Friday, June 01, 2007

Other people?
That's us!

I scanned this old photo into my computer. The kid's my nephew who died recently. There's been a lot of history written since this picture was taken. Check out the big bad motorcyclist on his 900 Honda! Looks like a cop, doesn't he? Still have the bike. Unfortunately, we no longer have the nephew.

Summer's just around the corner. I'm seeing an increasing number of riders out. It seems like even more than previously. Rising gas prices and the fact that riding has become very "chic" are surely contributing factors. What bothers me is the casual attitude toward gear. Heck, it's not just gear, it's the whole thing about rider responsibility. Pleasure riding has its own set of risks. Commuting on a bike is an altogether deeper penetration behind enemy lines. There's this atmosphere of "I don't plan to crash" and "These things happen to other people. I'm different".

Guess what, folks? "Other people" is Us!

That was driven home to me like a punch to the chest in Arizona. Here's the brief version of what happened. My nephew was five months past his 18th birthday. An only child. On a Tuesday night he got off work at Taco Bell. Being the swing shift, it was midnight when he got home. Like young kids are prone to do, he decided he wanted something from a convenience store. You know kids, they don't always do things in a real organized manner. Like stopping on the way home instead of leaving again.

Ten minutes from home my nephew was involved in a head-on crash. A nurse who worked at a hospital in Phoenix was on her way home. A typical shift for her was 13 hours. The hospital was an hour and a half from her home. It's around 12:30 AM by now. Judging by the position of the vehicles, the police say my nephew had crossed the centerline in his little VW Jetta. The nurse's SUV had airbags, which deployed. The impact of the wreck was so great that she died anyway. My nephew's car caught fire. His body was burned beyond recognition. Thank God it looks like the impact was severe enough to have killed him instantly before the fire reached him.

Toxicology tests are still in the hands of an over-worked and understaffed police crime lab. It's also possible that the nurse had drifted off to sleep and crossed the line herself. Being inexperienced, the kid could have moved left thinking he was avoiding her. How many times have I seen sleepy or drunk drivers suddenly swerve back into their own lane? Too many. The kid could have just been distracted as kids will be. It only takes a heartbeat or two to be in the other lane.

There were no current dental records. Long story. End result is that DNA testing would be required. Again, in the hands of the crime lab. It will still be a while before the results are available. Circumstantial evidence was enough to have a memorial service, at least.

The point is that I was first responder to a number of really bad accidents. It was always "other people" and their relatives involved. I never imagined one of my own being the victim in a horrific wreck. It happened. Denial does not constitute a protective force field. There are no "other people". It is only us, the humans who live on this planet.

This same denial is evident in the riders I talk with. I ask them if they are really comfortable with having no protection in the event they come off their bike. Answers range from sort of guilty to downright hostile.

There's those who look sort of sheepish when I bring the subject up. These folks know they should have better gear. It's a sad thing when their fear of not fitting in with some "image" outweighs their fear of physical injury. It must be frightening to go through life without the courage to stand on one's own two feet. These type of persons make up a veritable horde. That's why Harley Davidson has had such good success, in my own opinion. Their marketing folks effectively play to this weakness in humans. These type of humans flock together. Nobody wants to break the mold. Nobody gets the truth shoved in their faces. As a result, their reality checks bounce. Denial continues to reign supreme.

Flipping the coin over, I'm often told it's nobody's business what kind of gear they wear. If it wasn't for the laws, they wouldn't even wear the helmets required here. For the record, I don't like being dictated to any more than absolutely necessary by the government. This isn't about government rules. This has to do with taking care of oneself. Folks can bluster all they want about how crashing would only affect them. Sorry. Nobody lives in a total vacuum. That argument holds absolutely no water for me. Aside from that, I don't believe that anyone ( with a very few possible exceptions ) actually doesn't care if they become seriously injured in an accident. I can't believe riders would purposely want to damage themselves.

Most of it is posturing. I've taken to asking people to do something for me. I tell them to go home and wait for dark. Then they need to go out on their front porch. With the light off, they should strip off their clothing and run naked down their street. When they achieve a good running speed they should throw themselves full length on the pavement. While they're down there, I ask them to bang their heads on a curb or large rock. If they can meet me at the same place tomorrow, bloodied and bruised with a big smile on their face, then I will accept their arguments. Nobody has taken me up on the challenge. It's not bravery, it's denial. Personal agendas must be met. There's no such thing as "other people".

I know I'm preaching to the choir, here. I just have to get this off my chest. Too many of the riders I've seen the past few days are riding in t-shirts, shorts, and tennis shoes. It's bad enough for themselves, but what about passengers? How much can a man really claim to care about a woman when she's on the back of the bike with the same lack of gear as him? I'd like to reach these people but don't know how. A good crash would quickly bring them back to reality. Isn't it amazing how riders suddenly become believers in good gear after a crash? Provided they walk away with the ability to continue to ride, that is. Some of us have raced. I've been violently thrown off bikes at high speed on a track. I know the value of gear and how suddenly it can be called upon to protect us. Most of us haven't had to crash in order to insist on good gear. Our denial meters are showing a fairly low level. There has to be some denial or we would never ride. That could be a whole post by itself. We won't venture there right now.

Here's my question. How do we get riders to the "after crashing" belief level in gear without actually having them crash?

It's important to me. I worry about the riders themselves as well as their families. There's no such thing as "other people". Real people suffer when motorcyclists are injured and killed. I also worry about what's going to happen to motorcycling as a whole if enough of the people in denial crash. Those of us who are serious riders and commuters don't need the bad press, the unfavorable reputation, or the inevitable government interference. I hate the fact that the clowns are taking over the face of the circus. So much talent and all the public sees are the jesters.

I'm looking for anwers in a place where there may not actually be any. Maybe I'm just temporarily too sensitive. My nephew's father and mother are up here this weekend. My dear wife's brother. We just spent a few hours with them. These people are lost and looking for the "why's?". So much of the death, injury, and suffering in this world is totally senseless. Being alive and well is too precious to take casually. I ride to make the most of it and yet I temper what I do with the knowledge of the gift we've been given. Use it, but don't needlessy waste it. It bothers me when people don't seem to get it.

Thanks for bearing with me. I know this post is a little "dark". Writing here has become a cartharsis for an old warrior who keeps his emotions bottled up. I'm ok, really. I just needed to write this and lose myself for a few minutes. I hope you won't go away from here feeling down. My desire would be for you to go away determined to appreciate even more the wonderful things we have been given to enjoy. If, somewhere along the way, you can help someone else to the same attitude so much the better. I guess my statement works two ways. Good things don't happen to "other people" either. Remember, "other people" is us! Enjoy. Good things happen to all of us. Go find them.

It's 10 PM. I'm going for a ride. It's who I am. It's what I do. Here in the Northwest, if you look just above and to the left of the full moon, you can see Jupiter. I'm going planet hunting!

Miles and smiles, ( yes, there will be things to smile about, believe me! )



Jim Kane said...

The hard part is getting a person to change his or her mind while making it seem like it was their idea, rather than the force of the verbal beating you just administered. Every summer I go around and around with my dad about his silly half helmet (why the DOT approves those is beyond me). He's had his share of down time so he should know better, but he still chooses comfort over safety sometimes. It could be personality -- if I sit on the bike without a helmet, I just feel... wrong.
The upside is that I'm having better luck with my kids -- they know that dad wears a helmet all the time, and to them helmet use while bicycling is the norm. They also razz passing bikers who are sans helmet -- that's how I know I got 'em.

Michelle said...

Dan - I couldn't agree more. Here in Houston it gets very hot and humid and probably 95% of the riders I see have insufficient gear on. I cringe every time I see them.

My husband and I have talked about how to get the serious reality of a crash through to some people. A few weeks ago I read about a girl that was thrown from a bike and did not have proper gear on ( She did have a helmet on, thank god, but the differnce between her head and the rest of her body is significant.

My husband and I wondered, should this girl's story be presented to new riders at the MSF course? Not so much as to say "look what happened!! this could be you!!" but more of a "hey, this happened to this girl because she wasn't wearing proper gear" and let new riders chew on it and think for themselves.

It just seems that many riders do not even consider the severity of what can happen to their bodies if they crash.

After reading the terrible things this poor girl went through, both crash and recovery, I am so thankful that both my husband and I have always been pro-gear. I just wish more people thought the same.

Bill Sommers said...



krysta in milwaukee said...

First, I'm sorry about your nephew. What a horrendous thing.

"How do we get riders to the 'after crashing' belief level in gear without actually having them crash?"

1) read first-hand accounts like the one Michelle posted.

2) hear from professional racers; what have they walked away from (video is good).

3) realize that it's their choice; if they want to donate their organs we can't stop them.

For years I've said that people who don't wear protective gear (whatever the activity - seatbelt, helmet, life jacket) have chosen to become organ donors and have decided in advance not to rely on outside assistance to pay for the injuries which could reasonably have been prevented thereby. Nothing beyond what's in their bank account.

It'd never happen, but I bet that sort of financial responsibility law would motivate a lot of people.

(hey - I finally have a web page! Look under "what's a doula do" and "staff" for a couple pix of me)

American Scooterist Blog said...

I suspect I may get serious flak for writing this but I think its imperetive it be noted. And I mean this in the most conversational tone I can produce, with utmost respect to your experience and the truly heartfelt concern for the individual rider as much as the public's perception of us as a whole.

I grew up riding in the woods. In fact my parents insisted I begin this way. My friends took note and before long their parents were contacting mine to figure out how we all got into the same mindset at the same time. My father made it abundantly clear I was to learn to ride in the dirt. He said I would encounter every common road condition without the added effect of finding myself under the wheels of a car.

In this scenario I saw things happen among me and my newly riding friends that I never really thought about directly. Every single one of us went down innumerable times. The faster we went, the more often we encountered that learning curve. Torn jeans, shredded up and bloody. Canvas low top shoes sometimes ripped right off our feet during semi controlled slides through gravel on the trails. Banging through low branches which caught our shirts and could almost stop us when those branches hung on tight. We went down a lot and sometimes we went down hard.

One guy who was smarter than the rest of us began using knee pads he strapped on outside his jeans. A few of us tried them and it caught on. The shirts were replaced with denim or leather jackets. The shoes became workboots. If there was a helmet it said Bell on it and a small towel was inside in order to tighten it down enough around the chin. Naturally, the same guy who came up with the knee pads wore the Bell. Open face with the bubble shield removed. The amazing thing is, for the countless accidents it was clear which parts of the body suffered the damage on a down. Every part of the body took the brunt of the fall but no one cracked the egg. And we sometimes raced around those trails catching near forty mph. Big woods. The limb covered straightaways were incredible.

The point is that in any accident its a guarantee legs and arms will suffer. Maybe the back, maybe the stomach. Blood loss from lack of gear on the extremities is, I think, more important than a full face helmet. I've witnessed too many riders go down both off road and on the street not to recognize some interesting facts. The arms and legs will ALWAYS tag the road. But the head may or may not. I can justify a three quarter helmet better than I can low cut shoes or non abrazive/abrasive resistant gear on the torso and legs. Because no matter what, those parts of the body are better than 80% of a human's structureand they're going to contact the ground, and most likely first.

So do I wear a full face? I do. Still looking for a pair of good riding pants that fit the way they should.

This is a hard topic to address. I hope I came across in a meaningful and thought provoking way. I can only speak from my own experience. And I thank you for bringing it up and allowing us to look it this from so many angles. Irondad, you're a hell of a guy and I appreciate the things you've already taught and reminded me of.


ps said...

Roadbum, you're right about where most hits happen--and the one time I low-sided I hit my shoulders & knees and not my head--so my experience jives with what you're saying.

But the difference is that if you break your knee or ankle, doctors might be able to fix it, and if not you will be physically impaired for the rest of your life. That sucks. On the other hand, if you break your skull, you might be pushing daisies or a vegetable.

So I'd sooner wear flip flops & shorts than a 3/4-face, but I wouldn't do either. (I guess we're of the same opinion here.)

I did manage to convince a new scooterist to wear a full-face. So it's not impossible. It's probably harder to convince the anti-helmet brigade, though.


Steve Williams said...

Good discussion of the necessity of good gear.

I have everything I need. The challenge has been to develop and maintain a committment to wearing it and I do 100 percent of the time EXCEPT for the pants.

Why? It's hot at times and it takes time. My patience can get tried when I am in a hurry and I don't want to have to take off my boots, pull on the overpants, put my boots back on...

But I do probably 95 percent of the time. The other times I jsut wear jeans.

I agree with Roadbum about the arms and legs so I really do want to wear more protection than jeans. I feel good about the armor on my knees.

For me it all comes down to habit and patience now. I have the habit pretty well set, now just to practice patience....

Steve Williams
Scooter in the Sticks

Bryce Lee said...

Keep reading and wondering, do I really want to return to riding my motorcycle? I've driven this particular 1981 Honda Goldwing Interstate through most of Canada
and the northern United States. When it was still viable it went with me to the UK and through Europe, with a sidecar. This year though it sits, stored due to my
ongoing chemotherapy for lymphona.
Having had major surgery and removal of a kidney and spleen due to cancer last fall am now seriously it safe to return to two wheels on any road?
The four-wheelers all have a person sitting behind a small wheel, virtually every one of them is talking on a cell phone, or
drinking a coffee or doing something other than holding that small wheel and steering the large
piece of machinery.

When I rode it was full leather head to toe and now post surgery
and hopefully soon to be post chemo am wondering, do I want to return
to that which was once enjoyable?

To dodge the freaking idiots who care only of themselves and nobody else?

My friends who still ride think I am nuts, always wear a full length reflective vest all the time day or night, reflective stripes on the full-face helmet, reflective tape on the hands for
additional presence when turning.

Is it worth it? And when the humidity hits 80 percent or more,
the bike is parked. Air conditioning in vehicles is far more comfortable.

Maybe at age 61 it is time to sell
the only motorcycle I can sit on comfortably and give up riding, sell the giant sized leathers and
stay inside away from the idiots.

As to your nephew's untimely death,
my heart goes to you and your family.
It hits home much harder perhaps as you're involved in training people to ride a machine on those same
paths; I wish I had some positive help for you Dan; and family. it hurts, and the hurt will take time
to resolve, a long long time. Just be there for them when "they" need a hug or a friendly shoulder to cry upon

Bryce Lee in Ontario, Canada

irondad said...

People have to do what they are moved to do. We do what we can and call it good. Good for you on setting the example for your boys.

Driver's ed programs have a program called "Blood on the Asphalt". Doesn't seem to have helped. I'm going to comment on the hot weather thing in an upcoming post.

The financial thing has been tried. It was tied to helmet use. Very unpopular. It's a great idea in some ways but an enforcement nightmare. I'll check out the web page.

Thanks sincerely for the kind words. You raise some good points. In fact, you've inspired a further post. Stay tuned!

There are other things that gear does besides the worst case scenario. Look for an upcoming post. Good for you for being an evangelizer!!!

Patience, grasshopper! Prepare well for a smoother journey.

Don't make the decision yet. You have proven yourself strong. It might surprise you what we are really fighting out there. The numbers show the majority of hazards aren't commuters, it's riders.

Look for an upcoming post.


Allen Madding said...

Steve - try a good pair of leather chaps. You don't have to take off your boots as they have a full length zipper down the side. Go on quick, come off quick. Maybe a lil less hassle will encourage you to fully suit up :)

PS - you'd honestly wear flip flops before a 3/4 helmet? I'm thinking you should try an experiement. Put on a full face helmet, shorts, no shirt and flip flops. Now find a road with gravel on the edge and throw the bike down around 35 mph. Call me with your findings.

I'd rather see someone in full leathers and a 3/4 helmet than a full face and shorts ora 3/4 helmet versus no helmet at all. Your mileage may vary.

ps said...

I'm ATGATT. But I'll take you up on your experiment if you'll wear a 3/4 helmet and jump off your bike at 35 mph and tilt your head up before landing. That's fair, isn't it? Your chin is way more likely to take a hit than you think.

See this: