Crashing can happen even to veteran motorcyclists, says Victoria Zandonella, an American blogger with Ride-NewEngland.com and a regular off-road tour group leader.
Victoria is obsessive about safety and helping other riders. But she recently suffered major injuries after crashing head-on with a car. She now advises: “It’s not a question of IF, but WHEN”.
She says the lessons she has learned are many and varied. They include: ATGATT, forget about fault, ride with buddies and even make sure you hydrate so the medics can find a vein!
Many riders have managed to escape having a major ‘off’ while riding for the entirety of their time on two wheels. However, most motorcyclists who clock respectable miles on a yearly basis usually have some stories to share about when their luck ran out.
On 3 September 2018, I joined the ranks of this latter group with a pretty spectacular head-on car-versus-motorcycle crash after which I am lucky and blessed to be alive and able to share my experience.
Labor Day 2018 was a divine day for riders here in the Northeast of the USA – for most of us anyway. Mine started out well, winding my way south on my XT250 after an amazing weekend exploring the dirt roads of the Berkshires and southern Vermont. My morning ride started early at around 7. A thick late summer fog blanketed the Deerfield River valley as I meandered south towards home. The dewy air was a constant annoyance as I needed to continually wipe my face shield to keep a clear view of the road ahead. In response to the visual challenges, I took it slow and tried to enjoy the ride and scenery around me.
I stopped to take a picture and checked my emails and NDR page to see a group of fellow riders was in the area and I planned to meet them at Toymaker’s Café for a quick breakfast prior to heading home.
A friend suggested we travel some dirt roads back south, including an area of Housatonic State Forest known as Easter Mountain. We mounted our bikes and headed down through Cornwall. The bike was running so well, and I was so proud of our shared journeys these last several years and all the (s)miles along the way.
As we made our way up the road that would take us to our desired dirt oasis, we came upon a familiar and steep up-hill hairpin corner. As I set the bike into the curve, I looked up in horror to see a car descending the hill drifting wide into my lane of travel. The voice inside my head was screaming to the car’s driver “You aren’t supposed to be here”. With the speed the car was descending upon me, I had no time to manoeuvre and saw my front wheel make contact with the front of the car.
It’s so true that everything slows down during a traumatic event such as this. Time seems suspended like a very slow-motion movie – where you get to watch it frame by frame. It also gets cemented in your memory, and re-plays at will in flashbacks. I saw, and still see, plastic pieces of the car’s grill flying into the air around me as I launched off the bike up and over the car. I remember seeing the sky, the car, the sky, then the tar as I landed with a thud on the pavement. So much for 35+ years of accident free riding . . .
Realising I was injured, I remained still, with my riding partners assisting in securing the scene and getting my body in a neutral position to lessen chance of further injury. A State trooper came to the scene and looked down at me smiling asking me how I was doing to which I replied: “Good morning officer – I’ve seen better days” (queue the music). I asked him why he was smiling. He stated he was happy to see me alert and talking upon arriving as when the call came in, it was registered as ‘Head-on car vs. motorcycle’, so he expected he was responding to a potential DOA.
‘Not my fault’
The trooper assured me that the accident was not my fault and let me know he’d meet me at the hospital to give me the paperwork for the incident so I could follow up for the police report. He mentioned I had traveled quite a distance from the crash point – later it was determined to be ~ 25 feet (about 8m). No wonder my airtime seemed to last forever . . .
The ambulance soon arrived and arrangements were made with my fellow riders to secure my bike for pickup later in the day. I was in intense pain and pretty confident I had a broken tibia and my knee didn’t feel that great either. The EMTs started their assessment and then conducted standard protocol of collar and boarding me to get me on a stretcher and into the rig.
Formerly and EMT, I quickly spoke out when the ambulance crew went to remove my riding gear as I knew their trigger fingers were itching to use those ballistic nylon/leather cutting shears they so fancy – not on my watch! I quickly instructed them on how to remove my boots and pants without cutting them to shreds. The medic then reminded me that I was the patient and not the presiding authority on how the situation needs to be handled. I quickly conceded to her wishes knowing she was responsible for authorising and administering some much-needed IV pain medication.
I wished I had hydrated more that morning as my veins were not cooperating for an IV on the way to the hospital. The medic eventually gave up, apologising for the multiple fruitless ‘sticks’, trying to get some pain med into my system. I’d have to wait until arriving at the hospital for relief.
I was most fortunate to have a couple great friends to call who came to the hospital to help me sort through the various things I needed to think about. How am I getting home? How will my bike get home? They took charge of all the details while the doctors and nursing staff tended to me and my injuries. Florence Nightingale finally arrived with an IV and Dilaudid – HALLELUJAH! The medication swept through me like a cooling wave descending down through my body and knocking my pain level down to more tolerable levels.
Pain and rehab
Fast forward, two months today from the accident. My time since has been filled with pain, doctor appointments, various scans, P/T, and insurance adjustors. The road back from an accident is not a smooth one I can assure you – only filled with stress and frustration.
I am still awaiting compensation for my totalled motorcycle and gear – though I expect to receive proceeds and a ‘salvage’ title in the coming week. Physical therapy continues and is prescribed by my orthopedist through the end of the year. My riding season came to an abrupt close on Labor Day as I have been resigned to watch the leaves change from the view of my bedroom window as my damaged bits slowly heal.
I’ve had plenty of time to sit and re-play events in my head. Here’s what I’ve learned from crashing head-on with a car:
- It’s not a question of IF you will get into an accident, only WHEN. I always had heard this and was pretty darn lucky not to have to experience it until now, but, as statistics would prove out, my ticket was eventually punched. Any rider who puts on big miles each year, especially on tar, will likely succumb to some sort of off – whether it be a low-side from a poor road surface, a mechanical failure, animal strike, or a life ending high speed wreck due to a careless driver. I was fortunate, given the type of crash I had, and blessed to know that, in time, I’ll likely heal enough to ride again.
- ATGATT is not only your friend – it can save your life – and it definitely did mine. I had a scar across the top side of my helmet where I hit the top of the car. My boots surely saved me from a traumatic amputation of my left foot. The impact, determined to be a combined 60mph (100km/h) force, was so severe that I still have a dent in my lower shin matching the corresponding damage on both my riding boot and armoured riding pants. I will never stop promoting the benefits of being fully geared as a rider, despite what this state, or any other state without a helmet law, allows. It’s the responsible thing to do – if not for one’s self, but for those who love them.
- If possible, always ride with a buddy (buddies). I can’t begin to tell you how comforting it was to know that my friends riding behind me that day had my back. They managed the scene until help arrived, got my bike off the road and to a safe spot, and kept my spirits up as I laid in wait for the emergency medical personnel to arrive. In leading Northeast Dualsport Riders, I have only asked that ‘when’ the day came, the only compensation I would ever need in exchange for organising and leading our events, would be for my fellow riders to get me and my bike home in the case of the inevitable ‘off’. On this day, my NDR buddies came through in spades. It scares me to think of how events would have played out had I been without my fellow riders that fateful day.
- No matter whose fault an accident is, the motorcyclist most always loses. Most times the majority of the injuries and financial loss is born by the rider during a car vs. motorcycle accident. While I am happy that I will eventually get compensated for my loss of property and medical costs, I lost my favourite bike, I have suffered an injury that will haunt me for years to come, and I have lost the rest of this year’s riding season as I recuperate. But I am alive and extremely grateful for this gift.
- The roads are an extremely dangerous place for motorcyclists. I’ve always enjoyed riding dirt much more so for this reason and on the day of the crash was on a small 2 mile stretch of pavement between dirt roads when the accident happened. Car drivers are often times nothing short of reckless – especially in this day and age with the egregious levels of distracted driving. The driver who hit me was young and out for a joy ride with friends, and most likely unfamiliar with the windy, hilly road he was on. The hairpin curve most likely caught him off-guard, causing him to overshoot the turn. It was a sad twist of fate I was there in his path that exact second.
Riding career over?
Many have asked me if I will stop riding after this. My answer “HECK NO”. The psychological benefit I derive from riding far outweighs any risks involved in my book. I remain committed to safe riding and dressing up for the occasion – ATGATT always.
This experience has certainly made me think more deeply about accident avoidance and when and where I choose to ride in the future. Be safe out there folks and do everything you can to not be a statistic of this sport: take safety classes; gear up; practise evasive manoeuvres; service your bikes regularly to ensure they are safe and sound; and lastly – stay alert with all your senses as your brain is truly your biggest asset in avoiding an accident.