The death of the 59-year old rider on Macquarie Pass that I described in the article “Another Statistic”, raised the issue of older riders and accidents. A disturbing statistic is that a high percentage of motorcycle accidents – and deaths – occur in the 41 to 59 age-bracket. That’s a worrying statistic for us “old blokes”; particularly if we think that it’s only “young hoons” who get themselves into trouble! So, as an old bloke who is interested in the safety of other old blokes, I thought I should have a look at this issue.
At the time of the death on Macquarie Pass, the Regional Traffic Co-ordinator for the area, Mick Timms, was quoted in the press discussing the issue of the high accident-rate among older riders.
Apparently he had previously been responsible for the area covering the Snowy Mountains and there had been an alarming number of accidents along the Alpine Way; another favourite motorcycle road. He’d found that one contributing factor was fatigue.
This road, if you do the complete circuit, is just over 300km; and a lot of it is very narrow and winding. It’s the type of road where fatigue can certainly play a part. If you get tired and loose concentration you can easily find yourself in trouble. Mick Timms said that some older riders, particularly those who had recently returned to riding, were trying to ride it like they were 20 years old again. But fatigue set in and crashes occurred. His advice was for older riders to consider their age and their capabilities and ride accordingly.
It’s good advice! Fatigue is certainly one issue, but I reckon another one is pain. Most older people have some sort of physical problem; something that starts to ache after a certain time in the saddle. For me, as I’ve mentioned in a few articles, I have a crook back. That limits how far I can ride in a day. But it’s not only that; I also get a sore bum, and even my arms sometimes start to ache in places that are normally pain-free, if I go for a long ride. And pain is distracting! The further you push riding with pain, the more your thoughts are on the bits that are hurting rather than on the riding of the bike. It also limits how effectively you can operate the bike. If your hands are stiff and aching you won’t have the same control over throttle, clutch, and front brake, that you should. Or if, for example, your right leg is getting cramped and painful, you might start braking only with the front brake to avoid the pain of using the right leg for the brake. Be honest now; have you ever compromised what you would normally do on a bike because something is hurting? I’m ashamed to admit I have!
The answer is to not ride beyond what the body can comfortably take in a day. And take regular breaks. “Stop Revive And Survive” is good advice – and not just for car drivers on holidays! On a bike you might need to stop and take a walk around every hour. Or every two hours. Your body will tell you when you should stop. Listen to it!
Now, this whole issue of safety of older riders is a very involved issue with a lot of variables. So let’s have a closer look.
The first thing to say, when we look a little deeper into the subject, is that there are three categories that people fall (hopefully not literally!) into.
First one is people who have ridden continuously since a young age. These people (and, apart from a slight hiatus of about 4 years, I'm one of them) are perhaps the ones least at risk. For one thing they’ve got lots of experience. And that experience, and the skills they’ve learned over years of riding, are practiced every time they ride. It’s to this group that the philosophy I mentioned on the front page applies; “you don’t get to be an old bloke on a bike unless you have some degree of wisdom and common-sense”. There is still a danger though. The trap in this group is to think you are still 21 and your capabilities haven’t changed since then. It really comes down to self-assessment and acceptance. I’ll mention self-assessment in the more general comments in a moment, so let’s just look at acceptance.
The challenge is to accept the change that age brings. Accept that you can’t ride as far, nor probably as fast, as you once did. In short, you need to constantly adjust how you ride to your changing capabilities. And that can be a hard thing to do. You might like to think you can ride as far and as fast as anyone else, just like you have always done, but you need to accept the reality that age brings. Accept too, that your choice of bike might need to change. (You'll find, for example, that the full-on sports bike is probably now not the most suitable choice of bike for you!).
And one other thing; don’t be lulled into a false sense of security because you have a good safety record. Riding for a long time without having an accident or coming off can make you over-confident. We know that young blokes often think they’re “ten-foot-tall-and-bullet-proof” but so can people who’ve ridden for many years without having an “off”. You start thinking that it can’t possibly happen to you because you’ve been riding for so long and it never has happened. But it still can! Just a momentary lapse in concentration (more likely with people in this group than either of the others, I reckon) can be all it takes to result in a nasty incident. And we all face the same dangers every time we ride. Having faced them successfully for so long can make you a bit blasé, and that is a recipe for disaster!
The next group is people who've come back to riding after a long absence.This is perhaps the group that is most at risk. In the group just mentioned you are there riding all the time these age-related changes are taking place. Your skill levels and ability don’t change much from one ride to the next; the changes happen gradually. And you get reminded, gradually, of the changes that are taking place. But if you’re in this “back-after-a-long-absence” group, your skills and ability will have changed a lot since the last time you rode. Not only will age have diminished those skills and abilities, but they will have got very “rusty” through not being used. The old saying of “use it or lose it” can apply to riding skills just as much as anything else!
The skills required to operate a motorbike are very different to those required to drive a car. These days cars almost drive themselves. Mostly all we have to do is squeeze the accelerator and steer, while we sit back in lounge-chair comfort.  A bike, on the other hand, is a lot more involved to ride. You use a hand to operate the clutch while you change gear with your foot. Brakes are worked independently front to rear, requiring a precise and accurate balance of action between hand and foot. But of course, you know all that don’t you. And that’s the trouble! People come back to bikes after a long absence knowing what is required to operate a bike, but not having used those skills for a long time. And knowing what to do and actually doing it skillfully are two very different things!
Another factor here is that bikes are very different to what they were a couple of decades ago. Bikes today have much greater levels of performance, handling and braking than bikes of yesteryear. But that’s good right? It means that the bike is more able to take care of you, right? Well, yes and no! While the greater levels of handling and braking will help keep you in control, the performance means that the bike can very easily get you into trouble if you approach it with an attitude of thinking you can handle everything it can dish out; just like you could with the bike you last rode twenty years ago. It’s like putting a taxi-driver into a Formula one car and saying “Go for it!”. The car will very quickly out-run the skill of it’s driver – even if the driver can claim to be a “professional” driver. Similarly, bikes today will very quickly out-run the skill of the rider who hasn’t ridden for a long time.
So what you need to do is to make the skills and experience you once had work for you, not against you. Ease back into it gently. Preferably start with a mid-size bike that isn’t overly heavy or powerful; something that you'll be able to more quickly become confident with. Then gradually increase things like the distance you ride and how hard you ride as you regain those skills. But always remember that you aren’t 21 again; so don’t expect to ride the same way as you did then!
The third group is people who have taken up riding for the first time in their “elder years”. Now I reckon that, unless they are total idiots, people in this group fall (again, hopefully not literally!) somewhere between the first two in terms of risk. Not having ridden at all means they don’t even have “rusty” skills and experience to draw on. But, because of that, because it is all new, they are more likely to be cautious. So if you’re one of these people, then your lack of skill and experience still puts you at a big risk, but in most cases I think you’ll be more likely to be aware of your lack of skill and experience, and approach your riding in a more appropriate manner. This group will also be more likely to undergo training; partly because some degree of training is required to get your license. People in this group are also far more likely to start out on a more moderate-power bike than the “let’s get back into it!” group.
Okay, so how do you survive this “old-age riding”? Well, I’ve covered some of the dangers and approaches needed for specifically for various categories of “aged people” above, but there are a couple of general things that apply to all of us.
Firstly a positive. We all have a lot of experience to draw on. Even if you’ve never ridden a bike before, you’ll have had a lot of experience of driving in traffic and varying road conditions. True, riding a bike is very different to driving a car, but you can still make use of the experience and maturity you do have. Remember I said above that the trick is to make your experience work for you, not against you.
I mentioned self-assessment. You need to assess your abilities and ride accordingly. That means assess how far you can safely ride before fatigue and pain sets in. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll know when you start to feel tired, or start to feel pain. Make sure you stop before you get to that point! And you can also assess how fast you can ride. It’s a sad fact that as we age our reactions do slow down. If you do out-ride your capabilities you’ll know about it – again, providing you’re honest with yourself. You’ll have the occasional fright, occasions when you know that, even for the slightest moment, you weren’t in total control. Something you didn’t quite see in time; a corner that you ran a bit wide on because you were going faster than you thought; a car in front that you almost hit because you didn’t get on the brakes quickly enough; all those sorts of things. They are all warning signs (or rather “lucky escapes”!). So adjust your riding style accordingly, while you still can!
Self-assessment is something that I try to do each time I ride (well, most times I ride!). I try to assess how well I’m riding. That can involve the sort of things I mentioned above, but also things like how well I’m reading the road conditions, how alert I am to what’s going on around me, and so on. Now, you could argue that self-assessment of how alert you are isn’t possible. You praise yourself for the things you do notice, and are oblivious to what you don’t notice, so you think you’re been alert to everything. But, as well as giving yourself a mental “pat-on-the-back” for the things you do notice, when you get to the end of a ride ask yourself what you were alert to during your ride. Was there a patch of road that looked as if it might be slippery? Did you notice a potential danger in traffic that you took action to avoid? Was there a corner that looked a bit deceptive that you backed-off a bit more for? Did you give a bit of extra concentration to what revs the bike was doing as you approached a corner on a steep hill? Those sorts of things. If you ask yourself those sort of questions and think that none of those situations came up on your ride, then you can be sure that you are way short of being alert enough! You need to get better real quick, or give up while you still can!
Now the point should be made that people do age differently. There are probably some old blokes out there who could do a 1,000km day, spring off the bike, do a couple of cart-wheels and jump back on ready to go again. (I don’t know any, but there might be!). At the other end of the scale, some need an appointment with a Physio after a ride around the block! So, the extent to which these age factors I’ve mentioned in this article apply to you will depend, to some extent, on where you fit on that age / capability scale. Yes, it’s that self-assessment thing still! The important thing, as I’ve also mentioned, is not to fool yourself. As a wise man once said (actually it was Clint Eastwood in one of his “Dirty Harry” movies), “A man’s got to know his limitations!” He said that as a comment when another man (a crook in that instance) died. But the same thing could be said of old blokes on bikes! You’ve got to be honest with yourself. You don’t want some squint-eyed tough guy standing by the roadside, drawing on a cigarette, and saying those famous words as he surveys the scene of a crashed bike with an old bloke splattered against the scenery! So assess your capabilities, and “know your limitations”!
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