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IT’S JUST NOT WHAT YOU THINK…'s how you think about it

That gluggy grey thing inside your skull is a tricksy Hobbits. It lies all the time. It makes things up. I serves up delusions, distractions, and denial, in whatever portions seem appropriate at the time. Soak it in some alcohol or drugs, and things get really funky.


But stone-cold sober, your brain – or more correctly the psychology behind why it does what it does – is what you might want to consider as you read this.


Most motorcycle riders hold the view they are somehow “safer” if they always wear all the gear. The notion is that if I am wearing a helmet, I am safer than someone who is not, right?


Likewise, if I am wearing full race-leathers, I am safer than someone who is riding around in shorts and a singlet.

Let me see if I can blow that little bubble up for you, shall I?

First, let’s deal with some basic misconceptions…


Myth: Full race-leathers are the safest thing to ride in. This is why all the racers wear them.

Myth-bust: All race-leathers do is assist in preventing gravel-rash. They do exactly nothing to prevent serious injuries, those crush-injuries, which are the ones that send you into the operating room or morgue. Throw yourself into the front of a truck wearing full race-leathers and tell me I am wrong. Wearing race-leathers on a track makes sense because racetracks are designed with run-off areas, so when a racer comes off, they tend to slide and don’t often impact with anything. On tracks where an impact is likely, air-fences are there to catch the racer. Likewise, his suit is filled with an air-bag in case the joint-busting tumbling starts.


Myth: Helmets are the best thing ever and they must of course be compulsory, because only idiots ride without helmets, and full-face helmets are in every way safer than open-face helmets.


Myth-bust: It is invariably true helmets have saved many lives. It is also invariably true they have exacerbated what would have been minor injuries. All motorcycle accidents are different. Sometimes, putting an object that weighs just under two kilos on your head, and expecting your neck to deal with the added inertia that occurs during a certain type of accident, is wishful thinking.


You also need to understand that in certain situations, a full-face helmet will give you a much worse outcome than an open-face. The opposite is also true. But I can offer one personal example if that will help you give this some thought.

A few years back, I T-boned a mum-taxi that turned across my path. I broke, among other things, my neck in the impact. Luckily, it was a stable fracture of the odontoid process of the C2 vertebrae. It is also called a Hangman’s Fracture, because this is the bit that snaps and sends you into the arms of Jesus when the trapdoor is opened.


As I lay in the emergency room, the treating surgeon asked me if I was wearing a full-face or an open-face helmet.

“Open-face,” I said, expecting a lecture.


“It probably saved your life. If you’d had a full-face on at the time, the chin-piece would have made sure that neck was totally broken.”


Is this an argument for open-face lids? No. It’s merely an illustration of a point I wish you to take to heart. All motorcycle accidents are different, and all the outcomes will vary, and are dependant on innumerable factors. One size does not fit all, OK?


And this brings me to the concept of Risk Homeostasis. It is a theory, as its very few detractors have said. But so is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Understand a scientific theory is different to you holding a theory about how attractive you are to the opposite sex.


So what is Risk Homeostasis?


It’s how you think about risk, and it has everything to do with the passive safety equipment you wear when you go riding.

Wait, what? What’s this passive safety equipment shit?

That’s what you’re wearing, chief.


It’s passive. This means it does nothing actively to promote your safety. It’s passive until something happens. It has a mitigating purpose. It is not preventative, as such. Relax, I am not advocating you ride nude.


But consider this as you’re trying to wrap your head around Risk Homeostasis…


You are at the Phillip Island racetrack.


You’re in full race gear. You cut a sick lap. Your best ever.


Now take off your helmet and try to cut the same lap.


What happened? Not so fast this time? Why? Does the helmet impart some extra riding-skill? Have you suddenly forgotten how to go fast?


That is Risk Homeostasis right there.


You are wearing all the passive safety gear, and therefore, you have told yourself you can now engage in riskier behaviour than you might engage in if you were not wearing the gear.

And of course, it has been scientifically proven to be just that. Here is a quote from the Quora website that deals with a real-world example…


“Risk homeostasis is a hypothesis posited by Gerald J.S. Wilde, a professor of psychology at Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada, dealing with the notion that every person has an acceptable amount of risk that they find tolerable. If the perceived level of risk in one part of a person’s life changes, they will compensate by either reducing or increasing the amount and severity of risks they take—all in order to maintain an equilibrium of perceived risk.

In other words, if I see an activity as being safe, I’m likely to take more chances—either consciously or unconsciously—at least until it reaches my individual perceived level of “acceptable risk.” The opposite also holds true—if I see an activity as risky, I’m likely to button down and be more careful. All in the service of maintaining the level of risk I’m comfortable with.

One example of risk homeostasis often cited is a 1994 traffic study in Munich, in which a subset of taxicab drivers was given cabs equipped with anti-lock brakes (ABS), while a control sample of drivers was given cabs identical to the test sample, except that they lacked ABS. The results of the study showed roughly the same amount of accidents in both the ABS and non-ABS-equipped drivers, leading Wilde to the conclusion that those who were given the extra safety equipment drove more aggressively, and thus kept the accident rate constant.”


Your brain is a wondrous thing, is it not? Of course, nothing I state here will have any effect on what you wear, or how you ride when you’re wearing it. You’re gonna do you, because that’s what we all do. We each do us.


At the end of the day, the very best thing you can do with your passive safety equipment and your perceptions of risk, is not to fall off your bike.


Yes, it really is that simple. Ride well and you’ll be safer. Upskill yourself at every opportunity. Understand that not all the gear in the world will save you when it goes truly pear-shaped. And remember, that in nearly all cases, it’s gone pear-shaped because you were not on your game.


Get on your game, be on your game, and stay on your game.

All the time.

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Boris Mihailovic

Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.

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