June 09, 2005

Motorcycles: Stupidity Is Bad For You

Q: "Why do you ride that thing?"
A: "Because Porsches attract nice girls."

A flip answer, sure, but truer than you may think. The most important part of motorcycling is the visceral response people have to it: just ask any smoking executive.

The inevitable protest is the perceived danger involved, which will get you a shrug. Yes, I've dropped my bike a couple of times, and I've had acquaintances have horrible accidents (inluding a death) while riding, but how many people are still driving right now? With motorcycles, there is no pretense about safety: it's a risk to ride, and no one is going to tell you you're safer than you actually are (unlike, say, SUVs). Yes, they are far more manoeuvrable than any car on the road, but they're also hard to see, have no roll cage, and most drivers have a very difficult time determining what speed bikes are going, meaning we get pulled out in front of a lot.

Your only defence is what the schools yammer about in Drivers Ed: awareness. Knowing what's around you (and who's around you) and playing a bit of "Worst Case What If..." with yourself. Thanks to repeated exposure and pattern recognition, you get better at spotting a dangerous situation with experience. Riding isn't about avoiding risks; it's about minimising them. Your first assumption is that the driver of any other vehicle cannot see you. (Some people say to pretend that they are all out to get you, but that's stupid: millions of them, tens of thousands of us, who do you think would win?)

There was an accident in Victoria Tuesday, involving a cement truck and a motorcycle: no need to tell you which vehicle had the fatality. When police covered the victims body, they draped the tarp over the back of the truck.

Here's what happened:

The truck was stopped at a red light, a little ways back from the pedestrian crosswalk. The rider, a younger man, decided to zip in front of the truck, as any bike is going to accelerate away from a stop faster than 95% of the other vehicles on the road. This isn't like lane splitting, which is legal in most of the civilised world, but rather lane jumping, where the rider has to be in the lane instead of beside it. (I wouldn't try lane splitting here - drivers freak out because they are not used to seeing it, and when a driver freaks at a rider, bad things happen.) So he pulled in front of the truck.

This is a stupid manoeuver for two reasons:

1) the driver of a big truck probably can't see you if you're too close to his nose;
2) the driver of a big truck probably can't see you.

The motorcycle broke down - by eyewitness reports, he couldn't engage the engine when the light turned green. So he was still trying to put it in first when the cement truck rolled forward and over the bike, and the noise of the engine drowned out any unusual sounds the driver may have heard.

I'm never going to say motorcycling is without risks; but it doesn't have to be dangerous. Even if the rider had never had clutch problems before this last ride, it was a stupid thing to do. My wife was taking a riding course when her clutch cable snapped, and if she had pulled the same stunt this guy did, it would have been the same result.

Right now, my sympathy goes to the survivor of the accident.


posted by Thursday at 7:55 pm


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