While it might be a good idea to be as visible as you can on a motorcycle there is much to be said for riding discreetly.
I have lost count of how often witnesses in the immediate aftermath of a collision, notwithstanding a seriously injured motorcyclist lying on the road, instantly side with the car driver who pulled out on, or U-turned into the rider’s path.
Why? Fear of the other, driver identity and cognitive expectation. You, if honest, would tend to side with the rider. Your tribe. You as a motorcyclist in your weird clothes and spaceman helmet are the ‘other’ and drivers coalesce around their tribe as you do.
So, what can you do to reduce the chance of the school run mum or white van man telling anyone who will listen, ‘the bike roared past me at Mach 3 and I said “he will kill himself” to my passenger’?
It is worth knowing what is meant by ‘othering’ because we all do it and it is hard wired into us. In its psychological or sociological context we mean any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind ‘as not one of us’. You cannot control what others think but you can help by interacting with car drivers and humanising yourself.
A wave or a thumb’s up when a driver lets you past turns the, ‘he shot past me like (speedy simile of choice)’ to ‘he overtook me and politely acknowledged me’. Also, while photochromic or black visors are illegal they are unpoliced, but they also dehumanise. Humans look to faces, and if the face is a mirrored sheet of black plastic you are dehumanised.
I found this out very quickly when I went green laning with my face completely obscured by dark goggles. People could not see my smiles as they leashed their dogs or moved to one side. All they got was an impersonalised nod. The interactions with me in an MX helmet and safety specs were a lot more human.
So there is much to be said for being a friendly biker, and being unobtrusive and grey. Loud pipes may indeed save lives, but I have lost count of the amount of times I have cross examined witnesses who infer great speed from a loud pipe but who only saw the aftermath of a crash, and therefore could never have seen the ‘speeding motorcycle’.
Human memory is fallible, impressionist, prejudiced and tribal. So by all means ride dressed like an extra from Mad Max. Look like a racer. Or be loud. But as you are perceived so shall witnesses testify. If you look scary and threatening, if you sit on a driver’s rear quarter with your race pipe barely controlling your multiple horsepowers, and you then end up spinning across the tarmac you have to accept that the natural reaction of car driver witnesses is to ‘other’ you. They will support their tribe, even if you have done absolutely nothing wrong. Such is the human state within which we operate.
Bike Magazine July 2019