Monday, March 30, 2009

Revisiting Risk: The Accident

This post is about my friend John and the accident he was part of when his BMW motorcycle hit the side of a garbage truck one morning on the way to work. This happened a long time ago now --- in October of 2007. The circumstances of the crash don’t matter.

Physically the accident was a tragedy. John suffered severe trauma to his right leg as a result of the collision and after 14 months of surgical and medical combat a life threatening infection led to an amputation. He's now moving towards acquiring his first prosthetic leg.

A simple question comes to me from time to time as I think about John and his journey. He has remained pretty optimistic most of the time and seems to plan ahead to new adventures. It would be easy to take another path in this situation.

What would I do if I was involved in an accident?

A recent ride home from work. I’m traveling 50 mph in the right-hand lane of a four-lane road. A silver Dodge minivan is slowly passing me on the left. Ahead and to my right at a stop sign is an SUV waiting for a chance to cross both lanes and turn left to head back into town. My eyes scan the road ahead, the van to my left, the front wheels of the SUV. My head is calculating options. The SUV driver is watching the approaching traffic waiting for the precise moment to move their foot from the brake to the accelerator. I can see their face, their eyes. We are all involved in a complex dance of behavior, choices and decisions. Options fade quickly as we reach the point of no return. The moment when there are no options should anyone fail to do their part. It’s a moments like these that I think about my friend John.

I don’t think about motorcycle or scooter accidents a lot. I know they can happen and I know that risk can be managed to a great extent. Responsibility falls squarely on my shoulders in taking and managing them.

Back to my question. What would I do if I were in a bad accident? I’ve talked to others who have given up riding after a near miss let alone a collision. Would I do that? There really is no way to tell for sure what I would do but I have to say John’s experience has been instructional in a way I would not have thought back when it first began.

John Rides Again

John was not a recreational rider. Riding was part of his life and who he is. He wrestled with the question himself and yesterday boarded a plane for Florida to pick up a motorcycle and ride it back to Pennsylvania. That’s quite a ride for the first ride after an accident, minus one leg, and no prosthetic leg yet. I talked with John last week and he told me that all the amputee support groups and counselors advise he continue on with his life like nothing happened.

His decision did not sit well with everyone. His minister said in a letter that John shared that his decision to ride again amounted to nothing more than a big “fuck you” to everyone who cared about him through these past months. I asked John what his wife thought about a new motorcycle (she is an MSF instructor) and he told me that she said he would be one with the bike by the time he got home. John took that as an affirmative response.

In case you are wondering what motorcycle he is going to get and how he is going to manage it sans right leg it is a 1983 BMW R100 RS with a sidecar. A big ugly side car. But as John said to me one big enough to hold his wheelchair.

He had a friend make him something that will allow him to operate the foot brake with what's left of his leg. Looks like something a BMW rider would think of.

On Tuesday morning he is planning to begin his trip north with trips to Deals Gap and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I would not be surprised if he changes his plans and makes the first ride another Iron Butt Ride. He’s done two now I think. Those BMW riders are, what’s the word, CRAZY, yeah, that’s it.

But again, the question: Would I ride again after a serious accident? I would like to think I would. I think riding occupies a place in my life that is important in a manner that probably only other riders might understand. I don’t dwell on this but I have been thinking of it lately. I don’t believe that accidents are inevitable or even likely. I believe a lot of risk can be managed to make riding safer.

Anyways, I wanted to share what I thought was a courageous decision on John’s part amidst a bad situation. But he seems to have found his rhythm again.

Join me in wishing him good luck and safe riding.


Jack Riepe said...

Dear Sir:

I think your friend John's minister was very much out of line. If a farmer had fed his leg into a combine, would the minister had drawn the same conclusion if the guy went back to work? If a house [ainter had fallen off a ladder, would the minister have said the same thing if the guy went back to painting?

Some people just don't know what it means to ride a bike. And no one can tell them. Your friend John sounds like a great guy. I hope I meet him on the road some day.

Fondest regards,
Twisted Roads

Steve Williams said...

Jack: I agree completely with your characterization of how differently non-riders look at motorcycles and accidents. I think many see riding at best as a dangerous hobby or activity and not at all in the same category as occupations. The minister's comments express a representative frustration.

From that view the behavior would be more like an alcoholic or drug addict who just doesn't see the wisdom of stopping or the danger they are in and returns over and over again to the behavior.

Everyone has their opinions and it is our job individually to make our own decisions, hopefully with all the proper information, and take the rational actions.

I bet John will be easy to spot on the road. There just can't be many of those 4 seat side cars in Pennsylvania...

Torch said...

My helmet is off to John. I admire his tenaciousness and marvel at his determination to continue to ride. He is an inspiration to motorcyclists everywhere. Thank you so much for sharing his story of triumph over seemingly unsurmountable obstacles and loss.

Ride on,

bikerted said...

Motorcyclists I'm sure have a never say never attitude. Many times problems have been conqured to get people back onto two wheels. Across the pond we have a charity, NADB, to help people, like John, to help them get back in the saddle.
I'd like to think that Ian would get back onto two wheels should something like this happen. The worst he has had was several years ago when a car came acroos his path after missing their turn off by 18 miles! Guzzisue went over the bonnet and Ian,s face into the passenger door.

John, we salute you!

Do you have any organisation like NADB over there? It might be worth looking into.

Conchscooter said...

Personally I would leave the analysis of "would I wouldn't I" till the time you are lying on your back dealing with the issue itself. As for the sidecar. What other choice did he have? Not to ride? Ride a Goldwing/Harley with traning wheels? A hack is the only real choice. Oh and dump the minister, keep the wife.
If we get back into dog ownership it will be a hack for me, never a Can Am.

Bryce said...

I agree with Jack Riepe's comment, the minister was out of line. Conchscooter said it all, dump the minister, in fact dump the organized religion. Your friend John has his religion, riding a motorcycle. Mind the Watsonian he purchased is big, and heavy. The 100/7 will be hard pressed to keep it moving at speed. John may want to consider a larger displacement BMW in due course.

I too have had my own problems and sent a note to Dan (IronDad under separate cover) explaining my decisions to stop attempting to ride a motorcycle. In my case Lupus, (no longer in remission), cancer followed by surgery with continuing chemotherapy is pushing me to stop riding. There are other factors however time to hang up my helmet and trust a four-wheeled transportation device, sadly.

-Tim said...

If it were me? Yes, of course I would. I would heal up, rehab, and keep on riding..Hell, I broke my leg my first season ever of skiing...did that stop me from ever skiing again, hell no...just made me try harder, and learn more...

cpa3485 said...


More Power To You!!

You are an inspiration to us all!

Great post Steve!

DenK said...

Ride on, John! Keep the wheels turning and ignore the finish line. You're an inspiration to us all.

bobskoot said...


Keep doing what you love to do. "RIDE ON" Perhaps we will see you on the road one day

bobskoot: wet coast scootin

682202 said...

I commend you friend John for deciding to ride again. It's got to be a big decision even if he does have motorcycle DNA.

The rest has already been stated. I don't think anybody can know for sure what their decision would be if they were in John's position.

The minister could have taken this in a completely different direction to never give up, to always have hope, but instead choose to take the negative path. Just makes you wonder.


Bob Olcott said...

Thank You for the inspiring note, and I wish John the BEST, in all his future endeavors. The minister's comments were similar to some (wo)men of the cloth I've had occasion to hear-but I don't believe they are a majority.
I ride year round in NH and Vermont, and I had an accident on Feb. 9th resulting in an "ankle" fracture (6" spiral fracture of the fibula). After two weeks on crutches, I got a four valve Aircast, and went and got my Buddy 50 (I had a broken lens on one directional signal, severe road rash around the headlight rim, and a crack in the left brake lever!), and started riding again. The dirt roads are a challenge here, during MUD Season, but the paved roads in Springtime are a delight. The joke around town was that the Nurse at the Emerg. Room petitioned our district court to make it mandatory for me to have training wheels until the end of April. That would never happen, but it was fun to joke about! I've known a few other BMW riders who were not able to stop riding after accidents, and John is one more inspiration to all of us on two wheels (or 3 or 4-if needed!). Bob

Anonymous said...

I also agree that the minister was way out of line. I used to own a scuba diving shop. My brother was killed in a scuba diving accident. I was back in the water the following weekend. It was part of who I was, and part of who he was. The accident was a freak. I applaud your friend for not giving up on life and not descending into self pity.

Clifton Crews said...

Go for it, John!

Clifton Crews said...

Go for it, John!

David said...

Back when I was in college for Motorcycle mechanics, one of the instructors in another program had a prosthetic left leg. We put a set of floor boards and a heel/toe shifter on his new Goldwing. As long as he could stomp the shifter he was fine. Good on John! Ride safe.

Dave T.

SheRidesABeemer said...

inspiring entry Steve. We all do what we do based on internal drivers...and NO ONE and pretend they know what makes us tick

Heinz N Frenchie said...

We are so happy that you updated us on John's life. We of course thought from time to time and wondered if he was healed. What a tragedy, but at the same time, what an inspiration John is to all of us. We wish him all the best. To ride or not to ride. That is a very personal decision and don't think it can be made hypothetically.

RickRussellTX said...

"As for the sidecar. What other choice did he have?"

Oh, so many choices. If he were to insist on European refinement, the Gilera 500:

Oh, sweet Italian goodness. I mean, if you do not think that is awesome, there is something seriously wrong with your awesomeness, um, gland.

And did a minister actually say, "f*ck you"?

As for the decision to ride -- that's a difficult issue. The balancing of personal desire and harmonious social relations is not always easy. It's overtly self-serving to suggest that personal desire should always trump the feelings of those who care about you.

It could suggest a lack of respect for those who sacrificed and suffered on your behalf, and make them feel a lack of equity. They sacrificed time and labor for you, but you are not willing to sacrifice something for them.

Like I said, a difficult issue. I don't think such a feeling of inequity can be easily redressed.

Steve Williams said...

torch: John is a unique individual. I am not surprised that he has met his obstacles head on. I've not met anyone like him. I'm looking forward to hearing from him about the trip.

bikerted: I've not heard of an equivalent of the NADB here in the United States. I would be surprised if there wasn't one though.

Steve Williams said...

Conchscooter: What am I going to think about when I ride if I am not thinking about the future? *grin* You're right though, it doesn't do much good to think about the what ifs for things that you will only have the answer to if it happens.

Bryce: I'm sorry to hear of your health challenges. I knew you had some but did not know the nature. I hope things progress well and that someday things improve to the point where you can think about riding again. And lets hope the Lupus researchers unlock some secrets that will help people soon.

If I had time to go into all John's vehicle adventures the rig he is riding now would make more sense. For cars and motorcycles both he always buys rough. And power is not an issue. He test drove a car when I first met him. It caught on fire during the test drive. That was an opportunity for him to dicker on the price. And when our 12 year old rusting Honda Accord's transmission failed leaving only first and second gear John took it off our hands for 200 dollars and drove it for two more years at no additional expense.

So he'll probably not even notice any power issues with the bike. ;)

His minister is also a long term friend and counselor so his missive to John isn't quite the same as one from someone's "normal" minister. I think of it more in terms of a concerned family member.

If I ever found myself in a similar situation I am certain I would here things like it. People who care about you that aren't riders are afraid to lose you. And that's a good thing isn't it?

Steve Williams said...

Tim: A good way to be. I think there are a lot of fair weather recreational riders who would choose not to continue to take the risk after a first accident.

cpa3485, DenK, bobskoot: Thanks for the support for John. I am sure he will appreciate it.

Cliff Yankovich said...

Excellent subject matter - however sobering. Ride on John.

Steve Williams said...

682202: You are exactly right. It was a big decision for him. He thought about it a long time.

I didn't want to post the minister's letter but in parts of it he did understand John's decision, or at least how he arrived at it. I don't know him but I suspect he probably felt there were other areas of like that could be embraced without putting family at as much risk of further hardship and pain.

I can see why someone would think it a selfish act. The balancing act between personal desire and need that makes us who we are and how much of that we surrender for others is an ongoing challenge.

Bob: Great comments. Your own experience sheds some light on John's decisions.

Hope your foots heals completely and without issue! And that training wheels aren't necessary.

Steve Williams said...

Clifton: That was a great picture your link went to. I suspect John will have a similar prosthetic.

Anonymous: Sorry to hear about your brother. I understand the freak nature of accidents and one does not necessary mean another. Good comments and much to think about.

David: That will be John!

SheRidesaBeemer: Thanks! Since you attend BMW events you may see John and his wife sometime at one of them. They both ride BMWs and go to events. You'll know him because he'll be the one with the big ugly sidecar!

Heinz and Frenchie: You're right, no hypothetical consideration will reveal what decision we will make. The only advantage I see in thinking about these things is to make sure we realistically assess the risks we take.

RickRussellTX: I talked with John about the Gilera and Piaggio three wheelers. His ego would not allow him to ride on a "scooter" *grin* So a sidehack made the most sense. And he always wants something unique.

Yeah, the minister did write that. But again, he is an old friend who happens to be his minister.

You have nailed the real challenge of riding again. It probably is easier to put the personal safety concerns aside than it is to weigh choices against the fears of those who love you.

Steve Williams said...

Cliff: I've watched John's accident unfold from the first day I visited him in the hospital and it has been sobering. But it has had a lot of lessons for me.

irondad said...

I agree with Conch and Gail. And you alluded to it in one of your replies. I'd like to say I'd keep riding. That's how I feel now. If I had an accident I'd think about what caused it. If it was my fault I'd learn from it and go on. If it was something that nobody could have prevented, I'd write it off as one of those things. The question would then be one of whether I still had the ability to ward off the other 99.9 percent of evils?

The hardest part would be the emotional one. Weighing the needs of the one against the needs of the others. That discussion can't happen until the time comes. Today's needs and situation can be vastly different than down the road.

I'm sorry about how things turned out for John. I hope that whatever need he's looking to fill right now gets met. Which makes me think that one of the reasons I'd do something similar is to prove I'm not defeated. After that, maybe I could look at things more objectively.

Sorry for the long comment. There's just a lot to reflect on in this post. Thanks.

Jay said...

I experienced an accident in April of '06 - my only one in over 100,000 miles. While my injuries were nowhere near as serious as John's, it did make me ask myself if I should ride again. I wrestled with that decision for several minutes! But concluded that I must ride again. I replaced my totaled bike and was back on the road within 6 weeks. I felt that to quit because of an accident would have been akin to my saying something like, "Oh - I can get hurt riding a motorcycle? I had no idea!" Everytime you throw a leg over a saddle, you must make a conscious decision to recognize the risk, accept it and take steps to manage it. If you can't accept the risk then you better park it BEFORE the accident happens! So Steve, I think you are wise to ask yourself the question before it happens, and if you aren't pretty darn sure the answer would be yes, you better find another mode of transport. Ride safe! -- Jay in PA.

Steve Williams said...

irondad: Accidents are complicated events on every level. I think you sum up how I hope I view one should I ever find myself in that situation.

Your description of the emotional toll it takes from others is the most difficult one. My parents never wanted me on the road. Dirt bikes were one thing but they did not want me taking the risk. Aside from years of secretive riding as a kid I had to wait until they were gone before I began to consider riding again. Some may consider that fear but I saw it as a reasonable accommodation for people who loved me.

If riding today was merely an enjoyable recreational activity I probably would stop in consideration of Kim's fears related to it. But I have found it a much deeper experience that has helped me far beyond any recreational activity. It is a more complicated equation now and ceasing to ride may comfort her on one level but she would lose something on another.

It is an ongoing accounting process...

Jay: Excellent thoughts. Some feel dwelling on accidents is morbid but I'm with you--if you can't accept the real risk up front, find another mode of transport.


Two Buck said...

Good for John! I was already inspired by him getting back on two wheels in the first place; the fact that he's planning to hit Deals Gap on the way heightens the respect.

Like others before me, I think the minister was out of line. I think counseling someone to give up what they love and imprison themselves out of some imagined emotional debt to their friends and family is a big "fcuk you" to the person getting the advice.

Richard said...

I've enjoyed your site for a few months but never posted. I'm a motorcyclist of 30ish years and have suffered some of the maladys mentioned in other comments as well as crashing a couple of times, but not to John's degree. I'm reminded of a saying which you may have heard: "Everyone crashes. Some get back on. Some don't. Some can't."

Padmanaban said...

I don't know why these accidents are happening. If they drived carefully i hope it might not happen. Most of the accidents are happening due to OVERSPEED. Life is in our hands.
los angeles motorcycle accident lawyers

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Helmet Guy said...

Hat's off to John. I hope he is prgessing. Non-riders don't see this the same as a rider...myabe long time rider? The minister was surely just trying to be helpful? Maybe through John's zeal he can educate and bring hope to other people in similar situations.

John Calipari said...

I think I would ride again but that is so hypothetical. It's one thing to think you can do something and another to actually do it. I love it when I meet people like John remained optimistic through a horrible ordeal.

Luv-to-ride said...

Here's a ride for John. Hwo is he doing? As someone who loves to ride, especially in the mountains I can really feel for him.

Chevy Avalanche Chick said...

Being an enthusiastic and go getter person I would like to think I would keep goin; and ride again. I had a friend in a similar situation that one took years to rehaba and two couldn't really ever get over the mental part of getting back on. Good luck to John. I wish him the best.