Sunday, June 29, 2008

Summertime Luge Event (Asphalt)

Fellow blogger Ambulance Driver relates his unintentional entry into the traffic Olympics in a current post. Happily, he barely managed to make his mark in the standings and, being young and healthy, should heal up rapidly. Even his scoot should recover with minimal capital outlay. Being a FAIRLY rational being, I’m sure he’ll admit to having undergone an attitude adjustment in a couple of seconds of, shall we say, high anxiety. I’m most happy his physical trauma was minimal and the visible damage was mainly limited to fabric and metalwork.

(No, this is NOT AD's bike, just a convenient image.)

I’ll admit that my own experience in motorcycling has been small and narrow. My late brother Jerry was into dirt biking and he’d occasionally invite me for a day’s scrambling about the trails. It was lotsa fun and even at low speeds, provided enough thrills for me. Still, I managed to break a bone in my right hand and got some scratches from time to time.

Back while I was a police patrolman for a suburban department, I lived in Fort Worth and it was about a 15-minute drive to work. Money was not plentiful, and from time to time I was inspired to explore more economical modes of travel. Hey, gasoline was headed toward a dollar a gallon back then. I cared little for huge, powerful motorcycles, but thought to pick up a good, used medium-sized bike. I didn’t want my six-five, 240+ frame to look like a circus bear on a mini-bike. I even got to the point of shopping around a couple of times.

Unfortunately (for some others) and more luckily (for me,) every time I got serious with this idea, I’d work or assist at some serious accident involving a motorcycle. This would revive the uneasy feelings about going into traffic on two wheels which my Dad had instilled in me early on. Sure, I could rationalize the situation. I was not some daredevil kid. I was a mature man, a cop who would frequently ride to work in uniform, and it would be necessary to - - well, at least, not present a BAD image. I knew the concept of driving defensively -- that phrase was just coming into common use at the time. I’d keep a good lookout at all times and obey BOTH the traffic laws and physical principles: If a few hundred pounds of ’cycle and rider come into violent contact with a couple of tons of four+ wheeler, the former ALWAYS loses. If I simply did everything right, all would be well.
Wouldn’t it?

Let’s see - - It was during warm weather, sometime in 1971, I think. I was working a district which included part of a Corps of Engineers lake and surrounding parks. Dispatch sent me to the scene of a major traffic collision on one of the park roads. Ambulance en route, backup unit coming from the north end of town. I was on the scene in two minutes, but a volunteer fireman and a nurse were already there. I parked, leaving room for the ambulance and trotted over to them. Their gray looks and the motorcycle wedged beneath the front of a large sedan pretty well provided the prognosis.

The ambulance guys did their thing and I did mine. Fortunately, there had been witnesses to the entire situation. The motorcyclist, mid-twenties, clean-cut, be-helmeted, had been putting along the park road - - Good, dry asphalt, two wide lanes, no curbs. The posted speed limit was 35 mph, and a following motorist said they were both doing somewhat less. A beautiful day, plenty to see, no rush.

The road took a gentle curve to the right, around a steep hill. On the opposite side of the road, the ground sloped downward. A pickup truck, brand and color not now recalled, was oncoming. The cyclist edged slightly to the right, making sure he didn’t crowd the center line. Here’s where things became a bit sudden. Another oncoming vehicle, this one a green Chrysler, appeared. Everyone later agreed that not a soul involved was speeding, nor out of their proper lanes. The motorcyclist encountered a minor spray of gravel on the pavement, apparently left by some earlier motorist cutting the curve edge slightly. There was only a few pounds of rock in the traffic lane.

The cyclist steered his front wheel through the rock but the back tire caught some of it and began sliding to the left. Even at the modest speed, the rear tire broke loose and the bike went down on its right side. The rider was observed to pull up his right leg and hold on for the ride. Three witnesses -- one following, one in the pickup truck, and the driver of the Chrysler -- all said it was as if in slow motion. The bike slid right across, into the path of the green car. The driver, standing on the brake pedal, started off to his right but was looking straight into the cyclist’s face as he disappeared under the hood. The front bumper of the Chrysler caught the cyclist on the brow, immediately below the expensive Bell helmet.

Highway Patrol and a Sheriff’s Deputy arrived while I was questioning witnesses, and I had time to do good interviews and take complete statements. I got clear photographs of the markings on the pavement. The State Patrolman (this was before they were called State Troopers in Texas) helped me with the calculations. Closing velocity at impact was likely under 20 mph. All three officers agreed: There was no wrongdoing on the part of any person. This was as true a pure accident-by-misadventure as one could imagine. NO excessive speed. NO fail to yield. NO drive in wrong lane. NO evidence of alcohol or other drug involvement. Sometimes, stuff just occurs. In this case, simple happenstance left a young widow groping for an explanation, with a little boy too young to comprehend. A few years thereafter, an organ harvest might possibly have given some cosmic justification for the incident, but this was a bit early on . . . .

I probably drove that stretch of park road a hundred times thereafter, before moving on to a better job. NEVER did I pass that way without thinking of the dead motorcyclist -- and the distraught driver of the green sedan. And NEVER again did I even consider buying my own motorcycle for commuting.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’ve nothing personal against two-wheelers, nor against those who enjoy riding them. It’s just not for me.



lainy said...

I totally agree with you. I think they are dangerous.

My son wants one and I'm dead set against it. As a child I witnessed a big truck hit a young man leaving him dead. It was awful to see his helmeted head crushed under the truck tire.

HollyB said...

Shiver! It's not cold in the living room, I'm appropriately dressed and have a warm puppy over my foot. So it MUST be the story that is giving me the chill. Rather like a creature creepin' over my grave.
Good Story and yet another I haven't heard.

Old NFO said...

When I worked Vol. Fire/Rescue, we called them organ doners- Regardless of who was at fault, normally the cyclist did not survive. This was before mandantory helmet laws, but I really don't think it's much better now- Too many people have no situational awareness and don't even realize there are any vehicles on the road, unless it's a semi...

Ambulance Driver said...

Well, my tumble taught me a lesson, that's for sure...

...but you have to also consider that I drive a big, lumbering ocean liner of an ambulance for a living that might as well have a big sign on the side that says "Hit me, and you could get paid!"

Every bit of hypervigilance that I need to practice while riding a motorcycle, I have already practiced in spades for fifteen years, driving that ambulance.

The only difference between motorcycle and emergency response driving really, in terms of mental approach, is that I know that what I give up in the protection of several thousand pounds of sheet metal, I more than make up for in speed and maneuverability.

Oil slicks on interstate on-ramps notwithstanding, of course. ;)

makeumdothechicken said...

When I was 19 years old I had two friends involved in motorcycle acccidents and that cured me of the desire. One was killed, the other lost a leg. Neither one was at fault.

An elderly driver pulled out in front of the first one launching him head first over the handlebars. The landing broke his neck and killed him.

The second was broadsided by a car running a red light and lost his left leg at the knee.

The fact is alot of people drive with their head where it does not belong and the added security of being wrapped in a bunch of steel pays big dividends.

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