By Bernard Tate
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Headquarters
WASHINGTON — Two men sat down to talk, and they could not have been more different. One a senior NCO, the other a fedral employee. One a talker, the other more terse. One with two good legs, the other on crutches with a prosthetic.
What they had in common was a love of motorcycles and a message of motorcycle safety.
Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Buxbaum has ridden motorcycles for about 35 years, starting with mini-bikes in the '70s. He has ridden for most of his Army career, and currently rides a 2007 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic.
So why does an experienced rider like the command sergeant major of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers need a motorcycle safety refresher course?
Ray Johnson knows. He lost his leg last year in a motorcycle accident
"When you're a paratrooper, people ask how many jumps it takes before you're not afraid to jump anymore," said Johnson, executive officer for the Directorate of Corporate Information in USACE Headquarters. "The answer is, when you're no longer afraid to jump, it's time to quit jumping. It's the same with motorcycles. If you think you don't need training, it's time to get off the bike. There's never a point where you don't need refresher training, and there's never a point when you can't learn better ways to ride."
Johnson lost his left leg last August in an accident on his Harley Davidson FLHX Street Glide. He is also an expert rider with 40-plus years of experience. He started at the age of 8 by herding cattle on a Cushman scooter on the family farm. At the time of his accident, Johnson had just picked his bike up from the 10,000-mile service, and was riding in perfect weather at only about 35 miles per hour on a straight four-lane road. He was wearing a DoT-approved helmet, special Harley Davidson jeans, steel-toed boots and a motorcycle jacket.
But it still happened to him.
"I was on Centerville Road in Manassas, Va.," Johnson said. "I was in the left lane, and suddenly the woman in the car in front of me locked up her brakes. I put on my brakes and saw I wasn't going to stop without rear-ending her, so I checked to the right. It was clear, so I started to get into the right lane.
"She looked in her rear-view mirror and thought, 'There's a motorcycle behind me! I don't think he can stop,'" Johnson said. "So she pulled into the right lane and came in at just the right angle for her bumper to clip my left leg."
Johnson lost his lower left leg in a below-the-knee amputation. He has just recently received a prosthetic, and is still on crutches learning to use it.
"If I hadn't known what to do, if I hadn't been wearing safety gear, especially the helmet, it could've been much worse," Johnson said. "Other than the direct hit to my lower leg, I had no scratches or other injuries."
"Knowing what to do" every moment on a motorcycle is the reason that Buxbaum took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's (MSF) Basic Riders Course II (formerly the Experienced Riders Course) March 16 at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. The course was taught by MSF-certified instructors.
"You can never be safe enough on a motorcycle," Buxbaum said. "There are always new techniques to learn that push you beyond what you already know. And if you don't practice your skills and push your limits a little, you get comfortable.
"For example, I know I have two flaws when I ride. One is target fixation," Buxbaum said. "Say you're riding down the road and see a pothole. You have to steer left or right to go around it. The technique is to look past it, stay aware of the big-picture surroundings and use your peripheral vision to track the obstacle.
"But I always fixate on it," Buxbaum said. "It's just a bad habit I have, and I always have to work on that. A couple of times during the course the instructor said 'You're doing it!' And I said, 'I know!' My other flaw is I don't look through a curve deep enough."
The Basic Riders Course II ran from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. There were a few hours of classroom instruction, but the bulk of the course was hands-on.
"They talked about things like the crash zone," Buxbaum said. "Seventy percent of all motorcycle crashes happen between the rider's 11 o'clock position and his 1 o'clock. I didn't know that. I thought it would be getting hit from the side or from behind. And the fact that most motorcycle accidents happen on a curve and it's the rider's fault. It's good to hear statistics like that. It refreshes your memory."
Most of the course was devoted to the riding range. It covered nine exercises including group riding, S-curves, lane changes, avoiding collisions and The Box.
"Everybody hates The Box," Buxbaum said. "It's a square two lanes wide by two lanes deep. You have to enter, do a U-turn, an S-turn, and then another U-turn to go out. And each time you go through they shrink The Box a little. It teaches you to be more nimble on your bike, and to know the bike's limits and your limits.
"Only four of the exercises are testable, but they don't tell you which ones," Buxbaum said. "You don't know what's tested until the end of the day. It really keeps you on your A-game. Of course, The Box is always on the test!"
Army motorcycle regulations
"Knowing what to do" is also set in concrete in Department of Defense regulations. AR 385-10, The Army Safety Program, specifies requirements for Soldiers who ride motorcycles on Army installations. The regulations are mandatory for Soldiers who ride motorcycles, and strongly encouraged for federal employees who ride on installations.
"There have always been the basic requirements," Buxbaum said. "The regulations have always required that any servicemember who rides a motorcycle must wear a DoT-approved helmet and protective gear like over-the-ankle boots, full-finger gloves, and long-sleeved shirts and long pants. If you're a brand-new rider there has always been the requirement for the basic rider training and experienced rider training. I took my first MSF riders' course in the '80s at Fort Campbell, Ky."
But rising motorcycle accident rates forced a revision of the regulations.
"Beginning in the late '90s and early 2000s, the Army really ramped up motorcycle safety," Buxbaum said. "Last year, the Army re-examined the regulations because of the number of fatalities associated with sport bikes. Motorcycle accidents are the only vehicle accident rate that has continued to climb, largely due to the number of sport bike accidents. Soldiers are coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq feeling indestructible, so they buy a 1400cc monster and go flying down the highway without understanding its dynamics."
The Army revised AR 385-10 last Oct.1, leading USACE to also revise the motorcycle section of Operation Order 2011-03. For all Soldiers who ride motorcycles on or off installations, the regulation requires:
- The Basic Riders Course.
- Advanced rider training, either the Basic Riders Course II (BRCII) or the Military Sportbike Rider's Course (MSRC), within 12 months of completing the basic course.
- Motorcycle Refresher Training for Soldiers who have been deployed more than 180 days.
- Motorcycle Sustainment Training. All Soldiers operating a motorcycle must take either the BRCII or MSRC every three years. This requirement is one reason Buxbaum took the BRCII. Another reason is, "I'm retiring this summer and my wife and I are taking a coast-to-coast trip. Riding East Coast to West Coast and back. So this training is another tool in my kitbag to make sure I'm a better rider.
"The refresher training after deployment and the sport bike requirement are the big changes," Buxbaum said. "The sport bike requirement is especially important because that's where a lot of Soldier accidents and fatalities are happening.
"All of that is mandatory for Soldiers, but not required for properly licensed civilians," Buxbaum added. "But I can't emphasize enough that our civilians who ride motorcycles need this kind of training, too."
The bottom line is always focusing on safety, even for experienced riders like Buxbaum and Johnson. Or maybe especially for them, because they know the certainty of dealing with emergencies.
"I've fallen off bikes," Buxbaum said. "I've been run off the road on my bike, even here in D.C. Last summer, I was going through the Ninth Street Tunnel. The road curves to the right, and cars merge in from the right. I was at the apex, right where the cars merge, and a car forced me out of my lane instead of letting me go by. I was at his 11 o'clock, and he acted like he didn't even see me. So I had a choice. I could hit the oncoming car head-on, or I could lay my bike down. So I laid the bike down.
"And just last Sunday, my wife and I were going to National Harbor in Maryland," Buxbaum said. "The car to my left came right at me. Wasn't even looking at us. So I went through the defensive driving techniques -- speed up, swerve out of the way."
Ray Johnson knows better than most that the worst can happen even to the more experienced and best-prepared riders.
"I want to highlight the difference this accident made in my life," Johnson said. "It wasn't just three weeks in the hospital. I've just received my new leg, so it took me seven months of recovery to get to the point where I can learn to walk again. I figure that's going to take four or five more months.
"And then there's also the cost," Johnson said. "To date, my out of pocket medical expenses are about $12,000. I'm blessed that I have great health insurance; I'm covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs for my prosthetics, and I have the financial wherewithal to cover medical expenses. I also have great support from my senior leaders and team members in Corporate Information to help me adjust.
"However, if my amputation would have been above the knee, some of those prosthetics are close to $50,000," Johnson said.
"But there's the cost on your life, too. For seven months, I haven't been able to do anything by myself. I'm just to the point now where I can go out to a restaurant or run errands by myself if I want to. You don't get a cup of coffee by yourself. You can't make your own dinner. You don't stand up to take a shower. You sit on a little shower seat and use one of those hang-down nozzles.
"So it's those little things that people don't realize they're endangering when they don't put the proper emphasis on training or use good safety equipment," Johnson said. "If you haven't lived it you don't understand, so I hope this article helps someone avoid this predicament. Anything that you can do in training to reduce your risk on the street is imperative."
Johnson plans to keep riding, but "I won't get a two-wheeler. I'll get a trike. With a two-wheeler I just don't feel confident enough to stop and put my left leg out for a brace when I stop."
So Johnson gets the last word on motorcycle safety -- "If you're going to play with serious toys, be serious about training and safety."