The Outsider

By Steve ThorntonPosted on

As I sit writing this column, it is just past pi day, 3.14—today is March 15, in fact. That means that in two months less one day, on May 14, we will arrive at the anniversary of an event that sent a shockwave through the ranks of motorcycle journalists in Canada: the death of one of our own, Rob Harris. It still horrifies me that I can say this, for it was so sudden and so unexpected and so damned saddening that it will always, I think, seem unreal.

And yet, through no apparent fault of Rob’s, it happened. A trick of the terrain, a moment’s miscalculation. You should be able to get away with it, you should be able to blink while you’re riding and then move on into the next second, minute, hour. In nearly any other activity—and, in fact, most of the time in motorcycling—you can look away from what you’re doing for a moment and come back to it knowing that nothing important has changed. I don’t think that’s literally what Rob did, by the way, but you get my meaning.

About 10 years ago I rode off the highway in California, on a VFR Honda that I did not own, at an indicated 90 mph. It was such a lazy left turn that you could almost leave it up to the motorcycle to make it for you, but somehow when my eyes focussed after a second’s inattention, my wheel was crossing the line between paved highway and dirt shoulder and then, screaming, I was on the dirt shoulder. At 90 miles an hour. It was my good luck that the dirt on that shoulder was hard, and there were no obstructions in front of me. I reacted by gradually dethrottling, that’s all. And, of course, screaming like a stuck pig. And here’s the best part—better even, some letter writers might say, than the fact of my survival—I have it on tape: all of it, the video and the audio, because at the time I was working with the guys who publish Destination Highways books, making a record of highways in Southern California. I can play it and see the completely natural shift in foreground from highway to shoulder; it’s unremarkable and seems ordinary, until you hear what’s coming out of my mouth. And then the relief a minute later as I, much slower now, pull back onto the highway.

That was a bad mistake I made, and yet the only thing that happened was this: I learned something about paying attention.

This is not a Cycle Canada Safe Riding issue (there’s no such issue), but seeing as it’s the May issue and May is Motorcycle Awareness Month and also the anniversary of a tragedy that affected, given Rob’s popularity through his online magazine, thousands of riders, it seems right that I should make this column about safety. There is in this issue a long article by David Booth about safety gear. And there is the example of Dean Hadd’s First Person column in the last issue; the crash that took his right leg was not, I think, his fault. And a letter in this issue from Mike Common mentions a crash that took him off the road for a while and seems to have been caused by someone else. So let’s think about safety.

In any given year, about half the crashes that injure motorcycle riders involve no one else; it’s the rider who did what I did in California but didn’t get off with nothing but an embarrassing story. Inattention, even a moment’s, can lead to trouble. But how do you maintain your level of attention at 100 percent all the time? You’ve tried it, surely, and found yourself thinking about something other than the view over your headlight. But maybe you don’t have to give it a hundred percent; maybe 60 percent is enough. You multitask, give four-tenths of your attention to the itch under your helmet, and six-tenths to the road. That should be enough—except that multitasking is a myth: you’re not sharing attention, but splitting it, doing some fast switching. And those in-between moments can get you.

So you try again. Maybe you talk to yourself, maybe you sit up a little straighter, maybe you just vow to pay attention to the road—and that works, for a little while. And maybe that little while is when something might have happened, except that you were, in fact, paying attention. You braked or swerved or accelerated and a thing turned into a nothing.

So. If the point of this column is that we should all try harder to avoid crashing motorcycles, the result may be that thinking about it while you read this could lead to your giving attention a little bit of extra effort when you’re riding. If so, it’s been worth the time it took me to write it and you to read it, because someone, at some time in this merry month of May, might just perform an escape that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.

Probably not, but you never know. Anyway, I’ll be thinking about Rob a little bit more over the next couple of months, and while I don’t think he failed to pay attention to the road, I can sure as hell point to some times when I did—I have the audio-visual recording to prove it, after all—and I can try to pay more attention, more consistently. I hope that you will, too.


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