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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Motorcycling Month of May

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey

“While riding down the street one day
In the motorcycle month of May
I was taken by surprise
By a minivan of size
And a soccer mom who ruined my day”

--Lyrics twisted by Ralph Couey
With abject apologies to Edward Haley

May has been proclaimed National Motorcycle Safety Month, and across the country states are launching public information campaigns urging the driving public to increase their awareness of motorcycles with which they share our national roadways.  But it’s not only to remind motorists, it’s also for reminding the riders themselves to learn and employ safe riding habits.
Motorcycle accident deaths have been trending downward for the last few years.  That’s really good news, even though in the context of human tragedy, a single death is one death too many.  The issue is still being studied, so nobody has yet pinpointed the reasons for the reduction.  But like many others, I have my opinion.

1.      Better training.  In nearly all states a prospective rider can avail themselves of rider training courses offered through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF).  In most cases, passing the course earns you that coveted “M” endorsement on your license.  The course is dynamic, updated every year to reflect the growing body of knowledge.  As a result, new riders hit the street much better prepared than in decades past. 

2.      Better riding habits.  Though squids still abound, most riders are, in my observation, riding much safer and more defensively of late.  Much of that may have to do with the increasing mean age of riders, which has changed from the mid-20’s to the mid-40’s, a much more mature, responsible age group, well aware of the limits of mortality.  Although as comedienne Caroline Rhea is fond of pointing out, “Men don’t mature.  They just get old.”

3.      Better machines.  Technology is racing forward at breakneck speed.  Today’s bikes are engineered far better, and are therefore easier to handle than those sold even 10 years ago.  In addition, handling improvements like ABS and linked braking systems are far more common.  Tires get better each year as well.  Even the technology of road building has improved.  Any highway worker will tell you that it’s not just the same old asphalt.

4.      Better drivers.  I’m admittedly on shaky ground here, since the advent of cell phones has added a whole new level of hazard to the roads.  All I have to support my point is my own experience.  I’ve been riding for 20 years (anniversary last month, thank you very much).  When I first began, I knew how to properly execute an emergency evasion and a panic stop.  Why?  Because I had to do them both several times each month.  But in the last several years, I’ve noticed that I haven’t had to do that nearly as often.  In fact, I find I have to take time in a parking lot to practice those maneuvers in order to keep sharp.  Of course, I’ve learned several things, like don’t hang out in the other car’s blind spot, looking ahead and planning my way around hazards before they become hazards.  My instincts are far more acute.  Now when I ride towards someone waiting to turn onto, or across my traffic lane, I can look in their eyes and “know” when they aren’t actually seeing me, even though looking in my direction.  Mostly, I’ve learned to leave them room to be stupid, because they will rarely disappoint the expectation.

5.      Better Gear.  Motorcycle gear, when riders bother to wear it, has a definite role in how they survive accidents.  At one point, leather was the sum total of protective outerwear.  Of course, that was problematic in the summer.  Who wants to climb into black leather when it’s 100 degrees and humid?  Now riders have a choice of several man-made materials and jackets and pants that are armored, meshed, and vented, making them tolerable on hot days.  Helmets have improved exponentially.  Several studies have proven how a quality Snell/DOT rated brain bucket has reduced or prevented brain injuries in accidents.  Over the years, a myth has grown up around helmets that wearing one increases the chances of a broken neck due to all that weight sitting on your stacking swivel.  But that myth has been broken.  Last year, Johns Hopkins released a study showing that modern helmets, made from stronger yet lighter materials, actually decrease the incidence of cervical spinal injury in motorcycle accidents.
There’s still room for improvement. 
--There are still too many riders who depend solely on the rear brake.  Every test, every study that’s ever been done has proven the fallacy of that.  It is now said that the front brake provides 90% of a motorcycle’s stopping power.  Using the rear brake only can double the stopping distance and in some cases, can result in a collision that, using the front brake, never would have happened. 
--The number of riders who believe the highway is their own private race track is actually small, but they are very high profile.  Take the 25-year-old fellow in New York who, after being clocked at 166 mph, was dumb enough to boast to the arresting officer that his bike had gone 190.  Or those other numbskulls that video-tape their high speed dash (with the speedometer helpfully in full view) and then post the evidence on YouTube, where a simple application of cyber voodoo leads the law to their front door.
Last year, having reached the 5-year limit on my headgear, I bought a new helmet.  Having seen how the bright yellow of Honda’s Goldwing caught my eye on the road, I purchased a bright yellow Nolan.  Since then, I’ve noticed a definite decrease in the number of times I had to evade people pulling across my path.  I have actually seen drivers do a double take, when they saw my helmet.  My wife suggested I could have accomplished the same thing with a pink helmet, and she’s probably right.  But somehow, topping off an ensemble of manly black leather with a hot pink hat is just…wrong.
Hopefully, people will listen and heed to the reminders about motorcycles.  Next month, June 18th, is National Ride to Work Day, an event organized by a rider named Andy Fine.  It will be a fine day for riders to hit the roads in force, demonstrating the practical, as well as the emotional benefits of motorcycles.
There are many external factors impacting safe motorcycling.  But perhaps the most important one is realizing that of all the screws and nuts on a motorcycle, the most important is the screwy nut sitting on the seat.
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