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…