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Stepping up the ladder of risk: a cautionary tale

Posted By Pam Fisher, Thursday, May 05, 2016

As a motorcyclist, I've heard tell that the first few months after passing a basic motorcycle training course aren't the most dangerous for a new rider. It’s the second part of the learning curve - once you begin to think you've got the hang of this motorcycling thing - where a rider can get in big trouble fast. On a clear bright day in July of 2004, I sure did. It was by sheer luck of timing, not masterful skill, that I escaped severe injury.

This is a caution to newer riders, and to veterans as well: Always keep your head in the ride and on the bike. My crash happened in my second year of riding., I’d begun to feel that I was actually becoming proficient at riding a motorcycle, having gotten beyond my initial ‘still learning’ caution.

I was a member of Women on Wheels (WOW), and our local BMW club, BMW Bikers of Metro-Washington (BMWBMW). My husband, Chaz, and I had had great fun going on day trips together and riding with the local BMW club. Hearing about all the rallies and such that our fellow BMW club members went to, I wanted to go on a longer motorcycle trip with my husband. I registered us for the 18th Annual WOW Ride In, which was held in Canaan Valley, WV that year. Not too far from our Baltimore home. He rode his Suzuki SV650, and I my BMW F 650 CS. We stayed at Blackwater Falls Lodge, near Canaan Valley.

The Ride In was a great adventure for us. It was so thrilling to see so many women riders, and feel the camaraderie. We attended a workshop called Accident Scene Management which taught the importance of paying attention to where you are while riding – so you can direct help to you – as well as how to deal with an accident scene so as to not cause more problems or further injuries to anyone.

The rally organizers provided route sheets, at the Ride In registration desk, with turn by turn directions for several different scenic ride loops. I picked up a ride sheet. As it happens, Chaz and I were participating in our BMW club’s scavenger hunt/ride contest. That year, the theme was county seats. With recognition going to those who rode their motorcycles to the most county seats in the five state area encompassing Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia. The ride sheet we picked up was a loop that travelled fairly close to Elkins, Buckhannon, Philipi and Parsons.

We set out at around 10 am. The day was gorgeous! Sun shining, not too hot. There was little traffic. The route followed some two lane curvy roads as well as multi lane highways with fun sweeping curves. After stopping in Elkins, and Buckhannon, we had a late lunch in Philipi, before continuing on to Parsons for our last photo stop. I took the lead for the last leg of our ride.

219 out of Parsons, WV, is a long, straight, easy grade. I got focused on pushing my bike up the hill, forgetting to think beyond what I could see. I never saw the posted "20 mph" sign for the curve. I must have glanced at my speedometer as I whizzed past it. Next, I looked up to see one of those helpful yellow arrow signs pointing the way to the right.

I eased off the throttle a little, turned my head, and began to lean into the curve. Then, my stomach clenched as I suddenly realized that this turn was far sharper than I'd anticipated, and I was going far faster than my nerves were comfortable with. I was going to run into the other lane. (My husband got to watch helplessly as it all unfolded.) As a relatively unseasoned rider, I then began doing what I'd learned in the BRC: "Straighten. Then brake." It might have worked, but coming at me around the next curve was an 18 wheeler - and he was over the centerline by two feet. The shiny metal grill looked as big as a garage door as it came at me.

For an instant, I considered leaning harder, but discarded it. I didn't have the confidence to try it. The consequences of failing would surely put me under the truck's wheels. Looking to the outside of the corner, it seemed I had just enough room to cross in front of the truck toward the opposite shoulder, but I’d contend with a rough gravel-covered shoulder and drainage ditch. Beyond that rose a wall of steep, rocky mountainside. Being the somewhat less lethal looking option, I chose the outside of the curve. I was uncertain I could stop between getting across/out of the truck's path and hitting the rising rocky wall.

In retrospect, I'm ashamed to admit that in my moment of panic, I probably "laid it down" intentionally. At the time, it seemed better to follow the bike into the hillside, not the other way around. I slid across the lane, up the hill, my bike on my right leg. I remember the WHOOOSH of the truck's wheels past my head as I slid. I have no doubt that I disappeared from the trucker's line of sight; I was so close to the cab of the truck.

I came to a stop and lay still for a few breaths, waiting for the "starriness" from the impact of my helmet against the pavement to dissipate. Then I did a quick assessment: It seemed that all my parts were still attached and essentially intact. There was hot pain in my right knee, but it didn't feel like a break (I've broken bones before). I heard the sound of the big truck braking, stopping. Then, my husband's voice, “Are you okay?!”

I sat up slowly and pulled off my helmet. I hollered to my husband that I was okay. I could see him on the opposite shoulder next to his bike, with his cell phone out. The trucker, 60ish in a plaid shirt, was huffing uphill toward me, shouting, “Is he okay? Is he okay?! I’m sorry!” The man stopped in his tracks when I pulled off my helmet. Perhaps in relief, but maybe in shock that I was a woman.

I will NEVER regret spending the money on BMW gear. If I had been wearing jeans, or even cheap leather, I'm convinced that my right kneecap would have disintegrated from sliding 50 feet beneath my bike, and I'd have ended up sticking to hospital sheets in Elkins or another trauma center. I’m not sure my Joe Rocket gear would have done half as well.

The CE armor in my BMW Airflow 2 jacket and "zip off" Summer pants saved my bones from serious damage. The gear damage: a hole the size of a plum in the right pant knee, and a melted stripe on the left ankle. My right jacket shoulder was scuffed with road grime and there was a tiny hole on the right elbow of the jacket - the only place I had an actual abrasion - but that was from the edge of an elbow pad.

Physically, my right knee looked like an over-stuffed bag of rocks within several hours, but X-rays showed nothing broken. By later in the evening it felt like someone very large and angry had stomped on my right calf. I had a hyperextension hairline fracture in the hypoid bone of my left hand - probably got my thumb hooked against the handgrip as I went down. I spent about 6 weeks in an over-the-elbow cast on my left arm. My right knee was very painful for weeks, an orthopedist said I’d just have to live with it, until a chance encounter with a physical therapist while I was working. He was able to realign the small bone that had been displaced when I went down.

For all the stuff I did wrong. I did do a few things right: I was wearing full gear from toes to fingers and nose. Hubby and I had kept track of where we were in relationship to the previous town and our speed and direction, so emergency responders could find us quickly.

The MSF’s Basic Riders’ Course classroom section uses an analogy for the causes of motorcycle crashes called, the "Ladder of Risk." The concept being that crashes can rarely be said to be caused by a single factor. Essentially, the more issues thrown at a rider, the higher the risk of a crash. I can go back and count the steps up the "ladder of risk" that I went that day:

  • Step 1: Over confidence.
  • Step 2: Failure to be aware of road conditions/signage.
  • Step 3: Failure to recognize my own fatigue.
  • Step 4: Failure to think ahead/SEE and plan for the "what if" that became "now what?"

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