The Lost Motorcyclist

A motorcycle and its rider that run off a road can easily disappear from view and be lost for days, even in a busy area. Itoccurs much too frequently and can make a crash much worse than it has to be. We offer some strategies for making sure it doesn't hap

Back in college, a friend was riding down the road one day when he thought he saw a motorcycle handlebar end sticking up from the weeds in the ditch. He went back for a second look and discovered an "old guy" (in college I guess that might have been someone in his 40s) pinned under a brand new Harley Sportster. The man lived right across the rural road my friend was riding, and had been there for a few hours. According to my friend, the rider had been leaving his driveway and lost control of his bike--perhaps because of a wheelie--and shot across the highway, crashing when he hit the ditch, and ending up in tall grass under his bike on the other side of the road. His injuries were apparently minor, and he was fortunate that it had not rained recently because the water level in the ditch was low so drowning wasn't an issue. He was also lucky my friend saw him because it was only a hour or so before sundown.

Since then I have heard of motorcyclists in similar circumstances. They crashed or ran off the road, and because of injuries or other circumstances, couldn't get back to the road to seek help. Some eventually were found or managed to get attention, and some died before they got help. Maybe it's the internet's ability to locate the stories more easily, but I am certainly hearing and reading such tales more frequently.

I was prompted to write this column after repeatedly seeing and hearing reports about riders who had crashed and laid there undiscovered. There were three such stories during Memorial Day week 2005 alone. A few recent examples:

  • An Iowa man spent almost 24 hours pinned under his bike in a ditch before he was located.
  • A California man was last heard of on Memorial Day. His body was finally spotted on the following Friday from an aircraft his family had hired to look for him.
  • Police in San Diego searched five days for a motorcyclist who was finally found dead in a gully between two lanes of a heavily traveled highway.
  • In October, authorities searched for a rider for several days before he was finally found dead.
  • A severely injured Ohio rider who had crashed was found by a friend who apparently knew where to look for him and found him in time to save his life.

Though a fatal crash that isn't discovered may cause added agony for the victim's family, the outcome isn't changed. However, a downed rider who needs help but can't be found--or worse, isn't even being searched for--is a formula for tragedy. Even if the rider is found in time to be rescued, delayed medical treatment may mean that his injuries are more serious than if they were treated sooner.

Having aid immediately at hand is the best reason I can think of for riding with one or more riders. It's even better if one or more of the group is trained in first aid. Some of the groups I have ridden with in the past have organized first-aid and CPR training oriented toward the sort of trauma you'd expect to see in a motorcycle crash. It also helps to have a first-aid kit along too.

However, even if you ride alone there are ways to make it easier to find you if you end up down and unable to move.

First of all, let someone know where you are going and the route you plan to take--and when you expect to return. This can be a note left in a neighbor's mailbox or even a message on your own answering machine. It provides information on where to look if you don't turn up on time. If you are delayed, a phone call will prevent the search party from being formed.

A rider trapped roadside should make his cell phone his first recourse. Even if you aren't sure exactly where you are, it can get people to start looking for you. It is most likely to be accessible if it's in a pocket of your jacket. If it has a locator feature, having that activated might help determine where you are. Unfortunately, cell reception may be sketchy if you are in the boonies out of sight of the road. Your phone might not survive the crash, either. If you ride with a CB radio or personal communicator, that might also reach somebody.

If you can't call for help, other preparations can make you easier to find. Wearing those bright colors we always recommend to increase your conspicuity in traffic will also make it easier to spot you sprawled in the bushes down in that draw. If it's dark, the bike's turn signals are likely to draw eyes. I once read about a fallen rider who attracted attention by throwing his gear onto the road when he heard cars passing. Waving something bright might also catch a passing eye. A whistle takes up virtually no space but can draw attention. If you don't have one, your horn might do the job, though it is a heavy battery drain.

Technology can ride to your rescue as well. For almost certain rescue, carry a personal emergency locator transmitter (PELT), also known as a personal locator beacon (PLB). These employ the same system used to locate downed aircraft and marine vessels in distress. PLBs are used by hikers and others who might need to summon help when a cell phone won't work. About the size of a large cell phone, they cost between $450 and $1000 and work with a GPS receiver to broadcast your precise position. If you boat, hike or participate in other activities where a PLB could be a life-saver, it would be a good investment. The one drawback to the ones I have seen (outdoor stores carry them) is that you have to activate them manually, so if you are incapacitated, it won't work. If you could rig it to go off when you were ejected from your bike, it would be perfect. Keep the battery fresh.

Most of us will never need to be found and rescued during our riding careers, so you can probably forget the entire matter with no consequences. On the other hand, after only a few hours of lying in that ditch, the small effort that would have been required to let someone know that you are missing in action and where to look for you would probably seem quite minor.

_You can tell Art Friedman to get lost at _ _or at _

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

Illustration by John Breakey