Motorcycle Safety: Your Mindset Makes All the Difference

By Chris O’Neil, Chief, NTSB Media Relations

Motorcycle Blog 1
The blog author makes a left-hand turn through a four-way intersection during a group ride. (Photo by Larry G. Carmon)

May is Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month and, although the number of motorcyclists killed in crashes dropped again in 2018, motorcycle riders remain overrepresented in overall highway traffic deaths. In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, per miles traveled, motorcyclists are 28 times more likely to die in a crash than are passenger car occupants.

With that thought in mind, I want to discuss one of the most important factors in motorcycle safety—your mindset.

Revzilla recently posted an article by Lance Oliver that speaks to a rider’s mindset, and his piece really resonated with me in both my professional capacity here at the NTSB, and personally as a Harley Davidson rider. Essentially, Oliver says there are three things every rider should believe:

    1. Ride like everyone in a car is trying to kill you.
    2. Every crash is avoidable.
    3. When in a bad way in a curve, believe you can make it.

Every time we saddle up, we accept more risk than the average highway user. One way to mitigate that risk is to presume other motorists are going to do bad things at the worst possible moment, and to plan for that eventuality. I’m not saying motorists intentionally make bad decisions designed to harm you, but an ultra-defensive mindset can help you anticipate and plan for others’ actions that are beyond your control and that can potentially cause you serious bodily harm. Riding a motorcycle is akin to a moving chess match, where riders are scanning (search, evaluate, execute) 12 seconds ahead to think “what if?” and planning an escape route to safety or another plan of action to eliminate or mitigate a safety threat. Having a mindset that others’ driving can kill you isn’t pessimistic, it’s realistic.

Every crash is avoidable—which is why we at the NTSB say “crash” instead of “accident.” Having a mindset guided by the principle that crashes are preventable forces a rider to seek ways to identify risks and threats that could result in a crash, and to understand what to do to eliminate or mitigate the risks and threats to prevent or avoid the crash. This mindset begins before we throw a leg over our machine and can also be applied in trip/route planning (weather considerations, road conditions, experience level for intended route, etc.) and in bike maintenance (ensuring completion of a pre-ride T-CLOCS [tires/controls/lights/oil/chassis/stand]) for every ride. Believing every crash is avoidable leads good riders to continually examine how they ride and evaluate their skills to determine if they need refresher training. It should also force a good rider to evaluate completed rides, noting what could have been done better or more safely, or remembering actions they took that mitigated or eliminated a threat. Operating under the principle that crashes are preventable even influences motorcycle selection. Motorcyclists with an ultra-defensive mindset look for motorcycles with advanced stability control systems, antilock braking systems, and enhanced lighting that helps make the motorcycle more visible to other drivers.

One quick caveat here: the belief that every crash is avoidable does not absolve riders and their passengers from practicing ATGATT (all the gear, all the time), because, although avoidable, crashes still happen, and in 2018, they killed nearly 5,000 motorcyclists.

If adherence to the first two parts of the ultra-defensive mindset have failed to keep us from getting into the danger zone, Oliver’s third belief—you can make this—can mean the difference between coming home safely or taking a trip to the hospital. Oliver illustrates this third belief using the example of entering a curve with too much speed and succumbing to the fear that you won’t make it, then panicking or giving up. Oliver posits that, at that moment, it’s time to look farther ahead to the exit of the curve (at where you want to go, not at where you’re afraid of going), lean more, and work to make the curve. I believe riders can apply this mindset to a variety of emergent situations while riding, such as encountering road debris, washouts, standing water, or rain slickened tar snakes. How tightly a rider holds to this belief is likely to be tied to his or her level of riding experience, training, and confidence.

An ultra-defensive mindset can help novices and experienced riders alike consistently identify, evaluate, and mitigate risks and threats while still enjoying the unique freedom and exhilaration that come from riding a motorcycle. More than that, it can help them make it safely to their next ride.

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