Making Decisions and Taking Chances
by Thomas Day
We all make decisions. Some of us make life-changing, mission-critical decisions on the spur of the moment. Others take months to plan minor events. Marketing folks would like us to be as spontaneous as possible. Every capitalist’s favorite consumer is the “impulse buyer”, a person who puts as much thought into going into debt for several years as he does when reaching for a roll of toilet paper. I suspect that motorcyclists who make decisions on impulse are “over-represented” in injury and fatality statistics.
One of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard is the statement that so many crash victims make when explaining why they weren’t wearing any protective gear; “if I’d have known I was going to crash, I’d have worn my helmet.” On days when I “know I’m going to crash” I don’t ride. Some days I feel so accident-prone that I don’t go outside at all. On really bad days, I avoid power tools, sharp kitchen implements, skydiving, high voltage, and walking tightropes. Those days are rare, though. I usually take my chances with power tools and electricity and I wear my helmet, gloves, and riding suit when I ride my motorcycle. Someday I’d like to try skydiving, but I will never have the confidence for tightropes.
As we all know, shit happens. And it happens to the nicest, best-prepared and most skilled people. I suppose you could argue that making a decision to put on protective gear is the first step in planning for a crash. Deciding what parts of your body you’re going to protect when your best planning and well-developed skills fail, is just common sense. Only a fool would impulsively make that sort of decision. But there is no shortage of fools on this planet. Mark Twain argued that humans “descended from the higher animals” and an awful lot of motorcyclists would be solid evidence for that argument. If you remove the ability to plan for the future, humans become a pitifully equipped animal.
Let’s take two examples of opposite philosophic polarity, Pat the Paranoid and Billy the Brave, and see how their decision making systems work in similar situations. First, Pat starts his day off by checking his tire pressure and doing a quick inspection of his motorcycle’s hardware before suiting up for a five mile morning commute to work. After convincing himself that the bike is fit to ride after overnight garage storage and yesterday’s forty or fifty miles of commuting and recreational riding, Pat puts on his riding suit, helmet, and gloves. He left the house in riding boots. While he’s suiting up, the bike is idling and warming up. Pat not only wears a quality full-face helmet, he wears ear plugs under the helmet to protect his hearing.
Billy the Brave is working off a mild hangover as he wobbles to the backyard where he hopes he left the bike the last time he rode it home from a group tour of Wisconsin bars. He’s in luck. The big twin is leaned against his neighbor’s fence. Billy is wearing a tee-shirt, loose-fitting Wellington boots, ragged jeans, sunglasses, and an American flag bandana. The bike gets as much warm up time as it takes Billy to light up a cigarette. He is on the road in a few seconds.
Billy is an unfortunate stereotype. He could be a Will, a William or even a Winifred or Willa. I could have parked Billy’s bike in the garage, behind the snowblower and lawnmower. He might have kept it well protected by an old sheet (or an expensive bike tent) to keep off the dust. His bike could be a brand new liter-plus sportbike, or an Electra-Glide. Perhaps an old beater Kawasaki KZ900 or a Wing, but it will be larger than his skill warrants, whatever it is. He could be wearing a polo shirt, Dockers, and loafers. Or a tank top, cargo shorts, and sandals. Regardless of his socio-economic status, he’d still cover his skull with some kind of kitchen rag, or nothing at all. He might not be hung-over from cheap beer. He might be sweating out umbrella drinks from a late business meeting or designer beer from an after-work singles bar get-together. Pick your stereotype. Whatever Billy rides, he will spend more time cramming stuff into the saddlebags and checking himself out in the mirrors than he will put into safety inspecting his bike.
Pat is less of a stereotype. He commutes every day, which makes him part of an incredibly small minority. He wears motorcycle gear designed for motorcycling. He rides a relatively small displacement, lightweight bike that is maneuverable in traffic. He maintains his bike and has worked hard to develop competent riding skills, including the MSF’s Experienced Rider Course and taking advantage of track days offered to street riders at local racing facilities.
Both riders are on similar highways, leaving a few seconds apart, going about the same speed in the same kind of traffic. Billy is taking in the scenery, checking out women in the cars that pass him, and enjoying the feel of wind in his hair. Sparks are flying from his cigarette and Billy is glad he wore the wrap-around glasses because ashes are beginning to build up on the lenses. Because it’s cool this morning, Billy tailgates a van to avoid wind-chill. Billy’s mirrors are vibrating like bumblebee wings, so he doesn’t count on them for useful information. Billy only rides to work when his truck is broken, so he’s as familiar with the terrain as any other cager. He hasn’t planned on any excitement this morning, so he’s not worried or thinking about crashing. To Billy, motorcycling is about looking cool and “feeling free.”
Pat has practiced tossing his bike into a swerve a few times, when he’d created a little space for himself in the traffic flow, to get a feel for the morning traction and his own awareness and balance. He’s tested the feel of his brakes, checked and double-checked the alignment of his mirrors, and never stops listening to the mechanical noises coming from the engine and chassis. Pat reads the traffic to see if there are any obvious crazies to avoid. Pat does what he can to create a little space, at least two seconds in front and behind, so that he can see and be seen, and have a little maneuvering space in a crisis. It irritates the coffee-sucking, McFat-chewing, phone-babbling drones to see so much unused space on the road, but it’s the least he can do to manage some control of his traveling environment so he does it. Pat has checked out the exit routes many times on this trip. He’s thought about the curb and how difficult it would be to jump and what kind of damage his alloy wheels would likely suffer. He’s checked out the roadside drainage ditch and how deep and steep that path would be. He knows where the intersections are and works especially hard at building an extra safety margin when he approaches those intersections, knowing that intersections are where most motorcycle-car accidents occur. There is nothing unconscious about Pat’s ride to work, but that’s one of the things he loves about motorcycling. The combination of intense focus and the excitement of the knowledge of the limited risk he has exposed himself to is an adrenaline boost. To Pat, motorcycling is about controlling his environment and pushing the limits of his ability.
This morning, though, the environment is in control. In a turn, both riders suddenly lose their front tire. In a few microseconds, a peaceful ride to work is packed with a few too many thrills.
Billy freaks when he hears the tire explode and feels the front end wash out and begin sliding toward the ditch. He nails the rear brake, because that is the only brake he ever uses, and the bike instantly starts sliding sideways. He panics and releases the brake; and highsides. Billy’s fashion glasses fly off along with one of his boots as he leaves the bike. He is suddenly flying toward the edge of the road and, in the next few thousandths of a second, he begins to “plan” his crash.
Pat’s tire blows at the same spot and he, also, thinks about using the brakes. But he controls the panic reaction and puts his trust in his reflexes and training. In avoiding that mistake, he allows the bike to drift to the outside of the corner and slow naturally. Pat has never experienced a front tire failure on the highway, but he’s thought about what he’d do if it happened. On its own, the flat tire will do a pretty decent job of slowing the bike down. Applying the brakes will transfer a lot more weight to the already overloaded front end and reduce the bike’s stability, so he gently slows the engine and lets engine compression and the flat tire slow the bike. While the bike is scrubbing off speed, Pat considers his options. Pat is well protected and has the presence of mind to start considering what parts of his body armor will be put into use in the next few seconds. The obvious choice is to try to land on his back and flatten out to increase surface area, reduce impact and speed. A logical choice since that was the reason his suit designer installed a back protector and added extra abrasion resistance to the backside panels of the suit.
Billy’s choices are limited. He’s in the air, flying toward an unknown destination at 50mph (or 73 feet per second), and has to decide which part of his body he wants to sacrifice to save the other parts. Reflexively, he chooses his hands as the first point of impact. When his unprotected hands hit the asphalt, skin tears away, then the meat of his palm shreds in the first few feet and he (again, impulsively) reconsiders his decision. The hands contain very sensitive nerve endings, which transmit a lot of pain data in a very short period of time. Billy decides to withdraw his hands from the action. Leaving his unprotected face and torso to absorb the kinetic energy being translated into friction, Billy’s shirt and jeans hold up better than his nose and chin, but after a couple of yards, Billy left a body-wide streak of gore on the road before he began to tumble.
The driver in the car behind Billy narrowly misses running over the flying biker, but he hadn’t allowed enough of a margin for himself to avoid running over Billy’s bike. Now there are two out-of-control vehicles on this section of the highway.
Billy struck his head repeatedly on the pavement during his free fall and deceleration. Before he comes to a stop, he is unconscious and bleeding from dozens of serious injuries. In a few moments, a motorist will use his cell phone to call 911 and several cars will stop to render assistance. Billy’s chances for survival aren’t good, though. He has sustained broken bones, considerable blood loss, internal injuries, and a concussion. It will be difficult for an ambulance to reach him, through jammed rush hour traffic, before his injuries become fatal.
Pat kept control, more or less, of his bike until it struck the curb at about 20mph. The impact cracked the front wheel and peeled away the tire, which immediately tangled itself between the fork legs and the wheel. Momentum is in control of the bike since the tire has locked up the front wheel and steering is impossible. On the way down the drainage ditch, Pat decided to abandon ship and he pushed away from the bike. His well-considered three-point landing came unglued when his butt struck a clump of mowed weeds and he flipped face-first into the ditch. The top of his face shield collected about a pound of dirt and scooped it into the helmet. He came to a stop in several inches of ditch water and the dirt in his helmet turned to mud. When he sat up, the mud poured into the collar of his riding suit and made its way to his waist before he regained his senses. His first thought was that he wasn’t going to meet the company dress code today.
He was testing his extremities for broken bones when a strong hand grabbed him by the arm and tried to lift him out of the mud. Pat shook off his rescuer and politely explained that he believed he was uninjured, but was still in the process of verifying that condition. A few moments later, he struggled out of the ditch, with the unnecessary assistance of a Good Samaritan, and was looking over the damage to his motorcycle. As he peeled out of his riding gear he provided comedy relief for passing motorists with his mud coated face and clothing. Other than a collection of Russian thistle barbs firmly imbedded in his butt, Pat was unhurt and looking forward to explaining why he was going to be late to work. He wasn’t particularly looking forward to spending a weekend finding a replacement front wheel and a new tire.
Neither rider expected to crash that morning. Pat’s somewhat paranoid riding routine and protective gear gave him options and control when the crash came. Billy’s spontaneous riding style left him completely unprepared for anything outside of ideal conditions. We can argue who was enjoying the ride more, before the crash, but I think it’s obvious to even the most radical fashion follower who will be enjoying the rest of the week and who will be struggling to survive the next few hours. Riding is a risk, but it doesn’t have to be foolish. You make choices and you accept risk. An aware rider isn’t “planning to crash.” An aware rider is planning to ride; today, and tomorrow.