A few years ago, my brother in law Jay and I took a “nostalgia trip” on our old BMW motorcycles down to Norcross, Georgia for a vintage event. Jay was on his white 1983 R100RT. My ride was my 1975 R90/6 in Nurburg Green, a color similar to that of the “go” portion of a traffic light, but brighter, and once described by a friend as “look at me green”. It was a pleasant trip with much backroad riding and consuming of pie at roadside eateries. After the event in Norcross, we hopped on the interstate in a light rain just to get north of the Atlanta sprawl and back to the two lanes in the mountains.
All was going well, up to the point when the guy in the gray VW Golf tried to kill me.
Some experiences are felt only in hindsight, when the brain is trying to figure out what the hell just happened. I recall swerving to the left and braking as hard as I dared on the wet pavement and wondering for a split second “why am I doing that?” before the conscious part of my molasses-like mind perceived the gray VW Golf swerving into me. Then I watched in slow motion as the rear quarter panel of the Golf slid past my decelerating front wheel, seemingly without a gap between them, as I was moving left and hoping that whatever was over there was braking and moving over too. I was sure that the car would hit my front wheel and that would be the end of the scenario, and everything else, for me. Jay said that from behind, it all happened too quickly to take in, that he didn’t see a gap between my bike and the car and was expecting to see me tumbling down the road and under the traffic at any second. The VW sped off, weaving in and out of traffic ahead of us as I got back up to speed and returned to what had been my lane. I was too relieved to be angry.
Jay said later that the guy had been entering the interstate behind me on an entrance ramp that had a long merging lane. Jay could see him jerking his head back and forth, impatiently trying to see around the car in front. He was behind someone who wasn’t moving fast enough for him (though fast enough to be passing me, and I was at the speed limit) so before the merging lane ended, the guy whipped out around the impediment …without noticing or if he did notice, caring, that a large person wearing a Hi-Viz yellow jacket, riding a bright green motorcycle, was already in that space. I wondered later if he would have stopped if he had killed me. Whatever errand he was on was, in his view, more important than the life of anyone on the road with him.
Jay said he didn’t know how I avoided it. Neither do I.
I can only assume that 50-plus years of pattern recognition in riding motorcycles told my muscles to start doing something about this, long before (in relative terms) the “walking and talking” portion of my brain that identifies the world I’m in had formed any thoughts about what was going on.
In hundreds of depositions and interviews during my two careers in vocational rehabilitation and law, and around rally tables at motorcycle events, I’ve heard the stories in which folks describe their multi-stage thought process when a car or motorcycle accident is imminent and how they deliberately took a particular sequence of actions (many of the bike stories ending in the classic “… and then I had to lay ‘er down”). Some of those stories may be actually true, but for most I think it is hindsight re-creation, making ourselves the heroes of our own narrative. More often in reality, the accident or the near-accident is over before we can process the information in a conscious rational fashion. When the fertilizer hits the ventilator, your body will do what you have practiced, not what you want to think you would do.
Though I’ve been doing this motorcycle thing for more than half a century (and yes, I have crashed), I still practice braking and swerving and other maneuvers often when I go out just for a ride. It is even more important now in my old age, since I know I don’t process information quickly anymore and I have difficulty switching from one task to another efficiently. Whether that is what saved my aged butt on that afternoon in Georgia or if it was just the luck of the pieces not quite being in the correct positions for a collision, I honestly don’t know. But I’m going to keep doing it anyway. It can’t hurt.