Riding in the danger zone

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kris Levasseur
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
There is nothing more liberating for a motorcycle rider than the feeling of being completely unrestrained and out in the open as you cruise the open road on your bike. The feeling we don't often get is, though free, we are completely exposed to danger around every corner and the danger we create for ourselves.

That feeling of danger was made apparent to me very abruptly the first time I wrecked.

I have ridden motorcycles in all forms since I was young. I started out on dirt bikes, hitting the trails and courses around my hometown. From the very first time I twisted the throttle on my little brother's four-stroke 250cc, I was hooked on riding. Eventually, I graduated to sports bikes and cruisers.
I couldn't get enough of the freedom riding offered me -- the freedom you just can't get in a car. Riding season was my favorite time of year.

As a rider, safety concerns are extremely important to me now, but that wasn't always the case.

Growing up in New Hampshire, my riding wasn't hampered by helmet laws or any required personal protective equipment. By the time I turned 18, I stopped wearing a helmet altogether. It wasn't uncommon for me to ride with nothing more than jeans and a T-shirt. I felt like I was untouchable. No matter what happened to anyone else, I thought it would never happen to me. Even after my uncle lost his leg in a motorcycle accident, I still felt untouchable.

Then I joined the Air Force.

As a rider in the military, there are many rules and restrictions I must abide when riding. I have to be licensed to ride, trained and certified through an approved training course (offered through the wing safety office), and wear all required PPE, even as a passenger.

I rode my whole life but didn't learn to ride until I rode as a service member. I took many things away from the motorcycle safety course, but the most valuable to me was the knowledge I gained on how to react in a dangerous situation. Little did I know, a few short months after taking the course, I would be putting my training to the test.

One day, while out on a ride, I made a mistake. I wasn't paying enough attention to the road conditions in an unfamiliar area, and I overshot a turn.

The moment I saw there was no corrective action I could take to keep me on the road was the exact moment motorcycle safety became real for me. The way I saw it, there were two choices I could make: stay on the bike and try to save it from any damage, which could possibly have forced it to go down on top of me putting me in extreme danger, or drop my bike and take my chances on my own and do my best to protect myself from harm.

Given what I learned during the motorcycle safety course, I decided to go with option two. I could always fix my bike, but my life is irreplaceable. The fact I have all of my limbs and am alive to tell this story I attribute to making the right choice.

As my bike left the road, I dropped it and went flying for a few moments before making contact with the ground. The initial impact was shocking. As I was going down, I tried to get my body sideways so I could try to roll off the impact and avoid road rash. That didn't work out so well, because I didn't have enough time to get to my side.

I ended up sliding across the ground on my hands and knees for a short while as I tried to realign my body. Eventually, I was able to adjust enough to get into a roll. Rolling was a welcomed relief from the stress of sliding across the ground; unfortunately, I started too late and ended up crashing into a tree, impacting with the face screen of my helmet.

There I was, laying completely still, in shock about what just happened. Fully conscious, I waited there for emergency responders to arrive. My first thought after it happened was, "Did that really just happen?" I was in complete disbelief I got into a wreck, and what I really couldn't figure out is how I reacted the way I did.

After receiving medical treatment and all the dust settled, I finally got a clear picture of what happened. Overall, I slid head-first 100 feet into a tree. I escaped with only minor road rash, overextended ligaments in my wrists and one knee, and a concussion.

Without proper PPE and training I wouldn't have had pads built into my jacket protecting me from serious road rash or a back brace built in to prevent my back from folding. I wouldn't have had padded gloves to protect my palms and fingers from dragging across the gravel, dirt and grass. I wouldn't have had a helmet to protect my head when I smashed into the tree. And lastly, I wouldn't have had the training to not only know what to do, but to be able to do it and react without even thinking about it.

To this day, I am thankful the Air Force held me responsible for my safety, because if I hadn't grown out of my reckless ways, that day could have gone very differently.

For more information or to sign up for motorcycle safety courses, contact the 86th Airlift Wing Safety Office at 480-7233.