The Impaired Motorcyclist

Alcohol is a proven biker-killer, but many other drugs and factors can make you unfit for the saddle as well. From the October 2000 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser Magazine.

Most motorcyclists know that it's not speed, not the other guy making a left turn, and not the rider's failure to dress to crash that ranks as the biggest killer of motorcyclists. That distinction belongs to the alcohol that about half of the future cadavers consume shortly before their rides to oblivion.

Drinking actually helps give all those other risk factors their bad names. An inebriated rider is more likely to speed, and less likely to recognize the danger or manage the added risk of increased velocity. The alcohol-impaired rider is less likely to identify the left-turner as he approaches and is considerably less capable of dealing with him when he makes his move. And contrary to the rubber-ball myth, which claims that drunks are less likely to get hurt in a crash, riders who get liquored up before crashing are both more likely to sustain fatal injuries and less likely to wear the protective gear that might have prevented those injuries.

The subject of alcohol has been examined at length in a previous article. Suffice it to say that you should consider the "eight hours bottle to throttle" rule a minimum.

Adventures in Medicine

Drinking isn't the only form of chemical impairment that threatens riders. Besides illegal drugs, there are a host of chemicals that can turn your next ride into your last one. Many prescriptions and over-the-counter medications carry warnings that you should not operate a vehicle or machinery while consuming them. This usually means that they make you drowsy, slow down your perception and reflexes and may have other affects, such as impaired vision, that can get you into trouble or keep you from escaping it. Viagra, for example, can distort color perception (though we don't really want to know why you took Viagra to go for a ride). Unfortunately, the warnings usually seem to be in such fine print that those over 40 are unlikely to be able to read them without glasses, even if the drug hasn't compromised their vision. This tends to suggest that such warnings don't really matter, that the makers don't really care if you read them. Even if that was true, you should care about them.

The reasons you are taking OTC medications or prescribed drugs may be reason enough not to ride. A head cold by itself can compromise your riding ability by detuning your senses and slowing you down. Many other ailments can limit your riding abilities. Perhaps the most common are simple fatigue or lack of sleep. One expert believes that these problems are fairly common and may often combined with other forms of impairment, such as alcohol, in accident-involved riders. Since there is no way that the fatigue level of a crash victim can be measured, we simply can't know how common a problem this is for motorcyclists.

No Good in Bed

Your mental state can reduce your capability to ride safely. There are plenty of studies to show that drivers under heavy stress are more risky on the road than other drivers. You should approach operating any vehicle very cautiously if you are upset, distraught, or angry. Otherwise, you may prove that things can, indeed, get worse. The upsetting event may be a driver who almost flattens you. Instead of conveying your anger to the transgressor, it's better to let it go and concentrate on your own situation. I knew a motorcyclist, who, after dodging one of these inattentive morons, would remark to himself something like, "He's probably no good in bed, either." That seemed like an effective and amusing way to dissipate the anger quickly.

Allergies can present problems for some riders, and some allergic reactions can be disabling. A bee sting can be a real threat to someone who is allergic to it, but I have heard of riders having severe reactions to other insect stings and even to some plant particles they encountered. These are potential dangers that you might be able to prepare for, just be sure that you understand how the antidotes affect you too.

There are other ways that your riding environment can cause your abilities to deteriorate. I have heard of riders feeling woozy after bouts in heavy traffic, perhaps from the gases they are breathing from the vehicles around them. A few years ago there was a warning issued about sealing your helmet up too tight in cold weather. It seems some riders had cut off the supply of fresh air and come up short of oxygen. A flat-lander who ventures onto high mountain roads can also get into trouble because of the sharply reduced oxygen levels in the thinner air. This can show up as a headache, a slight dizziness or a significant shortness of breath. But the bigger threat will be your weakened judgment. My experiences with hypoxia have drawn my attention when I noticed a slight numbness in my fingertips.

Other environmental factors can be dangerous as well. Heat and dehydration can disable a rider. So can cold and hypothermia. During a recent 500-plus-mile ride on a hot summer afternoon, I noticed that I was beginning to feel a little too good. I was simply getting more relaxed than I should be on a motorcycle. As I was becoming aware of the problem, a roadside ice cream place appeared. I stopped, pulled a book out of a saddlebag, ordered a banana split, and spent an hour and a half soaking up liquids and reading in air-conditioned comfort. The added fluids and the slightly cooler temperature when I resumed my ride enabled me to go the remaining 200 miles fully alert, and being late wasn't nearly as bad as being "the late."

**Happy Daze **

I was fortunate to be able to get a handle on my problem. The trick with almost any sort of impairment is to recognize that you are beginning to fade. As with alcohol and chemical impairment, many other "natural" sorts of problems can cloud your thinking in a manner that keeps you from recognizing the danger. A friend once told me of a ride on a cold day long ago where he became so hypothermic and disoriented that he was thinking about riding into a bridge abutment. When he realized how screwed up he was, he found a place to warm up immediately.

Riding with a group can create pressure to ignore the early warning signs of impairment because you don't want to slow down the group or look like a wimp. But the fact that you are in a group increases the urgency because you are endangering other riders as well as yourself. If the cause is environmental, you may simply be the first to recognize a problem that is affecting other group members. Even if the problem is unique to you, you can be pretty certain that your friends would rather stop and get you sorted out than call an ambulance and tow truck when you crash.

One of the items we include on pre-ride checklists is the physical and psychological condition of the rider. That "head check" should be repeated occasionally as the ride progresses.

_Art Friedman
For a list of the license plate numbers of Southern California drivers who seem likely to be impaired in bed, email the author at _or at _

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

Illustration by John Breakey
Any medication that warns of drowsiness, dizziness, or vision problems should not be mixed with motorcycles.
Sometimes the best thing to do is simply stop and wait until you can safely continue.