Friday, August 3, 2007

We're Mad and We're Not Gonna Take it Anymore!

Recently, on Bruce-n-Ray's Biker Forum, as well as RC's blog, posts have appeared that accentuate the fact that the growing number of "inattentive" auto drivers is a clear and present danger. Bruce, who is on his way to Sturgis Biker Rally had no less than 3 near-misses with "inattentive" auto drivers, all talking on cell phones, in the 1st 36 hours of his trip.

So, what is "inattentive" exactly? This is a very broad term. I could list them all out for you, but you know what they are. Everyone is guilty of it at some point. Consciously paying attention to driving legally and obeying traffic laws is not enough. You must be aware of every everything and everyone around you. If you're not, you're an "inattentive" driver.

Makes me think of the comedian, Jeff Foxworthy....

You're an inattentive redneck driver if.....

Let's examine common driving practices. We all have our pet peeves, but let's just look at the ones that kill motorcyclists the most in particular; failure to yield the right of way, and merging errors.

My dad didn't teach me to drive, drivers ed did, but he taught me to drive safely. He was a Sales rep for a large automotive parts company back in the 70's and covered southern California, from the Mexico border up to Sacramento. He drove a lot of miles and never had an accident, a ticket, or even a near miss.

"Always know who's behind you and beside you," he told me, "Don't make exaggerated moves. Use your turn signals. Be considerate of others. Go with the flow. Never drive over your limitations. Know where your blind spots are, and always turn your head to look before changing lanes." Does anyone do this anymore? I do, but if I didn't my dad would kick my butt from here to next year.

Good advice? You bet! Do you ever see this in a written state driving test? Oh please. It's far more important to know how many feet exactly before that corner that you should turn your signal on.

Now, I'm not saying I've never had an accident. I remember it very well, about 15 years ago. I was distracted and didn't see a stopped vehicle ahead. What was I doing? And here's the ironic part, I was looking through my mail and saw a notice that my soon-to-be-ex-husband had cancelled my auto insurance. I looked up, hit the brakes, and bam!

I learned a lot from that accident, the least of which was, you never really know people, even when you're married to them for 19 years. No one was hurt. I had a truck, bent the bumper. He had a truck, bent his bumper. He was nice and didn't sue me, I was nice and paid for both bumpers. The thing I learned most is it never pays to do anything but drive when you're driving. Having never rear-ended anyone before, I also learned there is NO way out of that one. You pay.

Not so for a failure to yield the right of way. When I was a very young driver, I swooped around a corner in my screamin' Camaro, down-shifted into 2nd gear and roared into traffic at a high speed, and cut off a police car in the process. I didn't see him, obviously, but that's because I didn't look. I got a slap on the hand for that one. What it taught me was, failure to yield the ROW was a minor offense and if I had to do it once in a while, well that's OK. (My dad re-educated me on that one!)

A young person recently commented to me about a driving law; the one where you should stop completely, before the line, and then inch forward to see beyond any obstructions. She didn't know that one, and failed her driving test. To me that's a no-brainer. She also asked me how she should know when it's her turn to go at a 4-way stop intersection. I just looked at her like she was from another planet. But seriously, how many people know the answer to that one? Ask a few people. You'll be amazed at the answers you get.

Many long-time drivers, I swear, have no clue what the term "Yield" means, or the term "Merge". And if they do, how come they don't drive like they do? How many times have we seen a car coming onto the freeway and they just fade into your lane like they have blinders on? Merge does not mean keeping going, oncoming cars beware, it means merge into traffic at a safe speed and look for others when doing so. The same goes for oncoming traffic. Would it hurt to slow a little to let someone in? It's called common courtesy. American drivers don't know what that means anymore. Hurry up, don't let that car or bike in front of you. You might get there one minute later than him.

The dictionary defines yield: to slow down or stop in order to let another vehicle pass. It's a verb, an action. What part of THAT do people not understand? Do they think the DOT puts up those yellow signs to beautify the roadway? But hey, fail to yield and kill a biker, it's just a slap on the hand, right? "I didn't see him" means "I didn't LOOK".

In New England (and other backward parts of the country) there are traffic circles known as "roundabouts" or "rotaries". These are something I did not grow up with or even was aware of before moving to the Boston area in 1999. Some insane person or persons stayed up late one night on drugs and came up with this hair brained idea that traffic circles were a good thing for traffic flow, but never thought about the potential for accidents. What were they thinking???

Those who live in New England are very adept at cutting you off, and/or running you off the road in these traffic circles, oblivious to the yellow signs displaying the word "Yield". I came to learn through driving my car in these traffic circles that they should be renamed "suicide circles" for motorcycles. if you go into one, it's every man/woman for themselves. In one state, you have the ROW inside the traffic circle, in other states, those coming into it have the ROW. I doubt anyone really pays attention except getting in as fast as possible and getting out when you want to, everyone else be damned.

Another traffic law that results in many accidents (cars and bikes) is when it is legal to pass on the right (like in Massachusetts). OK, I can live with that, though it's illegal to pass on the right in most western states. But drivers make it an unspoken rule that if a single lane is wide enough for two vehicles, and there are no painted lines, it becomes a two-lane road instead of one. I'd be riding up some main road through some town outside of Boston and a car would pass me on the right at radical speeds. If there's enough room, and there's too much traffic slowing you down, simply create a new lane, voila!

There's a reason that Massachusetts was once rated the #1 worse drivers in the country, and has probably never been out of the top five. The auto insurance alone is enough to create road rage.

OK, so now you've got drivers (all over the country) who either do not understand traffic laws, don't know them, or don't care, and never have to be retested on them again. In addition, you can violate them, kill someone and get away with it. Gotta love American justice, eh? Add to that all the distractions people purposely add to their driving time and you've got dead bikers.

I once saw a woman pass me in the breakdown lane at high speed (another east coast thing designed to ease traffic conditions during rush hour, but it is so badly abused that the breakdown lane actually becomes the "fast lane"). It had snowed the night before, but was sunny that morning. The salt and sand trucks had already been out, so the road was wet and the snow was cleared. the breakdown lane had just enough room to drive in, if you paid attention to the snow and slush on the edge of the road. It was the high point of the morning rush hour. When she passed me doing close to 65 mph, my lane (the far right one) was creeping along at an average of 40 mph. She was putting on mascara while driving.

Another 20 minutes down the road, I saw a car off to the right, nose first into a tree, buried in knee deep snow, and the tire tracks leading to it had to be 100 feet long. She'd faded into the slush on the edge of the road and couldn't control her car. three other cars were involved, but fortunately no motorcycles. I pulled off the highway to speak to one of the officers on scene. The woman who had been driving the car was sitting in one of the patrol cars waiting for an ambulance. She had what looked like a small cut on her face, and was holding her arm, probably broken.

I mentioned to the officer that she had been putting on makeup when she passed me. He looked incredulous at me, and we walked over to the car to look inside. On the floor of the passenger side was her makeup bag spilled onto the floor. The mascara tube was still uncapped. Her cell phone was also on the floor. The officer picked up the phone and looked at the call history. She had been talking on her cell phone AND putting on makeup. She was 36 years old.

While young people are inexperienced drivers who still have the "I know everything" outlook on life, distracted driving has no age limit. Nor is it limited to gender, or even profession. I think the older the person is, and the longer they've been driving, the more they think they can multitask and operate a car with no problems. Just like the person who claims that they drive with a bluetooth headset, and therefore are not distracted while on the phone and driving at the same time. What a load of crap, and an arrogant comment too.

I once passed a man driving erratically in the fast lane and when I got up beside him and looked over, he was leaning on the center console with a cell phone to his ear, talking animatedly. I paced him and watched him for quite a while. His speed was anywhere between 50 mph and 80 mph. Cars behind him were pulling out in frustration and cutting people off, just so they could get around him. I had only been living in New England for a short time, and had not yet experienced road rage, and indeed thought road rage was when someone pulled a gun out and shot at you (I'd heard rumors of that), or when two people pulled off and duked it out over some argument over driving. Well, that is road rage all right, but wait till you hear what happened next.

Eventually he looked over at me, and being the big mouth that I am sometimes, I mouthed the words, "Hang up the phone and drive", and then sped up to the speed limit, intent on leaving him behind.

The man immediately pulled in behind me and turned on police lights hidden in the front grill, and pulled me over! He was a cop off duty, albeit out of his jurisdiction, but a cop nonetheless. About that time, I was cursing myself for meddling, but I just couldn't let it go without alerting him to his horrible driving. He stomped up to my window and proceeded to literally yell and scream at me about making comments to other drivers on the road. He accused me of road rage. I sat there dumbfounded and listened without a word, trying to appear calm, in the presence of a cop no less, who was displaying such anger. Though I didn't think he had the grounds to haul me off to jail, I didn't want to push it. Hey, he had a gun and I didn't. Finally he stomped back to his car and took off, nearly causing an accident as he pulled into traffic. He was probably arguing with his wife on the phone.

Both of these episodes happened while I was driving a 4-wheeled vehicle. I owned a 3/4 ton truck then. And I used it to my advantage. I could travel down a one-lane road wide enough for two cars, but if I drove in the center of it, other cars couldn't pass me (more of that audacity I'm famous for). People watched out for me because I had the size and they didn't. But remember, I also owned and rode a motorcycle. I was always aware of them. My eyes were always on my mirrors, watching for whoever is around me, as my dad taught me to be. Whenever I could, I used my large vehicle to shield or protect motorcycles from other cars, allowing them to pass me while holding others back.

Now, I won't say I don't use my cell phone while driving. I do. I usually limit my conversations, and in dangerous areas or very heavy traffic, I just don't answer it. Chances are it isn't my kid calling to tell me of an emergency. I know I need all my attention to be on my driving. If I really need to continue to talk, I pull off. It is not my God-given right to use my cell phone while driving. Nor is it anyone else's, if it endangers the lives of others sharing the road.

It goes without saying, and most would agree, that eating, putting on makeup, shaving, reading, and doing things with your hands other than driving, is a dangerous practice. Children need to learn manners in the car too. Mine did, or I pulled off and let them know in no uncertain terms what would happen to them if they didn't. As a parent, it was my responsibility to assure that I was not distracted by them. When you sign up to be a parent, you take on the responsibility for them. They learn by your example, so set a good one.

A huge portion of distracted driving is caused by conversations on cell phones, not the actually holding of one. Nearly every man woman and child over the age of ten owns a cell phone in this country. So OK, ten year olds don't drive. How many does that leave? Most or all of them who drive, use their cell phones while driving. Look up the census records yourself and do the math.

Society has gone from wired phones, with a stool by the wall. Then on to cordless phones which still had to remain in your house, and then cell phones that could go anywhere. I even have one of those cellular cards that plug into my laptop for internet connection. I use it in cities where I can't get good internet connections. I was astonished to hear of people who surf the net while driving! Can you say S-T-U-P-I-D? Whenever I see that commercial, "Can you hear me now?", I fill in with "Can you kill me now?"

Cell phone use while driving, however, is currently your choice. Can you consciously make the right choice? Can you leave your arrogance and selfishness behind and eliminate its use, or at least limit its use? Even with the awareness I have because I ride a motorcycle, I know of times when the miles went right by without knowing what I passed, because I was on the phone, and I've always used a hands free bluetooth device. Without cruise-control engaged, my speed is erratic, causing other drivers to become irritated and angry. Hellooooo. Can you say road rage? Human beings have the tendency for erratic behavior when angry, or distracted. Being on a cell phone while driving not only distracts you, but it has a ripple effect, distracting others. Distracted driving kills people.

What this all adds up to is motorcyclists are dying everyday because of auto drivers' failure to obey traffic laws, and driving distractions, primarily cell phones. And BTW, someone pa-leeeease explain to me how a helmet helps an auto driver drive better and not hit me? And why is it that the phrase, "I didn't see him" excuses these actions?

People who have families like you and me, and who have the right to share the road safely with other vehicles, are dying, and the guilty get a slap on the hand. Is this a violation of MY human rights? You bet it is! And it makes me mad!

Now let's examine some prejudices. We go out of our way to make room for bicycles on the road. How often do you see signs telling you to share the road with bicycles? While I can appreciate city DOT's putting those signs up, where is the same for motorcycles? Motorcyclists are just as vulnerable as bicyclists, so why aren't they given the same consideration?

And insurance companies aren't much better. Do they also discriminate against you if you own and ride a bicycle? Mine doesn't, but I pay more for life insurance because I ride a motorcycle. One goes faster and further, both riders die if hit by an auto. Why aren't bicyclists harassed about wearing protecting clothing, or full face helmets?

Politicians are oblivious to these facts, no matter how we print, speak or broadcast it. They are fixated on helmets, or the lack of. Journalists and bleeding heart liberals (redundancy at its best) fuel the fire by spouting off inaccurate and/or incomplete statistics. The general public looks down their noses at a motorcyclist who rides bareheaded, as they are yakking on a cell phone and swerving into your lane.

Speaking of helmets, let's talk about those for a minute. Most motorcyclists will not have a minor crash with an auto that let's them walk away unscathed or with minor injuries; crashes with autos are never minor. Motorcyclists die all the time, helmet or not, from blunt force trauma to the brain. When struck by an auto, we are separated from our much smaller vehicle and become faster than a speeding bullet fired into a brick wall, usually head first. Whether it's your helmet hitting the auto, or your head, it's still most always a fatal.

Our heads are but one part of the body. Is it preferable to live, if we don't know we're alive? Unless you put a metal cage with airbags around a bike, a crash will cause debilitating injury, helmet or not. Many tell me they don't want to wear a helmet so they don't survive a crash to become a vegetable. That's reasonable to me. And it's certainly my right to choose.

Perhaps in the distant future, some scientist will invent a force-field for motorcycles and we won't have to worry about being run over by autos anymore. Beam me up, Scotty!

I don't look at helmets the same way as seat belts in an auto. Seat belts save lives with a much larger percentage than helmets do, by virtue that, if you stay in your vehicle, in a protected position, you are less likely to be critically injured.

So let's be clear, helmets help prevent your head from splitting open and your brain from spilling out. It does not prevent brain injury or death. And frankly, if I am hit by some inconsiderate, self-absorbed, arrogant, anal retentive, cell-phone impaired auto driver, I don't want to live in a vegetable state the rest of my life, or wonder if I'm ever going to stop being in constant pain from the umpteen surgeries I have to have. Just put me 6 feet under, thank you very much, for the Lord loves me far more than the politians and journalists do.

Now, granted, if I was a speed demon on my bike, taking chances on curves, pulling wheelies, I'd think it was prudent to wear a helmet just to protect me from myself. And I could just kill myself anyway. But when will lawmakers accept the fact that helmets don't save the majority of lives, good auto drivers do?

Approximately 2/3 of motorcycle deaths can be attributed to auto driver error with no fault of the motorcyclist. The excuse is nearly always, "I didn't see them". (What? Did you expect to hear someone say, "sorry I was putting on my makeup and didn't see them"?) Drivers are expected to look for oncoming traffic, before pulling out, or changing lanes. Last time I looked, motorcycles were included in that term oncoming traffic. When an auto driver violates my rights by running me over, there should be hell to pay. Not only do prosecutors need to stand up for those rights, but - and here's a novel concept - how about owning up to your mistakes? And then work toward correcting their behavior?

Motorcycles are different than autos in many ways. They can accellerate up to the speed limit faster. They can stop faster. Use your brains, figure it out. A truck can't stop as fast as a car (I found that out the hard way). It's pure physics. Next time you're tailgating that motorcycle, think about how much that person appreciates the use of his legs and BACK OFF. Many a biker has lost life and limb when a tailgating car squashes them between the auto behind them and the next one. [Oh wait, he wasn't wearing a helmet, so that must be why he died.]

It all comes down to one thing; auto=big and heavy, motorcycle=small and light. It's simple, but then most people can't see the simplicity of anything, and try to make something more complicated than it really is.

Now let's examine the vehicles currently sharing the road with motorcycles. Next time you're sitting at a stoplight, count the number of minivans, SUV's and trucks. Now count the number of cars. If you do this enough times, you'll have your own statistics. So I'm not going to print them for you. The reality is, there are far more utility vehicles on the road now than ever before. The era of the family stationwagon is over.

What does this have to do with anything? It means that when a motorcycle broadsides one of these vehicles, the rider no longer is thrown over the roof of that vehicle, as with a sedan or low profile car. It's like hitting a BRICK wall. What part of brick wall is not understood here? You die, sometimes you die instantly if you're lucky, instead of being thrown over the vehicle and onto the ground, where you may have had a chance.

So, there are more light truck and SUV's on the road, than low profile cars. The number of automobiles has increased. The number of drivers has increased. The rate of awareness for motorcycles has NOT kept up with the first two points. The number of motorcycles and riders has increased. Well, Jeez, of course the number of motorcycle deaths have gone up. And that won't change until drivers learn to obey traffic laws and stop the "inattentive" driving habits.

And how do we get auto drivers to obey traffic laws? Make the punishment fit the crime. You kill a person with your vehicle, you go to jail. Simple. Don't most law abiding citizens refrain from breaking the law because of the consequences? I doubt, no I know, people will not stop using cell phones while driving unless a law is passed. human nature is way too selfish for that. Sad but true.

These facts are also ignored by our politicians and journalists. If you're one of them reading this, try being open-minded instead of indignant that I've pointed out your selective blindness. Drivers of light trucks and SUV's must be even more aware of motorcycles now. If they didn't "see" us when they drove a car, do you think they'll see us when driving the kids to soccer in the family minivan or SUV?

Here's another point to ponder. SUV's sit higher, and have more visibility of the surrounding traffic. Yet, motorcyclists are still being killed more than ever. Think they're looking? Not on your life.

Do we educate drivers on the safety factors involved for motorcyclists? Sadly, no. We don't even educate them sufficiently on driving autos and we don't require people to retake a written driving test again beyond their first one at 16 years old, outside of exceptions involving suspended or lapsed licenses, or moving to a state that requires it. Most don't.

There is a huge push to educate motorcyclists on riding safely, but the fact that auto drivers are responsible for most motorcycle deaths never even registers. Doesn't it stand to reason that educating auto drivers just might reduce the number of motorcycle deaths caused by failure to yield the right of way? My, my, my, wouldn't journalists everywhere eat some crow if the death rate dropped by that 2/3 caused by auto drivers. Hmmm, maybe that's why they refuse to see the writing on the wall. It's far easier to pin the blame on the dead biker who wasn't wearing a helmet.

I am delighted to hear that more and more people are riding motorcycles these days. At least I know that someone driving a car, who also rides a motorcycle, is not likely to be the one who runs me over on mine.

To quote a favorite quote from my younger days, "What we have here, is a failure to communicate." And on a big scale too. In my line of work, if something keeps failing, we evaluate the broken process and fix it. We don't "bandaid" things. The helmet law is a "bandaid" fix for a very broken process. Using your cell phone while driving an auto is a selfish act that can and does take lives, so why is it allowed? Failing to yield the right of way kills people, so why is a slap on the hand suitable punishment?

Let's fix the root cause. Let's educate auto drivers everywhere, not just on motorcycle awareness and safety, but on obeying traffic laws. Let's change the laws and make the punishment fit the crime. We all want to see that murderer get time. Failure to yield the right of way and killing someone in the process is vehicular homicide at the very least. ROW laws are there for a reason. "I didn't see them" is just another way of saying, "I didn't look, or look hard enough". The burden of proof of innocence should be on the auto driver when the dead biker is unable to speak for himself, doncha think?

Get MADD. Make a difference. Even if it's just you that changes the way you drive, or stops using your cell phone in your car, it will make a difference. But beware, bikers everywhere are watching, and there are changes in the wind, cuz we're mad, and we're not gonna take it anymore.

I know this post will most likely be read by other bikers, and I'm just "preaching to the choir", but perhaps someone who doesn't ride will read it and pursue the need for more information. Or maybe it'll be another biker like me, who has only just begun to fight.

Check out the websites in my links list, specifically MADD, and Big Bend Bikers for Freedom. Educate yourself on these issues, educate someone else. Stop the killing.

This "big bad motorcycle mama" will thank you for it.


Shirley Vandever said...

Great post, Sam. You address alot of points. I'm not sure what to do about all of this. Everyone just seems to be in too much of a hurry these days.


Sam said...

I'm not sure either, Shirley, I just know that awareness is part of it, and I have to do something. I was brought into the fray by a simple invitation to ride on a PGR mission, and my insatiable need to learn more about things. There has to be others (riders and non-riders) out there like me. If I can reach them, they might reach others too. After all, blogs like RC's, Moonrider's and yours inspired me. It's a step in the right direction, even if it's a very small step. Passion can be very infectious.

rc said...

"I know this post will most likely be read by other bikers, and I'm just "preaching to the choir"

Sometimes the choir needs a little preaching too. I am increasingly noticing motorcyclists with blue tooth head sets. Even watched one on a run of over a hundred people try to talk on his handheld phone as he "wobbled" in the formation. Talk about recipe for disaster.

Good post Sam, and lets hope "Bikers" get it too.....rc