Road Dirt Owner/Editor Rob Brooks Reflects on the Motorcycle Crash that Changed His Life, and Ultimately Made Him a Better Rider
There is a common saying among motorcycle riders- “It’s not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’, you’ll have a crash.” Some 18 years ago, I experienced two firsts in my life, at the same time. I was involved in my first street motorcycle accident, and broke my first major bones as well. I checked both boxes at the same time, thereby joining the ranks of the “when” crowd.
I was riding my ’93 Suzuki VS800 Intruder home from a new job, trying an alternative route to the house. Ahead of me, on a side street to my right, a tan sedan came to a stop at the sign. Motoring along just under the speed limit, I turned my attention further down the road, checking him off my mental list. Suddenly, the driver jumped out, turning right into my path as I approached perpendicular to his street. I clamped down hard on the front and rear binders, scrubbing off as much speed as possible in the short time and space I had, and still hit his left front quarter panel, right at his tire. The impact sent me over my handlebars, shearing off both my mirrors somehow, over his hood, and nearly 15 feet into the street beyond his car. I remember landing head-first, thinking, “Thank God for Georgia helmet laws,” as I tumbled down the road. I still have that helmet by the way, on the wall in my “man cave”.
I never lost consciousness, and discovered fairly quickly that I was injured, when I tried to get up but could not. Both legs were broken, one with a shattered knee, the other with a fractured femur. I had some body bruises across my arms and shoulders, but no other serious injuries, since I was fully armored in proper riding gear. An off-duty paramedic got to me first as I lay in the street, stopping oncoming traffic and stabilizing me, advising, “Don’t move, my friend. I think your legs are broken.” Following a brief ambulance ride, the first police officer on the scene drove to the hospital and stayed with me in the ER until my wife and family arrived. He observed, “Looks like your reaction time may have saved you from a worse situation. Based on your skid marks, you must have cut your speed almost in half. Nice work.” I would spend seven days in the hospital, about 3 months doing rehabilitation and physical therapy, and underwent a total of four surgeries across 18 months to repair my legs. There were times I honestly wondered whether I would ever walk right again, much less ever get back on a motorcycle again.
Among the many friends and family that visited me during those hospital days and back home recovering, several riding buddies offered the advice, “You gotta climb back on the horse, after you’ve been bucked off.” If each could have seen the look my wife gave them, that “I’m gonna rip your head off and spit down your neck” look, they might have beat a hasty retreat. Yet, on the one-year anniversary of my crash, with one more surgery still pending, I snuck out with a friend, borrowed another friend’s bike, and spent the day riding through the countryside.
To be honest, I was excited, but a bit apprehensive as well. The memory of the accident was still very vivid, and I was still living the recovery. I had experienced deep loss and grief across the year since the accident, sorely missing riding and the exhilaration of the open road. Yet throwing a leg over once again, 12 months to the day later, gave me a moment of pause. Early on, Lisa had declared, “Over my dead body, will you ever ride again,” but had since softened some, now quipping, “I’ve got a fat insurance policy on you now. If you get yourself killed, I’ll grieve, but I’m moving to Tahiti.” So here I was, secretly hopping on a bike again, scratching the old itch.
I questioned myself. Would the skills come back to me? Would I remember how to shift, to brake, to ride? Was I ready for this? I swallowed hard, pulled in the clutch, turned the key, thumbed the starter, and clicked into 1st. We took it slow for several miles, as I “got my sea legs back” so to speak. But soon I settled down, everything came back to me, and I felt comfortable. The day was perfect- the weather, the roads, my friend, the seat time. I didn’t tell Lisa for another six months what I had done, but when I did, she simply replied, “I knew you would, and I’m glad you did.” She approved, or at least, acquiesced.
There would still be one more surgery, this time to remove hardware, but I finally bought another bike, a Yamaha Royal Star, about two years after the accident. I’ve been riding ever since. In fact, I’ve ridden more in the years since the accident than all the years prior in my life. I have traversed America on that big Yamaha, and others I’ve owned, accruing many miles, many memories, many new friends. I also jumped into the sport bike end of the pool, running track days as a pastime when I have the available cash. I even buy and sell bikes some myself now, finding, fixing, and “flipping” a few each year. I’ve been writing about motorcycling now for years, both as a staff writer and freelance, with some limited success there as well.
In the long run, I believe the crash made me a better rider. Prior, when I would hear about someone injured or killed in a motorcycle accident, my first inclination was always, “What did they do wrong? I wouldn’t make their mistakes.” To be sure, most motorcycle crashes are preventable by the rider. Yet my attitude was both arrogant and naïve. Even the best training, the most experience, and the sharpest skill set is no fool-proof guarantee that the unforeseen won’t happen, or that you won’t have a momentary lapse in attention and/or judgment, no matter how good you think you are. In the years since, I’ve come to ride with a keen awareness of my own fragility, my limitations, and the sheer risk we attempt to manage when riding. An accident in an automobile might not result in personal injury, yet a motorcycle accident most assuredly will. We ride so close to death, and yet that actually is one of the great reasons and rewards for riding. We balance the rebellious thrill of running so close to the edge of destruction, but we also learn to manage that risk by honing our skills and situational awareness. The payoff is the addictive “mystic rhythm” of the ride.
So I guess one might say I certainly climbed back on that horse. I took a fall, and may take another someday, although I hope not. The key is getting back up, in any area and episode of life. Swallow hard, take a deep breath, and climb back on. Live and leave no regrets.