Risk Homeostasis – Dare to Be Safe

Risk Homeostasis – The Theory that Confounds

Interesting mention in a Dave Seale column in this month’s Motorcycle Consumer News of a theory termed “Risk Homeostasis.”  First coined by a Professor Wilde at Queens University in Canada, the theory is that each individual has an internal acceptable level of risk. If the risk is reduced, the individual will perform the activity harder or faster until that person’s acceptable level of risk is regained.

Wow. This opens up all sorts of thoughts. When you Google the concept you’ll find a host of articles that present conflicting evidence and statistics from all over. Two fleets of taxi cabs, for instance, one fleet quipped with ABS brakes and the other not, showed a higher rate of crashes – for the ABS cars.  And yet, crash statistics overall have shown a decrease since the institution of mandatory seat belts.  An article in Monday’s Seattle Times (a questionable source, I know) cites significantly decreased car crash rates in our state for 2011, a whopping 20% down from a peak five years earlier. This despite ever mounting densities and all the horrors of people talking on phones, texting, and the many other activities that occupy those who cannot focus solely on driving. What does it all mean?

Turning to motorcycles, this theory resonates with me.  I know that my first  (and only, so far) crash on a motorcycle was caused in great part because I thought my motorcycle was so small and slow that I could not be hurt on it.  What folly!  Any vehicle that can go 80mph can hurt you, I think we can agree, but such is the flawed logic of the testosterone poisoned.  My response to the crash was to purchase motorcycles that to one degree or another intimidated me.  I would not take a motorcycle for granted again. That worked well for about 30 years, and now I have the artificial crutch of usually riding motorcycles that belong to the company, which seems to raise my caution factor a bit – so far.

Some of us change our perception of risk as we gain experience. There is more satisfaction in using gear and training and experience and skill to reduce risk to such a degree that you enjoy a day’s ride, perhaps on challenging roads at what we can politely term a “brisk” pace, and run up a total of “risk moments” for the day of exactly 0.  I refer to such rides when I get home with a comment to my wife of “no hits, runs, or errors,” and that is now the norm.  Long may it be so.

Do you feel less at risk when properly and fully kitted up for the ride?  I know I do. My most comfy place in all of life is to be in my Vanson leather pants, with a padded BMW textile jacket, quality boots and gloves, and my Arai helmet on.  Snug, comfy, and feeling less at risk.  Does this make me ride more aggressively?   Aggressive can be a relative term.

About 20 years ago on a vacation ride I chose to ride from a motel just a few blocks to a store to purchase a motorcycle magazine.  In Idaho helmets are not required, so I hopped on my ZRX and made the journey helmetless.  It was terrifying, and I have not done it since, even though I did not exceed 40 mph.  If I rode all the time without a helmet, would I ride more carefully to get down to my own internal acceptable level of risk?  To a degree, yes, as I would choose to not ride at all.

I tried to research the concussion rates for rugby players vs. (American) football players and came to a dead end. (Double pun most definitely not intended)  It appears that in both sports there is a systemic cultural flaw of not talking about such things. Only now are the people in charge of both sports beginning to take a serious look at the problem. The New York Times on Sunday ran an article that covered all of the many requirements the NFL has for player uniforms:  types of socks that can be worn, that jerseys must be tucked in, what can be added and what cannot, and so forth.  There are no guidelines or regulations covering the helmets!   Players are free to choose whatever brand they wish, or that the team has selected. According to the article, some make their selection based on safety, and some on appearance.

Before we scoff, let us look to our own tribe. How many motorcyclists select a helmet based on safety, and how many on appearance?   Fortunately for me, the appearance of the Arai is what I like the most, and it is a very high quality helmet.   Which feature prompted the purchase decision?

I noticed a fellow heading up I-5 yesterday on his way to the annual cluster spasm that is the “Oyster Run.”  This features 15 – 20,000 motorcycles, mostly V-twins, descending on the city of Anacortes to create a monster traffic jam and an enjoyable day of ogling machines, people, and products, in a symphony of motorcycle sounds or a cacophony of irritating noise, depending on your point of view. This gentleman was clearly out to make a visual impression.   High end custom chopper in black and chrome. Check.  Little black beanie helmet of dubious function.  Check.   Black leather chaps. Check.  But….but… a black ski parka half unzipped so he looked from the back like a giant plastic lawn bag? Style fail.   And the shoes –  black and white canvas Keds sneakers – seriously?  He is going to ride his 600 pound machine that does not turn or stop very well, ever,  into a fender to fender motorcycle crush wearing –  tennies.  

Clearly his perceived level of risk is lower than mine.   I took in all of his splendor and changed lanes and speeds to get as far away from him as possible.

The MCN article noted that the British Superbike series this year banned all electronic rider aids for the 2012 series – traction control, stability control, etc.  This was in an effort to lower competitor costs and dire predictions of the carnage to ensue were made.   But nothing happened, other that terrific and close racing.  Evidently, shorn of their traction controls and other devices, the racers adapted backwards to using their own considerable skills.  I suspect there is more data to be collected here.

How about driver and rider enjoyment?  A few years ago I was able to turn a few laps of Pacific Raceways at the helm of a brand new Mercedes Benz AMG roadster. This had the last word in all sorts of “driver aids,” from the automatic transmission and ABS brakes to stability control, traction control, and a blizzard of alpha-numeric labels for all sorts of “nanny-state” devices to keep my from hurting myself or the car.  And I hated it!  It was a heavy car with a lot of power, but when you tossed it into a corner (as the race instructor in the passenger seat exhorted me to do) the car would pretty much take over.  To crash the car I would have had to raise my internal risk level beyond imagination.  I suppose if I’d consumed three glasses of single malt first and truly believed the world was about to end I might have been able to drive badly enough to overcome all of the devices installed to save me from myself.

Yesterday I had the very pleasurable task of leading 20 motorcycles on a ride I do each year called the ABTOR.  ABTOR stands for “Anywhere But The Oyster Run” and is meant for people like myself who have experienced all that the Oyster Run has to offer and would prefer a day with a lot more riding and a lot fewer people.  We use the same route every year, developed a decade ago by a friend, and it is very special.

The highlight of the day is a road called Dewatto Road, a challenging amalgam of turns of all descriptions, spectacular scenery, and the occasional sprinkle of sand in a corner to keep you alert.   This road is a delight in the sun, as yesterday, and an invigorating challenge in the pouring rain, as last year.

After a short stop in Seabeck to make sure everyone in the group was doing OK, I led them toward Dewatto. The turn onto Dewatto is pretty sharp, so my thought was to stop in the middle of the road and wave everyone past me, and then catch and pass all of them before the next intersection, several minutes away. At the same time I would turn on my helmet video camera and record it all digitally.

Risk homeostasis came into play here. I had all my best gear on, a fine BMW F 800R, and a lovely day.  But I was also setting out to catch pass 20 motorcycles on a winding two way narrow road.  Further, they are all customers and I did not want to alarm or irritate anyone, and we have a rule on our rides of no passing on the right – ever.  I was determined to do this in a way that nobody would find objectionable, and to accomplish the task without drama or trauma.

The effect on me was to ratchet my focus up to the max.  I was riding rapidly, but with great care, and I think the video, if the camera was working as it should have, will be great fun to watch.  (I will post it here later if I can) When we got to the next junction I was able to pass the last two bikes as they slowed, unsure of where to go, and we all continued. After that stretch and the rest of the day of fine riding and friendship, the “price” became apparent when I got home. I was mentally, emotionally, and physically tired. Worth it?  Absolutely – probably the best ride of the year.

Passing people on a winding and narrow road would seem to raise the risk, and yet because of factors such as a perceived need to “take care” of the customers, I think the risk was probably lowered while the thrill factor was enhanced.


Risk homeostasis will become more and more of a factor in motorcycle and apparel design as more data is gathered, as at the moment there is so much contradictory information it is hard to reach a conclusion. A lot of the findings are open to interpretation.   As one example, I would surmise that the cab drivers given the ABS brakes were not given any instruction in their use.  ABS brakes work best when they are jammed on and held on. If you pump the brakes as we were all taught to back in the day the stopping distances actually increase.

Consider the new BMW S 1000RR HP edition for 2013, which features not only the very sophisticated ABS brakes of the “standard”  S 1000RR, and the four modes of engine operation, but also the first electronic and automatic suspension reaction and adjustment system on a production motorcycle.  Is this a good thing?  Probably.

For myself, I like the fact that the BMW I am riding has ABS brakes, even though I doubt I’ve ever accessed them. I have seen, although not experienced, the traction controls on the S 1000RR save many people from high sides at track days, as well as the sad results of people riding overly briskly on high powered sport bikes on the track not so equipped.  After thinking about this for a couple of days, I think I like technology that reduces my risk, as long as it is not intrusive and I am not aware of its existence!

For now, Risk Homeostasis is a theory that has some validity, but the full import will not be understood for some time.   At the very least, it can get us to thinking.  Think about the gear you wear and why you wear it. What motorcycle(s) do you ride, what features do they offer, how do you ride them in what conditions?  What is your motivation in each scenario?

Thinking is good.  That may be the end gain of any discussion of Risk Homeostasis.


Copyright 2012                              David Preston

About david

I am a 69 year old motorsports nut who lives in Bothell, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I have been married forever and have two grown children. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Bonneville T 120 , a Triumph Thruxton, a Fiat 500S and a VW Tiguan. What else would you like to know?
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1 Response to Risk Homeostasis – Dare to Be Safe

  1. Robert Okrie says:

    Maybe I’ll consider a 1200GS and a set of tennies to slow me down…?

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

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