Reflecting on Risk / by Walter Kitundu

Just over a month ago I met someone, rather I met the side of his car... hard.

In the trauma unit in the emergency room at SF General Hospital.

In the trauma unit in the emergency room at SF General Hospital.

When I think about the incident I picture my growing comfort on the bike creating a space for him to live inside of. A space in which he could be returning home from the airport, preoccupied with traffic and his thoughts, and be wrong about the number of lanes he needed to cross. A space in which a man floating toward him suspended on two wheels, comfortably heading through an intersection framed in green lights, wouldn't register as a possibility, until the moment we met... hard.

A ghost of an intersection from Google maps. Rush hour is a different story.

A ghost of an intersection from Google maps. Rush hour is a different story.

This was my vantage point as I headed home as rush hour was building. The two lanes to my left were filled with stopped traffic, including beyond the intersection. Everyone stopped, waiting for the traffic to eventually filter onto the Bay Bridge, one block up. The sign to the right states "do not block intersection" and the people complied as they texted and chatted, and vied for position.

I was in the lane marked with a green arrow and the view was much as it is in this picture, green light, no cars ahead, and none behind. I was cruising through the intersection at a sub-speed limit 25mph when the man I was about to meet (red arrow) decided to head for home. He surmised (correctly) that both lanes of oncoming traffic were stopped and that the third lane was the parking lane and therefore devoid of traffic or hazards (incorrect). His assumption about the third lane applied to the fourth lane which was occupied by some construction equipment. The third lane was occupied by me, motoring along, and comfortable in my assumption that green meant go, and that others had the sense enough not to leap across a lane before looking. I didn't know my comfort was creating a space big enough for an RX-7 to hide in.

I had just read about what to do in case of a motorcycle accident. I had watched a few video clips showing some unlucky riders and some foolish ones skirting the fringes of common sense and paying the cost. I'm not one to delight in these things but I watched because I felt a responsibility to know what the risks were and to have a sense of how things go wrong when they do go wrong. It's amazing that my research happened 4 days before my involuntary field work.

So I was incredulous when I saw a grey sports car materialize in front of me, offering no escape to the left or right. I couldn't believe what was about to happen. I hit the brakes hard but barely slowed in the second between his appearance and impact. There was just no time.


My front tire hit and was swept to the right as he continued. It would be another few seconds before he realized that I even existed. The tread pattern left fountain-like streaks as my handlebars hit next and the bike decelerated to a standstill instantly.

I was thrown from the bike and somersaulted over my left shoulder, over his trunk, and into open air. I knew it was going to be bad so I braked and braced and the next thing I knew I was floating...

I landed on my head and upper back which, in hindsight, probably kept my limbs out of harm's way. The impact with the car was shocking. The amount of energy transferred, along with the ferocity and speed of the transition from everything being OK to something being awry, was unsettling to say the least. Hitting the ground was no picnic either.

I knew from my earlier research that the first thing you should do is take stock of the situation before you try to move. I knew adrenaline would be sheltering me from the pain and I could do serious harm by being impatient. I sat up and a headache bloomed in my helmet. My pant leg was sickeningly bent at the shin but my leg was in there, straight and unbroken, partnering in a momentary optical illusion. 

I realized that I was sitting in the middle of an intersection during rush hour and heard voices asking if I was OK. I said, "I think so," and a couple of construction workers asked if they could move my bike out of the road for me. I staggered to me feet, amazed that I was actually alright but dizzy with the shock of it all. Plus, I was stunned and trying to get a handle on what had transpired, the film playing over and over again in my head.

The man who caused the accident appeared and was prepared for a combative exchange. He too was trying to make sense of what had happened, trying to make sense of the loud jolt that shook his car and shifted his trajectory from homeward bound to a curbside stop.

"Should we talk about what happened?" he said.

I agreed and he started describing what he saw. It became clear that he had miscalculated the number of lanes and when I tried to correct him he raised his voice and seemed worried that he might not get to tell his side of things. I stopped him and said that I wasn't interested in being antagonistic or angry. I was interested in talking about what happened clearly and honestly so we could get at the truth. To his credit, he calmed down immediately when he realized he wasn't in for a fight.

Thankfully, he was very cooperative and was fully insured. You could see him trying to find a logical explanation that removed him from blame but the facts clearly implicated him.

I began limping because I'd apparently injured my calf as I separated from the bike, likely hitting the topbox on my way out. The adrenaline was fading and the pain began to creep in. A California Highway patrolman appeared and so began the surreal process of processing an accident. I was headed for the twilight zone.

The force bent the upper section of the fork clamps shearing the bolt that secured it to the steering head.

The force bent the upper section of the fork clamps shearing the bolt that secured it to the steering head.

In order for the police to write a report, someone has to be injured. In order to recoup your losses via insurance, you need a police report. If I'd landed on my feet like a cat and strolled away, the accident and the damage to my bike would not be enough to warrant the SF Police department getting involved and I'd have been on my own trying to recover damages. I was advised by the State Trooper to wait for the police to arrive.

They arrived and repeated the story about injury being necessary for a police report. At this point I was walking around, taking pictures of the scene, but my calf, back and neck were complaining a bit. Still, not life threatening I thought. The policeman asked if I needed an ambulance. I said no. He said he needed me to be injured in order to write the report and I said again that I thought I was fine but my leg and neck hurt a bit. At this point he ordered me to sit down and stop moving and called the ambulance. He said it was for my own safety and that the EMTs would check me out and I wouldn't have to go to the hospital if I chose not to.

Once the ambulance arrived the EMTs asked me a few questions and within minutes they had removed my leather jacket, armored pants, and strapped me down to a board with my neck in a collar and my head fixed in place. They said that the "mechanics" of the accident, the fact that I was traveling at over twenty miles per hour and there was "separation" from the vehicle, mandated I be taken to the trauma unit at the emergency room.

I looked at the guy who caused the accident as I was lifted into the ambulance and consoled myself that he clearly knew that this wasn't my doing, that I wasn't seeking some trumped up injury claim, that I had entered this weird space where my autonomy was removed so that the police and medical professionals could do their jobs, and be seen to be doing their jobs, as per the policy, regardless of the reality of the situation.

The technician in the ambulance acknowledged that, at least for the time being, the system had me in its grip. I was thankfully able to refuse an I.V. after a vociferous argument. He relented and said he didn't want to make my day any worse, quietly knowing they would try to stick me in the ER a few minutes later.

My bike was to be towed. The police officer was surprised that this had been my first accident and mentioned how many motorcycle accidents he had been in. He was a fellow rider but made it very clear that his kindness to me was not a result of our shared pursuits, but of the facts which clearly demonstrated I was not at fault. He offered to wait while I called BMW roadside assistance from the back of the ambulance. The best they could offer was a nearly 3 hour wait. The police tow truck arrived sooner and my bike was whisked away to an impound lot while I was en route to the emergency room.

The trauma physicians were openly glad to have a patient who could talk back, and even happier to have one that could leave under his own steam. They gave me a good going over and then disappeared to aid those who were actually in serious need. Apparently they'd had a rough day. I was diagnosed with a sprained back and neck and released into the arms of my fiance whom I'd had to call and say "I've been in a motorcycle accident and am being taken to the emergency room, but actually I'm just fine." A mixed message for sure.

It was Norouz, Persian New Year, and we had plans to jump the fire and celebrate. Although once I got home all I wanted to do was collapse on the couch and retreat from the surrealism of the day. I decided luck had solidly been on my side and I needed to take full advantage of my retained mobility and consciousness. It could have been so much worse.

A half-second sooner into that intersection and instead of wading through a crowd of jubilant Iranians, I'd have been knocked out, nested in a hospital room, missing a leg, or worse. I had been very lucky.

I'd also been smart enough to wear armor from head to toe, which contributed mightily to my well being. I also had health insurance and my bike was insured. The fee for a 7 minute ride and treatment at the trauma unit at SF General approaches $15,000. The damage to the bike topped $10,000, nearly totaled. Thank goodness everything was in place.

Everyone, from the police to the EMTs to the nurses, insurance adjusters and mechanics, did their jobs well and were kind and responsive. I've had unsettling encounters with the police before but in this instance they were on point. Another piece of luck.

Sent to my friends that evening to prove I was OK

Sent to my friends that evening to prove I was OK

So I was lucky to survive unscathed (apart from some serious bruising and soreness), and I was also unlucky to find my trajectory included the side of someone's car. Luck is a weird thing. I did everything right and still got into an accident... or did I?

I had been feeling pretty confident on the bike as a result of years of careful riding and skill building. I actually practice emergency stops and work on braking, situational awareness, slow and high speed control. I am not a hooligan. I understand that there are risks involved and I wear all my gear all the time. I even get a little nervous before every single ride.

I'm confident but not foolish. I split lanes, use the throttle to actively position myself in safer situations, I ride defensively but I'm no shrinking violet. I've encountered plenty of foolhardy drivers but usually seen them coming a long way off and had exit strategies prepared. But this was different. I was going 25 mph through a solidly green light and ended up in the ER.

I realize that my mistake was in assuming that a green light meant go. I discovered that no situation is beyond suspicion. An intersection is a meeting place and there is a higher likelihood of things going wrong in a place where everyone is called upon to make sudden decisions. The light was so, so green. I should have been more suspicious.

Of course as motorcyclists we can't ride paranoid. It would sap the experience of all its joy. Have you ever started imagining a catastrophic failure while you're cruising on the bike at 75mph? Ever heard a strange sound and had the looming realization that your very life depends on a series of complex mechanical interactions thrumming along between your two wheels? Ever given any thought to those two little contact patches that serve to keep you upright in an endless variety of situations?

I went riding two days after the accident so I wouldn't develop any paralyzing associations about motorcycling. It was strange to be so hyper alert, so vigilant. I still haven't quite lost that and it's a very good thing. It contributes even as it fades and comfort returns. 

I've been chastised several times in a patronizing tone for deciding to keep riding. I ask those folks why they never ask people who've been in car accidents why they continue to drive. The response is usually silence. I know it's because they care, and because they have a socially fueled, exaggerated sense of the risks. They aren't alone in their concerns. I react strongly because I feel those things too. I grew up in a house where motorcycles where banned. I have parents in the medical profession who have seen the awful results of being so exposed when things go wrong. I carry that fear with me and it's why I work so hard to become a better rider and mitigate the risks.

Now I'm at the age when things begin to feel established, when my friends are long since married with children and being risk averse isn't square. The age when the consequences of my decisions rest not just with me or my family, but also with my new wife, and soon with my children. What then? What of those tiny contact patches then? How will I feel about grey sports coupes sheltering in the space my comfort creates? How will I feel about weighing the joy and invigoration of a ride through the redwoods, chill morning air licking through my helmet as I meander through dappled light draped on the forest road, with the risk of wet patches, leaves, deer, sunday drivers, sunday riders, lapses in concentration, and the like?

I'm not interested in dying. I am deeply invested in what it means to be alive, all the sensations, be they bounty or privation, thrills, beauty, calm, intensity, or longing. I'm down to do it. Each day life gets shorter and I want it to be rich with embraced possibility not abandoned dreams or adopted fear. I want to participate instead of retreat.

To live is to risk. There is a quote by Helen Keller that cuts right to the heart of the issue.

"Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."

Something rings so true about this. There is a distinct danger in looking back on 30 "safe" years on the couch. Surely there is harm in not taking risk. In the end, some form of couch madness or disease will spring up and grab you as surely as you might encounter misfortune in the wild. Without romanticizing or hyping the whole "died doing what he loved" mantra, there is something appealing about being out in the world, engaging and seeking rather than trying desperately to cordon off and protect a certain state of being in a life that is subject to, and essentially defined by, change.

So I'm still riding and loving it. I've got some dreams wrapped up in two wheels and only miles filled with border crossings and star filled nights will allow them to unfurl. I'm excited and proud to be a motorcyclist, bird watcher, instrument builder, artist, surfer, salsa dancer, father, husband, etc... Those pursuits inform and shape my life and while I could eliminate one and still have a rich existence, It would be incomplete. Circumstances may very well edit that list for me and if that happens I'll have to embrace the new constellation of possibilities.

I'm lucky to be reflecting on this without any lingering physical effects from my tumble. The mental repercussions reverberate. I'm truly grateful, and I want to stay present, deeply engaged, and keep seeking.

Let's go.