Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Two Wheel Calculus

I happened onto an accident scene two weeks ago at the base of the ridgeline where I live in Durham, North Carolina.  Moments before I headed down to grab lunch, a car had turned right in front of a scooter, giving no time to react.

As I drove my Jeep slowly past the scene, a paramedic seemed to shake his head almost imperceptibly.   Later I learned that the rider, a cook and a young Durham native in his prime, did not survive.  The driver was charged for not yielding the right of way and misdemeanor death by vehicle.

I returned home and took my much heavier Harley-Davidson Cross Bones out for a spin to shake off the effects from seeing that fatal accident scene and to remind myself how defensively you must ride, anticipating that drivers don’t see you or may do the unexpected at anytime.

Raw statistics show fatalities on motorcycles are 30 times that of cars but that drops 48% by not speeding, another 42% by avoiding alcohol and 37% more if you have antilock brakes.   That puts it far below the average for cars, especially for riders in my age group and when you religiously practice defensive driving.

Also wearing a helmet, especially when it is full face, helps a great deal.  Any DOT-approved helmet helps.  Research shows that riders without a helmet are 40% more likely to suffer a fatal head injury in a crash, 60% of which are the fault of drivers not riders.

Texas gave into special interests who successfully argued for repeal of that state’s helmet law and by doing so validated the research with lives when that state saw a 31% increase in motorcycle fatalities.

Accidents happened in the blink of an eye and ones such as the one near my house may not be avoidable no matter what you do, even if you are in a car.  It is a reminder to live every minute as though it was your last.

As a young boy I learned to ride Honda 50s and 125s across range and farmland.  But I first learned to ride defensively 46-years-ago last week when I purchased a 1967 VeloSolex 3800 from Cycles Pithioud (ad in image below) in what is now yuppified Voltaire quarter of Lyon, France.

Solex was launched in 1946 and I bought No. 4,111,740.  Lyon is a city in east-central France that was founded by Romans in 43 BC.

The dealership in that location which now sells Hondas was about five minutes from the incredible Renaissance and Gothic-laden Vieux Lyon district across the bridges over the Saone and Rhone rivers where they straddle a narrow peninsula through the city where I lived a week or so.

The VeloSolex dealer was also 8 minutes down the Saone from another one of the places where I stayed for a few weeks overlooking the Place du Marechal Lyautey and midway down to where the two rivers merge.

My new Solex was essentially a bicycle powered by a 49 cc engine that you lowered onto the tire where a ceramic roller then powered the front tire through friction.

It was a very cool way to tool around town even given the hard-earned craziness of French drivers, who nonetheless always seemed aware of those of us on two wheels.

My favorite jaunts were over the rivers to the Cathedral of Saint-Jean-Baptiste in historic section or up the hill there to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, places where this Idaho-ranch-boy would regularly sneak in to listen quietly in the near darkness to incredible music.

The little Solex would also chug its way up just northwest of town onto the nearly 300,000-acre Les Dombes.  This is where ancient fish farmers and then later Trappist Monks sculpted 1,500 ponds and lakes out of wetlands.  The rain-filled ponds would also be regularly drained and the clay bottoms mined for bricks or sediment planted with crops and then allowed to refill.

Today Les Dombes is an incredible sanctuary for migratory birds.  It was also easy enough to truck north or south 20 miles through quaint villages to wine vineyards villages.

But the little Solex was certainly not sufficient to get me the two hours up into the gorges of the Alps such as those around Grenoble which hosted the Winter Olympics a few months after my time there and were dominated by the unorthodox Jean-Claude Killy.

A Harley such as I ride today, would have been perfect for the Alps.  In fact, federal Gendarmes, a unit originated at 15th century cavalry, patrolled French highways on huge motorcycles by 1967.

I was never able to master the French-bump method of skiing moguls that Killy popularized.  However, my bother-in-law Rick is a master.  Leaning over and carving around moguls, which is called sculling, was too ingrained in me by then.

By contrast, a “bump” skier like Rick stays just as low but not as far forward and much more relaxed.  Instead of sculling the mogul, “bump” skiers ski the tops, pulling up their knees to absorb it and then using their knees to pivot off.

It was very radical at the time.  Seventeen years after my visit to the Alps along the French border with Italy, as a community marketer for Anchorage, I was part of a small group that won that city the honor as America’s choice to host the 1992 Winter Games.

We lost out to Albertville, France in that same part of the Alps.  Anchorage tried again and lost the bid to host in 1994.  Now a similar committee there is exploring a bid for the 2026 Winter Games.

I prefer to ride a Harley sitting back and relaxed and shifting with my heel rather than crouched forward and toe-shifting as many riders do on other styles of motorcycles.  Young riders may see my style as old-fashioned or traditional.  But hell, what is riding a Harley all about if it is not tradition.

VeloSolex is still manufactured and sold on that same street in Lyon, a nine minute walk from where I bought the one in 1967.  But today they have sleek designs by Pininfarina, a famous Italian industrial design firm that has also collaborate with Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Fiat and Maserati to create many classic sports car designs.

They even have a very cool fold-up version and an electric version.  Unfortunately, lawmakers have failed to pass legislation to make this type of vehicle safer in North Carolina leaving it possible for people as young as 16 to ride them without a license or insurance.

One dealer who opposed the bill was quoted as saying that he thinks “everybody should be responsible for their own actions…I really think they just can’t demand it all of a sudden and take everybody as a group and make them pay.”

I understand that conservatives worry about losing various liberties.  As a moderate Independent, so do I.  But it astonishes me that they seem to fail to grasp that requirements like carrying insurance etc. whether on a two-wheeler or for personal healthcare isn’t about losing freedom.

Requirements such as these are to prevent the costs of our actions and/or our accidents from being shifted onto other taxpayers and consumers.

The damage to vehicles and to lives is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to full-cost accounting for accidents.  There is also the cost to families, the cost of investigation, the cost of adjudication as well as the costs to other consumers left by the uninsured.

It seems like requirements like insurance are to preserve freedom, not take it away.  Just sayin’.

I’ll stick with my the Harley, but you won’t hear me whining about requirements to carry insurance, get a license and wear a helmet.  It is as much for others as it is for me.

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