Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The bikers' wave

An intriguing comment on yesterday's post reminded me of something I omitted from yesterday's dispatch for brevity ("What? Brief?" I know, I tend to ramble). I know that by advocating a fraternity/sorority of two-wheeled travellers, I seem to be separating fellow travellers into classes and that isn't my intent. When we are all on the road, we are all fellow travellers. We should look out for everyone, respect their right to use the road, and make accommodations. We should drive wisely and without arrogance or competition. In a democracy, compromise and accommodation make the rules we live by. Concensus of how to act accordingly within these limits makes life enjoyable for all.

I don't live in a perfect world (even I don't consider Dorchester, Mass. perfect, just close) and I know my argument for mutual respect runs a tad against the grain of human nature, but I don't think it hurts to speak out in favor for a peaceable kingdom. If you can be civil to a grocery store clerk while she checks her text messages while she is scanning your groceries, you can be civil to a stranger on the road. No one wakes up in the morning thinking, "I'm going to be a bad person today." I never have and I've never met anyone who's admitted to this.

If a car cuts me off at an intersection, I should be anticipating it. Though my motorcycle is small, it packs a lot of power under its gas tank and I don't gun the throttle willy-nilly through downtown. To do so would be foolish because in an accident I know who has the best chance of spending time in the hospital and it won't be the automobile driver. A helmet is no air bag and an armored jacket is not as safe as four walls, a roof and a floor, no matter what the advertising copy says. Do I drive fast? Sure. Do I skirt around the edges of traffic laws and sometimes break them outright? Sure. I do these things when it is expedient and it seems safe. I may make misjudgements, I ruined a good pair of pants that way and scratched my front fairing, but I don't make them with malice.

Do bicycles cut me off? Sure. Cars cut me off too when they don't have the right-of-way. Do pedestrians cut me off? Of course, but you know what? A pedestrian has the right of way. Like a customer, a pedestrian is always right even when I think they're wrong. How much inconvenience do they cause me? Not enough for me get my dander up. If bodily harm has been avoided, someone has been driving right. I hope it will always be me, but sometimes it's not. I'm the one who suffers arthritic knees from so many impacts and scrapes and an arm that looks like raw hamburger.

I don't want to generalize or stereotype, because there are exceptions to every rule and people are individuals not castes, but stereotyping is human nature and as long as you can see the trees from the forest, I don't see too much harm in it.

There are different classifications of motorcyclists and this is apparent outside city congestion. In the city, motorcyclists are usually too focused on the hazards around them to acknowledge fellow bikers. That's not true on twisty, scenic, country drives however. Out in the country, motorcyclists offer each other the bikers' wave when they pass. You may have seen it: both cyclists take their hand off the clutch handle and extend their arms downward, palm forward in the direction of the approaching cyclist. Sometimes all fingers are extended, sometimes only one or two. Never a fist. It's an acknowledgement that two fellow travellers are out enjoying the day, enjoying the road, and indulging in a common love of two-wheeled transportation.

Motorcyclists don't usually extend this gesture of camaraderie to pedal cyclists. This may be because, from my experience, the pedal cyclists don't know how to respond. They are focused on their legs, perhaps. Motorcyclists don't usually extend this gesture to motor scooterists either, probably for the same reason but, as a former little engine driver, I can tell you I was always thrilled to be acknowledged as being part of the same tribe. A weaker, extended cousin.

Another informal rule that, happily isn't always enforced: Harley riders wave to Harley riders, sport bikes to sport bikes, choppers to choppers, scooters to scooters (rarely though, they aren't used to being waved to). When I've travelled the back roads with a passenger, she (and it is usually a she) often remarks that Harley riders are arrogant, "They never wave. They just stare straight ahead." I won't comment on their arrogance but I will admit that their wave ratio is well below that of other sport bike riders. A Harley isn't as nimble as a Ninja so maybe they have to be more focused when they navigate. My neighbor drives a Harley and he is one of the most likable chaps you'll ever meet. He's Dorchester by Birth and, presumably, Dorchester by Choice since he hasn't moved yet.

If you drive the back roads of Oklahoma, everyone waves when they pass whether they are driving a pickup truck, a jalopy, a mini-van, a Lexus or a Ford Focus. With a simple gesture they say, "Hello, neighbor." They say, "It's a beautiful day for a drive." They say, "Nice to see you're safe." Nice sentiments and they are sentiments that civilized people should be extending on a regular basis with their fellow citizens.

Courtesy starts with small gestures. Maybe everyone on two wheels should acknowledge each other with a friendly wave when they pass. After that it may spread to the general population. It's much more cordial than brandishing a middle finger. "Busting each other's balls for being slightly different" doesn't seem to be a good strategy to me for getting along and reducing the tension any journey encourages when you are the littlest thing on the road.

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