Gustavson Column: That dreaded left turn, always in mind

03/29/2014 8:00 AM |

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It was the sort of news alert that causes all motorcyclists to quake in their boots. A biker, heading east on the North Road in Mattituck, collided with a car operated by an elderly driver, heading west on the opposite side of the highway and making a left-hand turn onto Wickham Avenue. 

I have no particular insight into this accident. I was not an eyewitness at the scene. Perhaps he was traveling at an excessive rate of speed. Perhaps she already was crossing the eastbound lane when his bike and her vehicle collided. That, of course, is for law enforcement officials, and perhaps officers of the court, to determine.

But I do know the motorcyclist in question was airlifted after the accident to University Hospital in Stony Brook, where he remains in critical condition. And I do know this type of accident — car turning left into path of oncoming motorcycle — is “the most common motorcycle accident,” according to the website RideApart.com, which states: “A car fails to see you or judges your speed incorrectly, turning in front of you at an intersection. Blame inattention, distraction, blind spots and even psychology; a driver looking for cars perceives merely an absence of cars, not the presence of a motorcycle.”

Of course, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Safety Administration tells a different story when it comes to fatal single-vehicle motorcycle accidents. Where they are concerned, the two most common contributing factors are 1) excessive speed by the motorcyclist and 2) excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages by the motorcyclist.

I purchased my first “motorcycle,” over my parents’ mild objection, when I turned 17. Actually, it was a 50cc Honda scooter made to look like a real motorcycle but with a top speed of only about 45 mph. I rode it throughout my senior year in high school but it didn’t make it to my freshman year in college. And that’s because, on the night before I was supposed to leave for college, my friend Dennis Pennington was hit by a car after we traded scooters — my Honda for his Vespa. (I left for school a few days later, after he was released from the intensive care unit, but Dennis wasn’t able to start school until the following semester, after he recovered from his injuries.)

And can you guess how that accident happened? Yes, the driver of the car turned left into the path of the oncoming biker.

From that night forth, I have always driven every scooter or motorcycle I have owned (and there have been several) as if every car driver on the road is out there only to kill me — that is to say, hyper-defensively. As I approach any intersection, I look for the best place to bail out if a car turns into my path. I try to wait for a car to precede me through the intersection after a traffic light changes from red to green. And I never (ever!) drink and drive or exceed the posted speed limit.

That second rule of the road is a virtual no-brainer since my current ride is a 110cc Honda scooter with a top speed of 50 mph, but it wasn’t that long ago that the former Joan Giger Walker and I were roaming North America and even Europe on a 1,200cc BMW touring bike. We quit while we “were ahead,” we like to say, never having experienced even a minor motorcycle mishap, when I traded the big BMW for the little Honda.

That move was enthusiastically endorsed by our daughters, who thought it inappropriate, and perhaps even dangerous, for 60-somethings to sit astride a two-wheeler easily capable of exceeding 100 mph.

And that was the status quo — that is, Dad putts around on his little Honda scooter — until a recent dinner party at which a friend of ours revealed that he was about to take possession of a new made-in-Italy Ducati, one of the sweetest two-wheelers known to mankind.

And that started the, uh, wheels rolling. What if? What if my ride were somewhere between 110cc and 1,200cc? Say somewhere right around 670cc? As in the new Honda CTX700N.

Sorry, girls. It looks like Mom and Dad (aka Grandma and Grandpa) may be getting a new bike.

TR080609_Gustavson_RTroy Gustavson is the former publisher of The Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at tgustavson@timesreview.com.

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