When I see motorcyclists riding around on these nice days with their hair streaming out behind them, I think of all the times I have run my fingers through such hair. Exploring more gently than a lover might, I’ve palpated injured riders’ heads for skull fractures, glass fragments and the sources of blood congealing on the scalp. These memories are visceral, automatic and emotional, and I just cannot shake them off when I see unhelmeted motorcyclists.
What I can shake off is the instinct to write yet another column advocating for mandatory motorcycle helmets, so I will not do that here. Rather, this column is a plea to all of you experienced bikers out there to take on additional responsibility for helping reduce the rising toll of motorcyclist injuries that is sweeping America.
About 4,500 motorcyclists are going to be killed in the next 12 months, and another 87,000 injured, unless we do something different than we have in past years.
So here’s my idea for something different: the motorcyclist safe rider buddy system. If you are a motorcyclist with more than five years of riding experience, and you know someone who just bought their first motorcycle or scooter, take them under your wing (Goldwing for you Honda riders). Teach them what you know about how to ride safely as a personal mission to prevent mishaps and misery.
A lot of motorcycle groups sponsor safe rider courses and some states require courses for new motorcyclists to get licensed, and that’s all good stuff. But it’s not enough — if it was, motorcycle deaths and injuries would not be the fastest-rising category of mayhem on American roads, which they are, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics. We need that personal approach, the longitudinal relationship between buddies, the one-rider-to-another connection that could make the safety messages stick.
You experienced bikers — you potential safe rider buddies — know who you are. You are the ones who ride your bikes like vigilant hawks, always scanning your environment for trouble. You may look casual and cool, but you ride as though your lives depend on riding sharp, because they do. That gear you wear, it’s not just for show, but also for road rash and other injury prevention. Those big boots are not just for kicking back but for keeping your toes attached through a skid across 50 yards of pavement.
You are the ones who can spot the inattentive driver a hundred yards ahead, the person behind the wheel who might stray across the midline coming at you around a curve. You know to assume the teenage driver coming at you while yacking on her cellphone is not going to see you turn in front of her, so you let her drive by first. You are the ones who know how to lay down a bike if you have to, what to do when the turn ahead has sand on it or wet railroad tracks across it, and how not to panic when a bug splats on your forehead at a combined bug-bone speed of 50 mph.
You also know the inexperienced riders I am talking about. They are the merry riders on their new scooters who are so casual they just need a latte in both hands to complete the picture of cluelessness about the real risks of riding. For some of them, their idea of protective gear is lip moisturizer, or a clip to keep their neckties from flapping. They are the ones who have no idea how fast a 900cc street rocket can accelerate out of your control in a curve, or how different it is maneuvering evasively from an oncoming car when you have a passenger on the back.
So now, you experienced bikers, it is your turn. Take your experienced hands, hold in them the head of some new biker for long enough to get their undivided attention and feel your concern, and tell them you are going to teach them what it takes to stay alive and well on the open road.
Some day, one of them might just be alive to say thanks.
Erik Steele, a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.