Countersteering: Stereotypes


According to many psychologists and neurobiologists, humanity is both blessed and cursed with its amazing mind. Beautiful art, ingenious experiments, and this computer are all testimonies to the mind's creative and synthetic properties. A variety of cognitive biases, on the other hand, are interesting examples of the mind's imperfections. These virtually unavoidable mental limitations make humans prone to all sorts of mistakes. Our tendency to form stereotypes might be a good example.

Stereotypes develop because we often fail to consider adequately all the data available to us. Thus, confirmatory data is readily accepted and piled on the developing stereotype, while falsifying data is not noticed, willfully ignored, or illogically refuted. The current status of our views on politics, race, and social class are examples. So are many peoples' attitudes toward motorcyclists and their machines. Three typical examples follow.

Motorcyclists are mindless, hygienically-challenged Visigoths prone to banditry and general moral depravity.

Perhaps a little strong, but remember that my mother-in-law chewed me out for being "without class," and burst into tears when I rolled into her Connecticut driveway. And there was the former student who saw me in a Brattleboro parking lot and allowed that "She thought I was an academic." When you look around town, you'll see writers, carpenters, public radio personalities, financial planners, students, biotech execs., veterinarians, retailers, and doctors all riding the things. Basically, motorcycling includes the entire swath of society. Unfortunately, the thugs get all the press and the stereotype persists.

All motorcycles are painfully noisy abominations, and belong in the same category as chain saws — they're just not as useful.

Motorcycles are all made with decent mufflers. But for some reason, many bikers decide to go feral, make a lot of noise, and inflict it on the rest of us. Frequently they replace the muffler that came with the bike with something noisier, and some even put nails through the metal to make still more noise. A while ago, while eating at an Elliot Street restaurant, two guys rode by, needlessly revved their throttles, and a child behind me screamed in terror. Good PR there.

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The wobbly rationale put forward to explain the noise is that it creates a safe zone because drivers know there's a motorcycle around. There is no good data of any kind to support this claim. Virtually silent electric motorcycles are now pretty common. More car/motorcycle collisions there? It could put an end to the baloney.

It's just too dangerous. Why not sky dive (without a parachute)?

One insurance company that endorses motorcycles has pointed out that even the cubicles in which many of us work are dangerous. They didn't specify how, but one interpretation is that most of us are not good at evaluating risk. For example, we underestimate or deny the real risks of driving a car, smoking a cigarette, or living sedentary lives. We overestimate the risk of immunizing our children, flying in a plane, contracting a deadly microbe, or riding a motorcycle.

One motorcycle safety guru noted that riders are 33 times more likely to die per mile than are drivers. He then said, "Deal with it." Assuming that statistic is correct, how does one "deal with it?" The notion I like best is that "90 percent of motorcycling is mental."

"So is pushing a lawn mower!" OK, OK, but what is meant here is that a rider should take at least one good safety course; be totally focused on each ride; be aware of and then study all vehicles nearby; leave an insulating "bubble" of space around herself; use the whole lane to "show" himself and to generate that bubble; avoid alcohol on rides; enter a blind curve so as to maximize sight; and wear bright protective gear. Because it takes focus and effort, very few riders do all of this consistently.

Apparently, booze — alone — provides a third of the risk. How hard is that?

Bob Engel lies in Marlboro with his motorcycles, wife, and cat. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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