Risk is real. Always. Though for us it becomes real only when we realize its presence. Since motorcycling carries within its dynamics a substantial quantity of this known yet mysterious character, we need to look both at our riding as well as the machines we ride not just from the perspective of improving skills and better safety equipment but from the point of view of working towards reducing risk. And these two are not the same mind you. Better skills or even better technology might not necessarily translate into lesser risk for the rider. Read on to see how and why.
Risk is a ‘Fungible’ Thing!
A strange word for most of us here – fungible. The dictionary describes a fungible thing as ‘a commodity that is freely interchangeable with another in satisfying an obligation’. So what commodity and what exchange? Hang on. This is about what we do everyday – if we don’t, we probably wouldn’t be reading this eh! Motorcycling. We ride knowing there’s substantial risk involved. The highest kind of risk – where we can lose our lives in a moment. Everything gone just like that. Finished. Kaput! Knowing this we make an effort towards reducing the risk. We talk of wearing helmets, jackets, boots, gloves et al; we shout ATGATT (all the gear all the time) even before the word ‘safe riding’ is off our tongue. Those even better off talk of improving their riding skills, taking riding classes on race tracks even, others still prefer machines that come loaded with safety enhancing technology (ABS, Traction control, airbags etc).
So we are trading risk away in exchange for safety through safe riding methods/technologies/habits/skills. But is the exchange really ‘fungible’. Is it really an equal trade off? Unknown to us there’s a lot of conditionality attached to any benefits that can possibly arise out of this exchange. Imagine you spend an extra few thousands to buy that ABS equipped of the motorcycle you like. Does the ABS really reduce risk for you? Your ‘of course’ in response would be loud enough to be heard round the next block from here. But there’s always a catch. ABS lets you brake safe even if you lack real braking skills. But more than that it might unwittingly encourage you to push your riding boundaries – you either ride faster buoyed by the new and better safety net or you start braking later for the same reason. Or maybe even both. And that’s where the danger lies. Your other skills have not been upgraded in comparison – which include judging distances accurately and more quickly, predicting changes in traffic situations within less time since you’re riding faster or braking later. And neither have the road conditions improved just because you have an ABS equipped bike now.
The same lopsided ‘fungibility’ applies to wearing riding gear. The more protected you feel, the further you might tend to stick your neck out. This arises out of the fact that we all are comfortable with a certain amount of risk – the experts call it risk homeostasis – which we feel we can offset through our skills, awareness and use of right equipment. The problem begins when on improving our ‘level’ of safety we tend to seek the same proportional level of risk, which in the new conditions tends to be of a higher level. So upgrading machinery, improving skills or wearing more and better riding gear does not necessarily make us safer. See the Yankees play their football with helmets and body armour. Their ‘protective gear’ has become more as a weapon of offense than being safety gear. Also if a rider has been misinformed about the level of protection offered by a certain risk reducing safety measure, then that rider cannot really make an informed decision about the level of risk present. And overestimation of safety can be fatal in high risk activity like motorcycling.
Think deep about this and you’ll realize that irrespective of the equipment and skill upgrades, the ‘real’ safety lies in our attitude, our awareness of ourselves both as a human being and as a motorcyclist. Lower risk or increased safety is eventually dependent on the rider’s ability to make decisions as to what is the acceptable level of risk – to what we can term as his ‘risk tolerance’. And this is as much an inborn thing as it is an acquired ability. Some riders are comfortable with a higher level of risk and carry themselves through situations that in our opinion would definitely endanger us badly. The Rossi’s and Lorenzo’s of the world are such. Others like us experience a redefining of risk tolerance as we grow older. You probably wouldn’t knowingly do things on a bike at age 40 that you intentionally did at 20.
Reducing risk and so improving safety is a continuous process, an evolutionary progression that needs constant updation of any and every contributing factor. For instance for 3 consecutive days you took a certain turn at 50 kph every day on your way to office but a large oil slick at the same place on the fourth day will make you re-evaluate your earlier speed decision. And unless you are willing to accept this re-evaluation and apply its results, you will be increasing the risks without even intending to. And in this re-evaluation the baseline lies in the fact that there’s a fear of consequences that really makes risk appear as risk. But this fear of injury ought to be proportional not just to the possible severity of the injury but also to its level of certainty. An oil slick on a turn at 50 kph in heavy traffic will certainly imply serious injury! Decision made – slow down from now on.
Risk is real for a rider. And that is mostly what adds so much charm to motorcycling. Accept it, acknowledge it and respect it. In fact look for it, seek it so that you can work on actively avoiding it. I know this will not really allow you to relax and truly enjoy that ride to the full. But then a somewhat insipid but full riding life is a pretty fungible trade-off for a short thrilling one. Say what?