Maybe it will happen like this.
I’ll catch a long parade of impossibly slow trucks on a secondary, two lane road. I dream those roads. They float and dance in my imagination like bingo balls – the 95 between Needles and Blythe, the 89 between Ash Fork and Chino Valley, the 85 from Buckeye to Gila Bend, the 54 between Tucumcari and Dalhart, the 49 from Kansas City to Carthage. I know them. I see myself on them.
I’m alone. One guy. No pack. One bike. An hour later some cop I’ll never meet will carefully note that the sky is pale blue and the pavement is dry except for my blood.
I drop down into fifth then fourth. Little packs of cars fly by on my left going the opposite way. The wind pushes my sleeves up to my shoulders. The trucks shelter me from the bugs. They hide me from the police. They hide the road from me. All I see in front of me is a sign that says “Interstate.”
I bide my time, crowding the double yellow line until the line shatters and a truck in the middle of the parade pulls out to pass. I pull right up behind him and stare at a sign that says “UPS.” Maybe this driver is chatting with one of the trucks I just passed. Probably he has no idea I am even there.
A hybrid that looks like a prop from The Jetsons tailgates me. The truck behind me on my right wears a sign that says “England.” He drops back a little to give the hybrid and me an out. As soon as the UPS truck signals he is rejoining the parade the Spark or Prius or Soul or Scion quickly veers to the right. I let him pass me and I pull in behind him.
He thinks nothing of this favor I have just done him. He thinks he is better than me. He thinks he is more evolved than me. He thinks we are all born bad but we all might hope to be redeemed by decades of schooling and psychotherapy, and by our sincere surrender to social orthodoxy, and when necessary by preventative policing and enlightened penology. I don’t give a fuck what he thinks. I’d shove that hybrid up his ass if I could figure out how to lift it with one hand. And so my attitude proves his point. It is an argument I used to have in the seventies when I still wanted people like him to like me. Now I just want to be free and for people like him to let me be.
My tires kiss the yellow lines. Now the hybrid is also blind so he starts to drop back and he kisses the lines in front of me. The England trucker gives us both room.
A pair of cars in the opposite lane warn me that another parade is following them. The hybrid lurches left and then hurries back to the right when he sees what is coming. He brakes hard. I shift down into third. The two parades pass. I pull all the way to the right and see nothing.
The England trucker grows impatient. His lights begin to blink. He knows something I can’t see. He sits so much higher than me. He is talking to somebody.
I pull back over to the center line and as soon as I do a very old song starts to pound in my ears – a song from the seventies. The riff is an endless fortissimo warbling of the same five or six notes over and over and over. It is all I hear. I don’t hear the engine growling or the road singing. All of the great outdoors is my listening room.
I swerve left then right. I see two cars coming in the opposite direction. I wait for them to reach the first of the trucks I can see ahead of me before I open the throttle and aim straight for the hybrid’s left side.
The hybrid never hears me and he never sees me coming. He’s listening to his life’s soundtrack. He’s listening to NPR so he’ll know what to think and I’m halfway through fourth when I fly past him and pull into the middle of the left lane. I’m past four of the trucks with one to go before I make it into sixth. When I glance in my mirrors I see the England trucker has turned off his signal but the hybrid is following me. Up ahead the first semi is trying to pull away. He’s a truck without a name. He can’t outrun me, even in his dreams.
But then six hundred yards ahead of him a white dot appears. It is aimed at me. I could pull back in behind the truck with no name but I know he is going to slow down again when we find the next hill. So I keep searching for my top end while the same five or six notes play in my un-evolved mind. Bip-bip-bip-brrripp-bip! Yahoo! Maybe I have eight seconds. Maybe only six.
Three of them burn. The center line becomes a double stripe again and the dot becomes a car. We are headed straight for each other. I pull a little right, a little tighter to the very un-aerodynamic truck with no name. I’m buffeted by his wash. I only need another two seconds. I wonder if the white car sees me yet. He is probably going ninety. We’re five hundred feet apart.
I feel a little adrenaline hit but I’m not afraid. I’m calculating. I do this all the time. All the white car has to do is pull a couple feet to his right. Usually I hear them honking about a second before we meet. Once when I was playing chicken like this the oncoming driver pulled completely off the road. Sometimes I’m past the front bumper of the truck before I meet what’s coming at me. Sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of the driver’s eyes – wide with terror or fury – and I know that when he eats dinner that night he will talk about me: About the uneducated, un-therapized, unenlightened, unevolved, unregulated brute he almost killed that day. I always hear the same five or six notes. I always assume the driver is sober and that he is afraid to hit me.
So, I am probably not the most appropriate person to tell you that May is motorcycle safety awareness month. As if you didn’t already know. I don’t know how you can not know.
I’ve been ducking the story for three weeks because I don’t care about safety. But, then most of the people in charge of May, the motorcycle safety awareness month don’t care either. They care about fixing what has been wrong with me since I was born bad – because, I understand, there is some money in that.
The newz noise started two months ago. In March the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that motorcyclists were about 30 times more likely than passenger car occupants to die in a crash. Apparently, motorcycles don’t have crumple zones.
The same month, Chanyoung Lee, a scholar at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research, produced his own study that proved motorcycles are dangerous to their riders. That got some press, too.
In April, something called the Governors Highway Safety Association announced “that motorcyclist deaths increased approximately 9 percent in 2012, to more than 5,000 lives lost. This is greater than the overall traffic fatality increase projected by the federal government and would be the 14th out of the last 15 years in which motorcyclist deaths increased. Notably, this level of deaths closes in on an all-time high, and motorcyclists remain one of the few roadway user groups where no progress can be shown over the last decade.”
Every newspaper and every television station in America downloaded a copy of that last report. It was a microwavable story reporters in any state could prepare in minutes. All they had to do was rewrite the press release and insert their location. The report had data for every state and reported that motorcycle fatalities were up in thirty-four of them.
Writing Newz In A Nutshell
Most of the stories followed the same, simple, three part format. First a retelling of the most gruesome motorcycle crash in that local area in the previous month. You know, like, “Little Billy Bob and Miley never guessed their Daddy was about to be decapitated when he climbed on his motorcycle that fateful April morning.”
Second, reporters found a local angle in one of the reports. For example, a Pennsylvania story said, “Last year in Pennsylvania there were 854,493 licensed motorcyclists, a 13 percent increase from a decade ago, and 409,017 registered motorcycles, 54 percent higher than a decade ago. PennDOT data shows there were nearly 4,000 crashes involving motorcycles statewide last year, resulting in 210 fatalities. This marks an increase from 2011 when there were more than 3,600 crashes involving motorcycles and 199 fatalities in those crashes.”
Or, “According to agency statistics, there are more than 194,000 motorcycles registered in North Carolina. In 2012, there were 4,157 motorcycle crashes that resulted in 162 fatalities and 3,970 injuries.”
Or, “An Alabama press release lists preliminary data showing 1,830 motorcycle crashes with 81 fatalities and 1,428 injuries statewide in 2012.”
Or, “In 2012, there were nearly 800 deaths on Wisconsin’s roadways. Approximately one in seven involved a motorcycle.”
Finally, add some quotes from a local politician. The Pennsylvania story went on to add, “The deadly crashes came as Governor Tom Corbett announced a proclamation designating the month of May as ‘Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month.’ Corbett said in a statement that the decision was made due to the increased popularity of motorcycling in the state. ‘More people are traveling Pennsylvania roadways on their motorcycles, but it’s important that riders and motorists alike are sharing the road safely,’ Corbett said. ‘If car, truck and motorcycle operators follow simple steps like looking out for each other and obeying speed limits, we can work together to reduce the number of crashes and highway deaths we see each year.’ The first recommendation in the Governor’s Association study, ‘Increase helmet use: Helmets are proven to be 37 percent effective at preventing fatal injuries to motorcycle operators and 41 percent effective for passengers. NHTSA estimates that 706 of the un-helmeted motorcyclists who died in crashes in 2010 would have lived had they worn helmets.’”
On Guam, “Acting Governor Ray Tenorio signed a proclamation Friday recognizing for the first time on Guam that May is National Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month. The signing ceremony took place at RPM Yamaha in Hagatna. The proclamation seeks to spread motorcycle safety awareness on the island of Guam. This proclamation ties in with Senator Tommy Morrisson’s helmet bill or bill 87 which is up for public hearing on the 28th. The measure would require that anyone riding on a motorcycle or scooter wear a helmet.”
A Brotherhood About Trying To Evolve
The news noise really picked up around May Day when ABATE joined the act. The organization was founded to fight helmet laws and the acronym once meant A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments but sometime after I stopped paying them dues it came to mean American Bikers Aimed Toward Education. Of course. The more time you spend in a classroom the safer you will be.
Stories bloomed like dandelions. ABATE “presenters” shared podiums with policemen. Reporters with stories to get learned that “Motorcycles are at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to a collision with a car or truck.”
“From 2010 – 2012 motorcycle-involved crashes resulted in 509 fatalities and more than 11,480 injuries in the state of Ohio. In 2012 alone there were 165 motorcycle-related fatalities. Of the 165 fatalities, the motorcyclist was at fault 71 percent of the time. Taking a training class and riding with proper endorsements as a motorcycle rider can help protect yourself and others from injury or even death.”
“May is National Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month. In an effort to encourage safe riding this summer, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, along with State Patrol, invited motorcycle owners to take part in a safety crash course at the Rock County fair grounds in Janesville.”
“State University of New York at Oswego Police Lieutenant Kevin Velzy welcomed ABATE Vice President Bruce Le Porte and President Jim Waterman to present a moving and informative program on motorcycle safety.”
Most of these stories were aimed at motorists who learned that motorcycles tend to engine brake and move around in lanes and are not self-balancing.
The dominant safety story this May has been about the police. Sometimes local policemen carry the educational load when a spokesman from ABATE can’t make it. Sometimes the cops enlist a stand-in. “New Hampshire State Police, along with the help of Randy the CPR dummy, are recreating motorcycle crashes as part of a week-long reconstruction course in Concord.”
But the story usually read something like: “Police will conduct a Motorcycle Safety Enforcement Operation on Tuesday in (insert your town’s name here) with extra officers patrolling areas where motorcycle crashes occur. Deputies will look for drivers and riders who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol and crack down on motorcyclists and vehicle drivers who commit traffic violations that can lead to collisions, injuries, and fatalities involving motorcycle riders.”
The story was the same throughout the Northern Hemisphere of the English speaking world. In Canada on May 7th, police stopped a pack of 150 Hells Angels. “Police had information that the bikers would be riding today,” a police propagandist in British Columbia said. “And with May being Motorcycle Safety Month, police wanted to take this opportunity to conduct road safety checks on the bikers.”
The Stornoway Gazette, published in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis fifty miles off the North Atlantic coast of Scotland, reported that police there “are keen to raise awareness to all road users of the increased risk of road traffic collisions involving motorcyclists over the spring and summer months, in order to make our roads safer for everyone.”
Road Policing Inspector Neil Lumsden told the Gazette, “Our aim is to stop and speak to as many motorcyclists as possible with a view to encouraging and educating riders on positive actions that will help to keep them safe. This highly visible and proactive approach will deter and divert inappropriate riding, whilst detecting and appropriately dealing with any offences. One death is one too many and by adopting this educational and interactive approach, we hope to reduce the number of collisions and keep all road users safe.”
In a news brief slugged “Motorcycle safety crackdown Friday,” television station KERO in Bakersfield reported “Extra California Highway Patrol officers will be on patrol Friday in an effort to increase the safety of motorcyclists. Officers will be on duty patrolling areas frequented by motorcyclists and where motorcycle crashes occur.”
Other news outlets reported other “motorcycle safety crackdowns” throughout the state. So, “Additional police patrols begin Friday in Marysville, targeting motorcyclists as part of the National Highway Safety Administration’s Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month.”
In New York, “The state police will be focusing this summer on motorcycle safety, utilizing motorcycle safety checkpoints and roving details that not only focus on motorcycle operators driving habits, but also on vehicular traffic around those motorcycles.”
Meanwhile In Wausau
Meanwhile the Wausau Daily Herald, noting that May is Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month ran a long editorial last Thursday calling on Wisconsin law makers to pass a helmet law.
“Wisconsin does not require helmets for licensed motorcyclists,” the paper steamed. “This despite the fact that unhelmeted riders are 40 percent more likely to die from a head injury than someone wearing a helmet, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
“In the real world, there are real public costs to irresponsible behavior. Ambulances, medical care, disability; all these things come from the public coffers. According to the CDC report, the estimated economic burden of injuries and deaths from motorcycle-related crashes was $12 billion in 2010 alone – much more if higher insurance rates and lost tax revenue are considered.”
The first thing I want to know is, does the Wausau editorialist drive a hybrid? Does he drive it rudely?
Then after I think about this lecture I start to wonder what else all these busybodies don’t get. They get what is wrong with me but do they get poetry? Do they get art? Do they get Shakespeare, who died of pneumonia after getting drunk with two of his hoodlum friends – the towering literary immortals Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton – and passing out in a field? Would Shakespeare have lived had he been forced to attend drunk school? Should he have been sentenced to psychotherapy?
Do these meddlers get drugs. Do they get sex? Do they get rock n’ roll. Do they understand they are going to die? Do they understand that this is all there is? Do they understand that each life is little more than a quilt of moments: Of this moment and that on the 95 between Needles and Blythe, the 89 between Ash Fork and Chino Valley, the 85 between Buckeye and Gila Bend, the 54 between Tucumcari and Dalhart, the 49 from Kansas City to Carthage? Do they think they are better than me? Do they really think they know something that I do not?
Be careful out there for the next two weeks. May is Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month so the police are everywhere. And they are afraid of you because they understand that you are not afraid.