commentary (2006-24)

Motorcycles are only as dangerous as their riders

Wonderful Conveyances

by Barry Henderson

A great furor has arisen among both the washed and unwashed over the episode that put Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the hospital in Pittsburgh, the home of the Steelers.

He was riding a motorcycle in city traffic when a woman turned her car left in front of him. He was riding, as he said he liked to ride, without a helmet. Flipped across the car’s hood, he broke his nose, jaw, and some teeth on impact. He was jarred pretty good. He needed surgery, but he’ll survive. He’ll probably ride again and will likely resume his quarterbacking in the NFL.

Sports fans have been clamoring since his accident for sports figures to stay off motorcycles or to wear helmets, and for team owners to make such requirements part of star professional athletes’ contracts. They cite other instances when stars were hurt while motorcycling.

Well, there have been relatively few such incidents, and no pro athletes’ deaths, involving motorcycles in recent years. There have been lots more athletes’ injuries and deaths in automobile accidents, but they aren’t being begged not to drive.

A well-schooled, experienced and careful motorcyclist is as safe on a bike as in a car, athlete or not. Wearing a helmet is always sensible, whether or not it’s the law, as it’s not in Pennsylvania but is in Tennessee. One may well have saved Roethlisberger his facial injuries. The law in Tennessee came fairly close to repeal this year for adult riders under a proposal advanced by Knoxville state Sen. Tim Burchett, a rider and collector of motorcycles. It should have been repealed, or amended to require that all occupants of cars and trucks wear helmets on public roadways for their personal safety and the public interest in keeping them healthy and avoiding any medical costs borne by taxpayers. But that’s another story. Sen. Burchett is no advocate of helmetless riding. He just thinks the law should be unnecessary. So do I.

I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was 18. I’ve owned eight of the two-wheeled marvels—some more marvelous than others. My first was a British bike with which my Army roommate and I—he on another big Brit—used to buzz Harleys on U.S. 101 down toward California’s Big Sur region south of our base at the Presidio at Monterey.

We wore helmets then, though no one had passed a helmet law. We pushed those bikes near their limits, which was a youthful indiscretion of sorts, but it also taught us our own limits in avoiding trouble, and I’ve always put those lessons to good use.

There are lots of good reasons for riding a motorcycle, even if you aren’t, as Roethlisberger’s coach has been quoted as calling him, a risk-taker. They are great entertainment and a very good commuter option, ridden wisely. Motorcycles are economical, are easily parkable, often at no fee, and are exhilarating. They energize your system on the way to work and they free you from the surly bonds of the job and keep you alert on the trip home.

I was always a street and road rider. I didn’t ride in the rain or snow on purpose. I never rode in the woods. Trees are there when you get there, and they don’t budge. Moving cars and trucks are gone when you get where they were a second ago, and there are no trees or poles to stop you short on the roadway. I likened the fun of street riding to being inside a pinball machine (now a computer game, I guess, but the same kind of feeling). Your role as a rider is to stay upright while avoiding conventional motorists. It’s not as hard as it sounds. The simplest rule is: Never trust them. In 40-plus years and through tens of thousands of miles of riding, I’ve always ridden bikes light enough to hoss around and keep under me in quick maneuvering. All my close calls were when motorists turned left in front of me or changed lanes into me. I’ve had only one injury, and that was when a motorist turned left in front of me and I took the bike down to avoid a collision. A knee abrasion was all I got out of that scrape, about 10 years ago. My slowing reflexes told me then to cut my speed and lengthen my distances from potential harm.

I always said I’d get a Harley when I got old enough where I thought I would enjoy just sitting there, listening to its throaty rumble. I haven’t gotten that old yet, and I may not. The Harley’s exhaust note is sweet, but that alone is not enough to command my fullest attention to all the aspects of riding on the streets and roads.

People joke that motorcycle safety is all in the wrist. The wrist that cranks the throttle is important, worth maybe 10 percent of safe-riding practices, but it’s not as important as what’s controlling it. Safe motorcycling is at least 65 percent in the brain, where reflexes are honed to respond correctly to all outside stimuli. The other 25 percent is in the heart, where the fun lies, but never rests.

Just don’t let your pulse rate take you where you don’t want to go. Only the rider can keep flesh and bone intact while motoring around happily on two wheels.

Shiny side up.