Thoughtful Thursday

19 January, 2006 Temps: 24 degrees F (-4C)

The Windsock and Crystal Ball Guild got it completely wrong today. I awoke this morning to feckless forecasts of 2 to 4 inches of snow by evening. I flipped through every local channel, and they were all in agreement: Today we would get buried under a fluffy white blanket. Well, it didn’t happen. We saw maybe a quarter inch at most, and the bulk of the storm passed north of us. There wasn’t even a dusting on the roads.

This suited me just fine, as I was able to spare a bit of my cognitive energy for observation and contemplation on the ride home.

Let’s take the Saint Paul Ford Plant, for starters. Anyone reading the local newspaper knows that this plant is going to either shut down soon, or severely cut back on it’s work force. This is a local tragedy, but one which has been in the making for a long time. As irrational as it seems in these times of rising gas prices, people just aren’t buying small pickup trucks like the Ranger any more. They buy full-size, gas-guzzling V8 behemoths in full denial or defiance of reality.

The Ranger is built here at this plant in Saint Paul. One of the highlights of my daily commute past the plant has always been seeing the “Ranger of the Day” pulled up on the ramp and displayed proudly in front of the plant. They have come up with some interesting versions and paint schemes over the years, but to read the news, it seems they appeal to very few buyers.

Okay, so I’ve spent two paragraphs setting you up for this… When you receive information that one of the largest workplaces you pass on your daily ride is laying off large numbers of people, what does this mean to you as a commuter on two wheels? It means you either bypass the plant entirely, or be extremely cautious when riding past the exit from the parking lot. Sure enough, as I rode by at 4 pm tonight, there were folks burning rubber out of there, driving angry, probably headed for the nearest bar or liquor store. Who can blame them?

As I approached, I slowed down, looked pointedly at the next vehicle coming out, and didn’t proceed until he waved me by. The truck that had just left before I got there was already doing about 60 mph in the 25 zone in front of the plant. I wonder if that driver was holding a pink slip… what a damned shame. These people are the salt of the earth, the backbone of this country, and they are getting royally screwed by parasitic “shareholders” and executives who care about nothing more than their sacred bottom line. Oh, I know this isn’t the place for this discussion, but for me it hits a little too close to home.

Back on-topic, however, notice that I made sure I got visual feedback from that next driver before I passed the exit of that seething parking lot. At that place, on this underpowered motorbike, I had to make certain I had been seen in order to avoid being crushed.

“Conspicuity” is the word one of my readers used to describe our efforts to be seen by the often oblivious driving public. This illustrates two distinct schools of thought relating to our particular dilemma:

School number one is the old school of classic biker black. This is viewed as fashion, nowadays, but it wasn’t always thus. You see, black is the predominant color of bugs, road grime, and used motor oil. These are an accepted part of a motorcyclist’s life. You wear black clothing so the stains don’t show. But this aesthetic comes with a price…

When you wear biker black, you must assume that you are invisible to all other vehicles on the road. Anything that happens out there is automatically your fault, because the driver didn’t see you. You shoulder the responsibility for your own safety, and you must hone your skills and maintain your motorbike in top condition to avoid the oblivious box people blundering about on the highway. This is not a safe practice, and that is perhaps why it attracts the more adventurous and rebellious amongst us. Some of us go so far as to only carry liability insurance, as a further motivation to maintain our awareness and vigilance out on the roads. We control our own destiny, or we pay the consequences.

School number two is the modern, logical, and reasonable school of maximum conspicuity. This is where the ubiquitous “Start SEEING Motorcycles” stickers come from. The majority of thoughtful, educated riders adhere to this philosophy, and rightly so. They act responsibly, but they expect other road users to do the same. In order to aid them, the modern, rational rider wears bright colors and festoons his motorbike with accessories that increase his visibility in traffic. On the surface, this makes perfect, rational sense. But there are chinks in this flourescent armor.

Sadly, I don’t trust school number two. Call me a cynic, but trusting bright lights and colors to catch a manic SUV pilot’s attention so he doesn’t run me over is a leap of faith too far. These people are driving around in civilian armored personnel carriers for a reason: Nobody else matters. As long as they are safe, let the insurance companies and lawyers sort out why some poor biker splattered himself all over the undercarriage. Nuclear Tangerine riding gear will not protect you from a distracted jerk driving a tank.

So, where does that leave us? Obviously, you stand the best chance by combining both schools of thought. Develop the best skills and awareness you can and wear the kind of gear people can see. My Darien jacket is black, but it has hell-for-bright reflective stripes on the back, front, and sides. The Baron is bright red and silver. I ride like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

If your skills need improvement, wear brighter clothes, and install lots of bright lights and reflectors on your motorbike. This will help others see you when you are not aware of them. Get mirrors that work, rather than showing you realtime video of your elbows.

Next time, we will have a deep, thoughtful discussion of why Loud Pipes Save Lives! Or not…

19 Responses to “Thoughtful Thursday”

  1. Bill Sommers Says:

    Thoughtful Thursday made me think. I live on the Strait of Juan De Fuca in Port Angeles WA, a bit northwest of Seattle, and a number of years back, we saw the end of our fishing and logging industries as we knew it for generations. This was followed be the closing of a major pulp mill which saw the loss of hundreds of jobs. So your blog struck a chord and brought back some thoughts of how my family was affected. Jeez…But your blog has affected me in a good way though. It has brought back some good memories of when a friend and I made a pact back in the early 80’s to see who could go the longest without driving our cars. Motorcycles only, no cars. So we pulled our batteries out of our rigs and commenced riding for over a year. Rain, snow, ice, blow, whatever, we rode. And man, it was the coolest thing to do back then because we were looked at as total idiots, then “hardcore bikers.” So now, with your writings to juice me up, I’ve decided to give it a go again as far as commuting to work goes. I’m 47 with a wife and little ones, so a total driving boycott won’t work. But I can manage a putt to work. I’m pretty close to having the scratch to cash out a scooter, so now all I have to decide is what will work best for me. So, thanks for the inspiration. Think about it, man. You are affecting people. Thats cool. Bill

  2. Dick Aal Says:

    This hit home. I ride with basic black but on a purple motorcycle. So I guess I am schitzo on the visability thing. The first time I took a motorcycle out from a shop to show my wife, (to beg her to let me buy it) I was in the middle lane of a three lane street. A woman in a 4.5 year old volvo station wagon with 1.75 kids in the car and 3.4 bags of groceries looked right at me and pulled into my lane. I of course being new to riding a motorcycle put on the rear brake only causing me to swerve all over the place and with the inefficient rear brake barely missed her. But after that incident, I never let it happen to me again. It is the defensive part of riding that we either learn how to do or don’t survive on the mean streets. I have been riding for over 20 years total and really enjoy the ride but hope to be safe as much as possible. Hopefully my skills can keep up with the conditions as they change.

  3. Dan Jones Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    As a long-time diamond frame bike rider and a recumbent rider of several years, I can truly relate to the issue of being seen. The recumbent is my favorite bicycle now but, due to it’s low height and narrow profile, riding it demands absolute attention to what the other vehicles (and pedestrians) on the road are doing. No matter how many reflectors, flashers, flags, and lights we install, bent riders can NEVER assume that we have been seen or that others will react in a sensible manner.

    Unfortunately, some bike riders tend to assume that the road laws that apply to motorized vehicles do not apply to them. This tendancy often generates very negative attitudes on the part of cagers which can make us the target of hostility. More reason to exercise extreme caution.

    I fully intend to bring the same attitude of awareness to my scootering. Seems the sensible thing to do.

    Hey — don’t get me started on big SUVs and gas guzzlers. This is probably not something that will go away until these folks obtain enlightenment and that seems to be pretty far down on their list of priorities. I have to assume that we are all absolutely correct in our own minds or we wouldn’t live our lives as we do. In the mean time, I’m staying out of their way — makes them happy and keeps me alive.

  4. mnscooter Says:

    Bill said: “So, thanks for the inspiration. Think about it, man. You are affecting people. Thats cool.”

    Thanks, Bill. That’s been the goal from day one, and it is good to know that the message is getting through.

    Dick and Dan, well, what can I say? You guys get it.

    What blows my mind is the new rider who spends 20-grand on a brand new cruiser, complete with all the black leather his credit card will stand, and then either skips or cheaps out on a helmet, because it doesn’t fit the image. It’s a good thing these folks minimize their exposure by riding very few miles… (duck, and cover!)

    Ride well,
    =gc=

  5. Stealthbot Says:

    My favorite method of describing riding habits was described in a novel as such:

    Rather than make the standard assumption that you’re riding in pitch dark and every driver on the road is blind- assume that you’re in a spotlight, wearing day-glo colors. Imagine that every car on the road is being informed of your exact location via radio. And now suppose that there’s a million dollar bounty to the first driver to unseat you.

  6. irondad Says:

    Hi!

    Had to come over here for some company because it’s a little quiet on my site!

    As an instructor for our state’s motorcycle safety program we talk about visibility, lane positioning to be seem, mental strategies, and so on. The most critical thing I try to get across is that there is no ONE MAGIC BULLET!! Things like conspicuity are all just tools to get the job done which is fulfilling our responsibility to take care of ourselves. I personally am not a thrill seeker looking for the “high’ of a narrow escape. I do take pride when my skills rescue me but that is a different thing altogether.

    My definition of an “expert” motorcyclist is one who uses expert mental skills to avoid using using expert physical skills.

    Seems to have worked for me for some time, now!

  7. irondad Says:

    P.S.

    Can’t wait for the loud pipes discussion! Have some input from a law enforcement standpoint but I won’t steal your thunder!

    See, I can “pun”, too!

  8. mnscooter Says:

    Irondad is right, of course. I’ve never been an instructor, but I did write the Advance Riders Strategies curriculum for the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center. All the good stuff is in there.

    For the blog, however, I want to keep things simple. The skills I talk about are both mental and physical, and I encourage everyone to study up. The test will be given at some random moment, and you really want to make sure you pass. Your life will depend on it.

    Ride well,
    =gc=

  9. Mad Says:

    Well my gear isn’t high vis, it’s mainly black, I know it should be but I just can’t bring myself to ride in day-glo yellow. I even have a reflective Sam-Browne belt that I can’t make myself wear except on foggy days…

    I will say this though: having the right protective gear is incredibly important, I killed my Zed today but I got to walk away from it because I had armoured jacket/trousers/boots/gloves on (I even had kevlar lined jeans underneath my armoured trousers). So my contiribution to the debate is “Day-glo or black make sure it’s armoured to the teeth.”

    Oh and it was my own fault, I’d love to say a myopic cager took me out but it wasn’t; it was my own snap desision and a pile of gravel that saw me off.

  10. mnscooter Says:

    Mad, Mad, Mad…

    Well, I’m sorry about your bike, but extremely happy you can still think and type.

    I’ve been there too many times myself to get terribly excited about this.

    Seventeen times I have crashed in my life, and only two of them were honestly not my own damn fault. “Ride fast, take chances…” -they say.

    So I did. And I learned.

    The right riding gear is SO important. I’m really glad you were wearing yours. Please keep us posted on future developments. Are you crawling back into the box? Or are you going to get back in the saddle? Enquiring minds will want to know…

    Get well,
    =gc=

  11. irondad Says:

    mad,

    please ride again. Totally glad you are ok enough to write, like gary says. Having seen your input on the two blogs I really feel we would lose a “colorful character”. It would be a little less fun without you.

    Dan

  12. Dick Aal Says:

    On the safety issue and other notes in this area! Experience and keeping on top of things pay off in the long run. Also, I have had many accidents in my years of riding but I can say two things about them. First, luckly I had no broken bones. BUT secondly I never had an accident that WAS NOT my fault. I contributed the majority of the fault to every accident I had. For that reason, I am concidering taking the basic rider’s course and the advanced course just to sharpen my skills although I have ridden more than 20 years and have over a quarter million miles on two wheels.

  13. Mad Says:

    Gary, Seventeen times!!! Some of those must have been trail riding, no? I suddenly feel a bit better about my two crashes, although they are way too close together chronologically.

    As for crawling back into the cage? It can’t happen, I don’t have a cage and most importantly I don’t have a licence to drive one! I love riding and I find it hard to imagine life my without a bike. Of course if it turns out I’m a serial crasher I may have to reconsider biking.

    Thanks Gary and Irondad, I needed a bit of cheering up.

  14. mnscooter Says:

    I’ve only crashed once on a trail ride, and you can read about that in the first “Backroads Diary” here:

    http://www.motorbyte.com/mmm/pages/2003/61/diary61.htm

    One other crash was on the racetrack, in turn one at BIR, at about 140 mph. That one hurt.

    All other crashes were on public roads. I had the unfortunate, but inevitable nickname “Crash” while I was in the Marine Corps during the 1980s. That was in Southern California, during the dawn of the “crotch rocket” era, and we were riding way too fast in the canyons.

    I have broken three vertebrae in my lower back, destroyed the ACL in my right knee (BIR T-1), taken an 8-inch piece of chrome side trim from a Camaro through my right leg, after which I rode eleven miles to sickbay on base. When I close my eyes, I can still see the corpsman pouring what looked like a pint of blood out of my boot into a stainless steel pan in the ER. I’ve seen the shiny white bone of my left big toe sticking out the side of a black leather combat boot in a bright red meat-blossom, and suffered all manner of roadrash.

    But never one single head injury, because I have always worn good helmets.

    This is what happens when you are always pushing the limits, trying to improve your skills, and looking for that adrenaline rush that you can only find out there on the ragged, hairy edge.

    You know what? We have to make it eighteen, if I count that very minor incident early-on with the Baron.

    The thing is, the thought of quitting never even occurred to me. From the first day I swung my leg over a mini-bike at the age of 12, I’ve been hooked. Now, at age forty-two, there are mornings when it takes me awhile to convince my creaky skeleton to haul us, once more, into the upright position. This is why I stay active and try to keep my muscles in shape, to help support my battle-damaged frame.

    Well, this is turning into a book, so I’ll just shut up now. Serial crasher? Nonsense. You learned a lesson here, and I’m sure you will apply that knowledge next time you ride.

    Cheers,
    =gc=

  15. irondad Says:

    Gary,

    If you come to Oregon I’m sure I could hook you up with a great Advanced Rider Training Course! :)

    ( tongue firmly planted in cheek )

    Dan

  16. mnscooter Says:

    Sure, I’ll be glad to be your “What not to do” example. I’ll even bring my cane along, to lend authenticity. Why not? What are old geezers for, if not to provide laughing stock for invincible youngsters?

    Ride well,
    =gc=

  17. Buster Brown Says:

    There’s a reason that Satin Black Rustoleum is known as “International Safety Black”: It’s hard for them to hit you if they can’t draw a bead.

  18. Mad Says:

    Thanks Gary, I’ve been feeling a bit low but you are, of course, quite right. I have learned a lesson and I will apply what I learnt (Don’t make snap decisions and gravel offers less traction that tarmac!).

    I guess I felt a bit down because I thought I’d got the big lessons learnt, it was an unpleasant suprise to discover that I’m still a newbie… and a newbie with an insurance premium that is about to rocket to boot.

    Biking has given me a passion and a pleasure that I would be very hard pressed to replace, I can’t see me giving it up.
    Cheers Gary

  19. brad Says:

    “getting royally screwed by parasitic “shareholders” and executives who care about nothing more than their sacred bottom line.”

    I would like to add that “shareholders and executives” are definitely in it for the money, otherwise, why would they be where they are. Some blame must be put on our nation’s unions and its representatives making it so incredibly expensive to produce products in our country. I agree that these people have lives and families to support and should be able to do so, nor are the autoworkers to blame.

    I have been in jobs where I refused to join the union even if it meant less pay only out of principle. I do not claim to be any king of expert, but why did Honda and Toyota have their BEST YEAR EVER in 2005 while the 2 largest vehicle producers in our country recorded MAJOR losses.

    There needs to be an awakening of EVERYONE involved in automaking from the exec. all the way down to the buyer, and every level of worker in between.

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