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Dodging the Bullet with Phil Hall

Dodging the bullet  by Phil Hall

Close calls on a motorcycle, skill, training and luck
Dodging the bullet, near misses. With Phil Hall
Dodging the bullet, near misses. With Phil Hall

On the long weekend I received some news that I‘d rather not have received. A good friend of mine, while doing some adventure riding, had been involved in a very serious accident.

Details are sketchy at the moment as he can’t remember the exact details but it seems that, on a wet and misty day on a dirt road high up in the ranges he was either hit by a car or a large kangaroo.

The resultant impact has thrown him off the bike which has flown in the air and, unfortunately landed back on his body as it skidded along the road. It is not known when exactly the accident took place nor how long he lay unconscious on the road before being found by a passing motorist.

My friend is an ATGATT rider and was spared much of the trauma that results from not being well protected but, as we all know, even the best of gear protects you from abrasion injuries but offers less protection when it comes to impact injuries.

At this stage the damage is extensive. A badly smashed left leg, ribs (both sides), sternum, shoulder blade, chipped vertebrae, as well as internal injuries, spleen, and punctured lung. It took the surgeons nearly 11 hours to put the lower leg back together as well as insert various pins and plates.

The pain is extensive (though being controlled by massive amounts of drugs, of course) and the period of recuperation and rehabilitation is going to be equally extensive.

For a man who is active and adventurous this is going to be an extremely frustrating and difficult period in his life and, while we are all counting our blessings that the result could have been far worse, we share the similar feeling of helplessness from not being able to do anything to materially provide some sort of assistance.

It got me thinking again, as situations like this always do, about my own “big one” six years ago this month. I guess knowing what is ahead for my friend makes it all the more frustrating for me because I know, first-hand, what he is going to be facing in the next extended period of time.

And it also got me thinking about the way that circumstances conspire to bring you to a situation like this. I am certain that, when my friend started out on his ride, he was at peace with God and man and had no idea or even anticipation that he was going to end up in a helicopter on the way to hospital.

I am equally sure that, even now, he is wondering what he could have done differently to have avoided the accident. For myself, I have often pondered that, had I taken just a few more seconds putting on my gloves the day of my accident, the semi-trailer that hit me and I would not have met at that corner.

Of course, such speculation is utterly worthless. Life is not a result of ifs and maybes. As many of us have experienced, life is largely out of our control and it is only when circumstances like this arise that we realise that, for the most part, we are just along for the ride. While we train, learn, rehearse and research, in the end our degree of control over our own destiny is tenuous at best.

Looking back on my riding, I realise that there have been many occasions when I have ‘dodged the bullet’ and I’m sure that every person reading this article can recall similar situations in their life.

Some of the times when we have crossed the line between safety and disaster, our passage through to safety on the other side has been a result of skill, training and hard work. That is why I believe in rider training and advanced rider training.

While it is impossible to prepare a rider for the exact emergency situation in which they might find themselves, the broad parameters of how we react to an emergency and the best methods of avoiding a bad outcome can be taught and practised.

When I got my motorcycle permit in 1974, I came home from the motor registry after having passed a 30 question written, multiple choice test. I put on my (rudimentary) protective gear, hopped on the bike (after having only done a few laps of the car park up to this point) and confidently rode the bike from my place in Wollongong up to the top of Macquarie Pass and back home again. It still staggers me that I hopped off the bike that day and thought to myself, ‘Hell, this is easy!’

A couple of months later I rode my bike down the street outside the same motor registry while an examiner stood on the footpath and watched me. As per instructions, I did a feet-up U-Turn at the end of the street and returned to the place where the examiner was standing.

I got off the bike and we went inside where he wrote out my licence and handed it to me. That was all it took. Novice riders have to jump through hoops these days, we had it easy.

And so it should be. I had no appreciation at all of how complex and demanding the process of riding a motorcycle was, I just figured that you got on, took the usual care that was necessary when driving a car (I had had my car licence for four years by that stage) and all would be well.

Trolling through my memory yields many occasions where I dodged the bullet, but it was not as a result of skill and training. It was as a result of blind idiot luck. And, while some avoidances are a result of skill and training, the majority of our close shaves are as a result of a fortuitous combination of circumstances.

I am sure you have been in the situation where another rider has been describing in exquisite detail a situation in which they have avoided an accident.

It usually goes something like this, “Well, I saw that the car was about to pull out so I braked hard, applied some counter-steering and just missed his front bumper bar,” or words to that effect. To which I say, in the words of Colonel Potter, ‘Buffalo chips’.

Fact is that, in the vast majority of instances where crashes occur or are narrowly avoided, the rider knows nothing about it until it’s over. One second you’re riding along, at peace with God and man as I already said, and the next second you’re sliding down the road on your backside hoping you don’t hit anything before you come to a stop.

For the most part, dodging the bullet is a matter of luck, not skill. I remember pulling out of the school car park one evening after a tedious round of parent-teacher interviews.

As I accelerated up the street my attention strayed for just a second and I looked up to find that I was heading for the “Keep Left” sign in the middle of the median strip.

I have no idea how I missed hitting the sign but, when I got home, there was paint chipped off the right hand end of my rear vision mirror so it was very close. Yes, I dodged a bullet but it had a great deal to do with luck and very little to do with rider skill.

I am certain that every one of us can point to instances in our riding careers, no matter whether they are short or long, that are similar. The heart starts pounding after the incident is over and we realise that it could have had a far worse outcome than it did.

So there is conscious skill and training that brings about the escape and there is just luck and a fortuitous combination of circumstances.
But have you considered that, possibly every day, we are dodging bullets that we don’t even notice were there? You know the sort of thing I mean.

The pedestrian walks along the footpath only to be missed, by the tiniest of margins, by the out of control car that mounts the footpath just behind him.

In the words of Douglas Adams, “Those who know about these things say that it is happening all the time but that we are powerless to do anything about it…”

For every bullet that catches you there are a myriad of unseen bullets that don’t. You don’t know anything about it and are powerless to influence it. Quite how this comes to be we don’t know, I guess it is a combination of factors that are inexplicable.

For those circumstances, however, when we have a choice, we must ensure that we are trained and ready to dodge the bullet when it comes. And here again I put in the plug for rider training. You may never need it (though I doubt that) but it’s great to know that it’s there.

I hope my friend recovers fully from his encounter and continues riding. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that, no matter how good we are, every now and then a bullet will catch us and good preparation can minimise the effect.

For the rest, we ride on unconscious and unheeding of the multitude of bullets that fate sees fit to have miss us and grateful that it is so.