A Letter to the AMA: What is the Cost of Motorcycling?

A couple days ago a buddy of mine shared an article on a Triumph message board from American Motorcyclist magazine written by Scot Harden, entitled “Advocating For Motorcycling’s Future”. The article really struck a chord with me, and I highly recommend you take the time to read it. Over the course of many paragraphs Harden talks about not only the waning popularity of motorcycles, but provides a bulleted list of actions that we, as motorcyclists, should take part in as a way to bolster the future of the sport.

Beyond sharing the article, my buddy also asked what we thought about the list of ideas to “save the sport”, and what other actions we might suggest. Considering how passionate I am about motorcycles, it goes without saying I had a thought or two. I personally think Scot Harden is dead-on with his proposal, and I full well intend to do each of the ten things he suggested; some of which I have done already and will certainly do again. That said, I do think that are a few key problems with respect to motorcycles that the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) would be wise to address. After reading my less than eloquent analysis of the motorcycle market, a different friend suggested that I actually type it up and send it off to the AMA. At first I figured it was just more of my senseless banter, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. Thus, I stayed up late last evening, corrected internet shorthand and formed a few remotely complete sentences, and finally e-mailed my thoughts off to the AMA. Considering it may find its way into the circular file post-haste, I have decided to post it here on the blog, for the enjoyment or disdain of the masses. By the way, please feel free to make use of the comment section below.

Dear American Motorcyclist Magazine,

With regard to your recent article, “Advocating For Motorcycling’s Future”, I would like to start by saying I passionately agree with all ten of Scot Harden’s points. I would also like to take it further by saying that I personally think that cost is actually the greatest barrier for most newcomers. A new (reputable) “entry level” motorcycle is going to set a buyer back about what, $4,000 or more? That problem, combined with “cultural stigma”, and urban legends surrounding motorcycle safety, makes the “cost” too great for most people to cross the threshold into the sport. Walking into a dealership for the first time, prospective first-time buyers are rolling the proverbial dice when dealing with their first motorcycle sales person. Unfortunately I fear all too many will become acquainted with the moto-equivalent of a used car salesmen that in all likelihood lacks a valid motorcycle endorsement. Another likely scenario is that the would-be first-time buyer perhaps encounters the salty entrenched veteran that just needs to make the end of month sales quota; neither of which do I suspect will properly size up the buyer and get them on the correct machine for their size, budget, and skill level. Being turned off by the over-commercialized “biker image” and sleazy salesmen is the first hurdle, but unfortunately it doesn’t end there.

Conventional “wisdom” says that motorcycles are dangerous; worse still they are primarily and openly accepted as toys in the United States. Which leads me back to cost; why invest in a dangerous toy that I can seldom ride year-round? The industry needs to focus on lower costs, disputing “conventional wisdom”, and expounding on the advantages of owning a motorcycle. In recent months I’ve become nearly dependent on my motorcycle; looking back at my “ride calendar”, I rode 334 days in 2017. I live in Dayton, Ohio, not exactly the frozen tundra of central Michigan, but a far cry from Daytona Beach. Locally, I recognize that number may appear a bit “extreme”, at least among most casual enthusiasts. However, I’m here to tell you, I suspect there was snow on the ground for no more than 30 of those days. Despite the lack of “filtering” laws, I also get to work faster on the bike than I do in the car. A motorcycle simply gets through traffic faster, even without the ability to split lanes or filter to the front of traffic signals. I also don’t stress about finding parking most of the time, and beyond physically arriving sooner, I also believe that the commute “feels” shorter, even if the actual elapsed time is only marginally different. I’m sure all motorcyclists will agree, you’re more engaged while riding a motorcycle than you are while driving an automobile. Motorcycles are also more fuel efficient, and arguably better for the environment than cars. Why should I drive solo to work each day in a 6 passenger SUV, when I could feasibly take a single occupant Motorcycle; which likely gets double the gas mileage? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a green peace warrior, and I full well understand this question is rhetorical considering our culture is so enamored with comfort, supersized value meals, and bloated four-wheel-drive station wagons. The point is that these are advantages to motorcycles that need to be marketed; right along with all the “roll your own”, “freedom machine”, and “true adventure” slogans.

Admittedly, I am not overly familiar with exactly what the AMA does (outside of sanctioned sporting events), nor why I should be interested in becoming a member. I will say that I am somewhat familiar with the AMA’s lobbyist reputation, right or wrong, and I regret that it is not exactly in alignment with my personal views on motorcycling. However, in direct response to Scot Harden’s piece, we as motorcyclists should indeed do those 10 things, however I believe there are 3 things that the AMA, in turn, needs to support and promote.

1. The AMA needs to be funding, promoting, and/or conducting honest research on motorcycle crashes to combat the belief that motorcycles are overwhelmingly dangerous. The “Hurt Report” is laughably outdated, meanwhile the current National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics are all but completely inconclusive. Currently we have little to no useful information regarding the cause, conditions, nor the rider’s safety gear and experience level following a crash. Moreover, judging accident mortality rates based on miles traveled is ridiculous given the limited sample size of motorcycles as they are so vastly outnumbered by all other motor vehicles. On the same note, the endorsed rider to licensed motorcycle ratio is misleading considering the number of endorsed motorcyclists that don’t presently own a motorcycle, meanwhile a great number of motorcyclists have a virtual garage full of tagged motorbikes going nowhere. If we want to make an argument that experience is a determining factor in rider mortality, then so be it, but it needs to be quantified. I’ll also argue that suggesting motorcycles are “ex-percent more dangerous than cars” by the number of fatalities versus miles traveled annually is a farce when you compare that to pedestrian fatalities. More pedestrians were killed in 2015 than motorcyclists, over 5,300, not to mention the 818 bicyclists; let’s attempt to look at those numbers through the prism of miles traveled. Sounds kind of silly doesn’t it? As motorcyclists we shouldn’t stand for this reputation; we must combat it with facts. Meanwhile, asking the questions, why are upwards of 25% of motorcyclists killed riding without an endorsement or with a blood alcohol level over 0.08%? Why do we sit quiet and accept that these “outlaws” are skewing the statistics?

2. Taking a respite from lobbying the repeal of helmet laws, the AMA should be championing causes that provide advantages to motorcyclists, such as motorcycle exclusive parking, “dead red” laws, lane “filtering” (stopped traffic only), and potentially lane “splitting” (In Ohio I suggest it be legal for motorcycles to pass between cars when, and only when, traffic is moving under 25 mph). I will go further to say that the AMA should take action to fight “distracted driving”. I admit, I do not know how to legislate ignorance and stupidity out of existence. However, if there are technological or legislative measures that can be taken to keep people’s hands on the wheel and eyes on road, that’s a more critical issue than me “feeling the freedom” in my hair”; despite my opposition of mandatory helmet laws.

3. While the vast majority of the burden falls on us, the motorcycle masses, the AMA would be wise to support and promote media that explains that riding a motorcycle can be affordable. In 2016 I sold my “new bike” for a similar, used, Triumph that I will use as an example. I will also admit, I do not consider a $6,000 used motorcycle to be “cheap”, especially by the younger generation; however that is sadly considered “reasonable” by motorcycle standards. I recently went back through my receipts from day one of purchasing my Triumph; adding up the costs of oil, filters, tires, light bulbs, motorcycle jack, wrenches, feeler gauges, gaskets, and all the other incidentals except gasoline. Doing all my own maintenance, and covering about 28,000 miles in the first 12 months (July 2016 to July 2017), I spent right around $2,000 on maintenance parts and tools in the first year of ownership. That number breaks down to about $167 a month and less than $0.08 per mile. Converted to a more reasonable annual mileage of about 6,000 miles, that comes to about $430 annually, or $36 per month. In my opinion, that’s a big selling point for motorcycles; if you overcome the “No replacement for displacement” disease, motorcycles are actually quite affordable. Yes, you can buy a “beater” $1,000 car, and likely operate it cheaper than a motorcycle. However, even riding like an absolute maniac, I suspect that the average American has a car payment, well in excess of $170 a month, let alone $35. If you have a car with a heavy payment, yes you should drive it and, by God, enjoy it. Meanwhile, if you have a bike with a payment, and its primary job is occupying floor space in your garage, you’re flushing your money down the toilet. My point is that the prospective buyer has a good shot at buying a reliable, affordable, used bike with cash, and ultimately saving a boat load of money in the long run. I’ll gladly claim that financing $4,400 on a new Honda Rebel , and paying cash on a $500 “Beater” car still makes more economical sense in Dayton than financing most used cars. The bike manufacturers aren’t necessarily going to get a whole lot of help out of this formula, however we’re talking about getting millennial butts in saddles here. Bike number two will come along soon enough; we need to get them on bike number one before it’s too late.

The motorcycle industry image is typically a “pretty” motorcycle with a sticker price in excess of $12,000. While the bulk of those advertisements are heavyweight cruisers, even the average “adventure bike” costs significantly more, while sadly spending more time at Starbucks and in the garage than it does on the road, let alone the trail. That’s the problem; the average millennial gets a lot more bang for buck from a cell phone, tablet, or just hiking in the local state park than they get from a motorcycle. That image needs to change; along with the associated costs and piss-poor dealer customer service. Meanwhile, as Scot suggested, we motorcyclists should indeed act as ambassadors for our sport; yet we must also combat a misinformed society that is utterly convinced motorcycles are “death machines”. People have successfully said it long enough and loud it enough they believe it is unquestionably true; we need well published, in-depth research to arm us with facts to combat that stigma. A motorcycle, while unquestionably a damn good time, is actually a superior mode of transportation, not a toy.

Sincerely,
Moto Adventurer

 

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