It is that time of year. Well, it has been that time of year for about a month now, longer in climates warmer than my beloved Western NY. Men and women across the nation have brushed the dust off their helmets, done their yearly maintenance on their rides, and taken to the roads. It is the time of year we remind drivers to look out for motorcyclists and increasingly they are listening. Roughly every fifth car, it seems, bears a bumper sticker admonishing their fellow motorists to look out for their two-wheel loving neighbors. It is a long overdue change in attitude in our country.
For decades the image of the biker has been straight out of a movie: roughnecks in leather, covered in tattoos, long hair, riding into town and wrecking havoc wherever they go. People on motorcycles, especially those in clubs, were viewed at best as childish daredevils and at worst criminal mavericks. Much of the ire directed at them is tied up in pressure to conform, but also, in part in fear of the machines. Motorcycles seem inherently dangerous to those who do not ride them, and indeed there are risks, and those who do are often judged by their decision to take those risks and even their ability to master them.
I have known Charlie for fifteen years. He is an affable, if curmudgeonly fellow. He would lumber into the coffee shop I worked in, crack wise and share his wisdom, such as it is. Having a penchant for asking potentially inappropriate questions I asked him about the cane he needed at such a relatively young age (he was in his mid 50’s at the time.) When he was younger Charlie rode. One day riding down Route 19 just outside of Brockport he was cut off by a driver exiting a parking lot. He woke up with his leg laid out across the bike, burning on its still hot engine, and unaware of his more serious injuries. He knows that accident is not the only reason for his bad back but it is a big contributor. When asked what he would say to the person who cut him off (full disclosure, the driver is a relative of mine, who will remained unnamed b/c I will likely catch enough hell just for saying this much) he answered “What the fuck were you thinking?”
You see she, and so many drivers out there, impart a sort of superhuman status on motorcyclists. We see the balance it takes to ride and assume the biker can easily swerve out of the way, or even stop. Many do not realize that motorcycles have the same right of way any motor vehicle does, as if that somehow changes the laws of physics or their ethical responsibility to not put another life in danger. Charlie was lucky in some ways, and I suspect he knows it. Others, not so much.
There is a young man I have never met. He is a friend of friends. I will not mention his name, his family has been through enough and deserve their privacy. A driver made an illegal left turn in front of him, sending him flying and leaving him with a grievous brain injury. The injury has left him unable to care for himself and forced friends and family alike to watch him suffer. So much has been taken from all these folks, and all because the carelessness of another, a carelessness all too common when it comes to motorcyclists, bikers who come from all walks of life.
Brian Trzeciak is a Lead Organizer for both the Citizen Action of New York and the Alliance for Quality Education. He works hard helping the voiceless find their voice. He brings together groups and people who need to work together to fight for common causes, organizing meetings, events, and services. He spends much of his time engaged in the dozens of not terribly romantic sounding but monumentally important tasks that are real activism. He is a man with a very serious job. He is also a biker. At first blush he may look the part, beard and tattoos, but his gentle demeanor may throw people off the “biker scent,” at least those with a particular view of what makes a biker.
He has been riding for ten years now. He does so for the freedom he feels doing so, and for the clarity it provides. “Some people sit still to meditate. I ride my motorcycle” he tells me. He has been in several accidents, some serious enough to go to the hospital but so far no broken bones. He has lost track of all the near misses. When asked about public perception of bikers and motorcycle safety he is happy to see the discourse moving in a direction that emphasizes drivers’ responsibility. He still has to contend, like most bikers, with people who do not understand his willingness to risk life and limb if he has been in an accident. He understands that it seems strange to people who do not ride but adds “I still ride because I still can. When I’m not able to anymore, I’ll stop.”
There is a sort of fatalism to his description of riding. If you have not been dumped from your bike, you will be, he explains to me. He understands that this view may come off as cold, but nothing could be further from the truth. Whenever he passes an accident his heart goes out to the rider, and their loved ones. His advice to bikers though, is to accept that risk, learn from the times you get dropped, and get back on that bike and ride.
Staff Sergeant Terence J McDonnell of the NYS Troopers is glad for the increased calls for driver awareness. Driver distraction is a huge problem and motorcyclists are particular vulnerable when a driver of a car or truck experiences a lapse in judgment. That is why all across the country law enforcement agencies are ramping up “Watch for Motorcycles” campaigns. He also wants to make sure that motorcyclists are aware of their responsibility “Motorcycle operation is fundamentally different from that of other vehicles, and also very unforgiving of errors in judgment.” He tells me there are classes everywhere to learn not just how to operate a motorcycle, but the skills necessary to increase your likelihood of surviving a crash. For more information one can go to their website: http://www.safeny.ny.gov/mcyc-ndx.htm.
Everyone needs to be responsible and aware as the warm weather increases not just motorcycle traffic, but traffic in general as we go on trips for the summer. Yes there are bikers who drive unsafe, but there are motorists who do so as well. The general attitude about bikers has been improving, but I still notice, in conversations a distrust and dismissal of their right to the road. Even if you do not like motorcycles yourself I am pretty sure you will feel awful when you cause their riders serious injury. Why take that chance when you can just alter your thinking just a little and learn to share the road safely with your two-wheel loving neighbors?