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Rocket Bikes: A High Price for Freedom

San Jose Mercury

November 25, 1994

I picked up a news story the other day about a motorcycle accident. A young man flew over his motorcycle after striking the rear end of a car, and landed on his stomach. He was sitting up and talking at the scene shortly after the accident, but died in the hospital the next morning from a ruptured spleen. It is difficult to imagine the pain and anguish his family is suffering right now: initial hope shattered by unutterable loss as they watched his life pass away before them a few short hours later.

Eye of the Hurricane

This story is painfully familiar. Too many of us have our own painful memories -- images and excruciating pains that are carved in our hearts forever. My younger brother was a motorcycle enthusiast. He loved the freedom and the acceleration. He drove a unique bike called the Hurricane, a sleek-looking machine that hugs the road. The Hurricane is a rocket bike with a 1,000cc engine, 130 horse power, a top speed of 160, and the power to race up to a fourth of a mile in 10 and a half seconds.

My brother enjoyed riding with his buddies. The night after his biggest real estate transaction, he went riding with two friends on the Hurricane. He was racing straight down the road at about 60 miles per hour when the accident occurred. Roy had the right of way, but the driver of the car coming toward him cut him off with a left turn. The driver had his blinker on but miscalculated the time he would have to make the turn. He thought he could beat the bike. Roy had a second to react; he saw one window, accelerated, but it was too late. He hit the car, catching the motorcycle handle on the front windshield of the car, flew into the air some 68 feet, and crashed into the pavement. His shoes went flying as he was propelled through the air. His helmet stayed on.

If anyone could have escaped from this accident, found a tiny window to slide through, it was Roy. But in this case, he had no window and he was thrown into the path of another car. There was absolutely no opportunity to cheat death. The driver of the other car didn't even know what had happened; he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The entire accident, from the moment Roy hit the first car to the moment the other car dragged his body back to the point of impact, took approximately 3 seconds. The coroner said that death was instantaneous; that was the only consolation for any of us. Roy's motorcycle buddy Dave, riding right behind him, did find a window between the cars just after Roy hit the car like a brick wall. Oil and glass flew through the air, but somehow Dave made it through. Their third buddy, Eddie, was a little further behind and rode up after the accident. He checked to see if he could feel a pulse -- reaching for my brother's leg underneath the car. He couldn't feel anything and started screaming. Dave yelled, "Eddie, lets get out of here." They weren’t sure that Roy was dead but they left my brother. He was 28 years old.

A Trail of Death

My brother’s story is not unique. “The Eye of the Hurricane” by David Wilcox is a moving, melodic ballad about the death of a woman who used to ride a rocket bike. The song tells a story like my brother’s.

“We saw her ride so fast last night, racing by, a flash of light. Riding quick, the street was dark. The shiny truck she thought was parked. It blocked her path, stopped her heart, not the Hurricane. She saw her chance to slip the trap but then it moved, closed the gap. She never felt the pain.”

Stories appear every day about young people being hurt, disfigured, paralyzed, and killed in motorcycle accidents. During the last decade, over 3 million motorcycle accidents occurred and approximately 40,000 motorcyclists were killed. This is one reason why emergency room physicians often refer to motorcyclists as prospective heart donors. Rocket bikes in particular are designed for speeds that far exceed the capabilities of most riders and most drivers of other vehicles. They simply race too fast for an ordinary road. Further, they entice their young riders into even greater speeds by offering racing power beyond the needs of any traffic situation.

As part of the Easy Rider, Arlo Guthrie motor “sicle” generation, I embraced the freedom and independence associated with this American phenomenon. I still bridle under external, governmental infringements on my Constitutional rights and personal liberties. However, I do believe, as Amatai Etzioni eloquently stated, that some limitations to our freedoms are necessary and reasonable in a complex democratic society. And as a student of history, I recognize too that infringements that are difficult for us to accept may seem trivial to future generations. Historians may look back at this period in disbelief that people would argue for the right to propel themselves into space at extraordinary speeds without any protective barrier between them and the pavement -- not to mention the economic burden of medical costs, rehabilitation, and perhaps lifetime disability benefits for those fortunate enough to survive such an impact. According to the Hurt report on motorcyle accident cause factors, “less than 10% of the motorcycle riders involved in (the accidents studied) had insurance of any kind.”

Clearly traffic laws are no deterrent to motorcycle racing. Helmet laws are necessary and admirable, but they aren’t enough; my brother was wearing a helmet. Education is critical. The overwhelming majority of motorcyle riders “are essentially without training.” The Motorcyle Safety Foundation provides lifesaving motorcyle rider training programs. Since “students comprise most of the accident-involved motorcycle riders,” we as educators also have a special responsibility to expose our students to such educational resources as the foundation and to the full range of issues associated with this choice. This can be accomplished within existing school programs.

In addition, since “injury severity increases with speed, alcohol involvement, and motorcycle size,” we need to address these issues as well. In particular, one way to reduce the number of fatalities is to reduce the speed at which accidents happen. We regulate many vehicles for safety; I think it is time to consider regulating the power of these rocket bikes. On an ordinary road, with an ordinary rider, the rocket bike is a vehicular assault weapon. And as with automatic and semiautomatic assault rifles, we need first to talk about solutions and then to act, educate, mandate, and legislate to reduce the danger to riders and others who are swept away in the eye of the Hurricane.


This op-ed piece was also published in the San Jose Mercury, Sunday, September 4, 1994, as well as other newspapers and motorcycle listservs.

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