A Motorcycle (and Calibration?) Accident

by boggler2 min read18th Mar 201811 comments

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Probability & StatisticsWell-beingCalibrationPractical
Personal Blog

Last week I saw a motorcycle accident.

My dad, known to be the most careful driver in my family, was attempting to pull out of the mall parking lot. Suddenly, a motorcyclist came into view, and as he saw our car, he stomped on the brakes. My dad saw him and stopped, but the motorcyclist had hit the brakes too hard and from his face - his eyes wider than I'd ever seen - I could tell he had lost control of his vehicle.

The motorcycle slipped and slid in front of our car as the motorcycle-man managed to somehow stay free of the cycle as he slammed into the concrete. There was a collective holding of breath in the car as my dad jumped out of the driver's seat and ran to the man.

The man looked at my dad and said, "You scared the shit out of me."

"Sorry," my dad said. "Are you alright?"

The man nodded. He looked shaken, but it quickly became apparent that the man and his motorcycle were both fine. We, in the car, released our breath. Suddenly, my long held desire to ride a motorcycle felt foolish, and my mom's words sprung to mind:

"Do you know what your aunt (an ER nurse) calls motorcyclists?" I could hear her say.

"Organ donors."

Although I had looked up the risks of riding a motorcycle, and yes, the fatalities were worse than automobile operators, I did not feel as though they were so high that the utility I would gain from riding a motorcycle would be outweighed by the risks. This was especially true when I learned that a large proportion of the accidents were from riding in poor weather conditions or at night when visibility was impaired. I reasoned to myself that by being exceptionally careful about the variables I can control, that I would be safe enough to warrant motorcycle riding.

Now, all that intuition arithmetic felt very counter-intuitive.

Was I correct the first time in believing it to be a good idea to pick up motorcycle riding, or am I correct now? How do I calibrate my perception of risks to reality when my intuition is so swayed by experience?

One idea is to speak to motorcyclists. A priori, I predict that I'll be warned about the risks, but that the cyclists will claim that the joy of riding outweigh its risks. Yet, by definition, this is a population that must believe in this claim.

Another thought is to try out a motorcycle to test if riding a motorcycle is as desirable as I imagine. This seems very important to calibrate my desire, but, assuming for the sake of discussion that I experience substantial joy riding it, how do I match up that joy to acceptable risk?

I believe at some level, we must follow intuition, because these notions are so hard to quantify. Yet, if intuition is king, how do we choose what to feed our intuitions?

If the motorcycle accident I witnessed resulted in the man's death, then I imagine that my intuition wouldn't even leave this up for discussion. I would never ride a motorcycle again.

Yet, if I watched videos of 100 million motorcycle miles, and I saw the expected rate of 25 fatalities, would I feel comfortable riding a motorcycle? Currently, my intuition about my future intuition says that my future intuition would be cool with riding a motorcycle. Is this meta-intuition the true intuition I should use? Or is this just my current intuition rounding small numbers to zero?

Right now, I am postponing motorcycling to the distant future.

...

Last week I saw a motorcycle accident.

I think I may have also witnessed a calibration accident.

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How do I calibrate my perception of risks to reality when my intuition is so swayed by experience?

Convert the risk to expected number of minutes of life lost. You can get this number from micromort numbers, which are easy to find for many activities, together with your best estimate of how many years you have left to live. I find this a much more intuitive way of processing risk (Edit: which I got from Paul Christiano).

For example, let's say that I think I have about 20 years left to live (because of AI timelines). Then a micromort is 10 expected minutes of life lost. According to Wikipedia, skydiving costs 9 micromorts per jump so I lose 90 expected minutes of life every jump. Also according to Wikipedia, motorcycling costs 1 micromort every 6 miles so I lose about 2 expected minutes of life per mile I spend motorcycling.

There are additional considerations; if you saw a man die in a motorcycle accident you might be sufficiently traumatized by the experience that your ability to handle a motorcycle decreases, substantially increasing your risk of getting into an accident. So I think in that situation you would be correct to not want to ride a motorcycle ever again, but sort of because you got trapped into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For example, let's say that I think I have about 20 years left to live (because of AI timelines). Then a micromort is 10 expected minutes of life lost. According to Wikipedia, skydiving costs 9 micromorts per jump so I lose 90 expected minutes of life every jump. Also according to Wikipedia, motorcycling costs 1 micromort every 6 miles so I lose about 2 expected minutes of life per mile I spend motorcycling.

An interesting conclusion here is that if you save more than 2 minutes per mile (going 15 mph instead of 10mph, for example) of time sitting in traffic by riding a motorcycle instead of driving a car, the number of not-sitting-in-traffic minutes of your life actually increases by riding your bike.

Though note that the above calculation assumed that your risk of dying in a motorcycle crash while weaving through stopped traffic is not higher than 1/6 micromorts per mile. Also note that if your expected life span is 60 years, you now need to save 6 minutes per mile to "break even", which is unlikely -- if traffic is moving that slowly (remember that this is based on the average speed across the entire trip) you're probably better off walking.

Woah, this is a neat consideration I hadn't considered!

(I am a below-average driver in general, so am unlikely to take any action based on this even after thinking about it more carefully, but the notion that this is a tradeoff to consider is still super neat)

This is really cool! Thank you for sharing. I think micromorts will significantly help my intuition.

Fun story! Chinese also has a funny colloquial name for motorcycle riding: 肉包铁, which means "meat wrapped around steel," as opposed to driving, "steel wrapped around meat."

For me there's a certain amount of attraction to motorcycles precisely because of the danger involved (not enough to actually try them). It's part of the well-known phenomenon of "who can stand at the precipice of death the longest is king" that especially characterizes adolescent males and seems to be built into people instinctively.

I love the Chinese saying!

And your point is interesting. I believe my desire to ride a motorcycle stems from the motorcycle being seen as a cultural symbol of badassity as opposed from the inherent danger of riding a motorcycle. And, while badassity may coincide with danger, the two need not be correlated.

For example, I view skydiving as a symbol of badassity, but skydiving in relation to driving an automobile (generally not very badass) is quite safe.

I wonder if I am unusual in this respect, and perhaps it is more common to be attracted to motorcycling precisely because of the danger.

Badassity is about S1 perceived risk, not actual risk.

At least with regards to my own notions of "badass," I think this is only sometimes true. I do not think it is considered badass to watch a horror film, yet there is substantial S1 perceived risk.

X's perception of Y's badassity is about X's S1 perception of Y's risk.

If I watch a horror movie, it may feel risky to me but it won't to you, so you won't see me as a badass.

More precisely, X's perception of Y's badassity is about X's S1 perception of the risk Y is knowingly accepting.

So, if I watch a horror movie, the only person who feels any sort of risk or danger is me, and only while I'm watching it. (Maybe for a little while afterwards.) Will this make me feel like a badass? Probably not, because what generates the sense of risk is (so to speak) entering into the movie's world, and while I'm doing that I'm not attending to my own actions at all.

(I suppose I might seem very very slightly badass for watching something that is predictably going to scare me. Or, if not, I might seem like a wuss if I conspicuously avoid watching the movie.)

Yes! This is what I was gesturing towards. I agree with this.

This is very well written. The anecdote at the start especially. Thank you for sharing.