Motorcyclists choose to engage in an activity known to themselves, their loved ones and the general public to be risky to health and life. The question for many is why? As a motorcyclist, and a scholar, I am keenly aware of the seeming contradiction between the drive for survival and the engagement in an activity that can result in serious injury or death. I have friends and loved ones who have been seriously injured or killed riding motorcycles. Why do it?
Photograph © 2019 Tim Fransen.
According to Lin and Krauss (2009), motorcyclists are thirty-four times more likely to die in an accident than car drivers. The researchers found that the risk factors for motorcyclists included: a) inexperience and lack of training, b) conspicuousness, c) licensure, d) speed, and e) risk-taking behavior. Recently, Konstantelos and Christakis (2018) posited that motorcyclists develop or have a capability to manage emotions through self-control as a way to survive on the road while riding. As a risky activity, motorcycle riding can induce physiological responses such as stress. McNaughton-Cassill (2013) also puts forward that stress is the body’s reaction to actual, potential or perceived threats. To be sure, the potential for accident is a threat for motorcyclists.
Much current research on motorcyclists focuses on the risks associated with riding or the physiological inducement of stress as a result of racing motorcycles. Less research has investigated the motivations of motorcyclists to engage in riding as a leisure activity. More specifically, this study aims to explore the relationship between risks and stress from the perspective of experienced riders.
Review of Literature
Motorcyclists are often referred to as vulnerable road users. This nomenclature is applied to road users who do not have the added protection of an external structure, such as automobiles, buses, and trucks. This vulnerability is not unknown to motorcyclists, nor is the distinction between motorcycles and “cages,” as automobiles are often described by riders. Mannering and Grodsky (1995) found that motorcyclists have a general understanding that their activity has inherent risks.
According to Bellaby and Lawrenson (2001) there are two discordant accounts of risk assessment for motorcycle riding: a) statistical analysis of accident probability, and b) rider motivations for participating in risky behaviors. The authors found that riders perceive the risk as attributable to motorists’ behaviors, but that the benefits of riding outweigh the risks. Regardless of the source of the risk, internal or external, the risk of serious injury or death are much greater for vulnerable road users, such as motorcycle riders, compared to automobile drivers (cagers).
Knowing the risks involved, riders likely engage in risky behaviors compared to the general population. DiStasi and colleagues (2009) found that risk-prone individuals (as measured on a motorcycle riding simulator by number of accidents or other types of hazardous behaviors) were more likely to have engaged in risky behaviors such as speeding. However, these risky behaviors may be attributable to factors including age, experience and/or personality traits or states (Chen, 2009). For example, in a follow-up study, DiStasi and colleagues (2011) found that experienced riders were less prone to risky behaviors than first-time motorcycle riders, but that new riders improved their skills and reduced their risk-proneness through training.
Risks associated with riding motorcycles on the street are a matter of choice for many riders. Huth, Füssl, and Risser (2014) found that riders perceive that situational management of potential hazards is contingent on their own choices regarding speed and safety, but that the behavior of other road users could significantly affect the rider’s safety. Choices made by riders regarding their own safety, although not completely within their control, may be influenced by their experience. For example, Shaker, Eldesouky, Hasan, and Bayomy (2014) found that among motorcyclists involved in crashes, younger riders engaged in risk-taking behaviors more often, but that all accident survivors admitted to inattentiveness, stress, unfamiliarity of the route and not utilizing protective gear.
Although riding is riskier than driving, one study showed that riders were significantly better at hazard perception than car drivers (Horswill & Helman, 2003). According to Elliott, Baughan, and Sexton (2007) the primary factors in motorcyclists’ crash risk as reported by motorcyclists were: a) traffic errors, b) control errors, c) speed violations, and d) performance of stunts. In particular, Stephens and colleagues (2017) found that speeding and errors in controlling the motorcycle increased the likelihood of near-misses. Additionally, Shahar, Poulter, Clarke, and Crundall (2010) demonstrated experimentally with driving simulators that motorcycle riders had significantly higher safety and skill scores than car drivers, and that skillful riders were also safer than unskilled riders.
While skill is associated with experience, risk-taking behaviors are associated with both age and experience. For example, hazard perception increases with experience (Liu, Hosking, & Lenné, 2009; Hosking, Liu, & Bayly, 2010; Crundall, van Loon, Stedmon, & Crundall, 2013). Crundall, Stedmon, Saikayasit and Crundall (2013) demonstrated that rider training increases the ability of riders to avoid hazards. On the other hand, according to Scott-Parker, Watson, King and Hyde (2013), propensity toward sensation-seeking strongly influences risky driving behaviors among novice drivers. Novice riders gain ability to assess critical situations to the level of experienced riders on average after eight months of intensive riding in traffic situations, but that their ability to avoid hazards is hampered by over-confidence in managing situational risks (Bellet & Banet, 2012).
Interestingly, Siskind, Steinhardt, Sheehan, O’Connor and Hanks (2011) found that the majority of rural road fatal crashes were due to alcohol, speed, and violations of other road rules but that only 15% of fatalities were due to driver inexperience. Relatedly, Eustace, Indupuru and Hovey (2011) found that excessive speed and intoxication predicted greater risk of motorcycle-related fatalities. According to Cheng and Yeh (2006) curvy rural roads are more likely to produce fatal single-vehicle motorcycle accidents than urban roads. Additionally, Cheng and Yeh found higher rates of fatal single-vehicle motorcycle accidents between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Fatality in motorcycle accidents is more often associated with lack of safety equipment by riders, and in particular helmets. Failure to use helmets may not be a matter of age or experience, but rather a personal choice or legislation. According to Ankarath and colleagues (2002), head injury is the most important cause of fatality in motorcycle crashes. Hofmann, Babbitt-Jonas, Khoury, Perez, and Cohn (2018) found that trauma surgeons who also ride motorcycles overwhelmingly wear helmets while riding.
Another source of risk for riders is distraction from the task of operating a motor vehicle. Distraction risk may come from other motorists, or from the motorcycle rider. For motorists, in-vehicle distractions, such as cell phone use, can result in failure to maintain control of the vehicle or failure to remain in a single lane of traffic, thus posing a risk to vulnerable road users, including motorcyclists. In an observational study, in-vehicle cameras provided evidence that distractions are a common everyday occurrence, and that such distractions are associated with decreased driving performance (Stutts, et al., 2005). In a follow-up study, Horberry, Anderson, Regan, Triggs, and Brown (2006) found that in-vehicle driver distractions had significant negative impacts on driving performance. Relatedly, French and Gumus (2018) found that motorcyclists are at a much higher risk of serious injury or death than other road users due to texting and cell phone use by drivers.
However, cell phone distractions are not limited to drivers. Troung, Nguyen, and De Gruyter (2018) found that young riders (M = 21.9 years of age, average number of years with a motorcycle license = 2.7) reported using their cell phones to call while riding a motorcycle 74% of the time. Interestingly, in this study riders perceived talking on a cell phone while riding to be less risky than speeding or riding on the sidewalk. Experience does not seem to mitigate the use of these devices while operating a moving vehicle, nor does it appear to improve performance. Kass, Cole and Stanny (2007) found that cell phone use for both novice and experienced drivers reduced both groups driving performance similarly.
Another potential source of risk for motorcyclists is stress. Stress may be externally or internally caused. According to Sanders one of the five patterns of stress involves “overstimulation of the arousal system” (1983, p. 80). An example of overstimulation for motorcyclists could be stress caused by “panic arising from sudden unexpected and threatening” situations (Sanders, 1983, p. 80). According to Ursin and Eriksen, the most typical response to stress is an “increase in wakefulness and brain arousal” (2004, p. 571). Factors inducing stress include heat, vibration, noise, and dynamic control (Elliott, et al., 2003; Chen, Chen, Liu, Chen, & Pan, 2009; Brearley, Norton, Kingsbury, & Maas, 2014).
Several studies have examined physiological changes in motorcycle racers, including increased heart rate (Gobbi, Francisco, Tuy, & Kvitne, 2005; D’Artibale, Tessitore, & Capranica, 2008; D’Artibale, Tessitore, Tiberi, & Capranica, 2007) particularly when competing in hot conditions (Brearley, et al., 2014). For street riders, dealing with other motorists’ behaviors, particularly when those motorists are distracted could induce stress.
The effect of increased stress may impact cognitive workload. Patten, Kircher, Östlund, Nilsson, and Svenson (2006) demonstrated that less experienced drivers had a mean reaction time to road conditions than experienced drivers, and that the cognitive workload of less experienced drivers was also significantly higher. Brookhuis and de Waard (2010) demonstrated that the optimal mental workload for drivers (using a driving simulator) should not be too high (indicating stress) or too low (indicating lack of attentiveness). Relatedly, Dijksterhuis, Brookhuis and de Waard (2011) found that mental workload was increased when lanes narrowed and traffic density increased.
According to Jahn, Oehme, Krems, and Gelau (2005), response times to hazardous driving situations in a simulated driving task were impaired when the route was more demanding. In particular, Jahn and colleagues found that the detection of peripheral visual cues was decreased when the routes were more complex. Will and Schmidt (2014) found that operating an on-bike information system increased mental workload and decreased riding performance, including riding more toward the left side of the lane and increased speed.
Mental workload might also be increased when a rider is fatigued, or stress may be induced as a result of rider fatigue. Haworth and Rowden (2006) argued that research attention should be paid to the effects of motorcyclists’ fatigue and increased risk in crashing. Horberry, Hutchins, and Tong (2008) demonstrated that assessing the effects of rider fatigue on motorcycle accident occurrences in crash data is difficult due to lack of detail regarding rider behavior before the accident. Additionally, DiStasi and colleagues (2009) found that risk-proneness was associated with increased mental workload and tiredness. Bougard, Espié, Larnaudie, Moussay, and Davenne (2012) found that sleep deprivation and time of day (early morning, specifically) reduced emergency braking performance of riders.
New research, however, is also beginning to show that riding has positive effects on riders’ abilities to manage stress. For example, Kawashima, Nouchi, Matsumoto and Tanimoto (2014) demonstrated experimentally that daily riding improved motorcyclists’ visuospacial cognition. In a press release by Harley-Davidson published by Motorcycle.com (2019), the company claimed that a study conducted by researchers at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior found that motorcycling reduces stress and increases situational awareness. Vaughn claimed that “riding increases attention by strengthening focus and heightening the brain’s passive monitoring of changes in the sensory environment while reducing the immediate stress response” (2019, p. 1).
These findings suggest that motorcycle performance may be more closely associated with rider attitude. Motorcyclists may be among the group of individuals who typically are not risk-averse, or who consider themselves to be risk-takers. In general, age seems to be correlated with risk-taking, with men more likely to take risks in car driving and leisure activities compared to women (Dohmen, et al., 2011). According to these authors, risk-taking is attitudinal based. For example, Wong, Chung, and Huang (2010) found that certain personality traits of sensation-seeking young riders, such as high confidence in riding ability, high comfort level with unsafe riding, and low affective risk perception were significantly related to risky riding behavior. However, Broughton and colleagues (2009) found that although motorcycle riders are more likely to report enjoying riding fast compared to car drivers, riders have more opportunities to control maneuverability as a “task demand” with older riders reporting preference for rural roads and daytime riding.
Among motorcyclists, the risk of accident, injury or death may be part of the enjoyment of the activity of riding. Aonsri (2018) found that speed was the most significant factor in crashes, and attitude of the rider influenced likelihood to speed. Additionally, Elliott (2010) found that rider’s intentions to speed were directly related to affective attitudes and perceived controllability and indirectly related to self and social-identity and group norms.
Although an individual activity, riding style, or propensity to engage in relatively more risky behaviors such as speeding or stunt riding may be a function of membership in a group of riders. Chorlton, Conner, and Jamson (2012) found that group norms and self-identity had the greatest direct effect on rider’s intention to engage in risky behaviors. Related to the Elliott (2010) study, Tunnicliff and colleagues (2012) found support for the relationship between attitude and norms and risky versus safe riding behavior. Additionally, the researchers found that hours per week riding predicted intention to maintain situational awareness.
Motorcycling is both a solo activity and one that can be shared with others through group riding. However, the choice to ride is an individual one. Walton (2016) described the decision to risk injury by riding motorcycles as an expression of personal liberty. Such need for expression may occur at any point throughout an individual’s life. Interestingly, according to Jamson and Chorlton (2009), experienced riders were far more likely to use their motorcycles for leisure activities compared to new riders. Personal liberty for some riders may be about enjoying life. In one such study, motorcyclists described their reasons for choosing riding over driving, although perceived as less safe, as including the ability to reduce the hazards of being “stuck in traffic,” and “controlling time and ‘making life flow'” (Ferreira de Souza, Malta, & Freitas, 2018, p. 8).
Rand (n.d.) argued that benefits of riding for pleasure is heightened sensory awareness, a sense of community with other riders, and connection with the machine. As Hertwig, Wulff and Mata (2019) noted, self-reports of attitudes remain the best method for assessing likely risk-taking. To investigate the motivations of motorcycle riders as it pertains to the risk/benefit determinations on why they choose to ride, the following research questions are proposed:
RQ1 What techniques do motorcyclists utilize to decrease stress?
RQ2 To what degree does stress influence decisions to ride motorcycles for current motorcyclists?
RQ3 To what degree does stress influence situational awareness for motorcyclists while riding?
RQ4 To what degree does operating a motorcycle increase or decrease stress, or increase or decrease situational awareness?
This study (IRB #18-283) was approved by the local IRB on October 9, 2018. This study utilizes an empirical phenomenological approach to elicit common thematic elements of the meaning of rider experiences. In the social sciences, Braun and Clarke (2006) outlined thematic analysis as including a rich description of the data set and inductively derived semantic meanings stated by the participants, as they relate to the research questions.
To construct a model of the relationships between risk-taking, stress, rider attitude and benefits to riding, I interviewed ten currently riding motorcyclists (four females and six males), ranging in age from mid-thirties to mid-seventies, with five participants currently retired. All ten participants currently own and ride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, although all ten have owned previous motorcycles, including from other brands. The average number of motorcycles owned by participants was 7.8. The average number of miles ridden per year by participants is 10,400, and the average number of years ridden by participants was 18.6 (a low of 2 years for one participant and a high of 40 years for two participants). The type of bikes currently ridden by participants include cruisers (n=4), touring (n=5), and one trike.
All participants in the study have taken the basic rider safety course, with five of the ten participants having also taken the advanced rider safety course. All ten riders primarily ride for pleasure through the scenic Texas Hill Country, although four will commute on occasion into the city. Three of the participants ride exclusively on rural roads.
By way of comparison, I currently own a Harley-Davidson touring motorcycle but have owned five previous street bikes including cruisers and sport bikes. I occasionally commute and ride a combination of roads. I currently average 7,500 miles per year for the last two years, although I averaged 15,000 miles per year for the previous six years. I have been riding for over twenty years, and have taken both the basic and advanced riding courses.
I used a guided, semi-structured interview protocol (Creswell, 2007) to gather data (see Appendix). Each interview was audio taped and transcribed verbatim. Pseudonyms were utilized to protect the identity of the interviewees. Quotes of interviewees utilized in this paper are differentiated by assigned numbers placed in parentheses. To analyze the interview data, the tripartite phenomenological approach of description, reduction and interpretation as described by Lanigan (1988) was utilized in this study.
Description and Reduction of Common Themes
For these riders, the primary goal of riding is leisure. Although a few commute on occasion, all riders expressed the purpose of riding is enjoyment.
“Usually it’s when a group wants to ride and they get together in a group, and then I will ride with them. Sometimes my husband and I just ride and go out to get something to eat if the weather’s nice.” (10)
“Mainly because I enjoy the sense of freedom and the scenery involved and the uniqueness of riding on a motorcycle.” (5)
When asked about how they prepare for the ride, riders expressed the mental process they go through. One interviewee put it this way:
“Well, first of all just clear your mind, not to be bothered by stuff.” (2)
Another interviewee described the difference between mental preparation as a novice versus as a more experienced rider:
“When I was super novice I would actually give myself a mental prep talk actually, and I would be like reminding myself of the things that we learn in class like turning your head to look… Mentally, I just try to remind myself a little more informally now that you know this is supposed to be fun, and I can relax. Be aware but relaxed.” (1)
Most of the riders interviewed talked about knowing the ride plan in advance of riding such as the route and riding companions.
“I think about the places I’m going to go and who I might get to see. I think about the roads and the rides and where I’m going to go. So, I know in the area that I live, I’m familiar with every road, but you also go back and try to remember where the hard curves are or the other things.” (4)
“If it’s a planned ride, I go over in my head my plan where I’m going to go.” (6)
“A lot of thinking about who you’re riding with.” (3)
Another interviewee described mental preparation involving the techniques of riding:
“I tell myself to think about executing proper mechanics to make sure that you are aware of surroundings and that you are mentally ready to react to conditions as they present themselves during riding.” (5)
Mental preparation may also involve checking the bike.
“I relax. I walk around the motorcycle and make sure I’m looking and focused on anything that might be wrong with it.” (?)
“Make sure I’m prepared, the bikes ready, I’ve got all the gear I need. I try to avoid any potential surprises.” (8)
For these riders, mental preparation is also about attitude:
“I guess to just be in a good mood. I guess to mentally be in a good mood.” (2)
“I have to subdue the excitement of getting ready to ride because I’m generally excited when I know that I’m gonna be able to have a moment with my motorcycle. So mentally I just subdue the excitement for the day I was riding.” (7)
Mental preparation may be something these riders were trained to do, or learned through experience. These riders understand that motorcycle riding is inherently risky.
“Hopefully I’m not opposed to risk or I wouldn’t ride a motorcycle because there’s some more inherent risk in a motorcycle than a cage.” (8)
“I ride a motorcycle, so yeah I’m a risk-taker.” (6)
Consequently, riders assess the risk before they ride.
“I think, in general, I’m a pretty planned person, and I assess my risk before I do something.” (1)
“I try to assess what risk level is going to be on that particular ride, and if I don’t like it, I don’t take it.” (8)
For these individuals, the benefits of riding outweigh the risks. However, they do try to reduce the risks.
“I am a ‘moderate’ risk taker, but only to the extent that I know how to mitigate risk factors.” (5)
“Probably the riskiest thing that I would do on a motorcycle would be riding.” (4)
Specifically, these riders choose when and where to ride and under what conditions. For these riders, they choose not to ride in inclement weather if it is avoidable. They also prefer to avoid city traffic, and would rather ride in scenic, rural areas such as the Texas Hill Country.
“Generally, I’m a fair weather rider. The weather has a lot to do with my choice and ability to ride. I prefer not to have to be traversing adverse conditions just to enjoy my motorcycle.” (7)
“I would not ride in the rain. I’m not really confident about that, so if it’s raining I’m not riding.” (1)
“I’m one of those people, I can ride in, you know, like the weather we had here: cold and wet. I just prefer not to.” (6)
“I will ride in the rain, but if I have a choice I won’t. And I also won’t ride if I don’t feel well.” (4)
“Well definitely when the weather is really dicey, and let’s see here if the conditions are not good that would be my reason, or I’m not feeling good.” (2)
“The weather: if it’s too cold or if it’s wet, normally that would be the reason or if I don’t feel well, then I won’t ride.” (10)
“I prefer not to be in crazy, heavy traffic situations, so I’d rather be out you know just enjoying nature and the scenery. We have done a couple long road trips, but for the most part it’s just around the Hill Country.” (1)
“I don’t like heavy traffic. That’s pretty much it. I try to avoid going into big cities and towns were there’s going to be a lot of traffic or so it’s going to be dicey.” (2)
“I just don’t like to ride for example in downtown San Antonio.” (8)
“The rural setting is 90 percent of what we do as far as our riding, avoiding city traffic and so forth.” (3)
Avoiding inclement weather or heavy traffic conditions comes from experience for these riders. Several riders described situations in which they were caught in downpours or had to ride in heavy traffic during long trips.
“There have been times like getting caught in a major rainstorm where it was risky because you put your foot down and it was up to the floorboards at the stoplight, and so normally it would be a situation that I completely avoided, but we got caught in a downpour that just came out of nowhere.” (3)
“I was on a group ride, a long ride out of town, and we were in the state of Tennessee, and we were about to navigate through a town named Chattanooga. And for some reason, either the day or the time of day or all the above whatever, we were going to Chattanooga with a large number of over-the-road trucks navigating the freeway system.” (5)
“Specifically, I can give you one location: driving through Knoxville Tennessee in the rain.” (6)
“I rode in Miami and that’s when I bought my first air horn for the motorcycle because I’ve never seen crazier drivers.” (3)
Another way that these riders mitigate risks is through protective measures. Riders in this group wear most of the gear most of the time (MOTGMOTT).
“I put on all my safety equipment: jeans, boots, shirt. Generally, I wear gloves in the wintertime. I wear a helmet, and that’s basically it.” (7)
“Boots, gloves, helmet for sure, and jackets, long-sleeved t-shirts.” (2)
“I ensure that I am wearing proper clothing based on the current weather conditions and those that may be expected whether it be for the next day or the next two weeks.” (5)
“I also pay attention to the clothing or I always wear over-the-ankles shoes or boots. I always wear long pants. I always wear long sleeves and always wear a full-face helmet.” (4)
“I put on my gloves, my helmet.” (9)
“I’m not an ATGATT [All The Gear All The Time] person. I’m a MOTGMOTT [Most Of The Gear Most Of The Time] person. I always wear a helmet. Recently, I’ve started wearing an armored jacket whether it’s a mesh or a leather jacket all the time, ankle high boots, but I still wear the denim.” (6)
I make sure that I have my helmet, which I did before, but now I’m worried about wearing my jacket also, to protect my elbows and everything, and I wear my boots, and I do have to wear prescription glasses. I make sure I have my glasses and my gloves.” (1)
In the case of both riders (1) and (6), the decision to start wearing jackets all the time came after experiencing accidents.
“I had a lot of road rash and bruising, but I didn’t break any bones. I wasn’t wearing my jacket so my road rash was unnecessarily bad on my arms and elbows.” (1)
“The next thing I remember, it’s about four hours later and I’m in the hospital in the emergency room.” (6)
Stress and Riding
These riders have experienced stressful situations while riding, and they remember them.
“An example of the heavy traffic, crazy driver, six lanes mayhem and stress level going really up, and then on the return trip an accident in front of us. We sat there for an hour or two waiting for traffic to clear, and it was probably about 95 degrees and so stress went up.” (3)
“If I’m riding someplace where there’s more traffic or someplace I haven’t ridden before, maybe I’ve read about, or doing my cross-country ride this year, my stress level probably went up a little more as I got into more populated areas just not knowing traffic patterns or construction.” (6)
“Normally [stress] it’s fairly low, but I have had a couple of instances where they might have been termed as a near-miss to an accident, and that did raise the stress level at least temporarily.” (5)
“Probably if I am in a congested area, we’ll say the high-density traffic in the center of the San Antonio metro area, I consider that a little more stressful because about the third time you’ve had a young lady push you into another lane because she’s on her cell phone or texting, your stress level gets a little higher.” (4)
To reduce the stress, these experienced riders choose not to put themselves in potentially stressful situations.
“If I’m in traffic or a higher risk environment, I feel a little more stress than if I’m on a back road, a very relaxed place… This is actually one of the conditions to cross. If it affected me, I wouldn’t have gone for a ride.” (8)
“Generally, I ride away from city traffic so that I’m able to enjoy the experience a lot more without having to keep my head on a swivel with big city traffic going on.” (7)
However, these riders described normal riding conditions in locations of their choosing to be less stressful.
“Well I’m pretty relaxed when riding. I’m not stressed out.” (2)
“Stress is always better (less) when I’m riding.” (8)
“During the ride if I’m riding where I want to ride, not you know in traffic, generally it’s normal or a little less.” (6)
“When I got home from work, if I was stressed out, I would just jump on my bike and do a 50-60 mile loop or just to chill and just decompress and just feel that wind in my face… There’s no stress when I’m riding. There is no stress with the wind.” (9)
“Once I get going, the position of the handlebars and the comfortable seat actually lowers my physical stress levels” (3)
These riders describe their situational awareness while riding as high.
“I think I’m very aware. I’m very aware of surroundings and I’m very aware that I got to focus on the road.” (10)
“Definitely I’m trying to pay attention to what’s around me and what’s coming and all that.” (2)
“I’m aware of my surroundings, but it’s just me and the road and the music.” (6)
“My level of awareness I think is pretty keen. I think always picturing what could happen in the situation: Being on the lookout for as many situations as you can picture, see or think about.” (3)
“I think that when I am riding a motorcycle is actually it’s like a concerted effort.” (1)
“I try to always be aware of my surroundings as far as traffic goes or watching for deer, anything might jump out on the road.” (9)
“To try to maintain a constant level and a comfortable level of checking what’s going on around you, because like it or not you have to be accepting of the principle, at least one principle that you’re going to need to be in a position physically if possible to anticipate what a driver or operator of another vehicle, normally an automobile or truck, may or may not do, and try to be in a position where if they do something unexpected that you can avoid contact with them.” (5)
These riders also differentiated their situational awareness while riding to that while driving.
“If I compare it to the car, in the car I’m aware, but it does a lot of things for you that you don’t have to worry about. So, you don’t get a tip over, or you’re not going to scratch your knee or whatever the case may be. So, it’s simpler in a car, and so that the awareness level probably is not as great.” (2)
“[Riding] makes me a better driver in my car because you know you always do a head check before you change lanes or do something like that. When a lot of times the car a lot of folks won’t do that. It gives you a little bit of heightened awareness.” (4)
“Now it’s quite possible I’m not quite as situationally aware in an automobile, but we also have other tools in an automobile. You know at low speed I have warning lights and sounds that come on if I’m too close to an object either from the front or from the rear.” (5)
“I’m probably am not as actively making myself aware in a car as I am on a bike because it’s bigger and can be seen more, but I mean yes I still pay attention.” (9)
These riders also described how riding motorcycles made them better car drivers.
“[Situational awareness when riding is] probably way above average. I’m a better motorcycle rider than I am a driver of a car, and when I’m just walking around in a crowd, I’m sometimes semi-conscious about what’s going on around me, so it’s much more heightened when I’m on a motorcycle.” (8)
“Motorcycle riding has made me a better car driver. It has raised my situational awareness. In the car I’m always looking three cars ahead, looking for not the one in front of me, not the one in front of him, but the one in front of him if he hits his brakes.” (6)
Stress and Situational Awareness
A heightened stress situation such as being in an unfamiliar territory or riding in heavy traffic may have an effect on situational awareness in the experience of these riders.
“[Stress] creates more of a situational defensiveness where you’re going to employ in many situations a certain defensive technique like if these guys don’t stop up here, I’m going to have to put on the brakes maybe faster than I would in an automobile.” (5)
“I would say it [awareness] heightens. If I feel stressed, it’s kind of like I just start looking around even more or trying to be aware.” (2)
“Yeah I think you become more stressed when you’re doing tight curves because you’ve got to be very alert. You can’t really check out the scenery. It’s beautiful, but on real tight curves you really got to concentrate and of course that in itself is a little more stressful, but it’s different kind of stress then you experience at work.” (10)
“When visibility is reduced because of rain or darkness. When the roads are extra slick. I try to stay more alert and allow myself more space to maneuver in.” (8)
“I believe in general riding in big city environments traffic causes a lot of stress. You have to be constantly watching. Other than that, I enjoy my motorcycle and the rides for the most part.” (7)
Heightened situational awareness may also help reduce stress.
“Generally, I just try to keep my eyes on the road and pay attention to sounds and visual stimulation while I’m on the road. That helps me to calm myself and know that the environment is safe so that in turn is able to reduce stress or maintain my level of competency while I’m riding.” (7)
“I don’t know if you would call this stress or panic when a deer has just jumped in front of you, and you’re going to brake hard, but to me when you’re riding and if you’re in a situation where you’re on unfamiliar roads and it’s twisting and turning just like the Sisters[i], which I love to ride, you’re so focused on the ride and maneuvering your bike, actually you’re one with your bike. When you know what you’re doing, you’re not thinking about being stressed out. You’re just controlling your machine. I just love riding.” (9)
“When I’m only focusing on that my ride, there is virtually no stress.” (8)
The Choice to Ride
“When I get on my bike, my stress, as soon as I take off it just goes.” (9)
“All the stress goes away when riding. Unless you’re in a situation that creates stress, within four minutes getting on the bike, if I ride the bike to work, within four minutes or less all the stress has gone away. You’re aware of what’s going on around you. You’re watching all the cars, and you’re happy.” (4)
“It’s more of a relaxed environment and more of a pleasurable experience when I’m able to not have stress when I’m riding.” (7)
“I just do what makes me feel comfortable. So, ride your own ride[ii], and that’s mainly to decide that you don’t have to keep up with somebody else.” (2)
These motorcyclists understand the inherent risks associated with riding on the road but continue doing so for the benefits they believe riding provides. To be sure, the increased risk of riding might lead to increased stress. However, for these riders, stress is situational based on the conditions around the motorcyclist. They choose to ride to reduce stress, by in large, but have found techniques to reduce stress when the situation demands. They generally do not choose to become involved in stressful riding situations. LeBlanc (2015) offered some tips for managing stress before the ride: 1) mentally focus on the ride, 2) do not ride when angry, 3) practice good breathing skills, 4) stay hydrated, 5) wear hearing protection, and 6) remember riding is risky.
They have found and utilize techniques to minimize (or mitigate) risks. These techniques include mental and physical preparation, the use of proper riding gear, training, attitude, focus, and situational awareness. These riders ride for a specific purpose: enjoyment. With that goal in mind, these riders are very selective about when and where they ride. Although most will ride in urban areas or in bad weather conditions when necessary, they choose rural riding under fair weather conditions.
These riders consider themselves to be highly situationally aware while riding motorcycles, and they distinguish this level of situational awareness as being greater when compared to other activities they do, including driving a car. They associate stressful riding situations, such as heavy urban traffic, or a deer jumping out in the road, with temporary heightened awareness, but more likely as a reminder to continue scanning the surroundings for potential hazards and escape routes. These riders perceive that their experience of riding motorcycles has increased their situational awareness to other activities, such as driving cars.
Overall, these riders perceive riding, despite the risks, to be beneficial by reducing stress in their lives. Riding serves as an escape or an adventure.
Discussion and Conclusion
During the course of these interviews, I found myself nodding in agreement with the statements of my interviewees. I had considered investigating experiences of novice motorcyclists along with experienced riders. However, as an experienced rider, it occurred to me that the choices I make regarding when, where, how and under what conditions I ride might be influenced by my experiences. I sought to verify those experiences by talking to other experienced riders.
The interviews elicited a few stories about accidents, near-misses and harrowing road stories involving high stress situations such as high interstate traffic congestion in unfamiliar urban areas during long-distance group rides. I believe these riders told these stories because they knew I could understand being a fellow rider. It also demonstrates the generally accepted principle that other experienced riders can and often do present beneficial input as they are viewed as credible sources of information among their peers. It is possible that, like other groups, riders might preserve road stories for other riders, demonstrating the rider slogan often seen on bumper stickers or patches, “If I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand.”
In my own experience, I found difficulties explaining my own “accident story” to non-rider friends and family. Most such explanations ended with a question like, “after that, why do you keep riding.” Sharing my story with other riders elicits a quite different response. Future research might investigate motorcycle accident narratives to describe what effect such events might have on subsequent choices to ride or not ride, or how a rider chooses to ride.
For myself and the riders I know, there is no need to explain the biker phrase, “live to ride, ride to live.”
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[i] The “Sisters” are FM 335, FM 336, and FM 337 in the Texas Hill Country northwest of San Antonio.
[ii] “Ride your own ride” is a safety tip offered to group riders in our local group, which is described in more detail in LeBlanc (2017).
Appendix Stress and Motorcycle Riding Interview Protocol
1. What do you ride?
a. What type of motorcycle?
b. Do you own more than one type?
c. Have you owned previous motorcycles?
2. When do you ride?
a. What are the reasons for your choices of when to ride?
b. What are the reasons for your choices of when not to ride?
3. Why do you ride?
a. Do you commute?
b. Do you ride for pleasure (non-commuting)?
4. Where do you ride?
a. What are the reasons for your choices of where to ride?
b. What are the reasons for your choices of where not to ride?
5. How do you prepare for a ride?
6. Are you a risk taker?
a. How would you describe your level of risk taking?
b. Have you ever been involved in a motorcycle accident? Can you describe it?
7. What is your general level of stress (when not riding)?
a. How does your stress-level compare when riding? Less? More? Same?
8. Does when or where you ride affect your relative level of stress?
a. While riding?
b. Before you ride?
c. After you return from your ride?
9. Can you describe situations when riding that are more stressful than normal?
a. How do you deal with the heightened stress?
b. What does reduced stress look like? Can you describe it? When does it occur?
10. What techniques do you employ to manage stress?
a. While riding?
b. Before you ride?
c. After you return from your ride?
11. How would you describe your level of situational awareness when riding?
a. How does that compare to your level of situational awareness when not riding?
12. Does your relative level of stress while riding affect your situational awareness?
a. If so, how so?
13. How many years have you been riding street motorcycles?
14. How many miles, on average, do you ride per year?
a. What kind of miles are those? Rural? Urban? Combination?
15. Have you participated in any rider training?
a. What type of training?
Paul LeBlanc III I am a Professor of Communication at the University of Texas at San Antonio. I teach courses in interpersonal and relational communication and research methods at the undergraduate and graduate levels. I have been riding since I was 17 years old. My first bike was a 1982 Kawasaki GPz 550. I currently own a 2017 Harley-Davidson Road Glide. I have ridden in fifty states and four Canadian Provinces. I am currently serving as a road captain in my local riding group and have published safety articles in their monthly newsletter. My wife and children have accepted my addiction to motorcycles.