The Human Condition:

Alive by Two Seconds – August 4, 2019

Motorcycle rider

When I first started riding motorcycles, 46 years ago,1 I would experience what I term a “close call”—being cut off by a car, or a car passing too close to my line of travel, or my moving into the path of imminent injury or death—about once a week. Over time and with practice, the frequency lessened to once a month, then once every three to six months, until now it’s about once a year. Understand, that these are not actual accidents, where I hit something or dropped the bike,2 but just incidents where collision, injury, and death are real possibilities.

The incident for this year—or what I hope was this year’s only close call—happened two weeks ago, and it was a doozy. And this time it was not from action by other drivers. It was my own stupid fault.

I was riding in Contra Costa County, on Alhambra Avenue, going to my BMW motorcycle shop in Concord early on a Saturday afternoon. I had taken this route only a couple of times before, and this was just the second time I had traveled it in the southbound direction; so it was not entirely familiar ground. I knew I was looking for a left turn onto Taylor Boulevard, which I thought was still one or two intersections ahead.

This stretch of Alhambra Avenue—before it morphs into Pleasant Hill Road—is a divided four-lane thoroughfare with a median strip and protected left-turn lanes with their own left-arrow signals. As I came up to a particular intersection, thinking I was still short of the turn, I looked up and saw the overhead sign for Taylor Boulevard—coming to it sooner than I expected. I was already in the leftmost of the two through lanes and had a green light. The left-turn lane beside me was empty, and I was only vaguely conscious that it had a red arrow light. Without thinking—and that’s the critical point in all this—I made a long and graceful swerve to the left onto Taylor Boulevard. But as I cleared the intersection, I heard an angry horn behind me.

My sin, and it’s a grievous one, which has caused me to rethink and think through the incident several times over the last couple of days, is that I mentally mistook the two clear lanes ahead of me and the green light for my through lane at the intersection for all the road there was. I totally forgot, for the moment, that this was a divided road and that the other side of that median strip had oncoming traffic with their own green light; so they had the right of way, too. I assumed the role of the carefree, stupid, reckless motorcyclist and blindly made that wide left turn, cutting across the left-turn lane and into oncoming traffic.

On reflection, if I had been traveling two seconds later, I would have hit, or been hit by, that oncoming car. But with the timing I inadvertently had, the driver was now only honking angrily in my wake. I was traveling about 30 miles an hour when I made my left-hand swerve, and the impact might well have injured me badly or killed me.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. And not to mention being against the law, because I ran the red light in that left-turn lane. I am a better rider and usually more cautious than this.

In this instance, this moment of inattention and temporary confusion about the number of lanes at my disposal, I was just lucky to pass through an empty space in that oncoming traffic. Except … I don’t believe in luck. The driver or motorcycle rider who relies on luck generally has a short lifespan and makes repeated trips to the hospital before finally checking out. I rely instead on observation, interpretation, maintaining my spatial margins ahead, behind, and to the sides, and on a set of rules for riding that I have built up over forty years of experience and that are now supposedly ingrained into my reaction process.3 Breezing through a left turn on a green light because I’ve suddenly discovered I’m in the intersection that I needed to find is not any part of this.

Besides not believing in luck or in the watchful eye of a benevolent god, I do happen to believe—most of the time, as a kind of mental exercise—in the multiverse. In this theory, the time stream that we all follow day to day is actually constantly branching out with each decision we make or probability we encounter. I cover this in some detail in my novels of time travel, starting with The Children of Possibility. In the story, the time travelers from the eleventh millennium must navigate around what they call a Wahrschein Punkt, a probability node, or probabilistic decision point. It’s a place where an event and its consequences could go either way. Think of Schrödinger’s cat, both alive and dead, until the box is opened and the probability wave resolves itself.

For two seconds on that Saturday afternoon, I passed through a probability node. In one result, at the start of those two seconds, I sailed through the intersection, straightened out on Taylor Boulevard, and heard only the angry honking of an infuriated motorist somewhere behind me. In the other result, at the end of those two seconds, I collided with the car at 30 miles per hour, was mangled on impact, thrown over or into several lanes of oncoming traffic, was mangled some more upon landing, and died either on the spot or in the ambulance soon after on my way to the hospital. All the rest is silence and darkness.

In one universe, I’m sitting here two weeks later, still bothered by my immense stupidity, vowing to myself to be more careful and aware in the future—both on my motorcycle and in my general driving—and writing up the experience for the benefit of other riders.

In the alternate universe, which goes on the same in all other respects, my brother and my family have already been notified, my body has probably been cremated, perhaps my will is being read today, and the process of dismantling and disposing of the rest of my life has already started. The book that I’m working on—curiously, the sequel to the time-travel novel Children—will never be published. My dog will never understand why, for the first time among all my previous promises, I never came back to her from going out “for just a little while.” And my friends will write off my death to another useless and stupid motorcycle accident.

It’s a curious feeling, being both alive and dead in two different realities. The experience is not enough to make me give up riding and sell the bike—a process I have gone through before, at various times in the past, but I always return to the pleasure and freedom of rocketing along in three dimensions with the wind in my face. But it’s enough to make me stop and think.

And now I have another rule to add to my personal riding doctrine: know where you are at all times and always count the number of lanes before turning.

1. For my history on motorcycles, see The Iron Stable.

2. My first motorcycle accident occurred on my first bike, my first rainy day, and my first encounter with a wet manhole cover. I was riding a motorcycle, the Yamaha RD350, that was far too small for me, where my tailbone and so my center of mass were back over the rear axle. I was crossing an intersection on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito at about 20 miles per hour and went down in a shower of sparks, causing major cosmetic damage to my motorcycle and ripping up a pair of pants but fortunately getting no more than a bruise on my backside. Other times that I’ve dropped a motorcycle have all been either while stopped or stopping—when I skidded, fell over, and rolled off the bike—and for that I am now thankful for antilock brakes.

3. See SIPRE as a Way of Life from March 13, 2011.