Street Savvy - Motorcyclists and Preventing Adverse Factors when Riding

MC Garage

By John L. Stein, Photography by Calstar

Any time the kids are on an unusually reckless path, I tell them, "Remember COAF." That's family code for Combination of Adverse Factors, an aviation principle that defines the mistakes preceding an accident. Reverse engineering a plane crash might reveal an inexperienced pilot flying an overloaded aircraft in low visibility. Miraculously, interrupting such a series of errors can stop calamity in its tracks, which is why students of aviation are taught how to do it. After experiencing and witnessing plenty of motorcycle crashes over the years, I think rider training should also adopt some version of COAF.

Here's an actual case I observed at our local motocross track. A ragtag group arrived, consisting of several dudes, a wife/girlfriend or two, some youngsters and an assemblage of disheveled motorbikes including a mini with training wheels stuffed into the back of a Jeep. (Adverse Factor #1: This was no polished group of track riders.)

While Junior wobbled around the parking area on the outriggered mini (#2: Who would put a kid who can't balance a bicycle on a motorcycle?), dad hit the track aboard a neglected 250cc four-stroke with mismatched bodywork (#3), riding as if undergoing electroshock therapy (#4), bobbling and stalling in turns, yanking the bars violently over jumps and landing on the front wheel with alarming frequency.

My boys and I fretfully noticed this guy and hoped all would remain well. And it did ... until he went wrong on a jump (#5), tagged another bike and careened off-track headfirst into a huge oak tree: out cold. One look into his helmet revealed trouble, his face beet-red and eyes clamped shut.

Two California Highway Patrol cars arrived 10 to 15 minutes later, followed by paramedics in a fire truck. At that point, our victim was awake and struggling to get up as his cohorts struggled to keep him down and calm. He knew it was Saturday, but not much else, and was having trouble breathing. The paramedics called a rescue helicopter.

Eventually, a paramedic van arrived with a third CHP car, for a grand total of five emergency vehicles and 13 responders, including the helicopter crew, who circled the area before landing in a gritty cauldron of dust. Strapped shirtless to a spinal board, secured in a neck brace and locked to a gurney, our victim was airlifted to the nearest trauma center. His tearful wife aimed a video camera at the departing helicopter. "This is to remind you why you will never ride a dirtbike again," she said flatly.

A local doctor who occasionally rides at that track later estimated the tab for the victim's air rescue at $20,000, plus $20,000-$25,000 for CAT scans, an attending physician and a night in the hospital.

Wheeling his stricken motorcycle back to his truck, I noticed one handgrip missing (#6). There it was, on the ground below the tree. Erratic riding was one critical adverse factor. A slipping handgrip was another. There were others: unfamiliarity with a borrowed motorcycle, insufficient skills, recklessness or trying to impress friends and family. When such factors add up, they often blow up.

Accidents happen, but predictable ones like this don't have to. That's why every motorcyclist should absorb aviation's COAF concept and recognize when events are slipping from manageable toward out of control. Noticing this pattern, and then having the wisdom to pull the plug, is more than wise. It might save your life.

By John L. Stein
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