Common Tread

Post-crash thoughts after putting a shoulder-sized dent in a Cadillac

May 16, 2018

The backside of that Cadillac came up on me so quick I had little time for lights at the end of a tunnel or some kind of drowsy montage about all the good times I’ve had here on earth.

Instead, I grabbed a handful of front brake and applied ample pressure to the rear pedal in hopes of somehow stopping the chrome-happy Harley-Davidson Low Rider before the bumper of the Cadillac and I became close friends. But alas, both myself and the bike went right into that big American mom-o-wagon, shoulder first.

The bike came out from under me, landed on its throttle side and slid for maybe 10 feet. I also slid, on my right side, for roughly the same distance — I think.

To be perfectly honest, it all happened so fast. One minute I’m on a motorcycle enjoying a Southern California roadway, the next I’m staggering toward a Low Rider lying on the concrete, exhaust side down. Then a guy in a truck pulls up, jumps out and helps me bring the bike back onto two wheels. He drives off right around the time the lady who was at the helm of the SRX walks over to me.

accident scene
The scene of the incident: Low Rider, Cadillac and the shiny new stop sign. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

To avoid going into too much detail (lawyers, ya know?), what I can say is that there was a stop sign, a new one, which the woman at the wheel of the Cadillac didn’t see or know about. I, too, was unaware of this new piece of DOT adornment, but I could see it in the distance, awaiting my arrival. What I didn't anticipate was her stopping her sled. At least not so suddenly, and certainly not so soon. She was seemingly surprised by this new sign and proceeded to jump hard on the big pedal of her pearl-white Caddy, about 200 feet before it was necessary. But this isn’t about who did what or exactly how it all happened. Instead, this is about the only good thing that comes from a crash: the lessons that might help us be better riders.

damage to Harley-Davidson Low Rider
Damage to the Low Rider was surprisingly superficial, like these scrapes on the mirror and brake fluid reservoir. The ugliest part was the scraped fuel tank shown in the top photo above. The motorcycle was still rideable. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

The best thing about good gear is we're more likely to wear it

I’d been staying with my aunt and uncle in Southeastern California, putting the wraps on a story about performance Harley enthusiasts — hence the 2018 FXLR. I was headed into Orange County to meet a friend and shoot a few photos. It was warm that weekend and only getting warmer.

I’d flown into Los Angeles a few days earlier from the Canary Islands, where I’d been attending the launch of a new Ducati (go ahead, feel sorry for me). When I packed for the first bit of this trip, I had to seriously consider the second bit, where I’d be landing at LAX and jumping onto a Low Rider. So, I kept things simple. I packed my Colfax Design Works backpack with just enough of the essentials (T-shirts, toothbrush, etc.) and then threw my Schuberth helmet into a tote and walked onto the plane wearing my riding jeans, boots and jacket — everything I needed to survive a three-week trip halfway around the world.

When I landed in Los Angeles after my adventure off the coast of Africa, I was surprised to find the temperatures above average, somewhere between uncomfortable and fuck-this-shit. The next few days were spent in the city, where I begrudgingly wore all the gear I’d dragged with me. Now, I’m not some kind of anti-helmet hooligan, but I have been guilty of giving way to the warm weather. The morning I left my aunt and uncle’s house, I walked out in a T-shirt with my helmet and gloves in hand. It was going to be a short ride and it was hot. But right around the time I turned the key, this little guy showed up on my shoulder and muttered something like “You’re going to lose more than some skin, you idiot.” So, I threw out the kickstand and dragged myself back inside the house where I’d left my armored jacket.

When I hit the pavement half an hour later, the jacket, riding jeans, gloves and helmet kept this from being something much more serious. My right shoulder, knee and wrist were subjected to a combination of speed and concrete, but I walked away, virtually unscathed, with only a sprained wrist and a small abrasion on my knee.

damage to pants
The riding jeans suffered one abrasion. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Now this is where you guys and gals give me the "Duh!" Obviously, wearing gear is better than not wearing gear. A helmet will keep your cabeza from getting cracked. But many people, nowadays, focus on how the gear looks and feels, and less about how the gear handles, if you catch my drift. And if I'm being honest, I’m no different. Done are the days of Stormtrooper suits and one-piece Roadcrafters — as much as I love them. Now, we’re lucky enough to have an abundance of classically styled and yet modernly appointed riding gear which, in my case and I presume many others, encourages a rider to don a bit of kit they might have otherwise left hanging in the closet.

In this instance, it was a jacket that I’d become quite attached to. It looked cool, fit just right and, although it was warmer than necessary, still found its way onto my back that morning. Sometimes it is form over function. But these days, form and function can work in harmony to spare us some suffering. Lucky us.

jacket
The REV'IT! Westport Overshirt held up to the skid on the asphalt with minimal damage. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

The main mistake

My biggest mistake was to presume. Presumption is the mother of all mistakes. It gave birth to the They Probably Won’t Steal This Stuff, the Oh, That Can’t Happen to Me and the Of Course She Sees That Stop Sign. That latter of which is the one that got me, shoulder first. My presumption this woman at the wheel would see the new stop sign and stop for it where you’re supposed to, led me to be lackadaisical in my attention. I let my eyes wander as I motored down the road, daydreaming, perhaps, about what I was going to photograph. I looked down to check my speed a few times, because my uncle had mentioned that the fuzz in this area are eager for something to slow down, stop and ticket. What I wasn’t expecting is exactly what happened. And that, my friends, is how we go from good times to dead real fast.

Another thing I knew, but forgot in the moment, is that you mustn’t let the adrenaline get the best of you. I’ve been lucky enough to walk away relatively unscathed from the crashes I've had, but I have been told tales of post-crash adrenaline overruling your sense of pain, and therefore your ability to mitigate damage.

An example: A friend blew a stop sign on his sport bike and found himself stuffed into the side of a pickup truck. When he came to, he quickly attempted to get off the ground, onto his feet and right his wrecked motorcycle — like a lot of us would. But both his wrists were broken, and he’d suffered a rather serious concussion. So, when he went to push himself up, his broken wrists gave way and he promptly passed out from the pain.

Yeah, not a fun tale to tell. But like my broken friend, I too jumped up immediately after the accident and went about sorting out the bike, with little to no concern for any injuries I had sustained. I then made a phone call or two. My uncle quickly arrived and promptly told me to stop moving, lie down and take it easy. Good call.

Harley-Davidson Low Rider
The Harley-Davidson Low Rider in happier, pre-crash times. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, what I learned from crashing into the Cadillac is that life can go from a carefree ride to done and over with in an instant. So fast that the last thing you might see is the backside of a sad SUV. But any of us who ride a motorcycle should know these are the risks we face. A friend and fellow motorcyclist was asked in an interview recently about his goals for the coming year. His reply? “To not die in traffic.” Hear, hear!

Justin's CliffsNotes on crashing

  • Wear the stuff you know you should wear, even if you don’t want to. With so much cool-looking kit these days, any excuses fall on deaf ears.
  • Don't assume anything except that everyone at the wheel of an automobile is out to kill you. You did something terrible to that driver's significant other and the person behind the wheel is just waiting for you to cross the intersection. Presuming anything else can end badly.
  • Enjoy every mile, even the hot and horrible ones, because there could be a Cadillac out there waiting for you to leave a permanent impression on its panels.