READING GUIDE TO: Bellaby, P and Lawrenson, D. (2001)  'Approaches to the risk of riding motorcycles: reflections on the problem of reconciling statistical risk assessment and motorcyclists 'own reasons for riding', in The Sociological Review: 368 - 88  [no volume or issue numbers in this electronic copy].

[I have really only extracted one major theme from this. Much of it attempts to reconcile statistics and subjective accounts via a detour into some recent social theory. I was able to see what drove this only at the end -- the authors are hoping to explain road traffic accidents as real events located in space and time, produced partly by statistical risk factors and partly by the subjective stances of motorcyclists themselves. The latter are equally valid in a theoretical sense, but are systematically excluded from official accounts. Indeed, motorcyclists are themselves excluded in a real sense since their priorities and requirements are not met by road design. The bits I found more interesting included some of the ethnographic data on how motorcyclists manage risk {which can be added to the discussion of risk denial, or biker reasoning although these authors would not want to use these terms}, the useful background literature on this topic, and the excellent model in Douglas  (1970) which helps to locate risks and their perceptions in an overall typology. For leisure theorists, much of this work seems highly applicable to risky adventures, extreme sports and the like].

The authors' own survey on risk emerge from a more general study of health and lifestyles: quite rightly, they wanted to include data on road traffic accidents in this general study. General Department of Transport statistics show a clear increase in risk for the users of two-wheeled vehicles. Their own survey indicates that this risk is multiplied on built up roads as opposed to motorways, it does vary with age and with gender (males are more at risk). For example  'Motorcycles are almost four times more likely than cars to be involved in accidents incurred by the 16 - 24 year-old sample... [and]... eight times more likely than cars to be involved in serious injury accidents' (371). The authors demonstrate that it is motorcycle use that makes a genuine difference, because motorcycle users have higher accident rates in every category, compared to those who only used cars. The authors admit that theirs is only a small survey [with implications -- see below].

They make a connection with social upbringing --'those who choose motorcycles appear to have been socialised in ways that lead to a history of accidents in a variety of circumstances' (372)  [There is a hint later on that the values of a working-class upbringing predispose people towards motorcycling --  '64.5 per cent  (n=93)  who rode motorcycles in the preceding 12 months... were of social classes IIIM, IV or V. This compares with exactly 50 per cent of the young men who only drove cars. Young women motorcyclists also had a class bias, though less pronounced' (373). The authors assume this is partly the result of low income, but find out more from their ethnographic survey -- see below]. However, even non-manual motorbike riders had higher rates of accident than the equivalent car drivers . There is also a connection with alcohol use -- driving while over limit was admitted by half the motorcycling sample, two-thirds of those who had had a serious accident on a bike, and about 30 per cent of all drivers. Age is a factor, although young drivers on motorcycles seem to have higher rates of accidents than young drivers in cars.

In the ethnographic phase, some motorcyclists were interviewed in Norfolk -- about 100 were talked to, and 10 formally interviewed  [the authors themselves do not appear to have been motorcyclists]. Both qualified and learner drivers were interviewed. Motorcyclists seemed to know about risks but thought that motorcycling outweighed them in various ways: (a) motorcycling itself is life-enhancing, and to avoid it is itself a risk -- of having a boring life; (b) risks are the result of outside pressures, including car drivers and road conditions; (c) motorcyclists can overcome these risks through developing their skills. In the more extensive data that follows, it is also clear the motorcycles are about the only effective transport for young people in rural areas. The performance of bikes compared to expensive sports cars is another factor. Apparently, the results are in agreement with Willis's study too.

Most of the motorcyclists had stories about how car drivers had put them at risk by not noticing them, or how rural roads were rarely maintained to suit biking. [I could add many anecdotes of my own here]. Pizza delivery moped drivers were also singled out as high risk.  'Road craft', riding to your own limits, and developing experience were seen as the major ways to overcome risk: bikers thought they were simply better drivers. Overall, benefits outweighed risks, and particular sectors were seen as being in particular need of training -- learner drivers, and motorists .

[The next phase is to try and see how these two sorts of accounts might be reconciled. Again, one obvious explanation is not pursued -- we know that average risks calculated on a large sample conceal considerable variations in the range of risk. To imply that statistically-gained average risks will apply directly to small groups or to individuals is to commit an  'ecological fallacy'. It is quite possible that the small sample recruited here actually did lie in the lower range of risks within the national average. Having said that, it seems quite common for motorcyclists to deny that they are at any particular risk -- see Peretti-Watel or Natalier. Unless the researchers in each case have been unlucky enough to have contacted only the highly skilled, which is increasingly unlikely as more and more small samples are reported, the explanation surely swings back to the view implicit here that motorcyclists themselves are not responding accurately to the  'real' risks that they face.]

The authors go on to consider some possible ways of reconciling statistical and ethnographic data. They begin by ruling out any easy combination via processes like 'triangulation' -- the accounts are quite different they argue [interesting point --none of the textbooks tell you what to do if 'triangulation' throws up contradictory results]:

(1) The data are irreconcilable because one set tries to explain while the other understands. [An old German philosophical distinction here? Surely, statistical generalisations simply adopt a more abstract and disinterested viewpoint?. However both are the views and interpretations of an underlying agreed reality. Both also involve moral condemnation and blame. Sociologists should try and reconcile these two accounts  [and Weber is cited here!].

(2) The data should simply be added together -- with ethnographic data seen as requiring further statistical analysis. This depends on a  'realist' perspective [presumeably the 'critical realist' view that we can deduce that there is some underlying reality that produces both subjective and objectiove accounts?], but this fails to explain how these different accounts arise in the first place.

(3) Social constructionism would simply accept these accounts as both valid narratives and deny any shared ground that would arbitrate between them. The authors are against extreme relativism on the grounds of logical inconsistency, and also wish to see if there are shared meanings.

(4) There may be a  'soft' version of constructionism which locates the accounts in terms of different socially available possibilities. Douglas has developed  'grid-group analysis' which could be used here. Thus 'grid' represents a dimension of similarity or difference  [low and high grid], while 'group' refers to the degree of collectivism  [from cohesive group to individual]. There is a very useful figure on page 382 to describe the two by two table that results from combining these two. It is possible to place the expert statistical analysis in the  'high group/high grid cell', while the motorcyclists themselves 'fit into the high group/low grid cell' (383). This explains the culture of motorcycling,  'value of freedom... sense of being a marginalized brotherhood of equals... the untrained and inexperienced who are most at risk', based on a working-class upbringing and manual employment  (383). Douglas's model also permits other views of risk to be explored, by tracing them to their social position -- individual competition is located in the low group and low grid cell  [the authors take the example of the entrepreneur, but we might consider individualised extreme sports here?]. The people discussed in Beck's risk society occupy the high grid/low group cell --  'where individuals seek to protect their families and their kind from the threat the carelessness or malevolence of others seem to pose' (383). Such people incidentally fear interlopers such as the motorcyclist, and before them the urban pedal cyclist. The authors suggest that this fear lay behind much of the reaction to mod and rocker riots in the 1960s. Douglas's model explains a number of different perceptions  'in terms of a realm of  "social facts"  (of grid and group)' (384).

(5) Their preferred approach which adds a consideration of power to Douglas's account. It is clear that there is a struggle for plausibility between the two sorts of accounts, but there is also a need to develop the Foucaldian insight that  'power is often positive not negative', that notions of risk leads to positive steps like choosing particular kinds of transport and developing the skills that make them relatively safe.

Having reviewed the options, the authors are now in a position to develop a more complex model of how accidents happen. The cultural and moral definitions that lie behind the different sorts of assessment of risk can have real effects -- for example in designing roads  'in ways that neglect motorcycling safety', and in leading to a particular celebration of motorcycling and its skills among bikers. There is a hint that motorists can feel that only privatised enclosure within metal boxes can make them feel safe, sometimes at the expense of others. Motorcycle manufacturers can produce less safe designs 'that put style before safety' (386). The normal expert assessments of road safety risk do not cater for the special needs of motorcyclists [at last, a recognition of ecological fallacy!]. Thus when roads merge, or when safety markings are applied to roads, risks specific to motorcyclists may be increased. [The other accident scenario on page 386 concerns bikers congregating at the front of traffic queues and then being exposed to risk as cars turn on setting off. This seems to apply far more to pedal cyclists, unless motorcyclists are extremely naive in drawing up inside turning traffic -- and even then superior acceleration will normally avoid problems.{What I have just written is also a classic example of how bikers manage risks by stressing the inexperience of those who have accidents and claiming that the technical superiority of bikes will avoid risk -- see Natalier}]. These additional factors  'are not recorded in accident statistics and tend to reinforce the prevailing view that motorcycling accidents are caused by motorcycles... motorcyclists may become frequent victims... because they are socially excluded and thus rendered invisible both to road and traffic planners and other road users' (386). [The whole thing needs much more on this important bit I reckon].

Thus the two accounts they began with are reconcilable, but not in any of the ways sketched in models 1-4 above. Douglas's model needs  'to be completed with attention to the dynamics of relations of power and contested truth claims' (386). Finally, the location of these events in both time and space is important -- time offers an important causal, and space a crucial sphere for interaction. Participants' accounts should also be seen as another  'factor in the causal chain' (387). Finally, there are policy implications -- inexperienced bikers need to be trained by experienced ones; experts need to be made aware of the special needs of bikes.

Selected References
Douglas, M. (1970)  Purity and Danger:  An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Harmondsworth: Penguin
Douglas, M. (1986) Risk Acceptability According to the Social Sciences, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Douglas, M. (1992) Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory, London: Routledge