Hi-V and my ugly safety vest

Early this month I had my third near collision on my scooter with a car. This time just like the first time the driver of the vehicle pulled out of a parking lot to cross my lane only to notice me too late. Thanks to me I stopped in time and didn’t hit the car’s left fender and go sailing over the car’s hood. And like the first time, the driver remained in my path–presumably gathering their wits. The first time this happened I was pissed, but calm and gave a kind of sarcastic bow with a flourish of my left arm as if to say, “Oh you first. I insist!” The third and last time, I violently waved the car away multiple times as if saying, “Okay, so you didn’t hit me. Congratulations. Now, get the hell out of my way!” Yeah, I was a little rattled. The third time was a charm. When I got home, I pulled the Hi-V vest from the hold under my saddle and put over my riding jacket and hung that jacket in my closet–as if the ugly safety vest was a part of the, previously, cool-looking jacket.

When I first got my scooter, I attended an intensive motorcycle safety program. The program was comprised of a night of classwork, followed by two full days of hands-on training at the company’s course with the company’s own motorcycles. If you pass the rider’s test at the end, you are given a learner’s permit. All you have to do from there is pass the written DMV test and you get your M1.

Easy enough, right? Alas, like everything in my life, nothing comes easy. Back in the mid-70s, it took me five times to pass my driver’s test. (No, gentle reader, that’s not a typo FIVE times! That’s got to be a record. Also, I almost killed the DMV employee the first time.) It also took me multiple attempts to pass my written motorcycle test back then. So you won’t be surprised to find it took me two times to pass the final riding test in this class. The permit cost me a crash & burn finale and a cracked rib!

The thing that has stayed with me well beyond this one of a multitude of humiliations in my life and the pain in my chest that came with it was the acronym I learned in the classroom. It has become a mantra whenever I catch myself daydreaming while I ride: S.E.E. or Scan, Evaluate, Execute. The Scan part is ongoing and should never stop, but the mind does wander. If the Evaluate is followed by the Execute it happens in a split second. If it doesn’t, you are either dead or the truck that almost crushed you had your Guardian Angel behind the wheel. Either that or you did some fancy maneuvering.

A second thing I remembered was the depressing stat that over ninety percent of all accidents involving motorcycles happen in intersections. (So much for being safe by staying off the Interstate.) The final takeaway from the motorcycle safety class was for the rider to always be visible to the surrounding traffic. That’s where Hi-V comes in. Hi-V, HiVis, or HV means high visibility wear or measures. I wore some Hi-V when I first got my Vespa with a learner’s permit–a cheap synthetic, black and fluorescent jacket that was always uncomfortable and hot as hell in the summer. I still use it from time to time since I can cram it into the hold under the saddle. Later I bought an expensive, bulky, but a breathable black jacket with a tiny fluorescent bead across the upper back of the jacket and no Hi-V element in the front.

OccupyI loved this jacket, but I knew when I tried it on I would need more Hi-V and I had just the thing for it. I was an armchair supporter of Occupy Wall Street–supporting the movement monetarily. I bought American-made products for the protesters through Occupy Supply. Occupy Supply, like the movement, is long defunct, but I was proud to support the campaign even if no one ever asks me what’s that design on the back of my safety vest mean. The problem is, you can’t make a safety vest look “cool.” I’m sure if anyone took a second look at the design on the back of the vest they probably thought it was some CalTrans sign or maybe a cryptic Seal of the Fraternal Order of TSA Operators. Occupy Supply supplied the Occupy activists in Zuccotti Park and in the other protest centers. If you bought two tents, they sent you one and another to an Occupy center in need. I ended up ordering a few items then I just started posting them money, when I could.

Time past and the vest got to be a pain; I would forget to zip it up and it would flap in the wind. When I had the time to pull over and zip it up, it would be rolled up into an impossible mess under my arms. I finally stowed it. After this last incident, I found the thing where I had left it. I also found this website that shows how critical high visibility motorcycle clothing is.

Oh, for the sake of inclusivity, the incident between the first and this last episode involved traveling in the left lane of a two-lane, one-way street (J Street in Midtown Sacramento, for local readers) and the driver on my right decided to change lanes with me presumably in his blind spot. The car forced me off the road not before I slapped the back door of the sedan before heading for the gutter. (I’m not a horn person and so forgot which button it was.) I have nightmares wondering if I would still be alive if we were on a four-lane, two-way street and he pushed me into the on-coming traffic. The kid behind the wheel turned out to be a student driver with a very embarrassed and apologetic mom trainer. The scariest thing about this situation is I could have been wearing a fluorescent clown suit, my helmet a revolving disco ball and it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference.

Another reason for the heightened concern with visibility, independent of the last incident, is that I have been racking up more miles than usual and many of them in the dark. I started an early-morning exercising regime recently. Before I turned over this new leaf I was commuting to work via bicycle and most of that commute was on bike trails and roads that saw very little traffic. Now, with the mornings so cold and the family not wanting my alarm to go off early enough for me to make it to the club on time via bike, I have been forced to ride my scooter. That doesn’t sound like a scooterist, does it? Well, it’s just the law of averages: the more I’m on the road, the higher the chance of an accident. And add to that the fact that it is dark–I’m harder to see.

This commute is not a scenic ride either. I love riding my scooter, especially on the River Road (California State Route 160) and Garden Highway, but I usually try to avoid the more mundane rides–especially when it is dark. Oh, and in case you didn’t know I don’t drive, so taking a car in is out. Why I don’t drive is directly connected to why I ride a scooter, but that’s a long story. Perhaps for a different blog post.

“But Jack,” you might say. “There’s the public transportation system.” This is Sacramento, I reply bitterly to the visitor from Chicago or NYC. We have SacRT–one of the most poorly served (and ironically expensive) transportation systems in the country. No, there is not a line near me that will get me to the club on time. Cabs are too expensive times three days a week and don’t you dare tell me to Uber it!

Maybe I should get me one of those belligerent stereo systems for motorcycles and have it installed on my ride. I could crank Slayer to eleven and play it all the way to the club in the five o’clock hour. Even some of the names of these products scream, Hey everybody, here I come, an asshole on a motorcycle. Don’t hit me!: “Reckless,” “Thunder,” and “Rumble Road.” At least they would know where I am. I also noticed most of these systems are waterproof so they will work on personal watercrafts. Aah, those things assholes ride wide open around 5-mile-an-hour limit boat landings. Got it!

The motorcycle safety trainer who failed me had a much more elegant way of listening to music (and chat on the phone) that would not help me here at all–a Bluetooth helmet. So he sounded pretty hypocritical in the classroom when he told his students they need to “always be listening to the traffic.” I guess the physics of traffic didn’t apply to him.

My friend and fellow State of California employee, Dave, does not like Hi-V. (Well, to be honest, neither do I. I just consider it a necessity.) Dave is a member of the Resurrection MC, a “one percenter” so a Hi-V safety vest would obscure or completely cover his colors and all the motorcycle clubs colors–their back patch and rockers are a critical part of their identities. Considering how dark they dress fluorescent green or yellow would just not cut it.

Dave was in a horrible accident some months back. This incident has absolutely nothing to do with visibility since he hit a car from behind when attempting to split lanes at high speed and the vehicle in front of him suddenly stopped when he was executing the move. His Harley hit the corner of the car and spun the bike violently around. By the time he hit the road he had five broken ribs and a broken shoulder. He walks with the assistance of a cane for now. I spoke with him about my latest incident and how I was now wearing a Hi-V vest. He gave me a dirty look and said something like I’m not helping to combat the specter of mandatory Hi-V legislation. Sorry man. I just can’t get into walking with a cane or in an electric wheelchair.

When I got my first promotion in the State of California, I was working in a small courier unit with a guy named Hector. Hector was a bit of a wild guy. He once rolled his girlfriend’s Honda Civic down an embankment. I don’t know the details. He could have been driving defensively and he swerved off the road to avoid worse damage. I’m betting he was pushing the edge of the little car’s envelope and he pushed too far. Years later, after he moved to a different agency, I attempted to contact him for information having to do with a project I was heading. I found out he had got in a motorcycle accident and was now a quad. I don’t know the details of that crash only that he was on a motorcycle. That’s enough for pause.

Then there’s my friend Mathieu and his accident. He was hit from behind at a stoplight by a woman in a Mercedes SUV. The big truck catapulted him and his small scooter six feet into the corner of the SUV in front of him where he bade his ride adieu and careened off to the right about 15 feet to the asphalt. Miraculously, he suffered no broken bones—just bruises and cuts and his recent back operation mercifully held. I wish I could say the same for his little red 50cc Yamaha Vino. The scooter folded in on itself–like The Hulk had played it like an accordion. Like a lot of riders (including me until recently), he wasn’t wearing any Hi-V wear, though one wonders if it would have mattered since it happened broad daylight.

And that’s the rub. Mathieu might have been hit even if he was lit up like a Christmas tree. The driver could have been texting or giving a Thumbs Down to some song that started on her satellite radio. I recall riding home on my bicycle just behind a guy with psychedelic-looking wheel lights on both his wheels along with a blinking headlamp, a flashing tail light, and a fluorescent-colored helmet and lycra top. A car came out of a parking lot and nearly hit him (and me) stopping at the last second. “Jesus Christ, how many lights do I have to put on this fucking thing until people can see me!” he yelled back at me in frustration.  He was right, but most likely the driver just wasn’t paying attention.

Update on Mathieu: he recently purchased a used SSR 150cc scooter. It broke down on the ride home from the seller’s house. A bad omen for any bike, but especially considering it’s a Chinese scooter. He took it to the right guy–the local legend of vintage scooter techs, Tim from Midtown Scooters. Mathieu rode it into work yesterday. He plans on applying a minimal Hi-V solution–reflective tape on his jacket. I’ve investigated the tape solution, 3M makes a Solas tape that seems to be popular.

So to avoid nightmares like Dave’s I keep lane-splitting to a bare minimum. As for Mathieu’s unrequested launch ‘n’ crunch, I am wearing a Hi-V vest, but am looking for more solutions to either add to or replace my current preventative measures. I have a black helmet and am thinking about maybe some of that reflective tape Mathieu plans to use. There are standard retroreflectors (like the kind that come standard on bicycles) and then there’s flashing lamps. The battery-powered LEDs for a helmet look good, too.

One idea that does not come from a DMV manual or a motorcycle safety program, but from the world of bicycling in traffic is waving your hand in the air in the situations that you may think a driver cannot see you. The idea is if retroreflectors, fluorescent riding gear, and even LEDs don’t get the driver’s attention movement will. This may work for bicycling, but I wouldn’t want to lose even a little control when I’m on my scooter.

So, I wear a safety vest, and as long as I don’t notice it and drivers do, I’m happy–I guess. Still, whenever I see my jacket with the vest the first thing I think is CalTrans, not a smart-looking motorcycle jacket. Of course, the other option is looking into Hi-V accessories for my scooter. I’m investigating fluorescent wheels or fluorescent-wall tires, but that’s a lot of money. There is also tape for your tires or wheels. My top case has retroreflectors on the back, but there are some top cases that have LEDs in them hooked up to the electrical system so they give drivers behind the scooter extra break lights and directional signals. Call me vain, but I would like to keep my current top case because it is the same Portofino green as the rest of my ride. (If my Dad had a grave he would be rolling over in it about now.) I’m passively looking into lighting up the retroreflectors so I can keep my current top case. I’m also looking into other measures for my ride, but it kills me to turn my beautiful Granturismo into a rolling neon “Eat at Joe’s” sign. I guess it’s all about balance.