Oops, this is wordy
I think the image of motorcycling is the biggest barrier to wider motorcycle use. People who don't ride see it as dangerous (my mother considers it almost suicidal), noisy, and obnoxious. People in the motorcycling world (riders, manufacturers, dealers, and media outlets) make the situation worse by focusing only on the recreational aspects (speed, posing, and waking up the neighbours with loud pipes). The way to make motorcycling acceptable to a larger proportion of the community is to improve the image and increse the safety of the roads. I think motorcyclists should do their part to improve the image by riding rationally, especially in urban or suburban areas - i.e., no revving the race-piped Gixxer to 11,000 rpm in the middle of the night while whipping up Main Street at 80 mph. Let's face it, I only see about a dozen motorcycles on an average day, but I probably hear another half dozen every night (I live downtown) - either over-revved sportbikes or open-piped Harleys. I love hearing a bike scream at the top of the rev range as much as anyone (especially if I'm on it), but there's a time and a place and the middle of the night on my street ain't it. I think aftermarket retailers and riders should use their heads and keep exhaust noise to a reasonable level before governments outlaw all customisation and you have to use the stock pipe, whether you like it or not. Motorcyclists should probably try to accentuate the responsible and practical aspects of motorcycles when in heavy traffic. Ride-To-Work Day is a good start. Burnouts and rowing through the gears are awesome, but doing them at 3 a.m. on Monday morning is not going to get you in good with the neighbours.
More importantly, I think Canada and the U.S. need to rethink their road enforcement strategies. For example, intersections are the location of the majority of multi-vehicle collisions, while wide-open highways are the location of very few collisions. Why is it that so much is spent on enforcing speed limits on relatively safe multi-lane highways, while all sorts of intersection transgressions go unpunished? I'm talking about the crap that drivers do all the time like unsignalled turns and lane changes, left turns without the right-of-way, comatose drivers who ignore signs and traffic lights, occupying multiple lanes at once, etc., etc. I probably see about five or six examples of this kind of ignorance every day, and I am forced to make some sort of evasive maneuver at least once a week. I think enforcement should consist of less radar guns and more enforcement in the areas where most accidents occur. Violating another vehicle's right-of-way should result in a more severe punishment than doing 85 in a 65 zone when there is no one in sight.
Finally, I think more driver/rider training and possibly periodic re-testing are needed. People around my age (mid-twenties) and younger probably took some sort of driver/rider certification course (of course, we are pretty reckless as an age group and probably cancel out any knowledge with bravado); people my parents' age generally don't have any driver education, and frankly, I don't think most of them even know the rules of the road, much less how to drive. Make everyone take a three-day course, as a minimum, with refreshers and re-tests every five or ten years. That might also get rid of some of the people who should no longer be on the road due to declining
When someone asks me why I ride a motorcycle (I don't own a car) when it's so dangerous, I say that it's an issue of personal responsibility - a motorcycle is dangerous mainly to me, while a car is dangerous to everyone else on the road, and an SUV is much worse. (Driving an SUV doubles the chance that you will kill another person in a collision, compared to a car - is that a responsible thing to do?) On top of that, my current bike (a '78 CB750 F2) cost less than the yearly insurance on a ten-year-old car, gets the same fuel efficiency as a Toyota Prius, and will out-accelerate a Dodge Viper. Frankly, I don't understand why anyone drives a car to work during the summer - motorcycles are just better.
Ramble, ramble, ramble. Didn't mean to run on so long. Nice to see so much intelligent discussion on this topic.
-Paul aka Hondachop aka chopperpaul