By Thomas Day
We’re turning over a new leaf in our family. I hate driving four-wheel vehicles and after a fairly miserable several months stuck as the sole driver of our winter excursion in an RV, I am giving up driving our family car as much as possible. My wife, on the other hand, gets car sick when she isn’t driving, can’t read a map, program a GPS, or provide useful directions as a passenger and claims to actually like driving. After 46 years of being the family primary driver, we’re swapping roles. She is a perfectly fine driver with good skills, reasonably good vision, and decent judgment. I hate driving and am prone to zoning out after a few minutes behind the wheel.
So, we’re on the way to visit our daughter’s family in Dinkytown on a warm April evening. My designated driver is about to turn left on Hennepin Avenue across two opposite direction lanes after a barrage of vehicles finally created a slot. She’s focused on the cars coming toward us, about 100 yards away. I saw a motorcyclist in the far lane and provided a slightly-over-the-top warning (not quite a shout) before she turned into his path. She stopped safely and the completely undressed kid on the black motorcycle, wearing black clothing (without a stitch of protective gear), and who’d cleverly disabled his daytime headlight shook his finger at us as some kind of warning. As usual, he hadn’t made even the slightest effort to remove himself from any aspect of the near-crash: no braking, no evasive maneuver, no horn honking, headlight flashing, or even a shout. Just a limp finger-wagging. Loud pipes wouldn’t have done him any good, since they’re only good for warning people behind the motorcycle that a noisy asshole is in front of them.
This is where the “Start Seeing Unicorns” comes in. Delusional motorcyclists and safety bureaucrats imagine that if enough propaganda and severe enough penalties are applied, motorcycles will magically become visible to drivers who have real threats to worry about. Not only do most motorcyclists dress to be invisible, but at 0.001-0.01% of total traffic on any given perfect-for-motorcycling day, we’re about as common a sight as unicorns. Nobody but little girls who watch too much television looks for unicorns because they are a statistical unlikelihood. The same logic applies to motorcyclists, with only a minimally greater chance of a sighting. Asking other road-users to watch for us when we are rarely present and don’t make the slightest effort to be seen or rescue ourselves is an exercise in hubris. Your mother may have told you that you are the center of the universe, but no one else on the road has heard of you and, worse, probably won’t notice you until you are bouncing off of their vehicle or sliding down the highway on your bloody ass.
Earlier that day, I met a guy who bragged that he’d crashed 18 times before he quit riding a few years ago. His last crash was into a house, after an uncontrolled wheelie and jumping a curb and tearing through a garden. He crashed into a house. He admitted that “all of my accidents were my fault, except one.” Speeding, lousy cornering technique, poor judgment, and an irrational belief in his indestructibility all were to blame for all but one crash. The one that he claimed wasn’t his fault was because a woman “pulled out in front of me.” Based on his other experiences and my own later the same day, I suspect that blaming the one crash on someone else misses the point of that one experience. Like the rider who narrowly escaped becoming a hood ornament on our car, this ex-rider clearly needed some decent skills, a dose of common sense, and protective gear.
In fact, too many people supposedly involved in motorcycle safety issues argue the nutty fallacy that motorcyclists are pitiful victims. For example, a University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research study found, “that 60 percent of the time motorists in other vehicles are at fault when they collide with motorcycles.” I’d love to see where that data came from, in detail. Since 34-50% of fatal motorcycle crashes are single vehicle events, it’s pretty obvious that we can’t even deal with the freakin’ road, let alone traffic. What kind of fool would believe that a group of people who are totally responsible for killing themselves half of the time are innocent victims during the other half, when traffic is involved? Seriously? We can’t ride well enough to keep from flinging ourselves into the trees on a solitary road but we suddenly become more competent in heavy traffic? I’m not buying that for a second. And my experience on motorcycles for nearly three-quarters-of-a-million miles totally contradicts that wishful thinking. Every one of the motorcycle fatalities I’ve seen were either completely the motorcyclists’ fault or would have prevented with the tiniest bit of riding skill and reasonable protective gear.
Instead of wishing and hoping that drivers will start watching out for us and compensate for our invisibility and mediocre skills, I think giving up on that dream and getting on with learning how to ride competently would be a good start toward reducing motorcycle crashes. If a rider is serious about staying jelly side up, becoming as visible as possible, and getting real about the slim chance that anyone will be looking out for us while they are worried about giant trucks, distracted bozos in oversized pickups and SUVs, and their own distractions is absolutely necessary. The whacked idea that people in cages are going to save us from ourselves is delusional, arrogant, and foolish. In 2013, motorcyclists accounted for 15% of national highway deaths. There is no justification on this planet for that massively disproportionate contribution the the estimated $228 BILLION in “societal cost of crashes.” At some point, the country is going to decide to either make motorcyclists prove their competence before obtaining a license, wear reasonable protective gear, or get the hell off of the public’s roads.
I’m not saying motorcyclists need to be paranoid and tell themselves “they’re all out to get me.” We aren’t that important or interesting. They don’t even know we are on the road because we are not a serious threat. You could drive most mid-sized 4-wheel drive pickups over the whole Minnesota contingent of biker gangsters’ toys and still make it to the store for bread, milk, and cookies and back home before you worried about scraping the biker gunk off of your bumper. Not being a threat is much worse than being a potential enemy. You can sort of guess what someone who’s out to get you might do next. If your opponent doesn’t even recognize your existence, there are an infinite number of awful things they might do completely unaware of you and your motorcycle. If that doesn’t make you want to gear up and put your riding skills and motorcycle in order, you do not belong on a motorcycle.