When I took my motorcycle rider safety course years ago, the instructor told us within the first 15 minutes that hed 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: “Im NEVER in a hurry when Im on my bike.” 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 motorcycle ride. I rode off, 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 wasnt 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 driving a car without a second thought, but I knew a lot of bad things can happen to kill you on a bike that only results in bent sheet metal in a car. And besides, I remembered the words of my MSF Instructor, “Im never in a hurry when Im on my bike.”
I think about those words every time I get on my motorcycle. They are great words to ride by. I feel no road rage, because Im not in a hurry. I dont need to try questionable passes on two-lane roads; the car will probably be stopped right behind me in a mile or two at the next light, anyway. I dont ride at excessive speeds because I dont need to get to my destination any quicker. The goal is not to get there quicker, its to get there alive and enjoy the ride along the way.
It was with this mindset I sat at an intersection recently, enjoying a nice afternoon ride. I was on a major, four-lane, suburban thoroughfare, with a left turn lane on my side of the road. There was a construction barricade set up just past the light, so the right-hand lane would have to merge into my lane before we all got through the intersection. I was about 10 cars back, so I wasnt sure that Id get through on this light. There were several cars in the left turn lane next to me, and a guy on a red sportbike behind a station wagon waiting to turn. The first car in line wasnt paying attention when the arrow turned green. The guy on the sportbike 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, relax pal, where ya runnin?”
I sat patiently 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 the next 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 that there was a small opening in the oncoming traffic, and the wagon was going to turn. But 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 over anxious sportbike rider had tucked himself right behind the left rear bumper of the station wagon and couldnt see the possible danger. I was now saying to myself, “Dont go, pal… the wagon may have to stop and you wont have room to clear the intersection… dont do it, DONT DO IT. And then I screamed out loud in my helmet “NOOOO!”
The station wagon did have to break for the other car, and the rider did get hung out to dry as a Buick came riding up in the right oncoming lane. I heard a loud screech of brakes and saw this mid-70s big Buick Electra plow into that sportbikes 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 to 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 in my saddlebag to call for an ambulance. Before I could even get my phone out, I saw a police car coming up the road. Hed probably seen 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 swarmed the scene. In seconds I heard more sirens and saw ambulance lights approaching.
By the time I ran back to the scene, I couldnt get close because the police had sealed off the area and the paramedics were doing their job. I found the first officer on the scene, gave him my name, and told him what I saw. He had seen it happen and had lots of people to talk to, so he thanked me and said theyd call if it was necessary. My knees were week, 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 girlfriends birthday party? Was he rushing to a buddys 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 pissed off that he wasnt the only vehicle on the road that day, and everybody else was just an impediment to his riding enjoyment? Regardless of the reasons, 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 agitated and intense?
As I gathered myself up and headed for home, I was thinking that Ill never know the answer to those questions. Ill never know if he had a girlfriend, wife, or baby at home. But Im pretty sure that he has a mother and father, who are crying their eyes out right now, and maybe brothers and sisters who are stunned and sobbing. Ill bet a lot of his family and friends are thinking to themselves that none of this would have happened if he hadnt bought that damned motorcycle in the first place. They may also be cursing the innocent driver of the car who hit him, because its easier and more comforting to blame somebody else for this tragedy. As for the driver of that Buick, I know his life will never be the same, and I feel for him, too.
As I rode back home, 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 more 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 making my turn. So Ill see my wife and daughters 30 seconds later, but I will see them. And maybe Ill miss the first touchdown of the second half of the game. Thats OK; Ill see the highlights on the news tonight. All I could think about were the words of my instructor, “Im NEVER in a hurry when Im on my bike.” More than ever, those seemed like words to live by.
About the Author
Ken “Hawkeye” Glassman is the motorcycle columnist for the Daily Herald newspaper in suburban Chicago. The Daily Herald is the only newspaper in the nation that has a separate motorcycling section each week during the riding season. His freelance articles can often been seen in national magazines and on several motorcycle Web sites like this one. Ken also is a monthly co-host with Gina Woods on Open Road Radio in Chicago, airing each Sunday night from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. on WCKG, 105.9 FM.