The motorcycle accident story

I've found a way to convert old computer files to a readable format, so a couple weeks ago I started looking through a bunch of old files, including some that are already in readable formats. And I found, among other things, a letter to Ananda from 1994 in which I told the story of my motorcycle accident.

These days, on the rare occasion when the topic comes up, I tell an abbreviated one-minute version of the story, which still has some dramatic tension and such but I think doesn't have the full impact of the long version. So I'm gonna reprint the long version below, as told in that letter to Ananda. I've redacted most of the names for privacy reasons, and done some other light editing, mostly for length reasons.

Around the end of January I bought a new (used) motorcycle, a really sleek blue Honda Hawk GT 647 (the "647" part is the engine displacement (read "size")). [Added in 2010 (and link updated in 2023): Here's a picture of a similar bike.] Rode it around for a while; got pulled over in late February for the first time in my life, because the former owner had renewed the registration but hadn't put the 94 sticker on the license plate; two weeks later was just beginning to feel pretty comfortable on it when I had an accident.

"She does not get eaten by sharks at this time." I'm fine, no permanent injuries and the temporary ones are pretty much all healed by now. Just wanted to make that clear before continuing.

(Further aside: I always wear (wore) full protective gear when riding. Leather jacket, full-face helmet, leather gloves, leather boots, jeans.)

It was the evening of Friday, March 11. What with one thing and another, it was almost 8 p.m. when I left the house to go up to the East Bay to play poker with F. and E. and E.'s brother and sister-in-law (and their new baby, R.) and various others. I had originally intended to go up to SF and take BART across with F&E, 'cause our friends D. and A. would also be doing that and they were leaving town for a long time at the end of the month and I wanted to spend some time with them. But the poker game was starting at 8, so clearly my only recourse was to drive my motorcycle up to Oakland.

I made it to the poker game safe and sound. Didn't play all that many hands, as there were ten players there and only 7 can play at a time in the seven-card games; but had fun, worked on a letter while I wasn't playing. By the time the game ended, it was past 12:30 a.m., and time to go home.

As it turned out, D. and A. had driven their new (used) car to the game and had given F. and E. a ride; they hadn't expected to have the car in time to do that, but it had worked out that way. I wasn't entirely sure of the way back to the freeway from where we were, so I asked if I could follow them (otherwise I'd have left about half an hour earlier). I thought about various alternative plans—including staying at B.'s place in Oakland (yes, this is the second time I've mentioned B., and you don't even know who she is yet; details will follow) or simply driving back home that night—but decided it'd be cool to stay at F&E's as planned.

So we set out. Someone had the good idea of taking my backpack (containing my PowerBook, among other things) in the car, so I wouldn't have to carry it; sounded good to me, so they did that. A. was driving a little faster than I would normally have gone, so to keep her in sight I went a little faster than I should have. But it was late, there was pretty much no traffic, and we were on 51st (near MLK and the freeway) on a long straight stretch of road, three lanes in each direction, no stop signs and only an occasional stoplight.

A., up ahead of me, drove past a side street. I saw a car on that side street, off to the right, stopped at a stop sign; I didn't even think about it consciously, just noted that it was there, it was stopped, it had a stop sign, I didn't; perfectly normal driving situation, and not one that called for any special action on my part.

Until it pulled out in front of me.

I slammed on my brakes. The driver—idiotically, but probably what I would've done in their situation—slammed on their brakes, leaving their car stopped in the middle of the road, directly in my path. In theory, I realized later, I should've swerved around behind the car, or just gone into a very hard right turn; that's the kind of thing they taught us to do in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation class. But my brake-when-something's-in-the-way reflex has been honed by ten years of driving cars; I probably even (stupidly) put in the clutch, 'cause that's what I usually do when I brake, but I don't remember for sure.

I hit the side of the car somewhere around the driver's-side door (probably just in front of that door; but I never got a chance to look closely at the scene, so I don't know for sure) going probably about 10 MPH. I was still clutching the handgrips with both hands, so I somersaulted across the hood of the car and landed, pretty gently (considering), on the far side of the car (that is, ahead of it and to its right), sitting upright. My knees hurt, though nothing else did, and I was too stunned to do much of anything for several minutes.

(During the accident itself, for the first time in my experience, everything really was in slow motion. Usually when something fast happens—like rolls in Aikido—it's over instantaneously, there's no time for me to even think; I've always thought those "time slowed down" things were just a narrative device. But this time it really happened. However, it didn't help me any; I had plenty of time to think, "Hmm, how interesting, this is the hood of the car and there's the windshield," but no useful thoughts or ideas on what to do came to me. Very detached, in the way I tend to get in emergencies, like the time I cut my finger severely on a falling Venetian blind and I stood there watching the blood and thinking, "Hmm, seems like there's something I should be doing, but I can't really think what that might be. Oh, well.")

I sat there, rocking back and forth and trembling, and holding onto my knees, and wiggling my toes to see if anything was broken (though it occurred to me, as it had on other occasions, that I didn't see any reason why a broken bone in my leg would keep the motor nerves from working). People started gathering around; every thirty seconds or so someone would push their face up close to mine and say loudly, "DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE?" I had to tell them that no, I didn't, not really; I didn't live around here, and I was just visiting some friends, and I didn't really know the area. I knew they were trying to be helpful, but what else was I supposed to say? They would go away, and a little later someone else would do the same thing.

Meanwhile, two other things were going on that I was told about later.

First (before the crowd gathered):

The driver of the car got out . . .

. . . and ran away.

Two of his passengers got out, made sure I was still breathing . . .

. . . and ran away.

Leaving, as the sole occupant of the car and sole witness to the whole scene, the hitchhiker they'd picked up a few minutes earlier.

(When I was told about this, in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, I thought, geez, the poor guy—he's minding his own business, hitching a ride somewhere on a Friday night, and next thing he knows a motorcycle has hit the car and the driver has taken off, leaving him with a car, a wounded motorcyclist, and a gathering angry mob. . . .)


A. looked in her rear-view mirror and said, "That car just cut Jed off."

Someone else in the car looked back and said, "Jed's not behind us any more."

They turned around at the first opportunity (which on 51st Street meant several more blocks). As they arrived at the scene, they saw the car sitting in the middle of the intersection; then they saw the crowd of onlookers that had already gathered; then they saw the motorcycle lying on the ground. Needless to say, they freaked.

They got out of the car, and then they saw me. A. was superb—she shooed people away, wrapped a blanket around me, held onto me (from behind; I was still sitting on the ground), and told me that it was okay for me to breathe slowly.

A novel idea, I thought, so I tried it; and mirabile dictu! It worked! I really could breathe slowly! I really hadn't thought of doing anything but hyperventilating 'til then.

The only really serious mistake I made after the accident was insisting that A. remove my helmet. I knew there was something one should do with a motorcycle helmet after an accident, but I couldn't quite think what; it wasn't 'til later that I remembered the answer is "leave it on to avoid potential serious spine injury!" But I didn't have any neck, head, or back pain at all, so it seemed okay; and I was getting kinda claustrophobic. To her credit, A. tried to convince me to leave it on, but when I started sounding panicky, she helped me carefully remove it.

The ambulance arrived a minute or so later. The paramedics were wonderful. The first thing one of them said to me was, "So. Does it hurt?" They injected exactly the right amount of humor into the situation, and they exuded so much confidence that I just relaxed and let them deal with the situation. They cut my jeans-legs off, made sure I didn't appear to have any spinal injuries, and loaded me into the ambulance. (I told F. I'd been wanting a pair of denim shorts. She said, "You've got a birthday coming up; you could've just asked." I said, "Well, I didn't want to put anyone to any trouble. . . .")

They took me to a nearby hospital. (F. rode along in the ambulance. When she asked where she should sit, the driver (with a friendly leer) said, "You're up here with me, babe.") (My perception was that there was nothing offensive about this—it was entirely clear that he was joking, and it helped put everyone at ease. [Added in 2010: I don't know whether that was F.'s perception as well, but it seemed to be. F., do you remember this?]) At some point during the ride, they noted that when they'd heard there'd been a motorcycle accident, they thought they would have to scrape me off the pavement, so they were glad to find I'd been wearing safety gear.

After our arrival at the hospital, various hospital personnel looked me over, bandaged various wounds, X-rayed my elbow, and let me go. (My right knee was scraped up—the jeans tore there—and my left thigh had a couple of small punctures in it even though the jeans were intact. We figured it was like those silk shirts the Crusaders wore. (In fact, I was wearing a silk shirt at the time, under my leather jacket; we figured that was what kept me intact.))

[Added in 2010: the place where the handlebar hit my thigh left an interesting kind of divot in my leg. Everything works fine, but there's still a noticeable dent in the skin, maybe two inches long and an inch across and a quarter-inch deep. Odd.]

Everyone at the hospital was great, too. When the night-shift doctor came in, he said, "What are you doing here?" (I couldn't tell whether he meant, "So, what happened to you?" or "You're perfectly healthy; get out of here!", but either way it was said, again, with just the right amount of humor.)

E. and D. and A. stayed at the scene to talk to police and help direct traffic; they had various adventures (including an encounter with AGENT MAX OF THE F.D.A.!) and eventually came over to the hospital and took me and F. back to F&E's place.

(Max was apparently one of the dozen or so motorcyclists who, at various times, happened by and stayed to help out. They were apparently all great, very helpful and generally sympathetic. Max had been lurking in the shadows for a while, so when he asked E., "Do you know if there are any friends of the motorcyclist around?" E. initially thought that this must be the driver of the car, come back to the scene of the crime to assuage his guilty conscience. But it turned out that Max was simply a wandering FDA agent—he even had a badge—who also rode a motorcycle. It was never clear what he was doing wandering the streets of Oakland at 1:30 a.m., but we thought it would make a great TV series. "AGENT MAX OF THE F.D.A.! He rides the streets of America looking for health code violations!")

The motorcycle had its front forks mashed in; it couldn't even be rolled. One burly police officer (whom E. called Officer Bullethead because of his bullet-shaped head) lifted the front of the bike with one hand (I would have a hard time doing that with both hands and the help of several friends) in order to roll it into position for the tow truck. We decided the two of them could have back-to-back half-hour TV Prime Time drama shows—OFFICER BULLETHEAD, O.P.D. would become half of The Agent Max/Officer Bullethead Hour! Or maybe the title would just be Max and Bullethead. Hard to decide.

All the bystanders and medical folks commented on how lucky it was that CA has helmet laws; but I would've been wearing the helmet regardless of the law.

It later turned out that the car had been stolen, which explains why the driver and his friends fled. They haven't found the driver and probably won't. I gather he'd been drinking, but I'm not sure.

And that's the story. I'm almost all better now—not limping when I walk any more, and the giant bruise on my left leg has gone away. The insurance company decided the bike was a total loss and gave me more than I paid for it, plus "pain and suffering" damages; I was a little reluctant to take that, as I hate to see insurance costs go up because of frivolous extra damages, but most of that money went to keeping the bike at the towing company for a couple weeks, and paying the ten percent of my medical bills that my work-related insurance doesn't cover.

My friend J. B., a motorcycle mechanic in San Francisco who'd suggested getting a Hawk in the first place, went and got the bike from the towing place, and he says he thinks he can fix it using used second-hand parts purchased from friends of his. I gave him the bike; I figure if I do decide to get another one, it won't be for a few months, and he's always wanted a Hawk but could never afford one.

I had already been thinking, even before the accident, that my plan of doing my Wanderjahr on a motorcycle might not be the best possible idea; for one thing, it would be impossible to work it so I won't be driving in snow at some point, and I really don't want to drive a motorcycle in snow. And after this accident. . . . The main thing it taught me is that my friends would be really really upset if I were injured in another accident, and the thought of having to call people up and say, "Hi, I was in another accident" is really more of a deterrent to me than the thought of an accident itself.

I still maintain that if one is careful and skilled and wears protective gear, a motorcycle is not nearly as dangerous as everyone thinks; people hear stories about horrible motorcycle accidents and use them as support for their thesis (that motorcycles are evil and likely to get riders killed), while they hear stories like mine and say, yes, but that's the exception, you were very lucky. People die in car accidents all the time, but I've never heard anyone say "Cars are too unsafe to drive." It's not that I think motorcycles are safe—they're not—but rather that they're not nearly as much more-dangerous-than-cars as most people believe.

Hmm. Sorry; I'm getting carried away. I only bring up this argument at all because everyone I know who doesn't ride motorcycles, on first hearing this story, has said words to the effect of "I hope you've learned your lesson about how dangerous motorcycles are—of course you aren't going to get another one, are you?" The people who do ride motorcycles, of course, say, "I hope you won't let this one bad experience deter you—best to get right back on the horse." To both sides, I say, "I'm thinking about it; in a couple months I'll make a decision one way or the other; until then, arguing with me is only going to make me stubborn."

So that's the story. As it turned out, I decided not to get another motorcycle; the mileage wasn't as much better than a high-MPG car as everyone had always told me it would be, and I didn't enjoy the maintenance/repair aspects (which for some people seem to be a lot of the fun of having a motorcycle), and I decided that I would need to become a lot more skilled in motorcycle handling before I'd be comfortable riding one again for very long. For example, I had demonstrated that the motorcycle safety class had not instilled the right reflexes in me, so I would have wanted to spend a lot of time learning better reflexes. And in the end, getting a high-MPG car turned out to make a lot of things simpler/easier.

I still think motorcycles are pretty cool, though, at least when the people riding them know what they're doing.

There was a whole other piece to this story, when I had to call B. the next morning and tell her that I'd been in a motorcycle accident and couldn't make it to our quasi-date that day; she'd already been pretty unhappy about my riding a motorcycle. But that's another story for another time.

Thanks again to F&E and D&A for all your help and support that night. And I'm sorry to have scared y'all when you came back looking for me.

10 Responses to “The motorcycle accident story”

  1. Vardibidian

    Pooh. We weren’t scared at all. Well, maybe a little. And I have to hurry and type this before F. finishes her note, and I want to tell you we miss you in case she forgets to, but do it first.

    Also, yes, not having to call your friends and tell them you have been injured is an excellent reason not to be injured. Please continue not being injured.


  2. fran

    I’d forgotten Agent Max!

    I am–all these years later–still grateful that you wore a helmet and gear. I don’t much remember the ambulance ride beyond seeing them put you in and I remember sitting up front. I do remember them joking about how relieved they were that you weren’t pulped.

    Until recently, we still had the box your boots came in–you gave it to me so I could make the game inventors kit. And I remember you coming to the apartment to show off your leathers… 😉

  3. Charlie Allery

    That is a great motorcycle story, and I’m really glad that you weren’t badly injured as that one could have gone so wrong. Also, fantastic that you were with friends who were able to help you through the aftermath.

    I’ve been in this situation driving a car twice, and both times locked up and skidded round the rear of the stationary car. Fortunately I’ve not been tested on a bike, but riding bikes I’m in a mind-set that says *every* car driver is out to get me or hasn’t seen me and I ride accordingly. It’s a totally defensive mindset, but it seems to work.

    Mostly I come off a bike when I’m turning too tight at very slow speed and hesitate with the bars turned and the whole thing just dives and goes over – usually with me underneath. Once I’ve been hit from behind at a city-centre junction and once I’ve come off at medium speed (about 40mph) on wet roads, and though the off happened almost instantaneously, the slide up the road in the opposite lane happened in slow-mo and yes, I was thinking for very long seconds I don’t think my leg (pinned beneath the sliding bike) is broken …

    I once rode a mile or so wearing jeans instead of my leather trousers and felt so vulnerable I’ve never done it since – leather, cordura or waxed cotton for me. 🙂

    For me the bike has only ever been an enjoyable alternative and optional commuter to the car. I favour an upright riding style which allows me to enjoy the roads and the sheer fun of 30mph corners. Nothing like the buzz of pulling out of a slow corner in first and accelerating up to 30mph, LOL. I compare it for non-bike-riders to playing a video game as opposed to the ‘watching TV’ of a car. I’m much less into the maintenance aspect than I used to be, but the sound and feel of the bike under me is addictive.

    Whatever works for you *shrug*. If you ever fancy having another go, you might look at some guided tours where you rent the bike as part of a package and go with a group. I’ve seen some tempting Alaskan ones … 🙂 Or find a biking friend who fancies a scenic and relaxed day trip out and hire a bike for the day – you might enjoy one of the new retro-Triumphs which have the looks and the sound but a very casual upright position that still isn’t a Harley. Just no Steve McQueening it! 🙂

  4. Sumana Harihareswara

    What a story! Thanks for sharing it. It seems a bit belated for me to say “I’m so glad you’re okay,” but I am.

  5. B

    I agree with Sumana – I’m so glad you’re OK.

    I remember getting that call the next day after the accident. I also remember having been worried about you riding a motorcycle (and really, I knew you had good judgment and training and very good protective gear, I was mostly worried about other drivers).

    But once again I see in this hard story what I’ve seen consistently ever since – that incident when I was getting to know you – you have great friends, humor is one of your great assets, and even in a crisis you are amazingly thoughtful and generous to others.

  6. PJ

    After one bad scootering day, in which a Bad Driver bodychecked me from three lanes away, I lay in the intersection in my bloody denim skirt. I wasn’t badly hurt, but I was stunned and kind of wobblyminded. A helpful looking fellow ran up, shouting that he had seen everything, and put his business card in my hand. Then he ran back to his car and left, carefully driving around me. The card, the poorly designed classic offering of the wily North American Ambulance Chasing Injury Lawyer (Microsoft Office standard fonts and all) was hilarious and made me laugh.

    The next person to reach me used the shibboleth of the true motorcyclist (“Fuck you, how’s the bike?!”) so I knew I would be okay. He loaded my poor banged up scooter into his truck and took me home, and waited in front of the house until my friend arrived. Here’s to you, anonymous motorcyclist, and your non-threatening help.

    I have never owned a car, but have had four continuous scooters my entire adult life. When I drive a car, I still use my scootersenses, which include hyperawareness of the difference between a stopped car and a paused car, the signs of the unpredictable driver, the awareness of every lane that lets me make emergency lane changes safely because they’ve been pre-shoulder-checked, and the occasional tendency to try to speed up by twisting the steering wheel grip.

  7. David Moles

    In the last year I’ve learned that you and Karen both have secret motorcycle histories! Now I’m just waiting for Susan’s.

  8. Jed

    Belated thanks to all for all the comments! I’m sorry that the blog has been holding them all for moderation; not sure why that’s happening on this particular entry.

  9. Danny

    Interesting story and well told … I’m 45 and went from bicycle to motorbike this year (never drove a car). I was scared stiff the first time I had to ride the bike on the public road.
    I think I remember statistics saying that riding a bicycle in Holland is more dangerous than driving a motorcycle … (yes lies, damned lies and statistics ..:)

  10. Jessica

    Wow. So scary! Glad you weren’t hurt badly in the accident.
    I remember that poker game vividly. It was our first poker game after R. was born, and lots of friends showed up wanting to see her. I’m glad you joined us, but sorry your ride home didn’t go as planned!


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