Discuss: Riding skill doesn't make you safe

Pride yourself on your technical ability on a bike? It's irrelevant, argues MAG's President

Posted: 23 December 2013
by Ian Mutch

Not Ian Mutch

"IMPROVING motorcyclists' skills merely means they kill themselves in a more skilled way." So said Robert Gifford, Chairman of road safety group PACTS a few years ago. The comment caused outrage and Robert modified his view, or at least his public expression of it.

But extreme comments often contain a degree of truth. I should say at the outset that I think advanced training is probably a good idea and certainly MAG has always promoted the option of education instead of legislation.

However, I don’t know if advanced training produces lower accident rates, and the last time I asked the insurance industry, they didn’t know either. It’s true that some companies offer discounts to riders with advanced certificates but they admit the deal is a marketing exercise based on nothing more than intelligent speculation.

I consider myself to be a sub-standard rider, at least in my ability to take bends at speeds greater than a fast cyclist. I’ve only been riding for about 40 years so I may yet improve.

But I do have a vivid imagination. Sometimes that manifests itself in the belief that I cut a figure like Steve McQueen in the Great Escape. Other times it provides me with images of what I might look like after a prang with an artic (I am convinced that the best road racers have no imagination at all).

For five years I rode in London as a motorcycle courier, an experience that doubtless honed my skills of anticipation and pessimism, though whether these are technically riding skills is questionable. I always successfully anticipated when pedestrians were going to step straight in front of me. In all of those years I never hit one nor used my horn.

By contrast, put me on a bendy A-road, especially in the rain, and I will crawl along like a novice. I am certain that if I lean more than a few degrees in the wet I will slide off. In the dark, columns of traffic grow behind me. By many people’s standards I am a hopeless rider, but this does not equal my being unsafe. Meanwhile there are some excellent riders (and drivers) who no longer answer their mobiles for the worst reason.

In his book ‘Risk and Freedom’ Professor John Adams endeavours to debunk the notion that any safety initiatives are of the slightest use. He contends that humans respond to safety enhancements by taking more risk commensurately, so the former risk level is restored. Again, there is a molecule of truth.

My sister is one of the least skillful drivers I know. If a car comes the other way on any road narrower than an airport runway, she brakes. But she has never had an accident. If I had to get from London to Birmingham on A roads in less than two hours, chauffeured by either my sister or Jenson Button, I’d opt for Jenson. If I just had to get there some time, I’d travel with my sister.

I would choose my sister because it’s possible to be exceptionally safe despite a low skill level, as long as your imagination is such that you don’t exceed it.

As Dirty Harry put it, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

IAN Mutch is President of the Motorcycle Action Group and author of five books on motorcycle travel and culture. A former ship's navigating officer, he describes himself as "jolly clever".

That's Mutch's view. What’s yours?

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Hell, no! Especially if you are on a BMW "tank-slapper special" R1200GS or the Beemer "Connecting Rod Case Router" S1000RR.
Racers, the most skilled riders in the world, crash every Sunday - and during Saturday practice too.

Posted: 23/12/2013 at 15:06

Big difference between being a safe rider and a skilled(good rider) A skilled rider can go round corners quickly but most corners on A roads are blind. Now what happens if their is a queue of cars following a push bike on that corner? A safe rider can stop but a skilled rider travel eling quite a lot quicker will crash. So being skill full doesn't make you a safe rider

Posted: 23/12/2013 at 21:44

Overall I agree with the article, it's a well documented fact that we adjust our risk according to the safety measures. Nothing new there. I agree with Ratchetman. I do trackdays, and the more I do the faster I'll take a corner on the road, more skill but more risk without question.

Posted: 23/12/2013 at 23:10

Depends on the definition of "skill"...

if it is to correctly assses the conditions / options and stopping distances then more skill = less risk = safety

if it is simply "to go faster" then more skill CAN = more risk dependant on other factors.

Track skill will never directly translate to "road safety" - they are two different skills and i have respect for both.

Maybe we should stop putting distractions like internet connections in new cars.... its bad enough they play with the phone but for it to be constantly on ...one of my favorite things about bikes is the total concentration and focus - to forget for an hour or two the other hassles of life and just enjoy


Posted: 24/12/2013 at 08:36

If Mr Mutch doesn't stop talking so much sense, I may have to re-evaluate my assessment of MAG.

I want to be riding for a long time to come, so for me skill equals safe, not speed.

Some of the most over-confident drivers that I know are IAM and police trained. Safety comes from recognising your limits and actually riding to them - which usually means rolling off the throttle a bit earlier - not from having a bit of paper with a gold star from teacher.

Posted: 24/12/2013 at 10:25

Of course being more skillful makes you safer. But there are a number of skill sets observation, assessment and bike control that must all come together to make you safe. Basically you could have the best observation assessment skills but if you are an uncoordinated klutz that dosn't understand how the machine reacts to your input - you're going to crash. And vice versa you may be the best at handling the bike - but if you fail to observe....... We need to develop our observation/assssment skills to reduce the 'unforseen' incidents and develop the handling skills to give us the best chance of avoiding a crash when a truly unforseeable event happens.

A man's got to know his limitations, if you can balance your levels of skill in each department you'll be as safe as possible.

Posted: 24/12/2013 at 10:33

Riding skill doesn't make you safe? Well it sure as hell makes you less unsafe!
The number of japes I got away with as a novice... It's only by luck I'm here in one piece in my 50s.
Ask yourself, would you rather have less riding skill or more? Riding skill at least helps you avoid getting into such dangerous situations that you did as a novice.

Sure, riding skill doesn't increase your safety to that of being a passenger in a 747, but if that's what you want maybe it's time to rethink riding bikes!

Posted: 24/12/2013 at 11:04

Skills, experience and lesser known 'prudence'. All play a massive role. Anyone who has ever ridden in Asia can attest that surviving a few years in Asia teaches you something....lights, hi-viz, loud pipes etc are all pretty much ineffective. You survive be accepting that at every intersection or footpath there is a road user you is going to pull out on you without looking, in China and India and a host of other places this is actually the case about half the time.

In the UK the problem is that people expect car drivers or other road users to do the right thing and actually include this ridiculous assumption in their riding techniques. Some UK instructors often get in smidys! It's laughable, you should always be expecting people to not look or not see and have an avoidance strategy at all times. This is because to a motorcyclist there is in effect no difference between 'didn't look' and 'didn't see' when it comes to other road users.

Posted: 24/12/2013 at 11:43

I agree with Lewn and some of the others but would also emphasise the assessment side of this. The ability to assess risk and adjust your riding to reduce risk is paramount but we must include discipline, self discipline, respect for others and for the machine. Put these together and you have 'acute awareness' of your surroundings and events at a given time. Expectation and the ability to calculate chance, risk assess, enable us to control a given situation based on experiences from the past in similar circumstances. This experience builds skills that are both physical and mental. We all know our limitations but we, most of us and me included, continuously try to become "better" it's this part, the continuous improvement, that creates ever changing risks. We get more skilled, faster, confident closer to our limitations. So for me, as I improve and develop skills and increase confidence the most important thing is discipline and respect for my surrounding/circumstances, other road users and of course there's my natural desire to preserve myself balanced with, not against, satisfying my desire to become better, which is subjective. Phew!

Posted: 24/12/2013 at 12:33

I agree with rmh; it depends on your definition of "skill".

If you define skill as "Being able to ride a motorcycle very quickly and with technically correct machine control", then that will not equate to safety on the road, although good machine control will definitely help.

If you define skill as "Observational skill, ability to assess risk from information gathering and prepare/respond appropriately, ride within your limits (and physical limits such as stopping distances) and with a reasonable attitude", then I believe this will make you safer. I also believe you can improve this definition of skill through advanced riding tuition, through experience, and through being aware of your attitude to risk.

Posted: 24/12/2013 at 13:14

Well, I've read many of Ian Mutch's articles over the years and find much to agree with, until this one.

Someone who crawls along like a novice or has columns of traffic growing behind them, is neither skilled or safe.

A skilled rider may well be able to travel faster than others, but if they're riding within their capabilities, that doesn't make them unsafe.

That's a common suggestion from too many, that slow is automatically safe, but it simply isn't true. for eg. Most bike cops are quicker than me, but I doubt I'm safer.

Posted: 24/12/2013 at 13:53

I'll agree with Zzorro...as a faster rider here in the USA, I'm shocked at the sheer lack of skills in the average rider; particularly insomuch as virtually NOBODY has practiced panic stops, and therefore find their rear wheel locking up and sliding out from beneath when it's needed.
Blind curves have different rules than a sweeper you can predict, but I'll see many (especially crotch rockets) hold the same pace through both, often crossing center lines as well. That's suicidal.

Posted: 24/12/2013 at 16:01

jeans vs leathers. most will admit to feeling safer in leathers/armour and therefore will be riding at a slightly higher average speed, even if they are not 'going for it'. Too many electronic aids fool the rider into thinking that they are doing is correct/acceptable. It can be seen in cars too. ABS, traction control flatters the driver and makes them think they are fast....until the day they take the piss with the laws of physics once too often.
How many car drivers will simply stand on the brakes in an emergency rather than applying firm and progressive braking? How many go into a bend too fast and let TC take care of things?
Electronic aids such as ABS will prevent accidents but only if the rider knows when they are kicking in. Without it, ta young learner will never know why grabbing the brake mid-corner is a bad idea....

Posted: 24/12/2013 at 17:26

Studies have found that teaching car drivers advanced car handling techniques, such as those used by race-car drivers, makes them MORE likely to have accidents. Whether that is true with motorcycle riders has not, so far as I know, been determined.

If improved bike handling skills are used to increase the margin of safety, it will reduce the chances of having an accident. But if it causes riders to ride more aggressively and depend on their superior bike handling skills to get out of trouble, it will make them more dangerous.

Of course adequate bike handling skill is necessary, but the most important skill is the ability to recognize and avoid potentially dangerous situations.

Posted: 24/12/2013 at 19:32

Well said Rogerborg. My father was highway patrol all his life. He said the best safety feature you could put in a car was a steel spike in the steering column pointing straight at the driver's chest. I'm careful (slow) on my bike because I hate the sound of my bones coming out through my pants.

Posted: 24/12/2013 at 22:41

A skilled rider traveling 60 is safer than an unskilled rider traveling 60 under the same conditions. That's on a clear road, which isn't where trouble lives. Skills other than pure bike control -- traffic, anticipation, and imagination -- also figure heavily. And paying attention all the time is probably the best of all.

Posted: 25/12/2013 at 01:37

I agree with Ian but he neglects the other factor in surviving - luck. In my 35 years of riding there are a number of times when I've been lucky which mean I am here today in (mostly) one piece. For the rest of the time moderate skill, good sense of self preservation, distrust of all other road users and a vivid imagination keeps me safeish.

Posted: 27/12/2013 at 11:26

I have to admit that I found Ian Mutch's views interesting but I personally think that the comment "IMPROVING motorcyclists' skills merely means they kill themselves in a more skilled way." from Robert Gifford suggests, rather sadly, that he has a very narrow view of what skills are needed when riding a motorcycle. I certainly agree with the comments of several of you, especially DeadStar89 and feel that motorcycling is safest (it can never be 'safe' because of other variables eg inattentive fellow road uses, diesel spills etc) when the rider has taken the time to become very proficient in handling his/her machine, pure riding skill, AND simultaneously employs other skills such as road positioning, to give a better view and be seen, observation eg assessing traffic conditions & junction information far ahead to plan overtakes and assess speed, making sure if there is a tree fallen around that blind bend that we can stop! A Police Bikesafe course I attended convinced me that whilst accidents will never become a thing of the past, continuously honing ALL those skills and employing them as a complete skillset will reduce the chance of a serious accident and give me the chance to enjoy my motorcycling for years to come.

Posted: 27/12/2013 at 11:55

Robert Gifford wouldnt be any relation to bike hater Roger Gifford would he ? Roger Gifford is a cycling lobbyist in london.A kid riding a 250 superdream in the early 80s told me proudly that he was an advanced motorcyclist and thus superior to myself who at the time was on my 10th big bike without any accidents ,got to italy and back without accident iom tt etc but no spotty was a better rider ,after a few seconds thought i decided not to bother responding verbally as i didnt know where to start so i tweaked his nose hard ,it worked for me,

Posted: 27/12/2013 at 16:51

Experience makes you safer. Improved skills allow you to crash at higher speeds.

Posted: 28/12/2013 at 21:29

I lack in the skills department, I know it, I ride most of the year and high winds, rain, darkness, ice and snow all scare the shite out of me, the slim chicken strips I was so proud of in the dry summer become turkey breasts in the winter.
I don't think I'll ever ride a bike as fast as the people I know who have done the track day thing, or even the people that have ridden for years but always put their bike away in the winter, I'm not sure I want to either.
The road is full of hazards, one of them is overconfidence, that's why drinking and driving is such an issue, it boosts the drivers confidence whilst dulling their reflexes, overconfidence is also one of the reasons biking casualties sky rocket at the start of the "season" (though it could also be cagers having to get used to more bikes on the road).
Every day that I ride, almost without fail, there is something that could have caused me harm had I ridden or reacted differently (to my shame on a couple of occasions it is a car driver that has saved me with their reactions).
As riders we have to realise that the road isn't solely ours, and, that we are one of the most vulnerable of road users, I could start listing the hazards we face but I want to finish this post before the week is out....
You may have noticed that driving standards are rapidly declining, be careful out there, plan as if they are all out to kill you, a few of them always seem to be.....

Posted: 05/01/2014 at 20:16

Look at it this way.. A skilled rider has far more chance of avoiding an object in an emergency situation, more chance of keeping a bike rubber side down during an unexpected loss of traction, and more likely to be able to brake closer to the edge of the design limitations for the bike... It is what is up top that determines whether they are trying to negotiate blind corners at speed or not, and even then a more skilled rider has the edge in terms of safety..

So yes... Being a more skilled rider gives you a much better safety margin for every situation.. but it does not mean you are instantly someone that pushes the bike to the limit at all times!!

Posted: 15/01/2014 at 17:15

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