Author's note: In May 2004, I first published this piece in the Daily Herald newspaper. I received more positive email about it than on any other piece I've ever written. Most suggested I run it every year, and I have in many publications. Because May is Motorcycle Safety Month, and we're at the beginning of a new riding season, I'm running this column again and hoping that it gives you pause to think about motorcycling and the way you ride. Hopefully, it may save some lives and injuries this year.
Before you start your motorcycle, think about your friends and family members, and all the people to whom you mean so much. Stop and think about all the things you have to live for. Motorcycling can be a dangerous sport, and often mishaps are totally beyond our control. But many things are within our control, like our state of mind and mental preparedness. So this season, please ride safe, ride sober and ride intelligently.
When I took my Motorcycle Rider Safety Course years ago, the instructor told us within the first 15 minutes that he'd been riding for 20 years without any accidents. He attributed that to practicing the many safety rules we were about to learn, and to one other personal creed he lived by: "I'm NEVER in a hurry when I'm on my bike." He said those words slowly, deliberately -- forcing eye contact with each one of us in the class. Then he added: "If you remember nothing else in this class, remember that."
Those words echoed in my mind a few weeks later when I took my new bike out for my first-ever solo motorcycle ride. I rode off down the road, pulled into the left turn lane and came to a stop, waiting for traffic to pass. At the first gap in traffic I was about to turn, then hesitated. What if I popped the clutch and killed the engine, or if I was too hard on the throttle and spun out of control? I wasn't comfortable yet on the bike and I figured it would be better to wait for a more comfortable interval between cars. I would have made the turn in a car without a second thought, but I knew lots of bad things that can kill you on a bike would result in only bent sheet metal driving a car. And besides, I remembered the words of my MSF instructor -- "I'm never in a hurry when I'm on my bike."
I think about those words every time I get on a motorcycle. I think they are great words to ride by. I feel no road rage, because I'm not in a hurry. I don't need to try questionable passes on two-laners; the car will probably be stopped right behind me in a mile or two at the next light, anyway. I don't ride at excessive speeds because I don't need to get to my destination any quicker. The goal is not to get there quicker, it's to get there alive and enjoy the ride along the way.
It was with this mindset that I sat at an intersection recently, enjoying a nice afternoon ride. I was on a major four- lane suburban thoroughfare in the left lane. There was a construction barricade set up just past the light, so the right lane would have to merge into my lane before we all got through the intersection.
I was about 10 cars back, so I wasn't sure I'd get through on this light. There were several cars in the left-turn lane left of me, and a guy on a red bike behind a station wagon waiting to turn. The first car in line wasn't paying attention when the arrow turned green. The guy on the red bike honked his horn, and by his body language and motions, he seemed agitated because only three cars turned on the arrow. Now there were two cars in front of him as the light turned green in both directions.
I sat there slightly amused and thought to myself, "Hey, chill out pal, where ya runnin'?" I sat relaxed while the cars going in my direction were merging into my lane to get through the intersection. The cars in the oncoming direction were moving through the light sporadically, so the first car finally turned left, but the second stopped. Again this rider threw up his hands in disgust, thinking there was plenty of time for that car to turn. He inched right up on the bumper of the station wagon in front of him, and was looking through the glass of that car at the oncoming traffic. I was inching up but still behind this scene when I saw there was a small opening in the oncoming traffic approaching, and the wagon was going to turn left.
However, I also saw that just beyond the turn, there was a driveway coming out of a strip shopping center, and a car was approaching that driveway to exit. The overanxious rider had tucked himself right behind the left rear bumper of the station wagon and couldn't see the possible danger. I was now saying to myself, "Don't go, pal … the station wagon may have to stop and you won't have room to clear the intersection … don't do it, DON'T DO IT. And then I screamed out loud in my helmet "NOOOO !"
The station wagon made the turn but the driver then had to brake. The rider on the red bike got hung out to dry, still in the intersection as a car came riding up in the oncoming lane. I heard a loud screech of brakes and saw this big, mid-70s Buick Electra plow into the red bike's rear wheel, sending the rider flying into the air like a rag doll -- with his bike tumbling after him. The rider landed 10 or 12 feet away, slid on the pavement and smacked into a utility pole on the corner, and lay motionless.
I was frozen and horrified at what I just saw. I had no place to go and get off my bike, so I had to go through the intersection past the construction to pull over. I ripped off my helmet and grabbed for my cell phone to call for an ambulance. Before I could even get my phone out, I saw a police car coming up the road. The officer probably saw the accident happen, because he was only a few hundred feet away approaching the intersection.
Within seconds all traffic came to a halt, with a dozen witnesses to the accident swarming the scene. In seconds I heard more sirens and saw ambulance lights approaching. By the time I raced back to the scene, I couldn't get close because the police had sealed off the area and the paramedics were doing their job. I found the officer, gave him my business card and told him what I saw. He had seen it happen, so he thanked me and said they'd call if it was necessary.
My knees were weak, my stomach was turning and all I could do was sit down on the curb, throw up my lunch, and cry. Then I got angry at the rider. I asked myself where the hell could he have been going that was so important that he had to get there a few seconds sooner? It was in the middle of a fall Sunday afternoon. Was he late for his girlfriend's birthday party? Was he rushing to a buddy's house to catch the second half of the football game? Was he racing home because his wife told him his baby was sick? Or was he just ticked off that he wasn't the only vehicle on the road that day, and everybody else was just an impediment to his riding enjoyment?
Are any of those things important enough to risk your life for? Riding a motorcycle is such an enjoyable activity. Why would anybody choose to be so impatient, or restless and intense?
As I gathered myself up and headed for home, I was thinking that I'll never know the answer to those questions. I'll never know if he had a girlfriend, wife or baby at home. But I'm pretty sure he had a mother and father who are crying their eyes out right now, and maybe brothers and sisters who are stunned and sobbing. I'll bet a lot of his family and friends are thinking to themselves that none of this would have happened if he hadn't bought that motorcycle in the first place. They may also be cursing the innocent driver of the car who hit him, because it's easier and more comforting to blame somebody else for this tragedy. I know that poor driver's life will never be the same, and I feel for him, too.
As I rode back, my senses and alertness were sharper than they had been an hour earlier. I was aware of everything going on around me. I glanced at my mirrors often to make sure I knew where all the traffic was. I looked at my speedometer, and I was right on the speed limit. As I slowed for my first left turn, I saw an oncoming car. It seemed like I had plenty of time to make my turn, but I came to a stop. I waited for the oncoming car to clear the intersection before proceeding. So I'll see my wife and daughters 30 seconds later, but at least I'll get to see them. And maybe I'll miss the first touchdown of the second half of the game. So what? I'll see the highlights on the news tonight.
All I could think about were the words of my instructor: "I'm NEVER in a hurry when I'm on my bike." More than ever, those seemed like words to live by.
Please ride safely.
• Contact Glassman at KGHawkeye650@aol.com.