I recently read that many new riders call in to question whether some of the old rules of the road - biker etiquette, if you will - remain necessary in the contemporary age. Many of the observances typical among our kind - the wave, for instance - arose out of mutual respect and admiration for fellow bike riders. At one time, motorcycles were not as reliable as today and help in the event of a breakdown was often hours and many miles away. Few resources for stranded riders existed. Towing programs attached to insurance policies rarely covered motorcycles and AAA considered motorcycles as recreational vehicles - a practice AAA continues to endorse today - requiring the purchase of additional coverage to obtain roadside assistance. Cell phones were limited to contraptions the size of construction block and often did not function adequately outside of urban areas. In the event of breakdown, a rider might often find themselves alone and exposed to the elements.
Two weeks ago, I took my truck to Nashville, TN to accept delivery of my latest motorcycle purchase - a 1984 Harley-Davidson XLS Roadster. On I-65, about ten miles outside of Louisville, KY, I spotted a gentlemen on the side of the road crouched down in the stiff grass at the road's edge working on a rather rough looking specimen of the Japanese variety. I debated whether stopping would put me behind schedule. It was a Sunday, and I had to make the drive of almost 200 miles before the dealership closed. I reasoned that the stranded rider likely had a cell phone and help was on the way. I remember thinking, "But if it were me....". I pulled over and slowly walked back along the highway's edge to within shouting distance of the rider and raised my hands to shoulder height. As I neared, I observed the spreading pool of oil beneath the bike - a Suzuki Katana - mixed with fragments of what I surmised to be aluminum engine casing. Clearly this wasn't going to surmount to something easily repaired on the side of the road.
|Stranded on the Roadside - I264|
While I've never faced as extensive a repair as that of the young man I encountered - later identified as Smitty - that day on the roadside, my motorcycles - though mostly of the modern variety - contributed to more than one evening of frustration on the side of the highway. Most recently, my BMW R1150RT - a wonder of modern engineering - sputtered quietly to a stop on the I-264 bypass and refused to start. The culprit later turned out to be a short in the right-hand handlebar control switches which cut power to the fuel-delivery system. The entire switch housing needed to be replaced as the unit is sealed - not a roadside repair by any means. I did have a cell phone with me that day and called for help, but while hunkered down in the sparse shade behind the guardrail, no cars stopped to offer assistance and rider after rider cruised by without so much as a concerned glance.
Smitty's cell phone had died on the side of the road and using mine, he was unable to summon assistance. The chain on the bike jumped the rear sprocket, bunched up around the front sprocket, and ruptured the lower engine casing. I found it a wonder that Smitty managed to navigate to the road's edge rather than being scattered down the interstate amidst shards of plastic and a trail of gasoline. Ambient temperatures that morning were climbing into the upper 80's. The only tool Smitty had available happened to be an over-sized crescent wrench. While the young gentlemen was reluctant to leave the machine by the road's edge, I convinced Smitty to permit me to drive him to the next freeway exit where at least he could charge his phone and wait for assistance in the comfort of air conditioning. On my return voyage several hours later, I noted that the worse-for-wear Katana was absent from the interstate berm.
The question regarding whether motorcycle etiquette in contemporary times holds the same relevance as it once did is influenced by several factors. Motorcycles in general are more reliable. Insurance companies frequently offer roadside assistance as a component of policies which cover bikes. The cell phone puts aid at our fingertips in all but the most remote locations. More people own and ride motorcycles than in previous decades - although by some reports that number is again falling. So why should we be concerned with the way in which we interact with one another?
According to the US Department of Transportation Statistics (2009), over 7 million motorcycles were registered in the United States by the end of 2007 (pp. 1, 3). Only a fraction of the bikes registered throughout the country are utilized as a primary means of year-round transportation - 4.3 percent according to the Motorcycle Industry Council (2003). The US Census Bureau reports that of the 130 million commuter vehicles used as a means of transportation to work, less than 150,000 were motorcycles - approximately .0011 percent of the commuter vehicle total (The Daily Rider, 2003, p. 1).
We - as motorcyclists, bikers, riders, scooter trash, etc. - remain in the minority on US roadways despite an increase in the popularity of our lifestyle. Even with the advances in engine design and safety equipment, and the push for awareness of motorcycles by the general public, the risk involved in riding a motorcycle - especially on a regular or daily basis - continues to be high. We wave to one another not only to acknowledge this risk, but to express our mutual fondness for a life lived outside the norm. We pull over to help a stranded rider not just out of altruism, but out of the sincere hope that when our time comes to stand at the highway's edge cursing (insert nationality) engineering, someone - a brother from the road - will stop for us if for nothing more than to commiserate on rotten luck.
Morris, C. C. (2009). Motorcycle trends in the United States. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/special_reports_and_issue_briefs/special_report/2009_05_14/pdf/entire.pdf
Ride to Work (n.d.). Motorcycle transportation fact sheet. The Daily Rider. Retrieved from http://www.ridetowork.org/files/docs/rtw_transportation_fact_sheet.pdf