By BOB VAN ELSBERG, Strategic Communication Directorate,U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center,BOB VAN ELSBERG, Strategic Communication Directorate,U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center June 1, 2011
The dark yellow glow of sodium streetlights bathed the road ahead, providing illumination under an otherwise dark, moonless sky. Falling quickly behind in his rearview mirror were the headlights of several cars he’d passed. He’d used the bike’s speed and agility to swiftly weave through them, leaving himself an uncluttered straightaway ahead. He wondered how fast the bike’s 190 “horses” could push him when there was nothing to hold him back.
Morales rolled on the throttle; the acceleration was incredible. He felt the bike surge ahead and held on tightly. The road sloped slightly downward through a gentle dip. Morales briefly felt a little heavier in the bike’s seat as he came out of the dip and began climbing a gentle incline on the other side. Speed " pure adrenaline pumping, heart-thumping velocity " sent him streaking forward like a missile. But the road curved. And the machine desperately wanted to go straight.
Morales was in the far left lane. The faded white lines dividing his lane from the center one suddenly swept beneath his tires as the road gently curved to the left. A second set of white lines quickly flashed below him as he crossed from the middle lane to the far-right " his headlight reflecting off the concrete curb ahead. He saw it! Frozen " caught in an impossible situation " Morales never even touched the brakes. The blinding speed he’d craved had erased all of his options.
The bike’s front wheel slammed into the curb, creating a deep, half-moon-shaped dent in the rim. Six feet or so farther onto the shoulder, the bike hit a 2-foot-tall erosion control fence. Constructed of heavy wire fencing secured by steel rebar posts embedded in the ground, it caught Morales, instantly amputating his right leg above the knee. Critically injured, he flew and tumbled more than 40 feet before coming to rest on his stomach, his face toward the road.
Several of the drivers he’d passed moments before saw the accident, called 911 and stopped to help him. But it was too late, as Morales lay motionless on the ground. Only 21 years old, he’d traded the rest of his life for just a few seconds of thrill.
How could something so senseless happen? How could an otherwise intelligent person gamble so much for so little?
The answer is worth considering. Morales had been trained " at least so far as having completed the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s (MSF) Basic RiderCourse (BRC) " more than two years before the accident. However, he’d never identified himself to his Leaders as a rider or gotten a motorcycle license. More importantly, his only prior experience riding had been on a scooter in high school. Neither his MSF training nor his limited riding experience adequately prepared him for a motorcycle capable of speeds over 180 mph. The impulse to seek a thrill pushed him beyond his capabilities. An experienced rider could’ve rounded the curve, even at the speed Morales was going. But a wise rider would’ve realized such speeds should be reserved for race tracks where training and controlled conditions dramatically reduce risks.
And there were other issues to be factored in to this accident. Morales had worked all day, finishing with unit physical training. After work, he’d gone out with a friend and grabbed dinner at a fast food restaurant. After returning to the barracks, he later met up with Pfc. Dale Wright about 10 p.m. and asked to borrow Wright’s motorcycle. Wright, who’d attended the BRC with Morales, agreed to lend him his 1000cc sport bike. Morales explained he was going to ride off post to briefly meet some friends and then return.
However, that didn’t happen. At 11:30 p.m., Morales called his girlfriend and told her he was tired and going back to the barracks to get some rest. It was more than an hour later when he opened up the throttle on that straightaway as he headed back toward post. He’d been up for nearly 17 hours straight and fatigue, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), takes a toll on any motorist’s skills. By increasing reaction times, decreasing awareness and slowing the decision-making process, fatigue subtracts from the skills motorists need to be safe on the highway. NHTSA also found that human circadian sleep patterns play a critical role in influencing driver fatigue and alertness. As in Morales’ crash, NHTSA found the deadliest time for fatigue-related crashes is after midnight " a time when the body normally wants to sleep.
There is yet another human factor " the decision to ignore risks inherent in a situation regardless the warnings. The underlying motivation is perhaps best described as overconfidence, the attitude that “it” " whatever the negative consequences might be " either “won’t happen to me” or “I can handle it.” For Soldiers, who must not only obey state and national laws but also Army regulations, overconfidence can lead to indiscipline " a personal choice to violate the standards they know they should obey. When this happens, it often takes Soldiers out of the risk management cycle, making them vulnerable to the consequences. And while indiscipline in garrison can result in a butt-chewing from a first sergeant, on the road the results can be permanent and tragic. It was for Morales.
“Neither a Borrower nor Lender Be”
Those words, taken from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, form the basis of some pretty sound advice for Soldiers when it comes to loaning motorcycles to friends. As in Morales’ story, the loan of a motorcycle to a friend, while perhaps done with good intentions, doesn’t always end up with good results. During recent years, several Soldiers have died riding motorcycles borrowed from other Soldiers. Certainly, none of the Soldiers who lent their bikes to their friends intended that they should die on them, but sometimes obvious risks were ignored. It’s worth a moment to look at a synopsis of some of these accidents to see what lessons can be learned.
• A Soldier was invited to a party at a co-worker’s home where he drank heavily. The Soldier had expressed an interest in borrowing a friend’s motorcycle, despite being told not to ride by several other partiers. Despite that, the Soldier borrowed the motorcycle, started it, and sped up and down the street until he lost control at 80 mph and crashed. The Soldier, who wasn’t wearing a helmet, suffered massive head trauma and died on the way to the hospital.
• A Soldier was riding a borrowed motorcycle when he lost control, went into a ditch, struck a barbed-wire fence and suffered fatal injuries.
• A Soldier was riding a borrowed motorcycle without having a motorcycle license or having attended the required MSF training. Overconfident, he lacked the experience and training to ride at high speeds and crashed, suffering fatal head and body injuries.
• Two Soldiers were riding together when the one on a borrowed motorcycle lost control, went off the highway and down a steep embankment and was killed.
• A Soldier was riding a borrowed motorcycle when he collided with another Soldier’s motorcycle and was thrown into a steel barrier and killed.
While none of the Soldiers who lent their bikes to their friends intended they suffer these kinds of consequences, neither can they change them. Some bad decisions last forever.