Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Memento Mori

There was an article in the paper today about a motorcyclist who got the silver medal in a right-of-way contest with a dump truck. I think most motorcyclists, like myself, generally read articles like that in a detached, disinterested manner. We carefully parse the words to tease out the threads of our own bad behaviors.

In this case, the text was mercifully brief, leaving as the only certainty in my mind that the last two words heard inside that helmet were “…Oh” combined with something like “****!!”

Incidents like this are, virtually without exception, wetware errors—a malfunction somewhere directly above the chinstrap. Motorcycles rarely fail mechanically in this era. These events are the landfighter equivalent of aviation’s “controlled descent into terrain”—not a euphemism as is often suggested, but a clinically precise term of art laced with black humor, describing that all-too-common flight situation where everything is just ducky right up to the instant of maximum entropy, when order becomes chaos and structure becomes wreckage.

The typical article—and in a major newspaper there will be several such notices in a given week—contains words and phrases like “excessive speed” “street racing” “failed to negotiate” “failure to yield” “right-of-way” “turned left in front of” “drinking” “drugs” “alcohol” “lost control” and then generally the word “struck” combined with: (1) “other vehicle” (2) “curb” (3) “telephone pole” or (4) “tree.” The bike, if described, and its erstwhile owner, both tend to be late model—no pun intended.

The Motorcycle Task Analysis, published over thirty years ago, suggested that to operate an automobile safely, you needed to successfully execute about eight hundred different, discrete tasks. Flying an airplane requires about three thousand. Operating a motorcycle safely requires about twenty-four hundred different tasks—more akin to flying an airplane than it is to driving a car. Experience (and the 1980 Hurt Report) taught us the big “six-six” rule: the first six months/six hundred miles of riding for each new motorcycle is the most critical (meaning an experienced rider resets their risk meter each time they get on a new bike).

Yet the vast majority of riders never make it to that point. They ride infrequently, casually, off-handedly, only when the sun shines and the air is warm. They never get out of their own personal danger zone, and it almost inevitably catches up with them. If they’re lucky, they garner nothing more than a scary story to tell as a warning to any other potential motorcyclists. If they’re unlucky, they become that story for others to tell.

We are looking for something important when we read about these personal-scale tragedies. The rider’s identity was withheld from the newspaper, allowing time for some family to have its worst fear confirmed, an absence explained, an indelible name forever given to an unassailable void. In that namelessness you hear the shrieks of anguish, the rage, the helplessness, the regrets echoing.

We read seeking reassurance that we would have done differently, done better with the hand that was dealt. We want to know there was an obvious, glaring problem that we would have avoided, that our skill, our experience, our perceptions would have pulled our bacon out of the fire. Maybe kept us out of the kitchen in the first place. Maybe we could have stayed out of the game, not gotten stuck in that particular dead end. These mementos mori strewn randomly across our paths keep us honest with ourselves.

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