Motorcycle mythos

Debunking motorcycle myths and misconceptions
Published October 8, 2013

A behavior coach once described my personality as “high integrity,” a flattering way of saying I’m unhealthily preoccupied with veracity and accuracy.

I’m not apologizing.

Loud pipes save lives

I’ve heard this mantra repeated by riders and non-riders alike, but never by anyone that has kids. The premise goes: If a motorcycle is loud enough that every driver on the block is annoyed, then surely the cars won’t injuriously or fatally hit the motorcyclist, at least not by accident. I think it’s nonsense.

Indeed, a lot of motorcycle v. automobile crashing is the fault of an unaware driver. Motorcyclists use a friendly, onomatopoeic abbreviation for this interaction with drivers, SMIDSY; “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you.” But there’re problems with leaning on the loud pipes axiom to address SMIDSY.

The first problem is that loud pipes make a motorcycle obnoxious. Now there are degrees of loud, and I will shyly admit that my Neanderthal brain is tickled by a soaring induction roar and the occasional bark of an un-baffled V-twin. I once fitted a loud Two Bros. pipe to my 250, in a vain effort to make the bike feel more grown-up.

But it’s not fair. A loud motorcycle isn’t loud just for the rider and the appreciative sub-culture, it’s loud for everyone. I got tired of gingerly feathering throttle through neighborhoods, accidentally triggering car alarms and generally feeling an ass. I took off the loud pipe a few years ago and I do not miss it, realizing now it was the opposite of grown-up.

That moral browbeating doesn’t actually address the effectiveness of the myth in question, so I’ll present an even better reason why loud pipes don’t save lives: They don’t.

Anecdotally, I’ve had fewer close calls with cars in the years since re-baffling my motorcycle than during the years with a loud pipe. And in those more recent years I’ve spent countless more miles riding in proximity of deadly cars. I commute San Francisco now, which should be more bike-threatening than my old daily route.

I’ve become a better rider, learned to better spot problems before they manifest. And that skill prevents collisions, not mystical power from exhaust noise.

A loud pipe may part the sea of traffic on occasion, but it is not reliable. I’ve seen loud motorcycles cut off and knocked over by cars. The “loud pipes save lives” myth is, at worst, a dangerous faith, and at best it’s silly justification for selfish noise-making. (I’ve never seen loud-pipers dressed in high-viz yellow and toot-tooting air horns for attention.)

Scooters are safer than motorcycles

This is a myth of attitudes rather than one people commonly state aloud. Motorcycles are, appropriately, treated as dangerous potential. “Why no, I’d never,” and even those that would wear leather and observe a solemn appreciation for the risks involved.

But few fear a scooter. Girls in skirts commute the city, guys in flip flops and Chrome bags roll out of bed and onto step-throughs without a passing thought for safety. It’s just a scooter, right?

No scooter comes with skirt-proof road rash protection

I can think of no reason why a scooter might be safer than a motorcycle except that its rider may be less likely to engage in tomfool behavior. Strike a scooter with a car and the result is no better than if it’d been a motorcycle hit. No scooter I know comes standard with skirt-proof road rash protection.

Motorcycles are faster than scooters, which certainly sounds dangerous except that most two-wheeled accidents happen in cities where speed limits negate the difference.

I’m not arguing that motorcycles should be treated with the same flippant attitude as are scooters. Rather, my point is that scooters should be feared. Even the cute ones.

Ninja 250s out-handle liter bikes

Probably a result of cc-insecurity and self delusion is the myth of Ninja 250s embarrassing liter bikes in the twisties. Sure, the other guy has five times the power, but I’ve got a Ninja 250 and everyone knows they’re best in corners.

The other guy has five times the power, but I’ve got a Ninja 250

The premise is ridiculous. There is nothing particularly fantastic about the cornering ability of a Ninja 250. Objectively, Ninja 250 suspension is cheap junk against every supersport bike manufactured in the last twenty years. Our best tire options are narrow bias ply, where bigger bikes get race rubber. The aggressive lean of a supersport seat position is advantageous for man-handling a motorcycle through turns. The weight advantage of a Ninja 250 hardly makes up any difference.

The capability of a bike isn’t necessarily matched by the ability of its rider, so it’s possible for a Ninja 250 to outride a faster motorcycle. I’ve done it many times, but not by virtue of riding a better-handling bike. The notion that my cheap commuter is better cornering than a $12k race replica is pure myth.

Motorcyclists are badasses

It’s flattering, really, but it’s myth that motorcyclists are badasses, or even cooler than average. Truth is that motorcyclists — the ones doing real miles, the lifestyle folks — are more likely geeks and old guys.

No doubt, there’ve lived (and live) true badasses that ride motorcycles. People like early Hells Angel Sonny Barger, actor Steve McQueen, and racer Joey Dunlop fit the myth. They made the myth. Now geeks like me benefit from the lasting impression.

Geeks like me benefit from the lasting myth

Spend any time at a modern motorcycle gathering and the myth is shattered. A quarter of American riders are over the age of fifty. The most devoted dress in waterproof onesies. We talk cubic centimeters, compression ratios, piston speeds, and electronics. Torque curves and throttle responses, radial brakes and upside-down forks. We’re ordinary people, geeking out over machines with reputations much cooler than ours.

Harley riders don’t wave

I’ve just got done generalizing a lot of things, so I’ll now undermine my arguments and say that I hate generalizations. We form generalizations early and then feed them with confirmation bias until they grow true. It’s an ugly human tendency that blinds us.

To wit, a lot of riders bother themselves with generalizations like, “Harley riders don’t wave to me because I ride a sport bike.” (It goes both ways, cruiser riders often feel snubbed by us Power Rangers.)

It’s a myth that seemed true in my early years of motorcycling. Despite my being socially awkward and interpersonally distant, I waved to everyone on two wheels. When a pirate-outfitted cruiser type didn’t reciprocate, I thought, “They were right, Harley guys don’t wave to us!” The exceptions were un-noted.

But that is the definition of confirmation bias, which as it turns out informs some nasty logical fallacies.

The truth is that not every motorcyclist likes waving. Some guys on Harleys don’t like to wave. Some sport riders don’t wave. Some do. And in my more objective experience, it is impossible to conclude that there exists a pervasive bias that prevents sport bike and cruiser folks from waving at each other.

Also, who cares.

That said, it is true that BMW riders don’t wave to anyone, but only true when still in range of cell phone towers.