YOUR WE’VE ALL HEARD clichés about motorcyclists. Recently, this one made me ponder: “There are old bikers and bold bikers, but no old, bold bikers.” I interpreted this to mean if you’re fortunate enough to get through your riding youth in one piece, you’re likely to have matured to responsible ridership. While nursing a recent hip replacement, the thought occurred: Have I lost my spontaneous, throw-caution-to-the-wind, scrape-the-floorboards attitude? The resounding, undeniable answer was yes. Like many others, I was a longtime dirt bike rider who gave up the thrill of two wheels for the more responsible lifestyle of marriage, children, work and the trimmings of the all-American dream. It was only when my wife once asked my opinion about her buying a motorcycle that the dormant seed of riding was rekindled. She too had ridden dirt bikes. Being a police officer who specialized in crash reconstruction, my answer was, “It’s not a good idea.” I reminded her that, in my investigations, the motorcyclist was always injured to some degree. Even though she knew what the response would be, she was soon riding. It wasn’t long before I was taking her bike out occasionally, too. Perhaps a little more than occasionally. I returned to find her in the garage one day, hands on hips with an impatient scowl. “If you want to ride a bike, why don’t you go get your own?” How many riders have wives that told them to go buy a motorcycle? That began my foray back onto two wheels.
I BELIEVE I would not have made it through my twenties and thirties on two wheels. Surely, I would have been the bold rider. As an adrenaline junkie, I’ve jumped off cliffs and bridges, gone ice climbing, performed inverted aerials on skis, crashed canoes in wild rivers and wrecked cars. A motorcycle would likely have been my demise. After a career dedicated to traffic safety, I can assuredly say there are three major reasons people are killed in crashes: alcohol, speed and lack of seat belt use. According to NHTSA, of the 37,461-people killed on our roads in 2016, over 82 percent (in almost equal proportion) were killed because of the “The Big Three.” Having touched on alcohol and helmets (a safety device, like seatbelts) in previous columns, it’s time to consider speed.
Mathematically, speed is exponential to stopping distance. Most driver’s education classes teach that the stopping distance of a skidding vehicle is directly proportional to the square of the speed of the vehicle. Thus, a car traveling 10 mph may require 4 feet to skid to an abrupt halt, but a car going twice as fast would require four times the distance, or 16 feet to skid to a stop. A doubling of speed results in a quadrupling of stopping distance. A tripling of speed increases stopping distance by a factor of nine. And a quadrupling of speed increases stopping distance by a factor of 16. This is not good math for us thrill-seekers. SPEED MAKES TAKING that curve more exhilarating, makes the wind blow harder in our face, amps up the G-forces. But experience has taught older riders that with speed comes reduced ability to swerve, longer stopping distances, less time for avoidance and more violent crashes with longer slides. It also affords less opportunity to take in scenery and makes it more difficult to hear. Wind-related noise is proportional to speed and can be loud enough to contribute to noise-induced hearing loss. Wind noise ranges from 85 decibels at 15 mph to 120 decibels at 60 mph. According to research, noise-induced hearing loss begins with sounds at or above 85 decibels. As part of the older, not bolder crowd, I remove my hearing aids and replace them with ear protection. If you’re not using some sort of noise suppression device, you should. It makes riding more enjoyable. Even though I’ve slowed down both on and off the bike, wear glasses, use hearing aids and have an artificial hip, there’s a certain euphoria I still get from riding. That feeling of freedom traversing a winding road that crisscrosses the river down the mountain, the instant g-forces experienced at the twist of the throttle or the trek across the wide-open plains, where asphalt is stretched right to the horizon. We don’t often think about speed in terms of exponential stopping distances, and neither do other drivers. NHTSA claims that in 2015, 33 percent of motorcyclists killed were speeding. That doesn’t specify who was at fault, but you’re either dead right or dead wrong.
Jim Halvorsen is a retired police officer, MSF RiderCoach, police motor instructor and architect of motorcycle checkpoints.