Motorcycle Criticism in the Chicago Tribune

I often see articles written by non-riders ranting about some aspect of motorcycling. Today there’s a commentary in the Chicago Tribune called Highly stupid at high speeds. (I can’t say how long the link will be valid; I think the Tribune walls off its archives in an effort to speed its rush toward obsolescence. [Update: it looks like they’ve made archives available, so I’ve updated this link.])

Emily Hauser complains about motorcyclists who don’t wear helmets. I don’t have a big problem with that — I think its a pretty unwise choice myself. But Emily quickly spins up to serious anger about how much of an impact a helmetless rider’s death would have on…well, Emily.

She writes,

…you’re not just choosing your own messy, God-awful death (or catastrophic brain injury) — you are consigning me to a life of misery.

If my car and your bike meet — even if it’s your fault, even if it’s no one’s fault — I will never sleep again. I will see your blood, your broken face, your weeping children, your shattered parents every day and every night for the rest of my life. Because I was behind the wheel, because my car happened to get all messed up in your search for some kind of freedom in which the needs of no one else (least of all your parents or children) were a factor.

Emily probably thinks she has something unique to say but it’s surprising how many articles like hers demonstrate bewilderment, no, outright resentment, over why someone would ride a motorcycle. They just can’t seem to grok why so many of us revel in it. They don’t understand and that makes them angry.

It’s not something you can explain to most of them. It’s so far removed from their typical view of motorized transportation, where you get from point A to point B while juggling cell phone calls, your lunch, your screaming children and the radio. To get on a motorcycle for fun, maybe even with nowhere in particular to go, just to experience something that requires all of your attention, all of your focus, all of your skills?

It’s the same old story — if I have to explain it to you, you’re probably never going to get it. Are the stakes high? Absolutely. Are the stakes worth it? Unquestionably.

For what it’s worth, I sent a response to Ms. Hauser’s observations to the Tribune.

I wanted to respond to Emily Hauser’s recent commentary “Highly stupid at high speeds.” Emily, I sincerely hope that a helmetless motorcyclist never has the impertinence to die and intrude on your peace of mind. It would be a tragedy if you had to endure some sleepless nights.

I’ll admit that I’m not one for helmet debates. I wear a helmet every time I get on one of my motorcycles. (I’ll also admit that was not always the case in my nearly 30 years of motorcycling.) So I can’t get too fired up to fight helmet laws and defend the rights of the helmetless, despite the fact that I recognize the slippery slope that exists when we allow others to define the risks we may take. Personally, I sometimes choose to just wear jeans instead of proper motorcycle pants. I’m sure there’s someone in the world who feels that I shouldn’t be allowed to do that. In fact, I’m sure there’s someone in the world who feels I shouldn’t be allowed to ride a motorcycle at all.

No, I take offense at self-involved commentaries like yours because, while up on the soapbox, you and others fail to point out the most important component of these crashes. Statistically, if a motorcycle collides with a car it was the auto driver’s fault. I can’t believe you were ignorant of that fact given the stats you cite on lower fatalities when helmets are worn. So why not mention it?

Every year a few hysterical articles like yours show up decrying deadly motorcycles and their crazy riders. They point out some dangerous antics, or lack of helmets, or recent deaths. And they never, ever seem to take a moment to point the finger at themselves.

They don’t ask why an automobile driver can blow through a stop sign, kill a motorcyclist and only receive a traffic ticket, as happened more than once in the Chicago area in recent years. Or why former South Dakota congressman Bill Janklow can be found guilty of second-degree manslaughter for running down a motorcyclist and be sentenced to only 100 days. The examples of how little value is placed on the lives of motorcyclists are legion. And you and your kind never take a moment to say, “Put down your coffee! Hang up your stupid cellphone! Pay attention! Watch out for others!” Instead you go and buy a bigger SUV, so that motorcycle guy won’t do too much damage when he runs into you.

So let me at least relieve you of one concern. You said you in your article “even if it’s [the biker’s] fault.” Don’t worry — odds are that it won’t be. It will be your fault. Helmetless or not, dead or not, if I (or one of my friends) get in a crash with you it will be because you turned left in front of me, or changed lanes into me, or just ran me over as you pass through an intersection. And helmetless or not, dead or not, I hope it haunts you until the day you die.

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