Choosing Between Two Bad Options

  • Published
  • By Maj Leo A. Nevell
  • 9 SOS/SE
I've been riding motorcycles since I was 8 years old, and will continue to ride them well into the future. I've always had respect for motorcycles and the risk associated with them. In early May 1996, I had an appointment to drop off my 1995 Honda CBR 600 F3 at the dealer. I had owned the bike for about 15 months, put about 1700 miles on it, and it was due for its first oil change/check-up. It turned out to be a perfect day - 70 degrees and not a cloud in the sky - so I decided to take my bike out for one last ride before I dropped it off.

I put on some heavy denim jeans, a jacket, leather boots and gloves, and my helmet. Then I jumped on I-25 headed south from Great Falls toward Helena, Montana. I'd made this trip many times before and was very familiar with the roads. I stopped at a gas station about halfway for a short break, and then continued. This part of the trip took about two hours. Later I stopped and filled up with gas in Helena. The temperature was now in the 80s, and I decided to take off my jacket and just ride in my T-shirt. That decision would come back to bite me later.

After grabbing a bite to eat, I got back on I-15 going north toward Great Falls. I was in no hurry, and was just enjoying the ride. As I passed the exit I'd stopped at on the way down, it was starting to get a little chilly in the wind. I decided I'd take the next exit and go back to that same gas station. The plan was to stop, use the rest room, put on my jacket, and then get back on the road. However, I was not familiar with the next exit.

As I approached the off-ramp, I let off the throttle and began to coast. I could see that the ramp made an "S" turn, right then left, and crossed back over the highway via an overpass. I took the first curve to the right, and about halfway through the curve, I noticed a cattle grate crossing the road in between the two curves. Using my 17 years of motorcycling experience and what I learned in the Motorcycle Rider Course, I decided to stand the bike up and cross the grate with the bike vertical. I crossed the grate with no problems and immediately started to lean the bike for the left turn. Standing the bike up left me very wide in the turn, but I was still in control and comfortable with the situation.

As I continued around the curve, headed for the overpass, my rear tire started to break loose. The motorcycle began to fishtail, and I almost lost control. I was able to correct for the fishtail and regained control of the bike. I was heading straight for the guardrail at the top of the overpass. I quickly analyzed the situation and realized I only had two choices:

     1. Hit the guardrail head on, probably fly off the motorcycle, over the handlebars, over the guardrail, and fall to the interstate below, where I could get hit by a very fast-moving vehicle of who-knows-what magnitude.

     2. Lay the bike down, and slide it into the guardrail, making a voluntary and somewhat controlled departure from the motorcycle, and stay on the overpass, avoiding the additional peril that lay below.

I chose the latter. I laid the motorcycle over on its left side and slid into the guardrail. My left hip dragged momentarily, and then I separated from the motorcycle and tumbled a couple of times. I caught myself and began to slide along the pavement on my hands and knees for about 40 feet, and then I came to a stop. I got up and brushed myself off. I did a quick once-over to make sure I was OK, and then walked over to my motorcycle and picked it up. I put down the kickstand, took my helmet and gloves off, and set them on the seat. I didn't have a clue as to what went wrong.

I walked back to where I started to lose control and immediately figured out what happened. I grew up in the Midwest, where they use salt on the roads in the winter. In Montana, they don't use salt. They use cinders, which are finely crushed rock. As the snow melts, the cinders get pushed to the side of the road. As I was coming around the curve, my rear tire hit the cinders. They acted like ball bearings, causing me to lose control.

I pulled out my cell phone to call my roommate, but the battery was dead. I started looking at my bike to see how much damage was done, and if I'd be able to baby it back to the gas station. There was a lot of damage, but most of it was cosmetic. A couple of things could have posed a problem, though. The gearshift lever and footrest on the left side had snapped off, half the clutch lever was gone, and the front rim was dinged from where it hit the guardrail. I was able to get the transmission to change gears by moving the lever with my hand, but there was no way I would be able to change gears while moving, so I put it into second gear. What was left of the clutch lever was still working. The front rim was still holding air, but I didn't know for how long. I also was unsure as to how the rim striking the guardrail would affect the balance or alignment. I didn't see any other choice but to try to make it back to the gas station.

The bike started right up, so I shut it off and grabbed my helmet. I looked it over for chips, scratches, cracks, or other damage. To my surprise, there wasn't a single mark on it. I never hit my head at all during the entire incident. That was the first moment that I started to think about possible injuries, and how lucky I was. As I was putting on my gloves, I noticed that the leather on the palms was damaged. The friction from my slide had melted the leather. I also noticed that I had a 4-inch circular "strawberry" on my left forearm. My hip and knees were a little sore, but my jeans and T-shirt didn't show any obvious damage. I started the bike, and slowly and carefully drove back to the gas station.

I used the pay phone to call my roommate. I explained what had happened, and asked him to bring my truck and loading ramps down to pick me up. I asked the attendant to call the police so I could report it. While I was waiting, I bought some first aid supplies. I went into the bathroom and cleaned the wound on my forearm. I looked for other injuries, and besides a large bruise on my hip and a few other minor scrapes and bruises, I was in good shape. But that was the good news.

When the police officer showed up, we drove to the scene, then back to the gas station to look at the bike. He gave me a ticket for "Improper Use of a Montana Roadway." My roommate came, picked my bike and me up, and took us back to Great Falls.

The bike had more than $4,500 worth of damage. Every piece of plastic fairing was damaged either from sliding on the road, or from hitting the guardrail. Add the front rim, turn signals, clutch, gearshift, foot peg, and other items, and it would have cost more to fix the motorcycle than it was worth. It was deemed a total loss.

Looking back at this accident, I am grateful for many things - most of all that I walked away with just minor injuries. Although it was called something different back then, risk management did have a role in my survival. Had I not had worn protective equipment, or had I not chosen to lay the bike down, my injuries could have been much worse, or fatal.

On the other hand, had I kept the jacket on, I could have walked away from it without a single scratch. I have a constant reminder of that day more than nine years ago, in the form of a circular "road rash" scar on my forearm. I still enjoy riding, but I'll never ride again without proper protective equipment.