Monday, November 15, 2010

This is Why I Do Not Ride in Groups

I generally avoid discussing specific incidents, because they don’t often have a broader applicability or relevance. But I will make an exception for last weekend’s horrific accident in California—involving two cars, twelve motorcycles and twenty-one motorcyclists. Four motorcyclists and a passenger in one car died, and a number of motorcyclists were hospitalized for a variety of horrific and life-altering injuries.

Short version: ‘Riceboy’ attempts to pass a group of twelve motorcycles on a remote two-lane highway. Driver of oncoming vehicle panics, drives onto the right shoulder, over-corrects and swerves into the middle of the pack of motorcyclists. Car driver suffers fractures; his passenger dies from a motorcycle impacting the passenger-side door. ‘Riceboy’ fled the scene.

The injured car driver appears to be an innocent victim. ‘Riceboy’ is currently the object of a massive manhunt in both California and Mexico. But…

…But goddamn those motorcyclists. They should have known better.

Look—our roadways and our traffic laws and conventions are intended for units of one vehicle, whether that one unit is a motorcycle or a tandem tractor trailer. They are not meant for social organisms. The rare—and in this case, ironic, exceptions are funeral processions; but even those operate under strictly defined protocols, very constrained circumstances, under a societal imprimatur and generally with an official escort. But a pack of a dozen motorcycles, operating en masse?

Let’s assume the most concise configuration—six pairs of bikes, riding side-by-side, ‘ChiPs’ fashion. That alone will occupy about five to seven standard car lengths. Stretched out single-file, the same bikes could occupy up to fifteen car lengths. Now, in a perfect world, it shouldn’t matter. But as the members of the Saddletramps MC tragically found out, we live in a very imperfect world. Who knows why the driver of the mysterious gold Honda Civic couldn’t bear to stay behind a group of twelve motorcycles any longer? Maybe he didn’t like the sound of twenty-four loud pipes? People have all kinds of reasons for wanting or needing to pass, and we won’t know his explanation until he is brought to justice.

I have on several occasions observed large motorcycle groups under the direction of a “Ride Marshall,” an individual, often self-appointed, with the putative responsibility for overseeing the ‘safety’ of the group. The Ride Marshall generally starts their motorcycle first, then rides or steps into oncoming traffic, bringing it to a halt while the remainder of the group files onto the roadway one-at-a-time—a process which can take several minutes. This commandeering of the public roadway in this manner has no official sanction; it is simply done because nobody has the nerve to object. This group protocol would appear to provide some modicum of safety to the motorcyclists en masse (by excluding automobiles from their midst) but that appearance is simply an illusion. It creates an unnatural situation and an utterly false sense of security. Formation riding on public roadways neutralizes a motorcycle’s greatest inherent safety asset—its superior maneuverability, acceleration and performance.

I cannot fathom what riding gains by being part of a pack of a dozen or a score or several dozen or ten thousand riders; I get uncomfortable when another motorcyclist begins to encroach on any portion of my full lane-width. I know from experience that free range of lateral motion is a critical part of a motorcyclist’s defensive tools. Safe riding often depends on having a generous bubble of open space on all sides that allows me to make full use of a lane as circumstances vary. Having another rider in my space is just a bad practice, regardless of any fellowship gained by riding in close formation.

I know Saturday’s carnage is not the fault of the Saddletramps. But I can’t help but think that it didn’t have to happen to them, and that there were lots of little things they might have done to forestall such a tragic and senseless outcome. Whatever fellowship they set out share with one another in their close formation ride has been irrevocably shattered along with the lives of the survivors.

This is why I do not ride in groups.

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