Arnold Schwarzenegger's Crash Teaches Lessons about Motorcycle and Sidecar Safety

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's motorcycle sidecar crash raises questions about licensing, sidecars, and motorcycle safety.

By now, four days after the event, at least 97% of the world's population must know that California's celebrity governor had a minor motorcycle accident on January 8, 2006. Almost that many have probably heard that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't have a motorcycle license at the time of the crash but escaped a citation because of a loopy loophole in California law that lets you ride a sidecar with just a driver's license to operate a car.

Perhaps the Governator's convincingly performed mea culpa for never having a motorcycle license and his promise to get one will end the media's interest in the event, but there are a lot of issues that have been largely ignored. There are also some lessons to learn or recall.

Basic Motorcycle Safety

If you missed the reports, here's the thumbnail. On a Sunday afternoon, Gov. Schwarzenegger was riding his sidecar-equipped Harley down Mandeville Canyon Road, a winding, two-lane, dead-end residential street in an affluent Los Angeles neighborhood. His 12-year-old on was in the sidecar. A car pulled out in front of him (most reports say it backed out.) The Governor was unable to stop or avoid and hit the car. Both he and his son suffered minor injuries. Schwarzenegger sustained a cut lip that required stitches. (One website suggested that there really was no traffic accident, that the crash story was just a coverup to conceal what really happened--his "collegen filled lips exploded.")

For years, safety experts have been telling us to make ourselves and our motorcycles conspicuous. One study found that simply wearing a white helmet instead of a black one could lower your crash risk by 24%. However, photos of the Governor's sidecar rig show an olive-drab Harley and matching sidebar with mock-military markings. It's a color-scheme that, especially when combined with the blacks and browns that Schwarzenegger likes wearing when he rides, makes a motorcycle hard to see, especially in the leafy environs of Mandeville Canyon. If he'd painted his bike and helmet yellow instead, that other driver who interrupted his ride would have had a much better chance of seeing him. Running the Harley's high beam would also have made him much easier to see approaching.

Like many other celebrities, Schwarzenegger likes open-face helmets, presumably so he can be recognized. Photos of Schwarzenegger show that he prefers shorty or half-helmet designs. However, if he'd been wearing a full-face helet, it probably would have prevented him from cutting his lip. Hopefully, he at least provides his kids with full helmet coverage when they are riding with him. The added benefits of the full-face helmet's extra coverage are well documented.

Proper Licensing

Although different sections of the California vehicle code have conflicting language, Schwarzenegger was apparently riding legally when he hit the car because he was riding a three-wheeled vehicle, which in California only requires that you have a license to drive a car. However, less than three years before, he had another crash, rear-ending a car on a two-wheeled Harley. He had no license then either. One wonders why he wasn't cited then. I presume it was because of his celebrity.

However, letting him slide after he slid into the back of that car didn't do the actor any favors. Research clearly shows that unlicensed riders, experienced or not, are more likely to be involved in an accident and more likely to die riding than licensed riders. In addition, riders who have crashed recently are more likely to crash again. Perhaps a citation or two who have made Schwarzenegger give riding a bit more thought and take it more seriously.

Sidecars Are Not Safer

People tend to assume that sidecars are safer, probably because they don't tip over as easily as a two-wheeler or the enclosure of the sidecar appears to offer some protection. And they are a bit less of a handful on ice or snow than a single-track vehicle. But as famed motorcycle-accident researcher Hugh H. Hurt Jr. pointed out to the authors of an article in the Los Angeles Times, in most situations they aren't as safe as a regular motorcycle.

The dynamics of a sidecar are totally different than a motorcycle's. When you brake, it turns away from the sidecar. Under acceleration, the drag of the sidecar makes the rig turn into it. Turn into the sidecar, and it tries to lift. Turn hard enough, especially with an empty sidecar, and it will flip over. However, you can turn away from the sidecar very hard, until the tires slide. These sort of maneuvers require much more steering force than a two-wheeler.

When you have to swerve or brake hard and quickly in an emergency, a sidecar becomes quite a handful. If you want to swerve hard, you have to quickly apply a lot of muscle, but not too much if you swerve toward the side where the `car is mounted. Panic braking requires you to muscle the steering to keep stay straight. And you can't rely on the two-wheeler's old fallback escape route between lanes of cars. A sidecar's width gives it few more escape lanes than an automobile.

After the accident, the Governor jokes that "I knew if I would turn left, that the Republicans would get mad. And if I turned right, my wife would get mad, so I just crashed right into the car." In fact, with the right-side sidecar that he was apparently riding, turning sharply right while braking hard would have been quite difficult, especially with someone in the sidecar.

If you are going to ride a sidecar (or a trike), a motorcycle training course won't give you the information and skills you need. Except for engine operation, sidecars and trikes are completely different beasts than motorcycles. They are also fairly different from each other. A sidecar is asymmetrical. The symmetrical trike has somewhat different issues. When you consider that fact, California's decision not to require a motorcycle license to operate a three-wheeler actually makes sense. Because the three-wheeler-riding population is so small, it would be hard to advocate a special licensing and training system (or systems) for them. However, at the least, the state could create an M3 license and require potential sidecar and trike operators to show they can safely and smoothly negotiate the simple, low-speed motorcycle pattern available at most DMV offices.

Instead, prospective sidecar or trike rider should contact the trike's builder or an organization like the United Sidecar Association, which can direct you to resources directed toward sidecar users. You should plan to ride one before you buy and if possible go through some sort of training or at least arrange it after you buy. You should also find a local dealer in your area, especially if you buy a sidecar, since they require special set-up and rigging.

I used to own a sidecar, but got rid of it when we decided to have kids. I expected that kids would want to ride in it, and, even though I felt comfortable carrying them on a two-wheeled motorcycle, I didn't want them on the street in a sidecar. On one vacation the whole family rode around rural Wisconsin in a Harley sidecar. The kids loved it and wouldn't even get into a friend's car when it started raining (although my wife did). For about two years they pleaded with me to get a bike with a sidecar, but I never gave them any hope.

Sidecars are a unique experience in a wacky, off-center (literally) way. Dogs love them and they draw attention like no other vehicle. However, they need to be approached with care and specialized preparation, which means more than motorcycling expertise, and, no, bodybuilding, acting, and politics won't help either.

For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the Street Survival section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

For Schwarzenegger, judgement day should have been when he had his previous crash, where he was at-fault and unlicensed. Apparently, none of the cops involved wanted to terminate the celebrity's fun.
A few companies, like Harley and Ural, offer accessory sidecars. The bike needs to be properly set up for the sidecar to handle properly.
Harley has been offering sidecars since 1914. Back then cars were not mass-produced and therefore were expensive, so motorcycles were popular forms of modern transportation and being able to transport the faimly and cargo was important. Photograph courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives.
Probably the most popular trike of all time was Harley's Servicar. They ride differently than motorcycles or sidecars. Photograph courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives.
Sidecars were once popular with the military as affordable mobility that offered more load capacity than two-wheeled motorcycles. Photograph courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives.