*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat 7/16/2006
Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Couey
The accident in Pittsburgh that sent Steelers Quarterback and regional heartthrob Ben Rothlesberger into a 7-hour surgery is so full of sidebars and implications that it’s hard to know exactly where to start.
What is known at this point is that Big Ben was operating his Suzuki Hayabusa in a safe, legal, and responsible manner when an elderly woman turned left in front of him. This scenario is painfully familiar to riders. When motorcycle accident statistics are analyzed one can readily see that this is the most common type of accident in which the rider wasn’t at fault. This, of course, doesn’t begin to count the hundreds of times each day this situation creates near-misses.
We are taught in safety courses to try to always think ahead, crafting escape routes and maneuvers to avoid such dire situations. But when a car pulls out in front and presents the broadside angle, the very position of the car eliminates most of the available options for the motorcyclist. Just because a driver looks at you, they don’t always see you; hence the inevitable t-bone collision. Caution and care must be exercised by both parties in order to avoid disaster.
It was with certainty that this incident would raise the helmet issue with all its passionate and divisive rhetoric. Since Rothlesberger’s severest injuries were confined to his head, it is natural to make the case that a good-quality helmet would have mitigated the worst of the impact. The insides of modern helmets are lined with high-impact foam engineered to slow the impact of the head, thereby preventing the brain from ping-ponging around the inside of the skull. Also, the chin piece on a full-face helmet is there specifically to protect the jawbone from getting either broken or jammed back into the vertebrae. Others will argue that helmets actually contribute to injury due to the added weight on the head.
I’m no engineer. But I do know that since helmet laws were softened nationwide, there has been a 30% increase in head trauma-caused deaths. Some of this increase is accounted for by the explosion in the popularity of this activity; more riders, therefore more accidents. But there are a lot of inexperienced riders taking to the roads, many riding bikes that are too heavy or too fast for their ability and experience levels.
The most disturbing comment came from a salesperson at the Suzuki dealer, who noted that the Hayabusa was popular among first-time buyers. For those who aren’t yet aware, the ‘Busa is a 1300cc 175 horsepower rocket. Its top speed is described as 189 mph, but that figure is also the industry-wide mandated speed limit for production motorcycles. There are some in the motorcycle press who will privately tell you that the actual top speed may be closer to 200 mph. By comparison, it only takes 180 mph to get a fully-loaded 747 off the ground. The appeal of such a machine to young bucks new to the sport is readily apparent. But I question the wisdom of shop owners so hungry for a sale that they are willing to sell that kind of machine to someone who shows up with only a learner’s permit. Their response is, “Hey, if they don’t buy it from me, they’ll just buy it from someone else.” While I accept the reality of that rationalization, it still doesn’t make it the ethical thing to do.
Which brings me to my final point. Rothlesberger’s learner’s permit had expired in March. It is not known what steps he had taken, if any, to either renew the permit or take the license exam. Cops will tell you that there are a surprising number of motorcycle operators on the street who haven’t even bothered with the learner’s permit. Operating a bike is completely different than an automobile, which is why separate licensure is required. In Pennsylvania, as well as other states, licensing can be accomplished through participation in certified Motorcycle Safety Courses. Responsible riders always support and encourage participation in such courses, both beginning and experienced levels. It is certainly the best way to learn what you need to know in order to have a chance at surviving on the street.
None of us is immortal and it certainly behooves us to ride responsibly. Even though this accident was not Ben’s fault, please be aware that it’s only going to take one or two more high-profile crashes like this one, regardless of whose fault it was, and we’re going to find legislative bodies across America imposing severe restrictions on our sport.
And if we, as a motorcycling community, cannot live up to the responsibilities of ridership, then perhaps we deserve whatever oppressive fate such laws will decree. In this, the future of motorcycling as it exists today is manifestly in our hands.