Ralph Couey

Ralph Couey
Photo by Darryl Cannon, Powerhead Productions

About Me

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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Splitting Hairs Over Splitting Lanes

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
Several years ago, California enacted a law that legalized the motorcycle practice called “lane splitting.” This involves the rider easing through heavy traffic by utilizing the space between the lanes, riding along the painted lane divider. There are several very good reasons for this. First off, it’s a way to get at least some of the traffic moving during those legendary Southern California traffic jams. Secondly, the stop and go ooze is hard enough on a car. A motorcycle is far more prone to things like overheating engines and burned-out clutches. And nobody needs yet another disabled vehicle on the roadway. It’s safer for the rider, avoiding the very real possibility of becoming the meat in a tractor-trailer sandwich. It thins out the traffic herd and is better on the environment since there are fewer things dirtier than an idling engine.

But Southern Californians, normally a pretty laid-back group, decidedly don’t like lane splitting.

A recent survey conducted by the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) turned up some disturbing results.

Though lane splitting has been legal for some time, that’s news to some 53% of California drivers who thought the practice against the law. But even among drivers who do know the law, it’s still highly unpopular. Motorcyclists, though, thoroughly love it.

But buried in the statistics was a disturbing number. 7% of drivers admit to cutting off riders and even opening their doors to try to block them. This isn’t news to the two-wheeled set, all of whom have their private stock of horror stories to relate.

Now, 7% doesn’t sound like much until you consider the larger picture.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Motorcycling Month of May

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
“While riding down the street one day
In the motorcycle month of May
I was taken by surprise
By a minivan of size
And a soccer mom who ruined my day”
--Lyrics twisted by Ralph Couey
With abject apologies to Edward Haley

May has been proclaimed National Motorcycle Safety Month, and across the country states are launching public information campaigns urging the driving public to increase their awareness of motorcycles with which they share our national roadways. But it’s not only to remind motorists, it’s also for reminding the riders themselves to learn and employ safe riding habits.
Motorcycle accident deaths have been trending downward for the last few years. That’s really good news, even though in the context of human tragedy, a single death is one death too many. The issue is still being studied, so nobody has yet pinpointed the reasons for the reduction. But like many others, I have my opinion.

1. Better training. In nearly all states a prospective rider can avail themselves of rider training courses offered through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF). In most cases, passing the course earns you that coveted “M” endorsement on your license. The course is dynamic, updated every year to reflect the growing body of knowledge. As a result, new riders hit the street much better prepared than in decades past.

2. Better riding habits. Though squids still abound, most riders are, in my observation, riding much safer and more defensively of late. Much of that may have to do with the increasing mean age of riders, which has changed from the mid-20’s to the mid-40’s, a much more mature, responsible age group, well aware of the limits of mortality. Although as comedienne Caroline Rhea is fond of pointing out, “Men don’t mature. They just get old.”

The New Allstate Motorcycle Insurance Ad

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
In the process of relocating, one can expect some disruptions to the even tenor of our lives, the mail being one of them. As a result, I just recently received my June RoadRunner magazine. For me, this has been the perfect motorcycle periodical. I am a “go-far” rider, more content with long rides, the chief characteristic being a Zen-like communion with the world around. RR’s presentation of road trips allow me to live those journeys vicariously through the vivid photography and expressive prose. There are bike reviews, but they are almost exclusively the kind of machines that are built for doing three states per day, rather than three-digit speeds down the local freeways. 

The issue was great, as usual.  But it was the ad on the back cover that really got my attention and my dander all aflutter.

Since the day I threw a leg over my first bike, I’ve been very focused on riding safe and sane, a philosophy reinforced by three accidents over the last 20 years. I took the Beginning Riders Course back in 1992, and to this day I can remember the instructors steady pounding of the mantra, “Use the FRONT brake!” It was hard at first to remember. After all, that’s how I brought my trusty Schwin 1-speed to a halt. But as they repeatedly pointed out, there are physical forces involved in stopping a 600-plus-pound motorcycle that just don’t apply to their non-motored kin. For example, when a rider executes an emergency stop, the weight shifts to the front wheel. The rear tire now has far less weight, causing a corresponding reduction in frictional coefficient. Since the rear tire now has less grip on the pavement, it's going to take a lot more distance to bring the bike to a safe halt. In addition, a likely outcome of a rear-wheel skid is a catastrophic loss of control as the the rear of the bike slides out from underneath the rider. 

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) maintains that the front brake provides, according to recent testing, 90% of a motorcycle’s stopping capability. With the weight shifted forward, the frictional coefficient of the front tire is increased dramatically. This means that, properly done, a front wheel emergency stop does not have to end up as a long skid. The increased grip can slow the bike much quicker, while still keeping the bike under control. 

Despite that proven knowledge, there are far too many riders who rely solely on the rear brake to stop the bike. James R. Davis, a recognized courtoom expert in motorcycle accident forensics continually points out the fallacy of that habit. On his website he carries several case studies of accidents, one of which caught my eye.