In honor of National Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month, I’d like to take this opportunity to say thank you to all the automobile drivers who don’t try to kill us every day. “Clueless cagers” is a common theme wherever motorcycle people congregate and with good reason, but I think the vast majority of car drivers (of which I am one) mean us no harm and actually wish us well. If they do plow into us, most of the time it’s just an accident with mitigating circumstances. It really is human nature to become less than hyper-vigilant when you’re safe, warm, comfortable and entertained inside a nicely upholstered soundproof box the government mandates must be able to bang into things at speed without injuring the occupants. I wonder how much the government spends crashing perfectly good new vehicles every year? Maybe if cars were less up-armored, people would pay more attention?
Maybe they could invent some safety equipment that operates the other way, by conditioning the driver not to crash into things in the first place? How about a Taser-equipped steering wheel that gives the driver a shock whenever he makes a sudden jerky input, a brake pedal that kicks back like a BSA kickstarter when you activate the ABS more than five times per hour, a headrest that reaches around and dope-slaps you when you turn or change lanes without signalling? And why not a sarcastic SIRI voice on the sound system to reinforce the reprimand verbally: “Nice move dumbass.” “Way to go deadshit.” Scratch that, SIRI is too nice, we’ll use an Orson Welles voice. “BE CAREFUL YOU TOWERING IGNORAMUS!”
Deep down, we’re really only interested in preventing catastrophes which involve ourselves. Without emergencies, nobody would get to gallop in and save the day, John Wayne style, then hook up with Miss Kitty. Where would we get our action movies? We loved our firemen and cops after 9/11 for a long time, right up until we realized what good pensions they get that the rest of us don’t. Gratitude only goes so far.
Anyway, in the eye of Automobilus Americanus, those of us who choose to ride motorcycles in traffic really are nuts, just like the thought of pedalling my bicycle on a busy road terrifies me: You people aren’t tempting fate, you’re taunting it, literally wagging your butt in fate’s face. I like to think most car drivers differentiate between upstanding, taxpaying motorcyclists such as myself, and others who also don’t deserve to be squashed, but if somebody has to be … When I’m car-bound, I’m tempted to give the moron in the helmet mohawk who’s redlining his race-piped GSX-R outside my window a love tap, too. Him and the Nazi-helmeted dude on the open-piped Hog. Eugenics is inexcusable, but you can see how people got there.
I had a theme when I started? Oh yeah. I came not to bury the American driver today, but to praise him. When I used to have to be in an office in the middle of L.A. five days a week, now and then somebody would come in and complain how awful traffic was that morning because of a crash on the 405 or wherever, and we’d all commiserate by cutting the storyteller off with our own hair-raising anecdote. The amazing part, though, is that most of the city isn’t in gridlock all the time. A decent traffic snarl only requires one mistake on the part of one driver. With the approximately three trillion cars in SoCal, it’s pretty amazing anybody ever gets where they’re going. It’s a minor miracle traffic flows as well as it does. If we all performed on the road as well as most of us do at our jobs and in our personal lives, there’d be a multi-car pile-up and pillar of flame every couple of blocks. Maybe I’m projecting.
As a people, we’re remarkably ignorant on a broad range of issues, but when we get behind the wheel, nearly all of us are functioning at the 8th-grade level, I’d say, or have our GED at least. I remember learning to work out square roots on the blackboard in about the 6th grade. I don’t think I could be taught to do it today. ADD is on the rise and our attention spans are at all-time lows. But most people still manage to snap to attention when it’s time to drive (a thing we’re attempting to do away with via self-driving cars, which I read keep crashing). Even driving under the influence, which was sort of a sport when I was young, is now not just legally but also socially unacceptable.
In town, with criss-crossing traffic, is still when you most need to be on your toes. On the freeways, with everybody pulling in the same direction, I can almost relax. The typical California driver’s hair doesn’t spontaneously combust when there’s a motorcycle between him and the car in the next lane, and most motorists respect your right to be there and maybe even like it now that bikes are cool, like a hummingbird outside the kitchen window. I try to dress the part. The freeway is really the only place we come together as a community.
When traffic lightens up, “slower traffic keep right” is still an advanced concept. It’s curious that the country which prides itself most on the rights of the individual and unfettered capitalism is the same one that most embraces socialism on the road. We’ll all only travel as fast as the slowest immigrant Astrovan in the left lane! As for conquered peoples we invited to America (the least we could do after spreading Agent Orange and land mines all over the place), do we insist they adopt our driving practices and assimilate? We do not: We respect and embrace the driving customs of their native lands, honed for millennia on water buffaloes and donkeys, in rice paddies and rancheros. We’re a big-hearted people.
In life, there will always be people trying to throw you under the bus, so it’s nice to know there seem to always be others willing to pull you out when you’re on your motorcycle, as this heartwarming story reinforced last week.
A while ago I came upon a stoppage where the 55 and 5 freeways meet here in the OC, a busy spot with about five lanes of cars negotiating in each direction. When I got to the front of the blockage on my motorcycle, which appeared to be caused by a stalled F-350 pickup, I found the truck was actually stopped in order to shield a hipster girl on, I kid you not, a stalled Triumph chopper, circa 1972. The woman appeared to be maybe 30 years old. The truck led interference with his flashers on as she pushed the chopper a couple lanes over to the shoulder. I stopped to help too, but she got the thing fired up again, waved and Easy Rider’d off into the sunset.
If I’d been the truck driver and the person on the chopper had been wearing a Nazi helmet, I’m not sure if there’d have been such a happy ending, but then, most people are nicer than me. Which got me thinking, hi-viz yellow is good, but a little pink in your helmet with maybe a blonde pigtail hanging out the back isn’t a bad idea either. We’re all equal out there on the road, but some are more equal than others.
At the end of the day, you have to ride softly and carry a big stick. If you go into traffic riding like a moron and looking for a fight, you’ll find plenty. If you go out there with a smile on your face and a song in your heart – and all sensory receptors on alert – the world really is your oyster on a bike, in a way the cagers will never get to experience. Pity them.