Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Musings on Mortality

It's been a tough stretch for motorcycle riders in this area. Things seem to go in streaks. This is one we could have lived without. Writing that last sentence seems oddly weird. You'll understand when you read further. The sentence just came out and I decided to leave it. Things happen for a reason, I guess.

We've had a rash of serious injuries and fatalities in the last couple of weeks. Saturday night I lost a friend to a bike accident. This one hit really close to home. Up until now I've managed to remain fairly detached. Not that I don't care when people are injured or killed. Far from it. Otherwise, why devote so much time and heart into teaching riders? It's just that, for the most part, the accidents were happening to strangers. On top of that after hearing about the wrecks I could usually point to a cause. More times than not evidence would point to a bad decision or lack of skill on the part of the rider. If there are a larger number of riders it stands to reason there will be more accidents. It's the statistical probability, right?

These latest accidents have rocked that platform. I'm also throwing in a few accidents and fatalities involving cars, as well. Even though this is a blog about commuting on two wheels, you'll see why I included the cars. Here's the deal.

Most people commute and travel in cages. Some of us choose to do most of OUR travel on two wheels. We thump gloved fists on textile covered chests and proudly proclaim ourselves to be "Warriors"! With a roar we charge off to do battle. Most folks deride us for exposing ourselves to the extra hazards of commuter duty. There's a degree of truth in this, to be sure. I choose to look at the other side of the coin. It seems like I'm forever sharpening Katie's kitchen knives. You know what, though? They're always ready for duty. In my opinion, those who commute on a bike are better off than those who ride more casually. The recreational rider sharpens the knife once in a while. Most of the time the blade lacks that "fine" edge. Commuters are always honing the blade. Daily conflict keeps skills and senses sharp. We are battle tested and ready. Letting the blade get "dull" can have dire consequences. Either way, surviving, or not, on the battlefield is usually tied directly to our own efforts. Lately I feel like the enemy has shifted tactics.

Based on what's been happening it looks like we're becoming overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Hordes of incompetent and distracted drivers have been recruited into the fray. They pour afresh onto the field. At times it looks like there is no hope of victory. Consider the contrast between two incidents.

A young man on a sport bike fails to negotiate a curve and impacts a guardrail. He is injured so severely that doctors have to amputate one of his legs. This happened North of here over the weekend. Looking at this wreck leads one to believe it was the rider's lack of skill to blame. We tell ourselves that we will just practice better technique and avoid similar consequences. Ok, I'll buy that. Enter the invading hordes.

In front of a casino on a major East-West route to the coast a man in a pickup drifts across the center line. He realizes what's happened and tries to get back where he belongs. A miscalculation makes him brush the side of another pickup. Back he goes across the line. This time his pickup collides with a man and woman two-up. Both riders are killed. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was the SECOND such incident in as many weeks. Both times innocent riders pay with their lives. A woman passes a few cars going over a mountain pass. She completes the pass and comes back into her lane. Unfortunately she goes too far right and puts a wheel onto the gravel shoulder. She over corrects which sends her back into oncoming traffic. People in the other vehicle perish. There are a couple more stories but you get the point.

As I am contemplating this post I receive a phone call from my dear friend Al. I wrote of him in an earlier post. Al swears the only proper color for an "ST" is black. One day he shows up with an ST1300 that looks suspiciously like red to me. Al counters that the official color is "Black cherry". Flimsy, Al. My dear friend has spent a few days chasing checkpoints on a "Grand Tour". In the desert of Eastern Oregon Al has a really close call. A pickup with a long horse trailer is approaching from the opposite direction. Al spots a small pickup behind the trailer. He moves way right towards the fog line. The intent is to make sure he is seen and can keep an eye on the small truck. Al is wearing a bright colored retroflective vest. Noses pass. The nose of Al's bike and the nose of the pickup pulling the trailer. It was at that moment the small truck pulled out to pass. There was no time to even react. Luckily, Al had moved way over. The small truck passed between Al's bike and the big pickup. How could this driver have missed the rider?

How do you fight this kind of thing? More and more you hear of people who can't even keep their vehicles in their own lane, let alone drive competently. What skill can you point to that will be useful? A small voice whispers in my head. It tells me I am alone and vulnerable. The voice tempts me with visions of fine armor. Wrap the armor around yourself. You will have more protection. Give in, you know you want to. It is indeed tempting. My own voice offers a reply. Armor can protect on one hand. On the other, it can quickly become a prison. I do not wish to be trapped thusly. Besides, I crave what I find on a bike. So much personal growth has happened wrapped around a two-wheeled theme. Admittedly, other venues could have offered similar treasures. None would have found me to be such an eager and receptive student, though. I silently renew my resolve to remain in the battle. If I meet an untimely end it will still have been better than a life devoted to being "safe". Battle I will, using skills and good judgement.

Now I ponder my ability to unfailingly make good decisions. I tell myself that I know the difference between pushing limits and recklessness. Knowing and doing are two different things. I've done it. You know the feeling. Doing something that we say is "bold". Afterwards we admit to ourselves that it wasn't too smart. We called it bold but it was actually the result of too much aggression, or whatever. Luck was on our side but could just have easily abandoned us. This brings me to the death of my friend.

His death on top of everything else has given me pause. Ok, I'll just come out and say it. I'm a little rattled. The faintest smell of fear is in my nostrils. Not so much for me as for Katie. We had the chance to go for a ride on Monday. For the first time in as long as I can remember I said "No". It's one thing to make decisions for myself. Katie likes to ride. Sometimes, though, I know she agrees to go for my sake. Not that she DOESN'T want to go. I'm the one with the strongest drive to be on the bike. She comes along and has a good time. Katie would be just as happy doing something else together. Do I have the right to point her towards something that's getting more dangerous all the time? Will my skills and judgement be consistently good enough to take care of her? I have to say it will but now there's this little nagging doubt.

Two years ago I had my one and only "get-off" on the streets. I posted it a while back. There was a man working for our training program. He was a brand new rider. After I crashed I heard that this man was really shaken. I was urged to go talk to him. Here's what he told me:

"If Zeus falls off the mountain, what hope is there for us mere mortals"?

My friend is one of the last ones you'd expect to die on a bike. His death was as shocking as Larry Grodsky's. My friend was also a fellow instructor. The only difference between he and I was time in the saddle. I've been riding since I was a kid. He was fairly new. Maybe the last 6 or 7 years. I taught him as a new rider. I mentored him as a new instructor. He was an active teacher. His enthusiasm got his daughter involved in teaching. They were the first father/daughter team. Both became mentors to new instructors in their own right. Two individuals dedicated to sharing their passion and improving their teaching skills. What bothers me is the circumstances of the crash.

It is 6:45 PM. I'm recounting this from limited information. It's not meant as an accident reconstruction. I saw the crash scene today. Two lanes merge into one as a city street becomes rural. Two cars ahead of him. The lead car is a taxi. I'm told that my friend was passing both cars. The bike was gaining speed as the cars were slowing. At the worst possible time the taxi turned left to pull into a driveway. It seems the taxi driver spotted the bike and stopped. My friend almost cleared the front of the taxi. He ran out of room and his bike hit the front corner of the car. There was a lot of damage to the car. My friend's bike was one of those BMW boxer cruisers. They called it the Phoenix, or whatever. A heavy bike. The impact threw my friend clear of the bike. He hit a guy wire for a telephone pole. This is the story as near as I know.

Was it one of those bad decisions? Was it one of those things we all do that could have easily been just a close call? Something we look back on later and shake our head over? Or was it one of those "unavoidable" things? Just bad luck? I don't know and it's not the point of telling the story, I DO know how my mind perceives it. No matter how good I think I am, I'm no super-hero. I am flesh and blood. Subject to time and unforeseen circumstance. Or to bad decisions on days I'm not totally on my game. Tired, distracted, stressed, our humanity makes us vulnerable. If it can happen to my friend, my fellow instructor, it can happen to me. A sobering reminder.

Tomorrow brings the funeral. There will be a lot of bikes with their riders. It will be an outpouring of love for the family. Still, a man lies in the coffin. Life can be a fragile and fleeting thing.

Will I quit riding? No. Two wheels will remain my choice. It is who I am. It is what I do. I wanted to share these thoughts with you. Take from them what you will. Do not be discouraged. Just ponder life, living, and loving. I'll be extra reflective for a few days but will still be riding. My next post will be sharing something connected with riding skills. It will be my catharsis.

Miles, but no smiles today.


dan_durham said...

great post - the risks are painfully real and the most sad stories are the "wrong place, wrong time" ones.

I keep remembering that nagging saying "the two types of bikers are the ones who have been down and those who are going down."

Is this a proven fact?! What else can one do but constantly improve their skills to react better to any unfolding situation?

In the meantime, I take pleasure in the daily commute - the "cage free egg" - knowing that during this time I am living life fuller than the folks lazily steering their two track vehicles.

Mad said...

Yeah it can happen to any of us. I hear you Irondad and I also know that we'll keep riding even when we're shaken by circumstances. My thoughts are with you and your downed friends family mate.

Art B said...

Hey Dan first of all sorry to hear about your friend. You are right we are much better riders as a commuter compare to riders who rides once in awhile not that we are safer from any accidents. It just like a surgeon daily riders operate every day compare to others who only operate several times in a year "Who would you trust to operate on you when you need surgery"...Well I'm still here racking up more miles on my 2005 Ninja 250 (24,000 miles so far) Talk to you later

Steve Williams said...


Sorry for your loss of your friend.

The thoughts you have about risk, vulnerability and responsibility are important to a point but I find myself always at the end of that process asking "What am I going to do?"

And the answer continues to be "ride". My wife worries about me every time I ride yet I choose to continue riding. And I know that fate can intervene at any time in ways you've described. And I continue to ride.

I have asked myself those "what if" questions---what if I end up disabled will I regret riding? I can't answer that for certain. What I can answer right now is that if I stop riding, I will regret that decision.

People take risks everyday. Some are more visible than others. Some are more socially acceptable. Riding looks dangerous and is viewed as dangerous. And I know it is dangerous. So why ride?

"Why" questions are tricky and difficult to answer and those answers seem to change. For this question I'll say riding improves my life, it fills a void that nothing else has been able to touch, it makes me a better man.

I hope I don't find myself caught in a chain of unfortunate coincidence. I try and ride responsibly and ride within my skills and level of risk I am willing to take. And I know that is is no armor against the physics put into play should me, my scooter, or another vehicle find itself moving in the wrong direction.


irondad said...

I don't think that the "two types" is a proven fact. I know many riders who have gone years with no mishaps. My thought is that no one is immune from time and unforeseen occurences. Like lightning, you just don't know,but that doesn't mean everyone will eventually get hit.

thanks for the thoughts. Like all of us and you, I will keep riding. I would miss out on too much good if I quit.

I'm delighted you're still out there. Congratulations on the miles. You are gaining invaluable experience. Your enthusiasm inspires me!!

You're correct in that we can "what if?" and think ourselves out of doing anything at all. I guess we just need to decide what's important to us, prepare as well as we can, and then enjoy. Like you, I would regret a decision to quit riding.


DaveT said...

You're not the only one losing friends lately. Here in Spokane, WA (Or is that Waaa! like a baby?) there has been a rash of fatalities lately. I'm seeing a lot of bikes on the roads, and a lot of older, almost never ridden, types, i.e. old, dusty, but pristine late 70's and 80's bikes. Lots of folks getting nailed by cages.

It still sucks when someone you know goes down. Just remember that about now he's been issued a bike of his choice, the roads are clear, the weather perfect, and there are no cages within a day's angel flight. Not trying to preach, just remember that there is a possibility of a better home on the other side.

irondad said...

thanks for the effort to offer comfort. Yesterday I finally found out what the coroner believes killed Russ. It seems when he hit the guy wire it was with his helmet. The impact snapped his neck. Think how small the wire is and then think of the chances he would hit it just so.

If there's a heaven for riders, I'd like to think it's just like you described it.

Take care,