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An Element of Risk - In Life and On Motorcycles

By Walter F. Kern

Author's Note: The following article was written two days after the tragic loss of John F. Kennedy, Jr in a plane crash off Martha's Vineyard. It relates my experiences just prior to hearing of the plane crash and discusses risk in our daily lives, risk in riding motorcycles, and how motorcycle risk can be managed.

On Saturday, July 17, 1999, I had gone through my usual morning routine of fixing breakfast for my wife, Jane, and myself. Usually, we have eggs. On this day, I decided that we had been eating too many eggs so I announced to my wife that I would make cereal for myself. She then usually fixes herself some instant pancakes. I had just got my cereal and was seated in the family room talking with Jane who was procrastinating getting her breakfast while she listened to me ramble on about nothing in particular.

At almost precisely 8 a.m., I became conscious of a low steadily increasing roar like a freight train that was running right down the middle of our kitchen. I immediately jumped up thinking maybe our cat had toppled something over but it was way too loud for that. As I reached the door to the kitchen I saw flying dishes sailing across the room as the overhead double-door cabinet that had stood faithfully for over 33 years over our center counter work surface, fell crashing into the middle of the floor in front of the sink exactly where I had stood just two minutes previously.

The cabinet had been nailed to the wall with four large nails which somehow managed to stay anchored all these years up to that very instant. Broken dishes, cups, glasses, plates, tea pots, coffee pots, and shot glasses were strewn all over the kitchen. I now know what the damage after a tornado must be like.

After the noise was over and our cat was permanently entrenched in the farthest corner of the living room in total shock, we began to survey the damage. We asked ourselves what would have happened if my wife had decided to get up and start fixing her breakfast instead of listening to me? What if our grandson had been playing on the floor when it fell? Frightening thoughts.

As we were starting to recover, we heard on the TV news that JFK, Jr's plane appeared to be lost near Martha's Vineyard. Another tragedy in the making for the Kennedy family.

The whole subject of risk comes to mind. I'm a motorcyclist. I should be used to risk. You can't be a rider without assuming some risk. Life is full of risk. JFK, Jr. assumed risk when he flew his plane under Visual Flight Rules through a foggy atmosphere under low light conditions. He appears to have been unable to manage the risks that surrounded him. I was unable to manage the risks that resulted in an aging kitchen cabinet finally falling away from a wall to potentially harm anyone in its path.

What can we do to manage risk in our daily lives? As motorcyclists we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to be aware that riding a motorcycle is risky.

I recently received an email from a reader requesting my advice as to whether he should let his young son take up off-road riding. Were there any statistics on the safety of these bikes that I could find to assist him in making the decision of whether he should allow his son to ride? Well, what can you say? I told him there is an element of risk in riding but we have to manage it by training, wearing protective clothing, and receiving proper supervision. Then riding can be a beneficial experience for both parent and child.

Yes, we need to manage risk but how do we do it?

First off, we need to get trained in proper and safe riding techniques to maximize the probability that we will survive that next ride.

We need to dress properly. That means wearing protective clothing and a helmet whether the law says so or not. Don't ride your bike with a tank top, shorts, sneakers, and no gloves.

We need to ensure that our bikes are carefully maintained and road-worthy.

We need to ride under optimal conditions. We have all ridden in the rain. That's part of being a motorcyclist. We have all ridden at night but many accidents occur at night. Nevertheless, we should try to minimize our risk of having an accident by avoiding these conditions where possible.

Don't ride at night, especially as you get older and your eyes aren't what they used to be.

Don't purposely start out riding in the rain or in the snow.

Don't ride after drinking or after taking medication that makes you drowsy.

There is an element of risk in motorcycling.

Here's a simple action plan to get you started in your general risk management education. First, I suggest that you walk to your kitchen and examine the mounting of your heaviest cabinets. There, you've done something positive to manage risk. Now, I want you to think about what positive steps you can take to manage your risks of motorcycling. You are not invincible as a rider. None of us are. JFK, Jr. wasn't invincible either. He just found himself in a risk situation that no one could manage.

Do your part to manage risk. There is an element of risk in motorcycling -- let's go manage it.

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