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Common Tread

Ask the doc: What do you worry about when you ride your motorcycle?

Dec 04, 2019

What do I worry about when I ride?

I am a trauma surgeon, so... well, everything, of course. And they are likely many of the same things that worry you. In general, we humans aren't always good at assessing risk. (We worry more about rare events like getting eaten by a shark or dying in a plane crash than common hazards like slipping in the bathtub.) So you can decide if the things I worry about when riding are reasonable or just the skewed perspective of a trauma surgeon.

Distracted drivers

You know them, you avoid them — except when you can’t. Distracted driving is on the rise despite laws that seek to prohibit specific behaviors, including handheld phone use (19 states as of March 2019) and texting (47 states and D.C. as of March 2019).

Distractions can be visual, manual or cognitive in nature. All result in attention being diverted from driving. Texting, internet surfing, social media site perusal and streaming app use are at the top of the list, but even taking a phone call using a headset or Bluetooth connection draws attention away from driving.

It's not just use of electronic devices, either. There are drivers applying cosmetics, shaving, eating, or listening to music so loud that everyone can: a) hear it, and b) have their windows and their innards rattttttle from the righteous bass. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately nine people are killed and more than 1,000 injured each day in crashes involving a distracted driver. Drivers under age 20 are at the highest risk, and in 2017 about nine percent of all teen motor vehicle crash deaths involved distracted driving.

According to the National Safety Council, distracted driving is one of the four main causes why drivers violate a motorcyclist’s right of way, leading to a crash. Our esteemed editor even suggested that he has adjusted his thinking on optimal lane position because of the increased possibility that a distracted driver may invade his space.

Roadway disasters

So many opportunities for disaster exist in the Philadelphia area. It would appear that our roads are crafted to hew to the planned obsolescence built into Keurig coffeemakers. (Mine dies like clockwork every two years.) The roads are worse, keeping to a yearly cycle of asphalt death. Lane-spanning, car-swallowing potholes appear around curves in the dark recesses between functional street lamps during the dark, early-morning commute. Of course, there is the crash over the crest of the hill, and the road debris from the seemingly constant road work that leaves piles of gravel in the most unexpected and dangerous places. Yes, I am well acquainted with avoidance techniques, emergency braking (I do practice), and best practices for detecting issues around curves — but planning cannot defeat everything, so I worry. Much less than with distracted drivers, but enough to mention here.

deer in the road
Too easy to hit, too cute to eat. Photo by Teri Conrad.

Cut grass, wet leaves, and dinner (I mean deer)

All cut grass seems to be blown by the lawn services along my commute route directly into the street as if it will be magically teleported somewhere else. If only. Yes, it is slick and can be problematic on a curve taken at spirited speed. Wet leaves are the fall version of summer grass. And then there are the deer.

My home unfortunately does not allow a dinner in which the main course could ever have been featured as an adorable Disney creature, like Bambi. On the other hand, Mark, I know where they are (all around where I live). But they are unpredictable in behavior even if they are predictable in location. Last fall’s up-close view of a deer haunch as it crested my front fender was close enough. And I was stopped, having spotted the lot of them along the road edge making their way up the embankment. Almost looked tasty.

Preventable injury

Surprise! Motorcycling is potentially dangerous. Some get injured, and some die from their injuries. Like you, I have chosen to embrace that risk. What worries me is deciding to ride without my usual gear (ask Lemmy, I ride in lots of gear), crashing (would of course not be my fault), and then showing up in my ED with wretched road rash or a fracture that would have been avoidable if only I was riding in my usual gear. There would be pictures. My wife would post them everywhere. What would my colleagues think?

Risk reduction using gear is a personal decision. Mine is towards more, yours might be even more (I do not have an inflatable vest, yet, but Christmas is coming), or it could be a little or much less. We each decide what is right for us.

cold motorcycle ride
Nobody ever said a ride was improved by hypothermia. Photo by Chris Force.

Becoming a meat popsicle

We have covered this in a variety of formats, but hypothemia is life-threatening! I wear heated gear when I know it will be cold, and I carry heavier stuff with me when it might get colder. Reaction time is reduced, your brain works less well. Of course, this will only happen at night and on a desolate stretch of road where I am less likely to be found before I perform your best imitation of a frozen steak (or perhaps a deer).

Renegade drivers

People routinely go the wrong way along a clearly posted one-way street or up the off ramp onto a major highway. Yes, there is usually an intoxicant involved, but these events are unpredictable.

In Philly, like Baltimore, there are other renegades, as well. You have undoubtedly seen the coverage of the groups of riders on off-road motorcycles and ATVs causing chaos on city streets. What gets less coverage is what the drivers do to avoid the motorcyclist or ATV rider who is going the wrong way, through the red light, or between lines of cars like an Olympic slalom racer. Car crashes, cars on sidewalks, and cars in oncoming traffic lanes are not uncommon. I would like to avoid being involved in any of that — but it occurs along all of the routes I might take to get to work or come home in the evening.

Are my worries reasonable? What worries you?