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Motorcycle safety: Avoid the asphalt luge

  • Published
  • By R.J. Oriez
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs
I refer to it as the time I did the asphalt luge.

For those who need a reminder between winter Olympics, the luge is that sport where athletes slide down an ice track at high speeds feet-first, laying on their backs, atop a small sled.

While I was sliding along at high speed, feet-first, lying on my back, I wasn't on an ice track. I was on California State Highway 94, an eight-lane freeway in San Diego, and there was no sled between me and the pavement.

It was April, 1994 (yes, I'm old) and a moment before I had been on my motorcycle, doing about 60 or 65 mph. I would come to find out that my steering head bearing failed. Before I could form the thought that I was going down, I was doing the luge.

I don't know how long or far I slid, but I had time for two distinct thoughts. The first was being thankful for the heavy, leather motorcycle jacket I had on. The second, as I looked between my feet and saw my bike sliding in front of me throwing off sparks, was, "My bike!"

I crossed from the far left lane to the one just right of it before I stopped sliding. As soon as I stopped, I jumped up and dove for the shoulder. Fortunately, the driver behind me had given me enough room that he was able to avoid running me over as I was doing the luge. Also, lucky for me, when I dove for the shoulder I didn't dive into the path of a car.

There was a lot of luck with me that evening. I didn't slide into a guardrail or a light pole. I didn't tumble or roll when I left the bike. There wasn't a driver in the next lane when my body changed lanes.

I had a wallet in my back-right pocket. I still have that wallet. It saved my butt -- well, half of it anyway. There is a hole in it from the asphalt that tore through my jeans' pocket and started working its way through the wallet. Wish I'd had one in the other pocket.

I also made my own luck that evening. I was wearing that jacket. California freeways have grooved surfaces. Those grooves are still visible along the left sleeve and the back of that jacket.

I had good, leather cowboy boots on. I don't think my feet would have been in any shape for me to dive for the shoulder of the road if I had been in flip-flops. And, of course, I was wearing my full-face helmet and quality motorcycle gloves.

As I stood up on the shoulder of the freeway, I was amazed to discover that nothing seemed broken. I had scrapes, but I was in one piece.

A driver stopped to help me get my bike and move it to the side of the road. I happened to have a windbreaker in my saddlebags and I tied it around my waist for modesty before I rode my bike to Balboa Naval Hospital to get checked out.

I called home from a phone in the emergency room. My 13-year-old son answered and told me that my wife was not home. I told him that I had been in a minor motorcycle accident and that I needed his mother to bring a pair of pants for me to the hospital.

"But dad," my son said, "you said there was no such thing as a minor motorcycle accident!"

In the emergency room that night, I was treated for relatively minor road-rash on my right shin and backside as well as a scrape on my knuckle.

When I went to work the next day, the only sign of the mishap was a standard-sized Band-Aid on my finger.

There are two sayings I kept hearing when I was riding. The first was, "There are two kinds of riders: those who have laid their bikes down and those who will." The second one was, "There are old riders and there are dumb riders, but there are no old, dumb riders."

Both of these sayings have a lot of truth in them.

If you ride long enough the odds are at some point you will become separated from your bike in an unplanned manner. That does not mean you have to stop riding. It means you do everything you can to mitigate the danger.

You ride smart. You take the motorcycle safety course taught on base and you put into practice the driving tips you learn there. And, you wear safety gear!

No pilot would dream of strapping into an F-16 without a proper helmet, boots and knowing that the ejection seat and other life-support systems were in good working order. A pilot does not taxi out to the runway thinking that this flight is going to end in a crash. However, a good pilot knows there are things beyond his control -- engine failure, bird strikes, etc. -- that could cause the plane to crash. So, he has all the gear that will help him survive should the worst happen.

The motorcycle rider must prepare in the same way. No matter how good of a rider you may think you are, there are things beyond your control -- mechanical failure or on-coming cars not seeing you and turning left in front of you -- which can cause you to do the asphalt luge. Each trip, you must be prepared.

There was an additional benefit to my doing my best to ride safe.

I continued to ride for several years after that incident and, sometimes, I would have my young daughter on the bike behind me. Every time she rode, I made sure she had on a helmet, eye protection, long pants, gloves and all the rest. I also made sure she understood why it was all important. And, yes, I used my asphalt-luge incident as a teachable moment.

As she grew up, if we were riding in the car and came across someone riding a motorcycle in flip-flops or shorts, I'd often hear her say "Idiot!"

When she got to high school age, I did not have to worry about some pimple-faced kid trying to impress her with how cool he was by doing some stupid move on a motorcycle. She would have spotted him for the fool he was and would have nothing to do with him.

She's 25 now and called the other day excited about the possibilities of getting free motorcycle lessons from a local dealer in Columbia, Mo., where she lives. The thought of my daughter driving a motorcycle didn't cause panic. I know she will ride safe and have all her gear. I know she was taught right.

And I just might get a bike again myself.