Life in the Bay Area has many perks, one of which is excellent access to freeways and expressways. The advantage to these innumerable travel arteries is that my husband and I can make our way from one school in San Jose to another in Mountain View within fifteen minutes, and have a choice of several routes to choose from, depending upon the traffic pattern. I estimate that we log an average of five hundred miles each week in our business related travels, always seemingly at odds with the ebb and flow of traffic, that predictable tide of commute you could almost set your watch to.
The caveat to living in a valley bisected with a fancy grid-work of freeways is the noise. I’m not talking about something in the decibel range of the commercial aircraft that fly over our neighborhood as they take off from Mineta-San Jose International Airport.
It’s the faint, almost imperceptible thrum of tire-on-pavement that wakes you up at two in the morning, when you’re desperately sleeping off a wickedly hot summer day, and all your windows are open just a crack to coax the airflow. This is the witching hour, when the jets have been grounded for the curfew between 11:00 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., and the world is supposed to be asleep.
Yet, enough insomniacs are out on the road, whacking the asphalt with heavy tires, the cacophony of whining tread that steals into your dreams, and leaves you wide-eyed, staring up at the ceiling, listening to a faint and distant hum that prevents you from falling back to sleep. A roaring flood would be less intrusive than that needle-like audio push of tire whisper, echoing off the fog-vaulted sky.
The solution would be to close all the windows, because they’re double-pane, but don’t you just love the fresh air more than your sleep?
I suppose I shouldn’t complain. When we’re way up north in Susanville, out in the sticks, all you can hear is nothing, unless the rain is falling, and then it literally hammers the metal roof. Beyond nothing is the even deeper silence of a blizzard, and then your ears will start to ring from the utter stillness of it all. Once in a while, a neighbor drives along the County road, and you get a brief roar of mud tires on cracked asphalt as the truck cruises past. For some reason, there are a lot of lift-kitted trucks with huge knobby tires, as though a certain percentage of the male population has a need to compensate.
But there’s a sinister side to the Bay Area commute, and this is tied to the motorcycle.
I ride a motorcycle. I became an enthusiast through the brilliant persuasion of my husband, who suggested riding dirt bikes would be a wholesome family activity that would never grow old. His reasoning was terribly successful, which is why there are three street bikes and six dirt bikes currently in our possession.
I describe myself as a cruiser for pleasure, which mitigates exposure to many dangerous situations. There’s been a sharp increase in the number of commuters riding motorcycles, partly for their gas economy. My 1500 cc Vulcan gets around 48 mph, depending upon how I lay into the throttle. I often find myself traveling well over the speed limit on a bike that rides heavy and smooth, with great low-end torque. In fifth gear, all I need to do is flick my wrist, and I can shoot from 65 to 80 mph in what seems like a split second. We’re not talking a sport bike, commonly known as the “Rice Rocket.” My husband and I have the classic Japanese cruiser type bikes, mechanically efficient, and weighing it around 700 pounds apiece.
Another issue that compounds the danger level on Bay Area roadways for motorcyclists is our ability to legally lane-share, a fact that many licensed automobile drivers either aren’t aware of, or absolutely hate. Lane sharing is best facilitated in very slow speed traffic conditions, 15 mph or less, though the danger of being side-swiped by a car is very real, even when traffic’s at a crawl. Often the person behind the wheel of a car will spontaneously decide to change lanes when they see a scant opening in traffic. This lane change is facilitated by yanking the wheel in the direction they want to throw their two-ton vehicle, and then diving into that tiny patch of open roadway. Rarely do they consult their mirror, or do the intelligent thing by looking over their shoulder and signaling before changing lanes.
This is one reason motorcyclists are killed. Lane sharing, while absolutely legal, is extremely dangerous, even under the best of conditions. I often espouse the benefits of all drivers being required to partake of motorcycle safety training. I believe it would enable Class C licensed drivers to gain an awareness of the unseen motorcyclist. Further, a Class C driver’s basic driving skills will improve exponentially. Trust me on this, I know. My driving skills improved a hundred fold once I learned the skillset required to drive a motorcycle in fast, chaotic traffic conditions.
My fellow motorcyclists, please! We must remember that we are always invisible, but never invincible.
The hazards of lane-sharing were reinforced one evening last week, while my husband and I were en route to his big band rehearsal. Crossing over Highway 101, we could see the southbound direction consisted of a sea of red, glaring brake lights, with traffic at a standstill. A few minutes later, the traffic report on AM radio confirmed a motorcyclist down, with a single fatality. Not too difficult to guess the outcome.
According to a witness statement in the San Jose Mercury News a few days later, the motorcyclist was just driving regularly between cars (e.g., lane-sharing), when he suddenly went down, and was thrown beneath the wheels of a UPS truck, that rolled over his body. Apparently an instant death, and no doubt, caused by some driver who decided they wanted that little “car-free” patch of roadway so they could be 0.00926 seconds in front of their current position. Mix that with a motorcycle, and guess who wins!
Yeah, you got it. No one wins.