I remember it well, even though it was over 20 years ago. A mate of mine, who I used to go trail-riding with, bought a Honda CBX650, and let me have a ride on it. Around town it felt a bit awkward, but out on some back roads, punting it along at 100kph or more, it felt great. In fact the faster I went, the better it felt! However, while I revelled in the enjoyment of its speed and power, it also concerned me. I remember thinking, “If I owned this I’d end up riding it too fast, and probably killing myself!”
Now, to put this in perspective, you should know that I’d come from a background of road-trail bikes; bikes where 100kph was about what they were capable of flat-out. At the time, I had just got back into bikes after a break of about 4 years, and had recently bought an old Yamaha SR250. So to me, while I had ridden large road-bikes before, this Honda felt powerful and fast; and riding it too risky!
Well, over time, one thing led to another – or should I say, one bike led to another – and my conversion to road-riding was complete. I was still aware of the risks, but I’d long since learned to accept them, and manage them. I’d also learnt – and this came directly from my impressions on riding that Honda – that a big part of managing the risks was exercising restraint. Speed and power might be a big adrenalin-rush, but minimising the dangers meant riding at a speed that was appropriate for the conditions and that was well within the capabilities of both the bike and myself as a rider. These days, of course, I ride a bike with twice the engine-capacity of that Honda: and 100kph long ago ceased to feel like a fast speed on a bike.
I’m still aware of the risks though, and just occasionally my brain goes back into trail-bike mode: as I’m cruising along the highway I look down at the road passing beneath me and my mind is suddenly flooded with the dangers of what I’m doing. I feel like parking the bike by the roadside (while I’m still alive to do so!) and calling for a car to come and pick me up. It usually only takes a few kilometres for the feeling to pass, and I’m enjoying the ride again. But occasionally things happen to raise our awareness of the dangers of what we do.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Here he goes, banging on about safety and the dangers again! We all know the dangers, we accept them, so just shut up and let’s get back to riding!” But, as I said, sometimes things happen to raise our awareness of these dangers; and I think it’s healthy to consider the dangers, from time to time at least. To ignore them and never consider them would, I think, be irresponsible and a bit like the ostrich with its head in the sand! We need the occasional reality-check; a time when we take some responsibility and consider the risks in what we do.
Now, it’s not just me who thinks this way, other people get periods of hightened awareness too: periods where they consider giving it all away, while they still can. This article was inspired by one such person.
A reader sent me a link to a story, with accompanying video, of a motorcyclist who was killed in Victoria. Click here for the video, describing what happened and showing the scene of the crash.
The motorcyclist was approaching the crest of a hill and was met by a 4WD coming at him on the wrong side of the road. You can imagine the result!
The video, which is a commentary by an attending police officer, is a chilling reminder of how easily these crashes can happen, and when they do, of how many people are affected by the trauma of these horrible crashes.
For the family and friends of the rider, obviously, it is tragic: but it is traumatic also for the witnesses who arrive on the scene just after it has happened; and of course for the police and emergency services, who also feel the trauma of dealing with these awful events. Here’s what the reader wrote:
“The crash was no fault of the motorcyclist, but the fellow who was coming the other way on the wrong side of the road. Now, if it was me and I was hit and passed away I could accept that; if my time was up then that's how it was meant to be. But what does bother me is how would my family react if they were told I was killed? I’m not sure I could cope with knowing that my wife and children would be hurt beyond anything I could imagine.” He said it had made him seriously consider whether he should hang up his helmet and stop riding. He asked for my thoughts – and also for yours!
Well, as I’ve said above, riding a motorcycle is potentially dangerous. We all know that, but we tend not to think too much about it. And especially if we ride safely, not having any close-calls or incidents, it makes us even more complacent. It’s the “It's not going to happen to me” syndrome. Moreover, when you see people riding like idiots, and deaths occurring due to excessive speed and stupidity, while at the same time see people you know who ride safely continue to ride incident free, that further boosts the confidence that, “It won't happen to me”. Even though you know it can.
To our reader, I have to say that it’s certainly not up to me to recommend anyone to continue riding, or to stop riding. It is an individual choice we all make: but it’s a choice we can each think about and reflect upon.
We take a risk each time we ride. However we can – and should! – minimise the risks by riding sensibly and defensively, and always being super-aware of what is going on around us. But we know it only takes a moment’s lapse in concentration, at just the wrong time, for everything to suddenly go horribly wrong. And none of us, no matter how carefully we ride, are immune to that moment’s lapse in concentration. This was brought home to me recently by a friend of mine having a crash. I wrote about this in my Blog (See August 27 2014).
He was riding through a small town, doing around 40 - 50kph. He knew the road very well, having ridden through there many times; although not recently. Suddenly he crested a hill and was confronted by a roundabout; a roundabout that couldn’t be seen until he was almost on top of it, (it’s just over the crest in the photo here), and that wasn’t there the last time he rode through the town. Yes, as I’ve shown in my Blog entry, there were signs, (and you can see one, off to the left, in the photo here), but, being familiar with the road, and riding into a setting sun, he didn't see them.
He tried to go around it, but didn't make it. The bike came down and he fell heavily onto the road. The result was 6 broken ribs and a punctured lung. And a written-off bike.
Now, while in my opinion the position of the roundabout is potentially dangerous, (and people have complained about it), it could be argued that the crash was partly his fault: and he wouldn’t totally deny that. It’s that lack of concentration thing I mentioned before; something that, as my friend says, can be more likely to occur when you’re going slowly. As he said, going slowly you often concentrate less, as the perceived danger is less. Yes, he should’ve seen the signs; and yes, if he'd gone straight ahead (and held the bars firmly enough!) he could’ve probably ridden over it, as the lip onto the roundabout is only fairly small. But with the familiarity of the area, and suddenly being confronted with a situation where he had to make an instant reaction, well, it’s easy to understand what happened.
Friends have asked him if he will keep riding. He says he probably will. (After all, he is involved in a motorcycling organisation, which is how I first got to know him). But it made me ask myself the question, if that had happened to me, would I keep riding? I don't know. But I would be extremely nervous if I did, I'm sure. I might say at this point, that I've been along that road many times myself. I rode along there when big signs went up stating that a roundabout was being built; and then later saw the signs on the road saying it was there. So in that sense his incident doesn't scare me. Although I can’t say that if I had been in his position – not knowing it was there – that I wouldn't have made the same mistake. I'd like to think I wouldn’t have, but I can’t say for sure, because as I said, none of us are immune to having a brief lapse in concentration.
In the incident with the 4WD coming over the hill on the wrong side of the road, there’s nothing much you can do about that. (Although the recommendation – which I do try to follow – is to always move to the left when approaching a blind crest). It’s a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and falling victim to someone else’s lapse of concentration (or whatever it was that caused him to be on the wrong side of the road).
I have previously written about these sorts of dangers out on the roads in an article called, “A Scary Place”. Some of the incidents described in that obviously carry more potential danger for motorcyclists than for drivers of cars, although the last one would have been fatal even in a car. So it is, as I said in that article, a dangerous place out there!
On the flip-side of this though, is the fact that we never know how much time we have on earth to live this life that has been given to us. On the same day that the video of the crash was sent to me, I heard of a 27-year old healthy woman, just about to be married, who was playing a game of netball. Suddenly she clutched at her head and screamed, then fell down dead on the ground. We might presume it was a burst aneurism, something that may have had no prior symptoms but was just like a time-bomb waiting to go off, but we don’t know. In any case, the outcome was a life lost at a tragically young age. So one school of thought would suggest that we should enjoy life while we can, because we never know when the chance to do so will end. That is probably especially so for us older folk. “Live each day as if it’s your last!” they say. But that would be irresponsible, wouldn’t it? We need to take some responsibility in what we do and the way we do it; if not for ourselves, then for our family and friends who know us and love us and depend on us.
That’s another thing I think of sometimes; even though, like our reader, I consider myself a very safe and aware rider. Like our reader, I would think not only of myself if an incident happened, but of my family. They obviously wouldn't like to see anything like this happen to me, and I would hate for them to be heart-broken at something that I could have avoided by stopping this dangerous activity.
But there are risks in everything we do. We can get run down by a bus while crossing the road. Even inside our home we can be injured: people have slipped in the shower and sustained life-changing injuries. That might sound glib, but it’s true. We are at some risk everywhere we are. Someone once said that if we wrapped ourselves in cotton wool and did nothing, we might still choke on the fibres! So we take risks every day – by driving to work or the shops, by crossing the road, by just doing what we do each day. And we take risks by riding a motorcycle. It's a matter of risk-assessment and how comfortable we feel with each risk we take.
I continue to ride because I accept the risk and consider that I am managing it well, and minimising it by the way I ride. But sometimes, when I hear of incidents like these – especially the fatality with the 4WD – I realise that “it can happen to anyone”, and I have doubts.
So the bottom-line is that it's a balance of risk-assessment and risk-management. And that brings us back to the issue of balance: balancing the risks against the pleasures, weighing up the amount of risk and how well we can manage it. It’s a matter of working out where that balance is: when making the most of life’s opportunities and living a pleasurable lifestyle becomes selfish irresponsible living. 
I know that doesn't answer the question of whether our reader – or any one of us – should continue to ride or not; that, as I said earlier, is a question we each have to answer. But it’s something we can – and probably should – all think about from time to time.
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