Motorcycle riders and the road: What’s our responsibility?

4 Sep

ImageBeen out on the road a bunch the last few weeks of summer, covering the wide expanses of Southern California. It’s been family fun vacation time and not too much — not any really — two-wheeled time so I’ve been hyper aware of all those out for weekend rides and long-distance jaunts. It’s not so much jealousy that I’m not joining them, more a longing to be back riding again. As I’ve always known since the first time on a motorcycle, it’s that space between Points A and B, that time riding, is the only time I’m truly at peace in my own head. But the post-ACL surgery recovery continues and I’m waiting it out even if I do feel OK enough now to ride.

Seeing all those motorcyclists on the road, going where they’re going, doing what they do, reminded me of something I wrote a ways back when Caltrans launched its “Share the Road” campaign a few years back. See, for every ATGATT-clad rider and leather-ed enthusiast tearing right along there were the guys in T-shirts, tennis shoes, no-socks, and often shorts performing acts of unbelievable stupidity on So Cal’s highways and byways. I don’t get it. Here’s the thing from a few years back:

I was driving into work this week when I noticed that the digital freeway sign that usually informs me about the minutes I’d spend in the purgatory of traffic that is the 405 south had a new message. This week these signs read, “Share the road. Look twice for motorcyclists.” What a fantastic message I thought, and a good sign that the CHP and CalTrans were reinforcing a warning that we riders have been proselytizing all along.

In fact, the “Share the Road” message showing up on the approximately 700 so-called Amber Alert signs across California is part of a public service campaign by the CHP, the Office of Traffic Safety and CalTrans to promote highway safety by getting drivers to actually look for motorcyclists. Nice stuff.

The pessimist in me had another thought — I bet there were more than a few drivers cruising by, reading that sign and thinking, “Why should I care? These stupid motorcyclists are crazy to begin with and dying is a part of their equation.” I honestly believe that there are those out there who don’t give a flying crap about riders and believe some motorcyclists deserve to die or be injured.

After getting into the office and going through my e-mail, which includes Google news alerts that notify me of news stories containing keywords like “motorcycles” and “honda” and such, my thoughts were confirmed. Again. I have a morbid curiosity about reading the reader comment sections in stories about fellow riders going down in traffic or being seriously injured. It’s in these anonymous forms that I’ve read the most vile, repugnant statements made by strangers about strangers that I’ve ever come across.

The other day it was a story about the 91 freeway in Long Beach, Calif., being closed down to investigate a crash between a motorcyclist and a vehicle. There was really no information in the story about the accident or the condition of the rider, but here is one such comment:

Was this an unfortunate accident between a car and a motorcycle? Or, was the motorcyclist splitting lanes so he could go 20 mph faster than the rest of the traffic? If it was an unfortunate accident, I hope everyone is okay. If it was reckless lane-splitting, like I see every single day, then the motorcyclist deserved to be hit.

The thing is, this is one of the more sedate such comments I’ve read. One of the worst happened in a story about the death of an employee of a Harley-Davidson dealership here in Orange County, Calif. Not only did some commentators say he deserved to die, they were upset that his accident had disrupted their daily commute. They were so repulsive and mean-spirited, I hoped to god that none of the rider’s family members ever came across them. And of course, they were delivered with the anonymity that empowers so many Internet trolls.

I’ve always known that a big swath of society views motorcycling as inherently risky and dangerous — and it is, without a doubt, more dangerous and risky than say, driving around in a car or sitting in a chair. But within this group, there is a subset that believes riders, quite simply, deserve to die. I’ll never understand this callousness any more than I know all my lectures about managing risk, wearing safety gear, getting training, etc. will never change the minds of other folks. But there’s something very vicious about it.

Then there are some more reasoned comments, such as this, that get me to thinking:

Lane splitting may be legal. However, splitting lanes when traffic is already flowing at 65 mph or buzzing by cars at 65-70 when the cars are only doing 40-45 is just plain stupid. Even when good drivers signal and check their mirrors before changing lanes, there are still close calls, or worse, accidents. The big difference in speed between the cars and the motorcycles makes it seem like the motorcycles appear out of nowhere. Still, I see plenty of bikers doing this every day on the 110 freeway. Don’t believe me? Try driving on the 110 at rush hour and see for yourselves. That is why certain bikers get hit. Be smart. If you really need to speed around traffic, maybe you should leave a few minutes earlier.

and this:

RB Mom you are correct. No motorcyclist ever deserves to be hit. But many motorcylcists put themselves in a positon to get hit by drivign to damn fast while splitting lanes. And while that my be legal it is the stupidist thing they can do. Remember the saying “you can be right, dead right?”

Here is a link to a story in the San Diego Union Tribune regarding the “Share the Road” freeway signs. Sadly, it looks like I’m kinda right about some car drivers. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why so many drivers have it out for motorcyclists and bicyclists alike.

If you’ve ridden for any length of time, you know that it’s a given that drivers don’t look out for motorcyclists. They don’t. And until the “Share the Road” message gets some traction among the general public and eventually reaches those that can be called anti-motorcyclists, they won’t. Yet, I do see riders splitting lanes at unsafe speeds. I see motorcyclists doing amazingly stupid things all day and night. And I cringe. I see them riding too fast for conditions, passing on the right, wearing T-shirts and shorts, wearing flip-flops, wearing novelty helmets, doing stunts in traffic. And yes, here in California where it is OK to lane share, I’ve seen riders INSISTING ON THEIR RIGHT OF WAY. There’s really no winning that confrontation.

I’ve ridden like an idiot more times that I’d like to admit. It comes with being in a hurry or just enjoying a little extra throttle if that’s any excuse. I’ve got a family, I know better.

I guess what I’m getting at here is yes, drivers and other motorists need to be more aware of motorcyclists. They need to stop texting, reading, telephoning, applying makeup, shaving and driving. They need to be Much More Aware. And this is a long, uphill battle, but one that is well worth fighting. But riders are also fighting a problem of perception and this is sometimes a person’s only reality. When a good chunk of the driving populace sees riders riding as if they’re expendable, well, maybe they are expendable. After all, they must not value life too much when they’re doing all those stupid stuff in traffic, right? Yes, I know there are thousands of motorcyclists doing all the right things who still get injured or killed, but there’s another point to be made.

When it comes to getting drivers to recognize motorcyclists, how much of the onus falls on the loose nut behind the handlebars? We can do everything on earth to get them to notice us — lights, loud horns, bright colors, etc., but to what end? It’s one thing to be a defensive rider and there’s an argument for making drivers hyper aware that you’re there, but why do so many riders put themselves in a position where an inattentive driver can kill them?

If you read this and care to comment, please do. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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One Response to “Motorcycle riders and the road: What’s our responsibility?”

  1. amyhelmes September 8, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    The way I see it is that my life is a gift from God to be enjoyed, but I have the responsibility to take care of it. I wear protective gear even when it’s hot, don’t drink when I ride, and ride as defensively and attentively as possible. God is watching over me and protecting me but if He chooses to allow a fatal accident, then I hope it’s a swift death. I agree that people that ride in shorts and flip flops and scream from lane to lane without even signaling are acting like their life is expendable.

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