Saturday, August 7, 2010


Motorcycles are a lot of fun, but hardly a practical or safe means of transportation.

You see them all the time on the road. Young men on "crotch rocket" motorcycles, going by at 80 or 90 miles an hour, with no helmet, and little more than shorts and a t-shirt on. We call them organ donors. If you fall off a motorcycle with such little protection, bad things happen in a real hurry.

And for many young men, this is often a fatal or life-changing experience. Super-fast motorcycles can be bought cheaply from Japan, and easily go from zero to 100 mph in a few seconds. Even the best reaction times are no match for an oncoming car turning left into your lane.

And that, in short, is the standard motorcycle accident - the car turning left into you. Yes, it usually is not the "fault" of the motorcycle rider (although usually the rider is going far too fast for conditions). An oncoming car driver decides to turn left and doesn't "see" the motorcycle, and the two collide.

The reasons for this sort of accident happening are various and well-documented. People tend not to view the single headlight of a motorcycle as a "vehicle" and it does not register in their brains. Or, if the motorcycle is going very fast, they cannot judge the closing speed, and assume that they have time to turn, thinking the bike is going as fast as some lumbering SUV.

Many motorcyclists put pulsing or flashing headlights on their bikes, in an effort to "wake up" car drivers and hopefully prevent such a fatal collision. But it still happens with too much regularity.

I've owned a couple of bikes and been in a couple of collisions. I was not seriously hurt, although I have a compressed disc in my neck as a result, which, as I age, is giving me some trouble.

I can tell you firsthand that the left-turn-in-front-of-the-motorcycle thing is a real issue. It seems like every jackalope out there wants to kill you when you are on a bike. They all want to turn left, it seems, just as you are oncoming. It's like they have "kill a biker" tattoo'ed on their foreheads.

And that's why I ended up selling my bikes and getting out of the game. As a practical means of transportation, a motorcycle leaves a lot to be desired. If the world was populated only with motorcycles, it would be great. But the world is populated with little old ladies who can barely see, or worse yet, "important people" who have to text, phone, eat, drink, and do all number of things will ostensibly driving their cars.

Safety gear helps. A good set of leathers will help reduce road rash when the inevitable happens. And it is inevitable. You know the old saw about there being two kinds of bikers - those who have been in a wreck, and those who are going to be in one.

A helmet protects your head and really is necessary, all this ABATE talk notwithstanding. Even a fall at a low speed can be fatal if you land on your head. That's why even bicyclists wear them (or should).

So you strap on your space-suit and put on your space helmet and..... you are isolated from the very environment you set out to enjoy. The great outdoors, with the sun shining and the wind in your hair - you ain't getting that on a motorcycle most of the time, unless you decide to ride without safety gear.

So, instead, you ride around with a bucket on your head, muffling the road noise and even limiting your field of vision. The loudest thing you hear is your own breathing. The fantasy of riding footloose and fancy-free, like Easy Rider is just that - a fantasy.

And once you are on your bike, where can you go? As a young person, I liked to go out to socialize. This meant going to bars - even biker bars. The problem is, while you might be able to drive a car after having a beer or two (and be under the legal limit for intoxication), on a bike, even a small amount of alcohol can impair your balance and reaction times. And since everyone else out there in their cars (usually drunk) is basically trying to kill you, it can make life miserable for you as a biker.

Because of this, most "serious" bikers would never think about drinking and riding - even a small amount. So that kind of sucks the fun out of life, unless you are a Mormon.

I just returned from a trip up the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive. Many folks take their bikes there to ride, as it is a relatively "safe" place to ride a motorcycle. There are few intersections and few cars (on weekdays) and the chance of a fatal left-turn car collision are smaller. Many folks actually trailer their bikes to locations such as this, just to ride in peace.

You can't blame them. Riding in city or even suburban traffic is not relaxing or enjoyable. You have to be vigilant at all times for the left-turning soccer mom who is sipping a latte and on the cell phone. Riding on the Interstate is the worst - blown around by truckers (who increasingly, are texting while driving, so much for the "knights of the road"!) and cut off by distracted vacationers.

Hard core bikers, of course, take this all in stride. They don't mind getting that 70 mph insect in the face (fun, when it is a bee or wasp) and having the inevitable collision. My hat is off to folks like that.

But for the rest of us, motorcycles are not really a realistic, cost-effective, safe, or practical means of transportation. A toy? Yes. A ride to work? Occasionally. But since they are a seasonal, fair-weather form of transport, they are not really cost-effective. And many bikes out there are costly - more than the cost of a new car.

If you buy a "cheap" motorcycle, you may find it interesting for a while. But eventually, the urge to get a bigger, more "serious" bike prevails, and you end up wanting to go large - such as a Harley. It is up-or-out at that point. For me, it was out, as I could not afford to spend $10,000 or more on a motorcycle, and the rate of return, in terms of enjoyment, was diminishing. Been there, done that. I had no desire to adopt this as a "lifestyle".

I also saw many of my biker friends get hurt, visiting them in the hospital, or attending their funerals. Some of the esoteric healing practices used on motorcycle injuries were things out of fright movies - external braces and bolts to rebuild shattered legs. Metal plates in the skull. You name it. And my friends who survived, well, laying there in the hospital, they'd be looking at new bike catalogs - hoping to buy the ultimate bike with someone elses insurance money.

And yea, in most cases, they were laid low by the left-turning car driver.  It is like some sort of sick comedy how regularly that occurs.

I was fortunate in that I was not injured too seriously.  A driver cut me off and I ended up on the hood of his car. He was a 20-year veteran of the Connecticut State Police and a Harley rider for decades as well. He was so apologetic as I climbed off the hood of his Oldsmobile. He said "I can't believe I hit a biker!"

I couldn't either. If I got hit by a cop - and a Harley rider to boot - what are the odds of being hit by all the truly clueless people out there? Pretty much 1:1.

So I sold the bike for about what I paid for it (got lucky there, bought it cheap in the dead of winter, two years before) and walked away from it.

Years later, I bought a secondhand sidecar rig for about $4000 on eBay. I had a lot of fun with that in the Keys and other vacation places. But once again, it seemed that every car driver was out to kill me with their stupid left-hand turns (two wrongs don't make a right, but three rights make a left - remember that!). We enjoyed it for a while, but I found that riding it on city streets was taxing and stressful. The fantasy of the bucolic enjoyment was replaced by the nervous reality of bad car drivers, often literally forcing you off the road.

The end there was that jackass smoker who tossed his butt out the window (Jackass smokers, and I am being redundant here, like to make a big deal these days about flinging their butts in a dramatic way). The lit butt flew up into my helmet and burned me. At the next light, I let him have it, and he just said "fuck you" and drove off.

I sold the bike for more than I paid for it on eBay. I was lucky - again. Cheaper bikes tend to depreciate like mad. Even a few thousand miles is a lot for such bikes. Even larger bikes, like Harleys, depreciate, particularly in this recent recession. So, like a boat, RV, or other "toy", the cost per mile of ownership can be pretty staggering, even if they get decent gas mileage.

Again, these are toys. If you enjoy them, more power to you. But if you are toying with the idea of a motorcycle as a serious means of general transportation, forgetaboutit! Buy yourself a secondhand car instead. Want the wind in your hair? Get a convertible - I have three. When I ride by motorcyclists with their "brain buckets" on, in my convertible, I wonder who is really enjoying the freedom of the road more.

Mopeds and scooters bear special mention as these are often bought by people looking to use them as transportation devices. The accident rates for these are higher than traditional motorcycles, usually because they are bought by people who are not experienced in motorcycle riding. They look easier to ride than a motorcycle and ordinary citizens get lulled in by their apparent simplicity and lack of power as indicia of "safety".

But again, the danger is not in the bike itself, but in the car that hits you. So a low-powered moped or scooter is no safer than a crotch rocket. In fact, the lack of speed is an additional safety concern, as you are constantly being tail-gated and passed by cars, often being run off the road in the process. When I was a kid, I had a moped, and it was twice as dangerous as any motorcycle, in my opinion. And yea, you will get into a moped accident, several times, if you own one. Ever see a moped that is NOT dented? Maybe when they are new at the dealer...

Many resort areas rent mopeds and scooters to tourists, who have no biking experience. In many cases, you don't have to have a motorcycle license to ride these "small" bikes. As a result, they often end up wiping out these little bikes and often end up being hit by cars. Drinking and scootering, in particular, is a problem in some resort areas. I am sure you have seen the "ban moped rentals" bumper stickers on some folks' cars. Each sticker is a story - usually a sad story - about the end game from a moped rental.

But, like so much else in life, advice in this regard is rarely taken. Telling a 20-something male that spending a ton of dough on a crotch rocket is a bad idea is usually a waste of time. He has a new job and a W-2 and the man at the Ninja dealer can get him into the lime-green baby shown above for hardly anything per month. Heck, I know that at that age, I was all into it...

And paramedics will tell you about the messes they have to clean up as a result. A smashed crotch-rocket, usually with the paper temp tags still on it, and a mangled young body off in the weeds or wrapped into the grill of a car.

We had such a recent experience on Deer Trail Road, which is aptly named. A young man, late at night, doing 90 mph on the highway, zooms by. A few seconds later, the sickening sound of flesh hitting flesh at speed. He hit a deer at nearly 100 mph. The bike slides down the road, relatively unharmed. The young man, wearing nothing more than a helmet, t-shirt, shorts, and sandals (!!) is found in a tree, quite dead.

It is a story repeated over and over again. And the sad part is, it is a story not told often enough in public. A line or two in the paper, perhaps an obituary. Only spectacular accidents make headlines, and even then, only occasionally. The more run-of-the-mill type, where a driver turns left in front of a bike, are usually not even mentioned, particularly where the motorcyclist is only "injured" (a euphemism for months of hospital time, surgery, and rehabilitation).

In Central New York, it is almost a dark comedy in this regard.  The local biker club will hold a memorial "poker run" to commemorate the death of some fellow biker, who died last year - during another "poker run".  It seems that each event generates a new death to celebrate next year with another commemorative event.  And yet the folks doing this fail to see the irony of it all.  It is like those Hispanics who build memorials on the Interstates to their loved ones who died in a wreck there, and then they get run over while putting flowers on the memorial.  Both groups are candidates for the Darwin Awards, to be sure.

The point of this blog entry is not to dissuade you from buying a bike.  Just as you can't persuade a marijuana user to stop smoking pot (they have to figure it out on their own) you can't convince a biker of much of anything.  If you've got the bug, chances are, you'll do it, no matter what people say.

If you are thinking about buying a bike or scooter as daily transportation, however, maybe you might want to think about a secondhand car instead - more practical, more useful, more comfortable, safer, and cheaper in the long run.

And if you've gotten into biking and are finding it less and less fun, then go ahead and get out. All this nonsense about "I'll never sell my bike" is just marketing baloney from the manufacturers (who don't want to see the market flooded, as it is now, with used bikes).