YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan --
For the past three months, when someone asked me why I’m on crutches, or use a cane, I’ve told them I had a “motorcycle accident”. I learned pretty quickly that the more accurate scooter accident often conjured images of push-scooters frequently seen around playgrounds near elementary schools.
My 50cc scooter wasn’t quite as gas efficient as those, but it was close. It was also much cooler.
Before the accident, I spent three dollars a week on gas riding my scooter to work and back, rain or shine with my legs flared out because my knees didn’t fit under the handlebars.
I did get more comfortable on it and started to familiarize myself with the bike’s limits so I could react in case of an emergency. I always practiced safe riding by wearing long sleeves, long pants, and making eye contact with every vehicle in an intersection before proceeding, etc. However, it might be safe to say I was too confident.
I was leaving the post office a bit disappointed that my brand new shoe-bench for my apartment came in and I couldn’t fit it on my scooter. I turned left from a complete stop at an intersection, right over an oil patch covered with the morning’s rain.
I’m not sure about other people, but whenever I’m in a situation like this, there’s always a point where you realize you’re about to be in a world of hurt. This time, it was when I heard my gas tank scrape into the asphalt. (It’s underneath your feet on this type of bike)
There was some tumbling and I remember seeing my leg fly in front of my face at an angle that did not at all look healthy and pointed straight upward was glistening white bone — my tibia.
When I finally stopped tumbling I didn’t need to look to know it was bad.
It’s curious what kinds of things pass through your mind while simultaneously screaming for help. Oh that’s right, I still have that new shelf I need to put together, guess I won’t be doing that for a while.
My supervisor happened to be at the post office as well. He walked up and I quickly requisitioned his photographic services. Last time I found myself in this predicament, I blacked out and didn’t come to until after the surgery. Unfortunately I didn’t have such luck this time around.
“I don’t think people understand that when you’re driving a car, you take a test, get a driver’s license, and you’re on your way. You have no idea how the vehicle operates, but you’ve got four tires.” said Master Sgt. Evan “Crust” Hall, Vice President of the Green Knights Chapter 136 and Yokota rider coach. “On a motorcycle, you’ve got - by weight - far more power than a car and basically more of an ability to hurt or kill yourself.”
In a nutshell, that is essentially why motorcycle safety is such an important concept. By the way, it applies to scooters too.
People buy bikes for all kinds of reasons and there are different types of bikes for different reasons. It’s so much more than cruisers vs. sports bikes. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has a lot to say on this here: https://www.msf-usa.org/downloads/brchandbook.pdf
In order to ride on or off-base, military personnel are required to have full-length sleeves and pants with over-the-ankle shoes and gloves. They are also required to have a helmet that has been certified by a safety agency – more on that later. By and large, essential equipment can be sorted into the following categories: helmet, jacket, pants and boots.
“There’s a huge difference between being technically legal versus actually being protected,” Hall said. “With motorcycles, it’s not a matter of if you’re going to take a fall – it’s a matter of when you’re going to take a fall.”
The human body is built in order of importance. The most important thing – the brain – is on top. So it stands to reason then, that the most important piece of safety equipment is the helmet!
Rule number one: don’t skimp on helmets.
All helmets are not created equal. There are three main agencies riders should look for when purchasing a helmet: Department of Transportation, Japanese Industrial Standards and the Economic Commission for Europe.
A DOT certified helmet is required, but in overseas locations it can be difficult to find one locally. For Japan, JIS is a safe alternative.
It’s worth noting that helmets are only good for one impact. So don’t set it on the seat where it can roll off and don’t buy one used that may have been dropped. If a helmet is dropped, a replacement should be purchased immediately.
For jackets and pants, leather and canvas are most common, but whatever style you like, it’s vital that the material provide adequate protection. Road rash is one of the most common injuries in this area and on the palms of the hands. Road rash is basically the equivalent of rubbing your skin into a cheese grater at whatever speed the rider happens to be traveling when they hit the ground.
Nobody needs that.
In the summer, there are mesh alternatives with canvas covers on high-impact locations that work great for sitting in Tokyo traffic under the July sun. There are also different cuts of gear based off what kind of ride you have. Forward-leaning sports bikes require longer sleeves and a different cut in the shoulder than jackets for rear-leaning cruisers.
Shoes. Don’t use shoes. Use boots. Over-the-ankle is the requirement, but if it's just a slip of fabric, security forces may not punish you, but if your bike lands on your leg, your bike will.
So basically to ride a motorcycle, one must wear uncomfortable gear and place themselves in a position that significantly increases risk of serious injury. What’s the appeal then?
I can’t speak for everyone, but there is one thing that people often don’t realize until they’re on a bike and often take for granted if they grew up on bikes.
For me, driving a car down a pretty road is like looking at a beautiful picture. Riding a bike down a pretty road is like being a part of the beautiful picture.
I often find myself watch the little bugs crawl through the gravel on the side of the road while I’m stopped at a stoplight. For Paul “Tank” Ticas, President of Green Knights Chapter 136 and Yokota rider coach, it was the smells of the grass, stores, bakeries etc.
Whatever the specific appeal is, the experience always enhanced over that of doing the same thing in a car.
Another main appeal that keeps riders coming back is the community around riders.
When riding to work or to the store, if riders pass by each other they almost always wave in acknowledgement to the other. That kind of friendliness can do a lot to brighten someone’s day. Unless you’re on a scooter. Scooters have to earn the wave.
The Green Knights still welcome scooters though.
“We don’t care what kind of bike you ride or what you look like,” Ticas said. “We just care that you ride.”
Interested in riding? Reach out to your motorcycle safety representative and get scheduled for a class. There’s a strong riding community on Yokota that supports each other and can also help, so reach out.
“Japan has amazing rides here,” Ticas said. “We’ll take whoever it is that wants to ride with us and we’ll help them ride better because the better you ride, the more fun you’re going to have.”
One thing to note though, if you want to practice a bit before the MSF course, reconsider it.
“If you’re a licensed operator of your motorcycle, you can practice on the MSF range,” Ticas said. “You cannot, however, use the course to show your buddy a few things. Even us instructors can’t do that outside of an officially sanctioned MSF course.”
For more information, check out the MSF website www.msf-usa.org and do your supervisor a favor. Keep your tibia inside your leg and ride safe.