Review: Proficient Motorcyling by David L. Hough

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I’m out of bookmarks. Now when I start a book, I have to go scrounging from my bookcase for one that remains in a book half-finished. When I started reading Proficient Motorcycling by David L. Hough, the one I happened to grab was a promotional one for Douglas Burnet Smith’s collection of poems titled The Killed. I almost swapped it for another, but didn’t. As disturbing as it was to keep using this one, I was reminded each time I came back to the book why I’m reading it. I’d counter that thought with The Bee Gees song in my head: “Staying alive, staying alive . . . Ha ha ha ha . . . staying alive, staying alive.” It’s a bit macabre to think about it, but that’s exactly what David Hough wants us to do.

Hough was one of the first, if not the first, to break the ice on the subject of motorcycle fatalities. As he says in the introduction, there’s a taboo on talking about the risks: “You won’t hear much about motorcycle fatalities from your local motorcycle dealerships or in mainstream motorcycle magazines. Discussing fatalities has long been a motorcycling taboo. If a rider survives the crash, the experience might provide some bragging rights. But talking about the fatalities tends to take all the fun out of the sport for riders, and for those in the industry it has a chilling effect on sales.” So in the 1970’s, Hough started writing about the risks in an obscure little magazine called Road Rider and then Motorcycle Consumer News. Proficient Motorcycling is the culmination of those articles in one book that has become the top-selling motorcycle book of the decade.

Chapter 1 looks directly at those fatalities, using the Hurt Report, a study of over 9,000 fatalities in the Greater Los Angeles area by Dr. Hugh Hurt. Hough (the other Hough) acknowledges that a regional study will be slanted, but there has been no other major study of this kind, a fact that points to the taboo and a dearth of reliable data on the subject. Hough walks us through the data, looking at types of accidents and when they occur in a rider’s career. For example, we would expect there to be a lot of accidents in the first six months of riding, but one statistic I found interesting is that there’s a spike in the 25-36 month period. We don’t know why, but perhaps over-confidence is to blame. After 36 months, the fatalities drop off dramatically and stay low. So the lesson is to be careful for at least three years and especially during the third year.

Hough also looks at types of accidents (angle collisions, left-turners, driver error, animal strikes, etc.) and their percentages, as well as percentages of impact areas on a helmet. If you’re considering an open-face helmet, note that almost 1/5 of all impacts are on the chin-bar. We learn of other factors such as engine size, age, alcohol, and training. Not surprisingly, you are three times more likely to have an accident if taught by a friend or family member than by a professional at a school. The chapter concludes with a risk assessment questionnaire which gives you a good idea of “how far you’re hanging it out,” as Hough puts it.

Chapter 2 examines the physics of motorcycling—all the forces interacting as you weave through the twisties. There were terms here I’d never heard before, like rake and trail, and others like gyroscopic and inertial stability, centre of gravity, and centrifugal force that I was familiar with but not in as much detail as applied to motorcycling as Hough explains. Fortunately, Hough is by profession a graphic designer, so there are a lot of illustrations and photographs to help the reader through some of this abstract material. The chapter also covers cornering, braking, ergonomics, and includes exercises to practice your cornering and emergency braking. In fact, each chapter includes practical homework to help you apply in your everyday riding the concepts presented in theory. The idea is to be prepared with muscle memory when there is no time to think.

Other chapters cover cornering in more detail, urban traffic survival, booby traps like surface hazards and dealing with deer and dogs among other animals, and a chapter on special situations, like riding in the rain or at night, in extreme heat or cold, and in gusting wind. Of course some of this I’d read about in preparing for my theory test, but Hough goes into much more detail than the SAAQ booklet, and Proficient Motorcycling contains many tips and techniques for dealing with these hazards. Hough draws on his extensive experience to provide concrete examples, and provides case scenarios to show how all this applies in real-life situations.

The final chapter covers riding in groups, which has its own set of risks, although I was happy to read that my particular club is doing everything right. For example, we do a pre-ride talk, take regular breaks, ride in formation, use hand signals, and keep less experienced riders near the front. In this chapter, Hough also examines the added issues of riding two-up, and how to load your bike properly for a longer trip. The chapter ends with a section on the merits and addiction of the side-car, something not seen much in North America, and the book concludes with a final section on additional resources and a glossary.

I couldn’t help thinking as I read this book that it should be mandatory reading for all bikers. Yeah, the SAAQ booklet and online sources are a fine start, but when it’s your life at stake, why wouldn’t you want to study a book like this? It can’t replace real-world experience, but it can prepare you better for that experience and the inevitable incidents that will occur. One reason I waited over thirty years to ride is because of the risk. But managing risk is a part of life, not just riding, and a book like this is invaluable in doing that. It’s no wonder there are so many accidents and fatalities when the status quo for years has been to hop on a bike ill-prepared for the risk that riding entails. Proficient Motorcycling will most certainly lower that risk significantly and should be on every rider’s summer reading list.

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