The weather's warm. It’s Father's Day. And the thoughts of some midlife men turn to a dissolute youth—and perhaps a desire to recapture those long-gone years. Hence, a motorcycle.
As a family man, Dad has responsibilities, ones he may ignore for that surge of adrenaline, despite a family’s sensible pleading. But, really, he should think twice before buying an adult toy that can reach 100 mph faster than he can read this sentence.
If Dad is not to be dissuaded from this Father's Day gift, make sure that you and he understand the very real dangers associated with riding—especially with older riders returning to the road. It isn’t a matter of just shaking off the rust.
“People who ride motorcycles have to be aware of the risks, and ride in a prudent manner,” says Richard Retting, author of the 2015 study by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association: Motorcyclist Fatalities by State.
The numbers are sobering. On a per mile basis, riding a motorcycle is 26 times—not 26 percent, but 2,600 percent—more likely to result in a fatal accident than driving a car, according to 2013 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association.
“Of all motor vehicles, motorcycles have by far the highest incidence of fatal crashes,” Retting says.
The news doesn’t get much better when you take a deeper dive into the motorcycle fatality data. Those stats aren’t just padded with reckless 19-year-olds riding crotch rockets. Many of the victims are mature riders in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.
According to Retting’s study, the state of Wisconsin noted the average age of motorcyclist fatalities was 47 in 2015, up from age 30 in 1995. Florida also noted significant increases in motorcyclist fatalities in both the 35-to-44 age group and 55-to-64 age group.
And even if an accident doesn't result in a fatality, those older bones break easier and take longer to heal.
Old Riders, New Bikes
So why is this? Many older riders yearn to recapture their youth—but it could be decades since they last rode the road. And both bikes and the highways have changed in ways that can make motorcycling dangerous for an older rider returning after a long layoff, Retting warns.
The first thing Dad should know before pulling his leather jacket out of mothballs: Although more reliable, today’s bikes are far more powerful than the models of yesteryear.
“For someone who rode a motorcycle in the 1970s, the engine size was a 350 to maybe 750 cc,” says Retting. “Today’s motorcycles aren’t comparable to those. Go into a showroom, you’re going to be looking at a motorcycle with an engine that’s two to three times the size, from 1,000 cc to 1,600 cc or more.”
And even if Dad's Father's Day gift is a bike with a smaller-displacement engine, in terms of power-to-weight ratio, performance has rocketed. Even a modest motorcycle has as much accelerative force as a Porsche or Ferrari.
A relatively docile Kawasaki Ninja 300, called one of the best “beginner” bikes by Jalopnik, has a power-to-weight ratio of 9.28 pounds per horsepower. That’s roughly equivalent to the performance of a Camaro SS muscle car (9.17 lb/HP).
On the other end of the spectrum, today’s fastest road bikes pack the kind of punch that’s downright inconceivable to a 45-year-old. For example, a $15,500 BMW S1000RR sports a substantially better power-to-weight ratio than a $1.15 million, 903-horsepower McLaren P1 supercar. That’s too much bike for a rusty rider.
Even venerable Harley-Davidson bikes are bigger, heavier, and faster. And these road cruisers’ elephantine curb weights means the margin for error before the bike tips over or spits you off could be quicker than your aging reflexes.
King of the Road
A bigger problem, perhaps, is that motorcycle safety technology hasn’t kept up with the increase in power.
Car safety features have advanced dramatically. Anti-lock brakes and traction control are now standard on virtually every car, along with passive features like airbags and crumple zones. Advanced safety features like active cruise control, blind spot detection, and forward-collision warning are appearing on more models.
But most bikes simply lack the basic features that help drivers avoid accidents and protect them if they do crash, according to Retting. ABS is an option on some bikes, but traction control and airbags are just available on only a handful of models.
Then there’s navigating the road itself, which has also changed and not necessarily for the better.
“Traffic in most parts is far different than in the 1960s,” says Ty van Hooydonk, spokesman for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. “It’s more dense. There are more distracted drivers, and the vehicles are larger and faster. They aren't necessarily looking out for motorcycle riders. And you can’t see around and over today’s many minivans and SUVs and large trucks.”
While potholes, deteriorating expansion joints, and other symptoms of our crumbling infrastructure are an annoyance for drivers, they can send an unwary motorcyclist tumbling to the pavement.
“You can’t stop scanning the roadway,” says Retting. “The real world is a very harsh place.”
Mitigating the Risk
There are, of course, ways for riders to significantly minimize their risks. Helmets, according to van Hooydonk, have gotten much better at absorbing crash impact since the 1980s—they’re both more comfortable and more protective—so wear one whether or not your local laws require it. And spend the extra dough for proper protection. Remember the old saying: Twenty-buck helmet for a twenty-buck head.
Also, wearing bright and protective leather riding gear is another no-brainer safety tweak—no ride is too short for shorts and flip-flops.
Perhaps the smartest thing you can do to keep Dad safe is to enroll him a motorcycle safety class as a Father's Day gift before he buys a bike. A class will help him refine the fundamental riding and traffic management skills that today’s riders need.
What if Dad argues that riding a motorcycle it just like riding a bike? Tell him “Not so much.”
“Golfers practice their basic swing. Piano players do scales,” explains van Hooydonk. “Not only will you get a very important refresher in the physical aspects and mechanics of riding, you'll get a lot of information on real-world street strategies that can keep you from crashing or being crashed into. Plus, it's just fun, learning with a good coach and fellow students.”
A class is an ideal first step in the search for the right bike as a Father's Day gift. Dad will get a chance to try a modern motorcycle under a variety of conditions. The instructor can also help him select a bike that’s appropriate for his size, his skills and the type of riding he plans to do.
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