News: Motorcycle safety: Perspectives from an emergency room biker
Lt. Cdr. Jonathan Levenson, department head, Emergency Room, Naval Hospital Pensacola
PENSACOLA, Fla. - I think Robert Pirsig’s attempt to address the question of “Why we ride?” was one of the best ever written when he wrote, “You see things [while] vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other.” “In a car you’re always in a compartment and because you’re used to it, you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You‘re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle, the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on in, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.”
This passage from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance helps shed some light on why bikers, myself included, would expose ourselves to what is perceived as a great risk by the non-riding population. To us, it is not the danger that we see, but rather the freedom to explore the world from a very powerful and enlightening perspective. However, to say that this lifestyle is without risk is foolish and we in the Navy, like the other military services, are taught to mitigate our risk by understanding and managing it though our operational risk management (ORM) steps.
ORM teaches us to identify the hazards, assess those hazards, make risk decisions, implement controls and supervise or watch for changes. Though I am biker to the core, I am also a father, a husband, a sailor, a nurse and a department head of an emergency room. I have had to develop techniques and skills to make all these parts fit into the lifestyle of riding. I want to enjoy the ride and everything that goes with it, but at the end of the day, I want to go home in one piece and managing the risks effectively helps make that happen.
From 2001-2008, the Centers for Disease Control noted that motorcyclist death rates increased 55 percent (1.12 per 100,000 persons in 2001 to 1.74 per 100,000 persons in 2008). The highest death and injury rates were among 20- to 24-year-olds, followed by 25- to 29-year-olds). For Florida, motorcycle fatalities accounted for 14.3 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2010, but motorcyclists make up only 7 percent of the motoring public. Many of these accidents involved either another vehicle or alcohol.
When it comes to other vehicles, the fact is that motorcyclists are not the majority out there on the roads. Mellissa Holbrook Pierson said it best in her book The Perfect Vehicle, “Seven million who ride stacked against 225 million who don’t.” “To get an idea of the minority status this number confirms, consider the fact that some 20 million Americans call themselves dedicated birdwatchers.”
In order to mitigate the risk of riding when it comes to others on the road, service members must take the required safety classes and always wear personal protection equipment (PPE). Like it or not, wearing a Department of Transportation approved helmet will help save your life. According to Ride Smart Florida, www.ridesmartflorida.com, motorcyclists not wearing a helmet are 40 percent more likely to die of a head injury than those who wear one. Not only will wearing the DOT helmet help keep you alive, if you are a Sailor or Marine and do not wear one, you are in violation of the Navy Safety Instruction and could face penalties under the UCMJ.
It should probably not need to be said, but drinking and riding is probably one of the dumbest things a biker can do. Ride Smart Florida notes that having any alcohol in one’s body increases the chance of crashing by five times. Having a blood alcohol content (BAC) greater than 0.05 percent increases the risk of crashing by about 40 times and one-fourth of all fatal alcohol-related motorcycle crashes involve motorcyclists running off the road, overturning or falling from the motorcycle rather than striking another object. In other words you essentially are your own worst enemy when you drink before you ride. In 2010, the percentage with BAC 0.08 or above was highest for fatally injured motorcycle riders among the 21- to 24-year-olds (34 percent), followed by 25- to 34-year-olds (30 percent). These are the bikers who help reinforce the Emergency Room’s stereotype of motorcycles being “Donor-Cycles.”
Pierson wrote in her book that, “Riding is something that hovers between you and the road.” “Or rather, it is about removing as much as possible between you and the road, about extending yourself past the very vehicle that enables you to feel the road in the first place. So in one sense, it’s about the way a road moves past you.”
Do not lessen that distance between you and the road to the point of injury. Enjoy the ride, live the lifestyle, manage your risks and ride safely!