(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on April 19, 2012, in my “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)
And yes, I mean that literally. Folks like me who ride a motorcycle around Fairfield County in April aren’t just taking our lives into our own hands—we’re putting them in yours… and honestly, some of you don’t seem all that jazzed about it.
There is an unspoken agreement between all drivers on the road: we promise not to swerve into each other at high speed just because the lady at the lunch counter forgot the fries with our order. The pilots of planes, trains, and cruise ships make this same tacit agreement, yet they very rarely come close enough to each other to worry. Car drivers, on the other hand, barrel toward each other at ungodly speeds while separated by nothing but faith and a pair of painted yellow lines. Unlike pilots, who demonstrate high levels of competency and mental stability over time before being trusted with the lives of their passengers, anyone with a pulse and a pair of keys can get behind the wheel of a car.
Scarier still, there is a bravado that envelops people when they step into a metal cage with seat belts, air bags, and heated coffee cup holders. Grandma Jones has led a long, full life—she has no problem cutting against traffic while trying to figure out the GPS. The wonder of automated travel, streaking across open roads at speeds that took modern man centuries to finally achieve, fails to fully capture the attention of giddy teenagers on cell phones. People have become so bored of driving that the failure to multi-task while doing so is seen as a waste of precious time. We choose to forget that we are literally risking our lives hundreds of times on each quick trip to the store. We pretend that nobody in the surrounding bullets of metal and glass is falling asleep, texting, or returning from an all-night bender.
We motorcycle riders are not allowed that luxury because we are exposed. The typical car is several thousand pounds; a truck several tons; the typical motorcycle weighs only a few hundred. We do not have seat belts, safety bars, or side-impact air bags—we are surfers atop a hurtling roller coaster. In a collision between the three, one of us is going to end up a stain on the road—guess which? For this reason, my brother refers to motorcyclists as “organ donors.
Our only defense is a healthy skepticism of every driver on the road, the absolute certainty that someone is about to do something stupid. (You know, the same attitude dads have about their sons.) That, and gearing up for each ride as if we’re trekking across Antarctica even amid the brutal heat of August. The thick leather jacket, heavy-duty gloves, industrial boots and blue jeans are the only thing keeping us from smearing our skin across the road like clumped Chapstick as soon as we dump the bike. My gear gives me all the flexibility of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, yet my entire body needs to react in a split second to keep someone else’s carelessness from becoming my swan song. Of course, that’s assuming I know what’s coming—and that’s not always a given in the soundless world of a well-made motorcycle helmet.
Ironically, one of the attractions of Connecticut motorcycling is we don’t have mandatory helmet laws. However, I need to protect the few brain cells I have left after years of bicycle crashes, skateboard spills, college happy hours and “Brady Bunch” re-runs. Alas, even the safest helmets offer limited visibility; heavily padded on all sides with a narrowed window through the hard shell, they reduce peripheral vision to a rumor. This is why you see us craning our necks on either side of the bike—we’re not miming a matador, but rather desperately trying to see who might be flying up behind us because our rear-view mirrors are the size of gum wrappers.
I gained a new appreciation for road awareness only after I stepped out from behind the safety of my SUV and saw how fragile life can be for cyclists. There’s a contingent of drivers who believe that anything on two wheels is an insult, an obstacle to be ignored or squeezed to the sidewalk. Every roundabout becomes a game of “Frogger”—no one knows who has the right-of-way, and some drive as if they get bonus points for making me soil my pants.
It’s worse in the Northeast because we’re just not used to sharing the road with motorcycles. Most bikes are parked during the winter and rainy seasons before they pop out of garages like lilies once the days get warmer. Suddenly, drivers are faced with eerily solitary lights approaching them from the other lane. They figure it’s a car in the distance, and take that fateful left turn… into the path of a defenseless biker.
This is where I need to remind you of our contract, Dear Driver. I have to promise my wife I’ll be careful each time I ride, but I’m not sure if anyone’s whispering that in your ear. So consider it whispered.
I know that, like putting our heads between our knees before the plane crash, this offers only the illusion of safety. Still, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to keep up that illusion.