An interesting story - though long read it all the way to the end.
Adventures in Crashing Motorcycles
Are you ready for the surprises that might be waiting just ahead? Some strange and unpleasant surprises await unwary riders. By Art Friedman
Most people who get on a motorcycle probably think they are ready for just about anything that can happen. That may be true, if they have very active imaginations and give some credence and thought to how they would cope if some of their fantasies became reality. The fact is that almost anything can happen to a motorcycle rider.
The threats that most of us probably think about are the common ones: drivers turning left in front of us, oil in a turn, drivers who don't check their blind spots and change lanes into us. But if you use your imagination and look around, you might conceive of some possible threats that aren't commonplace. And some pretty wild things happen to motorcyclists who are simply riding along, seemingly doing everything right. Over the years I have received letters from a couple of riders who were struck by lightning and woke up in the ditch. I have a clipping about a motorcyclist who was killed after a dog fell on him from a railroad overpass. There are mysteries too, like the rider found dead (the evidence points to a heart attack or falling asleep) miles from where his bike came to rest almost upright against a guard rail.
Even though I'm not a trained accident investigator, I have had opportunities to get a detailed look at the circumstances of some motorcycle crashes or near crashes, which serve as reminders of some of the potential threats awaiting motorcyclists who don't use their imaginations and also prepare themselves for the worst.
Consider the following.
The other guy can do almost anything, and if you drop your guard, he might do it to you. A rider riding down a Los Angeles freeway honked his Laverda's very loud dual horns at a woman who had started to change lanes into him without looking. The woman was startled, lurched away then looked to see what had issued the freight-train-like warning. When she saw that the vehicle that had frightened her was a mere motorcycle, she offered him a universally understood single-digit salute, then swerved back at him and continued to try to hit him with her car until he used his superior power and ability to split traffic to escape her homicidal wrath. He rode away wondering what the two young children in the car thought.
A less experienced rider came around a corner on a narrow road to encounter a car coming fairly fast downhill on his side of the road. He swerved to the left side of the road, but the driver did the same. He swerved back to his side of the road, but again she followed. That was where they collided, breaking his leg.
Taking his normal shortcut on a back street near his home, a rider was surprised that the car coming the other way around the turn was way over on his side of the road, even though there was plenty of room for both to pass. The rider moved over to his right as far as he could, but there was a chain link fence right at the edge of the pavement. And when he moved over, the driver crowded him further. They met right at the apex of the corner, and while the rider managed to avoid the car, by millimeters, he clipped the fence with his right handlebar and went flying. The car didn't even slow down.
Riding down a two-lane highway, a motorcyclist was astounded to see an apparently unoccupied oncoming car begin to drift across the center line into his lane. He moved to his right and got on the brakes, pulling off the pavement and on the shoulder. He was about to roll off the embankment to escape when the driver suddenly popped up into view, clutching the cigarette lighter he had apparently been retrieving from the floor. The driver swerved away, just in time.
Two motorcyclists riding on rural Ohio highway came to a road construction zone marked over a mile ahead by a series of huge fluorescent-orange warning signs. A flagman controlling traffic signaled them to stop. They had been waiting a minute or so when the howling of tires behind them alerted them to unexpected danger. A young girl driver had overlooked the seemingly impossible-to-ignore signs and kept speeding toward the flagman, until alerted by a passenger at the last moment. When she locked up all four tires, the crown of the road caused her to slide slightly to the right, which meant that she struck only the rider on the right. He was thrown well up and forward, landing atop the steel Armco barrier alongside the road.
Not all the transgressions against motorcyclists' right of way come from car drivers. A motorcyclist riding on a popular mountain road in Southern California approached a corner just as two riders, apparently racing, exited it going the opposite direction. They both ran wide into the first rider's lane. One passed on either side of him.
The threat can even come from your riding companion. Two riders on an extended tour had already had a long day of riding, and it was after dark. The leading rider felt fine -- alert and awake. What he didn't know, as they approached a truck stopped on the shoulder and he slowed, was that his companion was nearly asleep. The blurry-eyed trailing rider didn't notice him slow down, struck him from the rear and crashed, though the leader managed to stay on his wheels.
A passenger can get you in trouble too. Two motorcyclists on one bike were going around a corner when the passenger decided to "help" the rider by leaning into the corner. This caused the bike to lean further, drag hard and crash.
Though accidents caused by mechanical failures are rare, they do happen. As the farmer said when his mule died, "It never did that before." A rider who had just completed a fast dash along a challenging piece of meandering pavement stopped to talk to friends. All were dumfounded when someone spied a missing front axle clamp.
Tires are crucial components that must not be taken for granted, as the rider on a Norton with recently changed tires could testify. The pinched rear tube blew out in the fast lane of an urban interstate, amidst heavy traffic moving at 70 mph. And heed the lesson learned by a Yamaha rider who had just fitted new tires and realized, as he slid on his belly down the street less than a block from the dealer, that they need some scuffing in before you can use the brakes hard. Back in college, one of the more experienced motorcyclists on campus had a lesson taught the same way. His discovery was that the "trials universal" tires on the borrowed Honda Scrambler didn't provide nearly as much braking traction as the street tires on his Honda 450.
Other unexpected and seeming minor failures can spell big trouble too. Consider the Harley rider cruising along, aware that his fuel was getting low. When the engine began to sputter, he was ready. He flipped the fuel selector to reserve, but was alarmed when the engine failed to start again. Suddenly, he was in the left-most of six lanes where two busy interstates converge on a bike that wouldn't run. The little pipe that creates a reserve supply had vibrated loose from the petcock.
Sometimes your companion's mechanical problem can affect you. Two riders were enjoying a curving stretch of pavement when the front rider suddenly slowed dramatically (in response to a broken primary chain). He got on his brakes and swerved toward the edge of the road, which forced the rider behind him to run off the asphalt on the outside of the turn they were entering and into the grass alongside. There were no apparent obstacles, and the rider was trying to brake to a stop in the slick grass when he hit a hidden ditch and was thrown off the bike.
Even equipment that isn't part of a motorcycle can get you if it's attached to it. A rider was launched off his Honda 600 when one of the bungee cords pulled loose from his tailpack, permitting it to fall into and lock the rear wheel.
Another interstate incident, where a rider totaled a Yamaha XS1100, illustrates that sometimes you simply can't see the danger, but that corners always deserve some respect. This happened on a fast 270-degree ramp connecting two Los Angeles freeways. The rider took this same route to work every day and so was familiar with the two-lane ramp and enjoyed bending around the long curve. On this day he came upon an unusually slow driver in the right lane and pulled out in the left lane to accelerate past before the ramp narrowed back down to a single lane. Since he knew that fluids spilt by cars and trucks are usually flung outwards, he carefully scanned the surface of the left lane before committing himself, but he saw no sheen that warned of something slippery, nor did he pick up even a slight scent of gas, oil or coolant. Nonetheless, a moment later he was sliding down the road at 60 mph hoping the driver he had just passed wouldn't hit him. As it turned out, the driver had had the same experience (losing control in spilled coolant while in a car) just a week before and was being very careful with his new car and also very aware of the possibility, so he was ready when the motorcyclist crashed right in front of him.
Sometimes the obstacle hides in plain sight, as a Honda rider discovered as he rode into the shade on a mountain road and discovered that the heavy morning dew was still on the road where the sun hadn't dried it up. He low-sided at close to 60 mph.
In another crash on a back road, the rider saw the sand in the corner, but he (and the rider behind him) believed from its appearance that it was hardened concrete that had stuck there long before. The first rider's crash alerted the second rider about their misjudgment.
In another cornering incident, the rider thought he knew the road, since he rode it frequently, as recently as that afternoon. It meandered along a southern Wisconsin river, and was a perfect route for an evening ride with the young lady whose attention he'd finally managed to attract. The surprise was the fact that the people whose driveway intersected the first corner had just graveled it late that day, which scattered gravel all through the corner. He discovered this when his headlight settled on the curve, too late to stop before he had to choose between committing to the corner or running off the road through a ditch. He chose the former, and the young woman was very impressed that, as they departed the motorcycle, he had the presence of mind to somehow turn over, grab her and hold her on top of him as he slid on his back.
Weather can be an unexpected factor. A rider had gone out for a short ride one day in the New Mexico Rockies. It was nice when he left, but a snowstorm came up suddenly, so he headed home immediately. The snow was coming down pretty hard and quickly built up on the roads. A few blocks from home, there was a four-way-stop intersection, which he had to approach on a downhill grade. He braked very early and gently, but the snow beneath was packed and icy, and his Kawasaki's rear wheel locked. He was fishtailing gently toward the intersection when a crossing driver pulled up, looked over at him, seemed to examine his plight, then pulled slowly out in front of him. He tried just a little more brake, which sent him sprawling, fortunately so gently that his bike wasn't even scuffed.
Sometimes, even close-up careful examination reveals no apparent problem that would reduce traction, especially if you aren't going quickly or turning hard--and the tires still let go. This happened to a Yamaha rider, and though he and his companion carefully examined his bike and the corner where his front tire lost traction, they could find no hint of a cause for the crash.
Here is another one where there simply was no warning or apparent cause. The rider was riding in the rain, as he had been for about three hours, on the New York Throughway. The rain finally showed signs of slackening some, and since he was headed west, he hoped to be out of it in a while. Suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, his BMW twin started whipping back and forth, pitching him off at about 60 mph after about three cycles. Though he spent half an hour walking along the road, he could find no reason for the sudden loss of control and the bike, though battered, displayed no problem that would have caused it. In fact, he rode it on to his west-coast destination after some mostly cosmetic repairs.
Your environment can toss all sorts of surprises at you, and with a bit imagination, you might anticipate some of them. Deer can be quite deadly to motorcyclists at night. I recently saw statistic on the Wisconsin DOT site that says that "98 percent of motorcycle-deer crashes resulted in a fatality or injury to the cyclist" and eight of nine deer-involved fatalities in the state were motorcyclists. So we all look for deer along rural roadsides at night. But how about the Harley rider who couldn't see (or avoid) the deer that jumped in front of him because it came from an embankment above?
Would you have been ready for this one? A rider riding a road on the outskirts of a town on a windy day passed workmen unloading corrugated metal siding from a pick-up. Just as he passed them, a gust caught a four-by-eight piece of the siding, which flew toward him. It hit him edge-on, hard enough to cause him to swerve across the road. The fact that he veered away when he saw the siding coming allowed it to drop enough to hit him in the shoulder, where it left a scar on his leather jacket, rather than in his bare neck.
Even when there is an obvious threat, something else unexpected may be stalking you too. Consider the case of the rider commuting to work in city traffic who came up a couple in a car who were having such a violent argument that he could hear them shouting through the closed windows from several car lengths away. The passenger was jumping around so violently that the big SUV was rocking, and the driver's reactions to her were making him swerve slightly. They were in the left of three lanes going that direction as the rider overtook them in the middle lane. In the right lane and ahead was another car going about the same speed as the rider. A third car occupied his right rear quarter. As he overtook the arguing couple, the rider shifted his attention left to watch them, so he'd have warning of any sudden change in speed or direction from that quarter. He continued to look as he came abeam, and remembered thinking, "If they don't cool it, there's going to be an accident." It was an accurate prediction, but they weren't involved. As the rider turned his head to the left to watch the couple, that car ahead to his right moved into his lane ahead of him and slowed, apparently in response to a fourth vehicle that was backing down a driveway toward the curb. The rider looked up to see the car immediately and unexpectedly in front of him, its brake lights glowing. He hit his brakes hard, overbraked, and crashed his Kawasaki in the middle of the busy boulevard. The warring couple apparently didn't even notice what transpired just outside the car's passenger door.
All these crashes and near-misses (or is "near-hits" the correct term?) have several things in common. All might be called freak accidents. They show that a cautious, attentive rider who focuses on the standard threats can still get in trouble if he does not open his mind to consider unusual dangers. They are reminders that if you approach a ride with the attitude that nothing will go wrong, you are asking for trouble.
Because they demonstrate that you simply can not anticipate everything that can go wrong, they reaffirm that you need to be prepared when something does. Those crashes show the value of solid protective apparel. Amazingly, the broken leg was the only serious injury suffered in any of the accidents described in detail. This was because in each case the rider was wearing solid protective gear.
I know that for certain because of another aspect they all have in common: all those accidents and events happened to me.
Assuming Friedman, who has been riding motorcycle for 40 years and testing them for magazine for more than 30, survives long enough, you can e-mail him at [email protected]
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