License to Fail
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Kansas City, Mo.
Some motorcyclists only go through safety training to get their license and drive on post. However, once off the installation, they seem to forget the rules and fail to practice the skills that might save their lives. When riding a motorcycle, even the smallest mistakes can be life threatening, so risk management and situational awareness are crucial.
It was the first warm weekend of spring during my senior year in high school. The northern Virginia winter was bad that year, and the heavy snows we'd been getting had only recently disappeared. With winter behind us, my best friend, Seth, was eager to get his Kawasaki Ninja sport bike on the road again.
The year before, Seth taught me how to ride it in the school parking lot, but we only covered the basics — how to shift, what brakes are where and how to use the blinker. I had only driven it on the road once, and I remember being both very nervous and excited at the same time. I thought that bike was the coolest thing in the world and wanted to learn to ride.
As Seth and I were making plans for the day, my brother called and told me he had just bought a new Honda scooter. He'd wanted a motorcycle but did not know how to ride one. The scooter was more comfortable for him because he didn't need to shift gears, it was street legal and could get up to 55 mph. Seth suggested my brother stop by so we could all go for a ride.
Within an hour, we were all together on a cul-de-sac near another friend's house. My brother and Seth took off first, and I could hear them laughing as they drove down the street. About 30 minutes later, they returned so I could have a turn. I was nervous, but being 17 and having my peers around, I didn't take the time to consider the risks involved.
I hopped on the motorcycle, and my brother and I took off down the street. About 100 yards down the road, there was a sharp turn and, before I knew it, I was sliding on the ground. Even though I was only going about 30 mph, I slid for what seemed like 20 yards, barely missing a mailbox. The Bermuda shorts, tennis shoes with no socks and T-shirt I was wearing didn't do much to protect me from the road rash that took off most of the skin on my elbows, forearms, hands and knees. Oddly enough, the helmet — the only appropriate personal protective equipment I was wearing — never hit the ground.
With the adrenaline pumping, I immediately hopped to my feet and picked up the Kawasaki like it was a Huffy. I then rolled it back to the cul-de-sac and apologized to Seth profusely for totaling his prized possession. Like a good friend, he was more concerned about my condition. I told them I felt fine and didn't need to go to the ER. They then pointed out the thick stream of blood running down the driveway from my right shoe. I decided I might need to get that checked out.
The injury was extensive. The brake pedal had scooped a chunk of flesh out of my leg and scraped the bone. Because it wasn't a cut, the doctors couldn't sew it together. I had to spend nearly a month in Walter Reed Army Medical Center undergoing skin grafts and preventive infection procedures due to the scraped bone.
There are several lessons I learned from my accident — the first being proper training is an absolute must. Had I taken the time to get trained and licensed, I likely could have avoided this accident. Without proper training, you only have a license to fail. Proper PPE is also important and probably would have kept me out of the hospital. A long-sleeved shirt or jacket, pants and gloves would have helped prevent the road rash, and heavy leather boots would have helped me avoid the most painful injury I have suffered in my life. Finally, I should have considered the environment I was riding in before I got on the bike. Because the snows had only recently ended, there was still an abundance of sand and salt on the street. When I drove through that sand in the curve, it was a millisecond ride to the asphalt. That's a ride I hope to never take again.
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