Robert DunlopRobert Dunlop, from Ballymoney Northern Ireland, was one of the best motorcycle road racers in the world. I say “was” because he no longer “is,” after dying in a practice lap for Northern Ireland’s top racing event – the “North West 200.” After hitting around 150 miles-per-hour a technical fault caused his bike to seize up and he was thrown off. A helmet and protective clothing can’t do much against a 150mph crash. He died a few hours later, and the motor cycle community is in mourning, as is the wider Northern Irish community who have lost one of their sporting greats. The fact that Robert Dunlop’s even more famous brother – Joey Dunlop – died in a road race a few years ago makes the story all the more tragic. Two tremendously talented sportsmen lost their lives doing what they loved best.

Motorcycle road racing takes balls and split second manoeuvres and decisions can often mean the difference between glory and crashing out. Frankly I’d shit my pants if I ever tried to do it. But those who do it love it, know the risks, and love it partly because of the risks. But, our health and safety obsessed culture doesn’t like risk – however rationally chosen – and so there is the inevitable hand-wringing going on, with some commentators asking the question: “is it now time to ban motorbike road racing?”

One commentator stated that the death of a “hero” like Robert Dunlop is “too high a price to pay” for continuing with the sport. Behind the watery-eyes of this commentator stands a person who really has little or no respect for Robert Dunlop at all. Moreover, can he be so stupid as to miss the obvious fact that he would probably have never heard of the “hero” Robert Dunlop were it not for his achievements on a motorbike? And can he not see the obvious application to other sports of the logic of banning pursuits that occasionally lead to fatalities? Lets ban boxing, equestrian, mountaineering, yachting, soccer, rugby and pretty much everything with the possible exception of snooker. And all this before we apply that reasoning to other human endeavours generally: like crossing the street. Maybe we should all stay indoors and collect stamps, although that too might have to be ruled out given the obvious possibility of paper cuts.

Those who think along these lines belong to an ever-growing band of health and safety obsessed zealots who are quickly sucking the life out of the rest of us with their red-tape, precautions, and diktats, as if we’re school children in need of someone looking out for our better interests from the minute we step outside of our front door in the morning. What started as a concern for “reasonable safety” has become a philosophy of “safety at any cost.”

They act with a total disregard for reason and good sense. They care not that those activities which are dangerous are the very things that can give meaning, purpose, and most importantly enjoyment to human life. Perhaps they should ask themselves what on earth they are living for, and perhaps they should pay a little more attention to the difference between quantity of life and quality of life. They only ever seem interested in the former. It’s a similar attitude of mind to that which you’ll find in, for example, opponents of euthanasia: keep life going at whatever cost because it’s far too precious to let it go or risk it ending sooner rather than later. To my mind quality or life is as important, and more. It’s better to have lived a short but good life than a lengthy and rather banal one in which excessive precaution takes all the enjoyment out of life.

Comedian Billy Connolly put this principle better than I ever could. He was talking about those who ramble on about the virtues of brown bread over white bread, and how eating brown bread could add a couple of weeks to your life. I’ll quote him as close as I can for the rest: “Of course, you don’t get your extra few weeks when you’re in the prime of life and shagging like a stag. You get your extra weeks at the end of your life when you’re pissing yourself in a nursing home wishing you were fucking dead.” Billy Connolly obviously understands the difference between quantity of life and quality of life, and with no more than two sentences he demolishes the growing cultural obsession with living longer as an end in itself.

Life is an amazing thing, and a precious thing. I agree with the Health and Safety zealots on that point. But, it’s precisely because of how precious and amazing it is that we shouldn’t waste it by being over-cautious. Robert Dunlop’s life was not ruined by death. His life was fulfilled, enjoyed, and lived. Never taking risks, being too frightened to go outside of the comfort zone, adopting a “safety at all costs” philosophy is the highway to a stunted life full of regrets. We are all going to die: that might seem far too obvious but it needs stated in the face of those who would attempt to legislate themselves into a banal immortality.

Life is dangerous, and so many people die in the most unexpected scenarios. A friend of mine was very nearly killed when he was waiting on a bus – fortunately getting away with losing half of his left-leg, but it could so easily have been different. Had motorbike racing been banned years ago perhaps Robert Dunlop would have been an office worker, and perhaps might have died in a car crash 5 years ago on his way to work. Who knows? Life is full of contingencies and death can strike virtually anywhere. My dad’s friend, a fitness freak, kissed his wife and went to the gym one day. She saw him 3 hours later lying dead in hospital due to a heart attack.

We never know the day or hour we’re going to go the way of the dodo, kick the bucket, meet our Maker, turn to worm food – however you want to view it. No one ever gets up thinking they are going to die that day (with the possible exception of those on death row). You get up thinking “Mmmmm…cornflakes or toast for breakfast?” You don’t have to be racing at 150mph. You can be waiting on a bus, lifting weights, sleeping. Some poor sods went to bed last night and never woke up this morning; others woke up this morning but won’t make it back to their beds tonight.

All of this means that from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to bed we had best make the most of it, and for some that means taking risks that others might deem unacceptable. Less than 48 hours after the death of Robert Dunlop his son Michael, who also races, took part in a race at the North West 200 in honour of his father, and amazingly he won. If only more people had that kind of hardy spirit. This is the stuff that the human spirit is made of, and we shouldn’t allow those too weak of stomach and mind to crush it.