Feb 17, 2008

If You Live Long Enough

One of the "features" of riding motorcycles for 35 years is getting to see a lot of people pass in and out of motorcycling. Quite a few of the folks I rode with and competed against, when I was young enough to think I might grow up to be fast, haven't been on a bike since they suffered some sort of motorcycling catastrophe: the first major broken bone(s), the high price of keeping up with racing technology, a scary and expensive get-off in heavy traffic, or (most commonly) marriage. It still amazes me to see people hang up their handlebars forever.

In the last decade, I've been almost as amazed to know a half dozen 40+ men and women who, swimming against the tide of anti-two-wheeling popular sentiment, purchase and learn to ride their first motorcycle. I will probably end up with an epitaph that includes the words "MSF," "buy a good helmet," and "learn to use the front brake," if some of those folks get to write it. I think it takes a lot of guts to start something as difficult as riding a motorcycle, when it's so obviously hazardous to aging fragile bones and organs.

I've hung out with guys, like myself, who have been in and out of motorcycle ownership their whole lives and will always think of themselves as "a biker," regardless of what's in the garage at the moment. I met one of the first of that group almost thirty years ago. He was a 70-something machinist who spun wonderful tales of riding, cross-country, across north western Texas on his 1920's Indian "sportbike," before there were paved roads (or any roads) in that part of the Great American Desert.

The good stuff about riding a motorcycle, especially competitively, at some point in your life is that you will always have bench-racing bragging rights over bikers who've never experienced a first turn traffic jam. Bench racing is the spice of life when life ain't so spicy anymore. But even if you've never raced, nothing on four wheels (short of a GP or Indy racer or rail-job dragster) even gets near the kick we get from punching a bike's throttle out of a well done curve. Motorcycling is about chasing some sort of adventure, anytime you pick traveling by two wheels over four (or more).

The bad stuff is that, if you ride and pay attention to bikes long enough, the adventure can turn deadly. Stay on the road for half a century and you're likely to see a biker maimed or killed. In my life, I've seen too-many-to-count off-road accidents, a couple dozen road rash events, and three motorcycling deaths; one in rural Nebraska and two in Los Angeles. Ironically, I was sitting at a picnic bench when I saw the first fatal event and trapped in a cage for the other two. Of these awful moments, two were, without question, the biker's fault. The third, was such a pitiful excuse for an accident that, 25 years later, I'm still not sure who ought to get the blame.

The Nebraska death happened when a stereotypical little old lady in a Buick rolled through a stop sign in front of a kid on a small 1970's street bike. Any experienced rider, seeing the tiny bluehair peering over the dashboard, would have suspected she might forget to stop. I think the kid made that guess, himself, before sliding into the side of her sedan. He hit the car, just behind the driver's side door, at well under 10mph and slid over the top of the car without doing any damage to the car, his bike, or himself. He almost managed to hang on to the roof of the car, before coming off the passenger side of the car. But he didn't. When he rolled off and hit the pavement, his skull split against the curb. He was dead before the cops arrived and long before the ambulance. I read, the next day, that he was 17. Obviously, no helmet, and as little protection as a Minnesotan's Mad Bomber's cap might have saved his life.

My second dead biker was a guy who was looking down and back, trying to get his feet into the California-idiot riding position (on the passenger pegs), in heavy Newport Boulevard traffic. The traffic stopped and he didn't. He went headfirst into the rear window of the car ahead of the car he slammed into. Also, no helmet and it might not have mattered. I think he was actually accelerating, before his bike came to an instant stop and he finished his trip by air.

My last dead guy on a bike was ripping down the median lane, doing at least 70mph in a 30mph stripmall zone. He slammed into the back of a stopped van without even blipping his brakes (assuming his brake light worked). He was wearing a helmet, boots, leather jacket, and gloves and most of that stuff came off on impact. The helmet, which may have been stolen because the buckle had been cut off, flew over the van and landed in a parking lot about 100 yards away. The boots were found under the van and one of the gloves landed on the hood of a car parked across the street in the opposite traffic lane.

When the light changed, I ended up getting stuck right next to the guy and what was left of his bike, so I put on my flashers and got out to help. The woman passenger in the van had jumped out to see if there was anything she could do to help, but she was only able to flap her arms, either trying to attract real assistance or in an attempt at flight. I saw the guy's skull was drooping to the shape of the road and blood was leaking out of his ears, eyes, nose, and mouth. He wasn't breathing. The arm flapper wanted me to do CPR or something she'd seen on TV rescues, but I thought I'd do more damage by moving him. We had a pair of motorcycle cops on the scene before I had a chance to finishing explaining to her that "I've been hunting since I was a kid and I've seen dead before. This guy is dead." I know that was insensitively said, but I wanted her to stop shrieking at me and she went right back to the passenger seat when I said that.

The cops didn't do anything more than look at the shape of the guy's skull before deciding they could spend their time more productively by securing the accident scene. It took almost an hour before I could give them my statement and go home. The first officers on the scene really seemed to want to blame some aspect of the accident on the van's driver. They were still haranguing him when I escaped. I could see that he was stopped, waiting to turn, from two blocks away. I can't imagine what he could have done to avoid getting rear-ended by the bike. Still, I could see why the accident made the bike-cops tense. It bothered me, too.

I've had my bikes called "murdercycles," "donor cycles," and other fun things for all the years I've ridden. I admit that I, still and occasionally, have mild hooligan urges and have been known to "play" racer on isolated stretches of two lane. If you do some pretty simple calculations, it's easy to see how just a couple of seconds of badly thought-out vehicle management could result in a disaster. What I saw at these accident scenes has stuck with me for all of the miles I've ridden since. Maybe my 350,000+ uninjured miles of riding owes something to the example provided by these three events. Otherwise, my witnessing their deaths was pointless.

Keep riding and ride safe.

August/September 2000

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Living long is overrated.