stop just in front of the other vehicle.

For that matter, this is also the fatal flaw in the great "heavier = safer" car myth.  Granted, IF you take it as inevitable that you will have a head-on collision with another car, then more mass will absorb more impact energy.  However, you shouldn't consider that inevitable!  The more heavy your car, (or truck or SUV), the higher your chances of getting into an accident in the first place.
And I don't know about you, but I would much prefer not getting into a crash in the first place over getting into one and surviving.

Motorcycles are also more maneuverable, and can fit into smaller spaces, which also helps with avoiding accidents.  For example, a couple months ago I was riding on a windy hilly 2 lane road, coming home from work.  As I came around a corner I encountered a very large pick up truck going in the opposite direction.  In order to smooth out the sharp turn, the driver of this truck was driving literally right down the middle of the two lanes, straddling the double yellow line around a blind intersection.  There was only one lane in each direction, and no shoulder.  Were I in a car at that moment, there would have been absolutely no where to go.  It would have been a guaranteed head-on collision.

Fortunately, I was on my motorcycle, and I just moved to the far right of my lane, and squeezed between the jack-ass truck driver and the wall, without so much as a scrape.


The other major safety advantage that motorcycles have is, ironically, the lack of a metal shell around them.  It makes people feel unsafe.  And when you are operating a motor vehicle at freeway speeds, feeling unsafe is actually a very good thing.  The feeling of insulation inside a cage (motorcyclists term for 4-wheelers) creates a false sense of safety.  The whole idea of having the "protection" of a car is mostly due to a misunderstanding of physics, (much like the myth that SUVs are safer than cars - this is actually the opposite of reality when you look at real world accident statistics). 
Crash tests are conducted at 35 or 40MPH.  The reason it is such a low speed, when speed limits are often as high as 75, is because that's roughly the limit of what airbags and seatbelts can protect against.

People tend to assume that coming off a motorcycle at high speed automatically must mean severe injury or death, but this is simply false, and its easy to prove: look at professional motorcycle racing, where crashes occur at 100+ MPH fairly regularly, and the rider almost always gets up on their own the moment they stop sliding.
Here's a few examples:

Unfortunately most of the scenes cut out after the dramatic part is over, but in the majority you can see the rider sitting up or kneeling, clearly one moment away from standing up.  True, the streets don't have crash barriers, and often there isn't as large an area to slide, but then again, these riders travel up to 200MPH, and the energy that needs to be absorbed increases with the square of the speed (2 times faster = 4 times more energy)

Crash injury is not caused by objects or the ground impacting you directly, they are caused by the overall rate of deceleration of your internal organs relative to your skeleton.  Anything that slows the rate of deceleration - be it airbags and crumple zones, or sliding across the pavement, reduces crash severity.  Anything that you may run into - say a car windshield, steering wheel, or window column, increases the damage done.  Seatbelts and airbags are just there to reduce the damage that the car itself would do to you without them.

Despite crumple zones, seatbelts and airbags, car accidents are still the number one cause of death among people under 40.  Auto fatalities are so common they don't even make news - they are mentioned at most in passing, in explaining a particularly bad traffic jam.
Traveling in a car at highway speeds is actually, statistically, one of the most dangerous things a person can do.  But because it is so common, and because the windshield and suspension keeps us from experiencing the speed we are actually moving, it doesn't scare us.

And that causes us to do lots of really stupid things.

When you are on a motorcycle, you are not sending text messages, you are not changing the radio station, you are not primping in the mirror, and you are not eating breakfast.  You are driving.
After 11 years, I am still scared each and every time I take my motorcycle on the highway.  And that fear makes me pay attention to everything around me,  and it keeps me from speeding - which is the single largest factor in auto fatalities.
The aforementioned study on motorcycle cops called this phenomenon "risk compensation" and they theorized it was the largest factor in their unexpected results.

I think the moral of the story is that if we really want to reduce traffic deaths, instead of mandating air bags and seat-belts, we should mandate that all cars have a large solid steel spike, with a very sharp and pointy end, which sticks directly out of the steering wheel at the drivers chest.  If this were the case, a driver would be reminded every moment of the potential consequences of speeding or not paying attention or any other reckless driving - and those consequences would be squarely directed at the person responsible for the auto, not the passenger or the person in the car they hit.  The illusion of safety would disappear, and people would actually drive safely.
Which would mean all traffic accidents would disappear, all but completely.  They would be as rare as plane crashes, and make just as big headlines.
Because there actually is no such thing as an "accident".  There is just negligent drivers.  In a fraction of a % of the time, the cause is actually mechanical failure, but even then, more often than not, that reflects a failure of maintenance on the part of the owner.

After driver error is removed from the causes of motorcycle crashes (which it can be, because YOU are going to choose to drive safely, just as you do in your car), the next biggest reason for motorcycle accidents is less visibility, causing cars to hit them.
This issue can be addressed by wearing a white helmet with reflective tape, a safety reflective vest, additional lighting on the bike, and "modulators" which cause the headlight and brake light to flash in order to be more noticeable (like the flashers on a bicycle).
And of course protective gear - full-face helmet, leather jacket w/ foam armor, protective pants, boots, and gloves, all mitigate the risk of injury if one does fall for any reason - there is your protective shell; you just wear it instead of sitting inside of it.

Excuse #3:
"I have a family" or "I need more space" or something like that.

First of all, you can put a passenger on the EX250, and with a backpack and panniers you can do a decent sized shopping trip. Also, the average American household has more than one car anyway. Use the one car for shopping or family outings, (which you probably do every week or two) and replace the other with a bike, which you use for commuting (which you do two times a day). Most of you have a daily commute, and you do it solo. I see you every day from the carpool lane or when I'm going between the lanes (which is legal in California). You know how rare it is for you to have more than one passenger at a time. And it's $3000 dollars brand new. $1500 used on Craigslist. And the insurance is less than $100 a year (I don't have a perfect driving record, so you could maybe do better). With gas at $3.50 a gallon and climbing and SF parking running $20 a day in some places (that was 10 years ago, I bet it's more by now) and bridge tolls $6, you can't really claim you can't afford it. You will most likely end up saving money. A lot of it. And it will easily fit in your garage or driveway right next to your car.

Excuse #4:
"what about the weather?"
Put on a rain jacket. But if that's no good for you, as in the last section, just use the bike as a second vehicle. Drive the car when it rains.

Excuse #5:
I don't know, why don't all people drive these? If you have a different reason, write and tell me what it is.
It just makes so much sense. It's practical. It's fun. It's even cool. It's cheaper, environmentally friendly, in many ways safer. I save 30 min. on my commute. What can you do with an extra hour a day? If we all drove one, we reduce our dependency on foreign oil, eliminate our traffic congestion problems, eliminate the parking shortage in urban areas.

I don't work for Kawasaki. The reason I mention this specific model is because no one makes it's equivalent. No one else makes a vehicle which can go 100 MPH AND gets 60 MPG. No one else makes something which is comfortable on the freeway which costs under 3 grand. (There is something very gratifying about out accelerating people in vehicles which cost them 20 times as much as mine.) I wish someone else would make a 250 sport bike. Maybe if all of you reading this go out and buy one, then Honda and Yamaha and Suzuki, and maybe even Triumph, Ducati, who knows maybe even Harley, will look into making something practical and fuel efficient too.

Note: alot of people tell me that there are good free-way capable scooters, and in some particular circumstances, (freeway is only occasional, you don't care about acceleration, and or you have trouble getting on a motorcycle or operating a clutch, for example) they may be just as good

My girlfriend [now ex-wife] recently got one, and she wanted me to add that there are too few women motorcyclists, and that riding them is sexy.


  1. here in thailand, where my home is, motorbikes are the main mode of transportation. other places, like vietnam are swarmed with them. but it is a sub-tropical climate. even if it rains, you just get wet- not dangerously cold. they are mostly 90-110 cc tho, not real motorcycles. i miss my triumph bonnevilles. people regularly die on the roads here, but as you said, it is most often due to the behavior of the driver. and alchohol.

  2. Hi Thaikarl!
    How did you find my blog?

    The cold isn't the only issue with rain - it also makes the roads more slick, which really is more dangerous.
    I don't know if its true elsewhere, but US statistics show that there is a correlation between the size of a motorcycles engine and the risk of accident. Smaller engine = safer. This is probably due to the same issue about the type of person who is drawn to lots of power.
    But the same may not apply elsewhere.

  3. http://www.youtube.com/user/neiallswheel?feature=mhee

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  4. Very informative argument. I'm glad you covered safety, because that would have been my first qualm.

    One quick question; how does a motorcycle feel compared to a car in snow and ice?

    (Also, I'm not sure if I agree with your explanation on more weight = more stopping distance. More weight also means proportionally more friction. I would think the angle between the center of gravity and the front wheels would be the primary factor, so a sedan would stop much faster than an SUV, and a motorcycle with a steep rake angle and stiff suspension would stop much faster than a scooter at a given speed, and some sedans might stop faster than some motorcycles. (Shooting from the hip here, sorry.))


    1. I would not ride a motorcycle in ice or snow.

      I don't live in a place where its a factor, so I don't think about it alot, but my recommendation in that case would be to only ride in the spring/summer.

      That more weight = more momentum is basic physics. You are correct that there are other factors involved, including traction, weight distribution, as well as anti-lock brakes and probably other smaller things as well.
      My point is that - all things being equal - less weight = less stopping distance.
      And in fact, while there may be some exceptions, the majority of motorcycles do in fact have substantially shorter stopping distances than the majority of cars - average of around 150ft @ 60mph for cars VS 120ft @60mph for motorcycles (not counting reaction time, which would be the same for each)
      And this is even though all new cars have ABS mandatory, while almost no motorcycles do.

    2. I can answer this with personal experience.

      You do NOT want to get stuck in ice or snow on your motorcycle. There is absolutely no control, and no ability to stop on a hill. I know this because last winter I was at the gym and it started snowing, but I didn't realize it.

      The roads weren't bad when I left the gym, but it turns out that 3 miles away at my house the roads had a thin layer of snow on them. I live at the bottom of a hill and as soon as I hit that hill I couldn't stop. Even though I was only sliding at about 5-10 miles per hour, I had no control over direction or speed, and 900lbs (700 for my bike, 200 for me) at 10 mph and no control is a scary thing. The only thing that saved me was a dry patch on the road where I car had recently been parked, and as soon as I hit that I came to a stop. I parked the motorcycle there and walked home.

      When there is snow or ice, or even risk of snow and ice, I follow Bakari's advice and take my wife's car (or my bicycle).

      As for cold without snow - no problem. I rode in below freezing temperatures quite a bit this winter and having the right gear makes it a piece of cake.

  5. Hello good sir! I am the admin of MMHypermiler.blogspot.com and therefore enjoy your posts about smart driving! I especially like the one entitled "Mad Max Hypermiling" If you get a moment feel free to leave a comment on my blog. I am wondering, do you prefer motorcycles to cars, if for instance, you are married and must transport a wife and/or child? what accomodation can be used for motorcycles? or are small cars an option?

    1. Why hello! A comment on such an old post...

      I'll have to check out MM Hypermiler.

      Personally, my household has both a car and a motorcycle. Most American households have more than one vehicle, usually one per adult. There's no reason more than one vehicle has to be big enough for the whole family. I suggest, if a family is 4 people, 2 adults and 2 kids, then a compact car is plenty big enough to fit everyone. So have one compact car for family outings, and a motorcycle for the daily solo commute to work.


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