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Reduce Your Risk with Good Gear

Reduce Your Risk with Good Gear

LAURIE ATHERHOLT
Augusta, Georgia

It was a nice, spring evening, and I was getting ready to meet a friend for a long run through the streets of Arlington and Georgetown in preparation for an upcoming marathon. Rush hour was over, so I decided it was a perfect time to ride my motorcycle. I had been riding for eight years and brought my bike with me to every duty station, including Italy, so I felt ready to take on D.C. traffic. Plus, it was just a short ride.

Since moving to the area, I hadn’t ventured out on my motorcycle more than a few times after observing the local traffic patterns and driving habits. It was common to see people shaving, applying makeup, talking on cellphones and even reading the newspaper while sitting behind the wheel in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Still, I thought a 15-mile ride on this beautiful evening would be a perfect way to end my hectic day at the Pentagon. I hopped on my cherry red Suzuki Bandit, which I bought from my best friend’s husband a year earlier, and headed out.

Within minutes, I was in the left lane on Interstate 395, giving generous distance to the cars in front of me. My self-imposed rules for riding in the D.C. area were to give merging traffic plenty of room (ride in the left lane if possible, while on multi-lane roads), give other vehicles more distance than I did while driving a car, make myself as visible as possible (my bike and jacket were red and my helmet was white with an added reflective strip) and keep my head on a swivel at all times. I thought that should be enough to keep me safe.

As I cruised up the interstate at 60 mph, I saw a spot of wet pavement in front of me. Some sections of the median had sprinklers installed to water the plants, which meant the road was always wet, even if it hadn’t rained recently. Suddenly, I noticed red taillights on the cars in all four lanes in front of me. I downshifted and began slowing down — from 50 to 40 and then 30 mph. The distance between me and the cars was closing fast, so I started applying the brakes. Then I realized everyone on the highway had come to a sudden stop. Despite the eight-second cushion I had at 60 mph, I now did not have enough space to slow down without slamming on the brakes.

I braked hard and began skidding sideways on the wet pavement. My first thought was, “Don’t panic. Just keep the bike upright and you’ll be OK.” Then I heard squealing tires behind me. I was able to keep my bike upright, but now I had to worry about the car to my rear running over me. Fortunately, the car swerved into the lane to our right to avoid hitting me. Then, as quickly as it had stopped, traffic was once again moving at 60 mph (completely normal for D.C.!). The whole ordeal lasted only a few seconds, but it was terrifying.

When I arrived at the meeting point, I couldn’t stop shaking for several minutes. That was the last time I ever rode the bike at night. In fact, I decided D.C. traffic was more than I needed to tackle and sold the bike that spring to a young sailor. I made sure I told him about my scare and encouraged him to take a rider safety course.

So, what could I have done differently that night? First, I could have taken my SUV instead of the motorcycle. I was familiar with D.C. roads and the traffic, but I also knew how unpredictable they were and how frequently people in D.C. drive distracted. Add to that the factor of driving at night, which can make it more difficult to distinguish distance and determine when traffic is stopped in front of you on the highway, and I should have resisted the temptation to “ride the wind” on that crisp fall night.

I also should have worn all available personal protective equipment. While I was wearing a full-face helmet; motorcycle jacket with protectors for the shoulders, elbows and kidneys; and gloves, I did not have any true PPE below the waist. I was wearing jeans and hiking boots. Even though I no longer own a motorcycle and only ride occasionally as a passenger, I now have riding pants. (I’ll admit, however, that I should also own riding boots.)

For many years, a full-face helmet and riding gloves were the only pieces of motorcycle-specific gear I wore. I would ride in a denim or leather jacket, jeans and boots or running shoes. At the time, it was nearly impossible to find women’s riding gear that was not: a) made for riding as a passenger on the back of a Harley; b) leather only, which is hot in the summer and offers no protective padding; and c) extremely expensive. I was living on a Ramen noodle budget, like many young riders, and couldn’t justify buying expensive gear that didn’t suit my non-Harley motorcycle. Can you picture me on my old Honda Shadow in a Harley jacket and leather chaps? Hardly! Fortunately, today there are a lot more options for female riders looking for functional, well-fitting and cute gear. (Hey, it’s important to some of us!)

Speaking of gear, I know some may think that motorcycle pants are only for people who ride on a track or during the winter, but they can help lessen your injuries if you ever lay down your bike on the asphalt. A few years ago, I was in a bicycle crash, which convinced me to purchase pants for my trips as a motorcycle passenger. I was traveling a little more than 20 mph on my bicycle when I hit the pavement. I was wearing normal cycling gear, which included a helmet, glasses, cycling clothes and fingerless gloves, and each piece saved me from more serious injury. However, I still walked away with a serious case of road rash all over my body and hands, bruised sternum, broken wrist, 12 stitches in my lip and a broken nose. I skidded across the pavement on my face before tumbling and coming to rest on my back, so my glasses — which were made specifically for cycling — protected my eyes from injury. I realized that if I were going much faster on a motorcycle wearing nothing but jeans and running shoes, I would surely have suffered some serious leg and foot injuries.

So, what lessons can be gained from my experiences? First, I think there are some traffic conditions that are better tackled while protected by a steel cage. I know there are some riders who have no qualms about negotiating conditions like D.C. traffic. I, however, simply do not trust that other drivers will do the right thing behind the wheel. I have been in two fender benders while living in the D.C. area, both while in stop-and-go traffic. Both times, I was glad that I was hit while driving my car and not while on the bike. Even slow-speed accidents can cause serious injuries to a motorcyclist.

Second, even if you are on a Ramen budget, scrape together some pennies, go on eBay, check Craigslist — just do whatever it takes to buy a full protective ensemble for riding. It will protect you much better and you’ll be warmer while riding in cooler weather. We all have suffered through a cold ride and it is not fun!

Finally, as hard as it may be, resist riding on days when you know there are other factors that might make the ride risky. Remember, the weather is not the only factor to consider when deciding to take the bike out for a spin.

I must admit that I miss owning two-wheeled motorized transportation. Yes, I’m still riding the bicycle, but it’s not the same. Currently, I am looking for a nice, used motorcycle to buy. Before I get back on the road, though, I’ll ensure I’ve done everything I can to keep myself protected from whatever obstacles may be thrown my way.

  • 7 May 2023
  • Author: USACRC Editor
  • Number of views: 195
  • Comments: 0
Categories: Off-DutyPMV-2
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