Everybody else is just waiting.
This is the surgical waiting room at UCLA Ronald Reagan Hospital. I am sitting with my sister and my nephew’s girlfriend while my nephew undergoes surgery on his crushed leg.
No, don’t feel sorry for us. My nephew might just be the luckiest guy in this building. He was riding his motorcycle to work last Monday morning, on the freeway, when he was hit by a car that suddenly switched lanes.
When I found him here in the ER on Monday, after a series of panicked calls, he was in great pain. His broken leg was elevated. And every nurse and doctor who walked into his cubicle said the same thing that I did when I saw him: “You are so lucky.”
This is what you learn in a world-class trauma center, where they see motorcyclists down on the freeway. Most of the time, it’s not your leg, but your head. The helmets, one nurse explained, break — even the expensive ones — with the force of the impact. “The lucky ones die,” she said.
The lucky ones die? Right. We ended up on the “neuro” floor, even though my nephew was a leg, not a head. Lucky to find a bed. His neighbors are not so lucky. Some of them are recovering from brain surgery or strokes. But this is also where the motorcyclists who hit their heads and don’t die end up. Most of them are never the same. Some of them don’t even recover enough to know that.
I know many people love motorcycles. My nephew was one of them. I expect I will hear from many of them, who will tell me that they ride safely, that it’s motorists who need to share the road and not motorcyclists who need to abandon it. Sorry. After a day in Maddie’s Room and a week here at this fine hospital, you’re not going to convince me — or any of the doctors I’ve talked to.
My nephew’s surgeon, the chief of orthopedic trauma, was blunt. “You’re not riding a motorcycle again.” Another doctor I know told me if he had his way, he’d stack them all in a giant heap. Years ago, when I had a radio show, I had a guest from the LAPD talking about driving safety over the holidays.
What about motorcycles, I asked. How many injuries do Los Angeles motorcycle officers — who presumably are not only well trained, but also more likely to be “noticed” by drivers than young people like my nephew — suffer? My guest was silent. Off-air, he told me he simply could not answer.
The statistics I could find may explain why. According to 2006 statistics from the government, roughly 13 cars per 100,000 end up in fatal crashes; the equivalent statistics for motorcycles were 72 per 100,000. On a per-mile-traveled basis, the risk of a fatal crash is 35 times greater for motorcycles than cars.
While the number of fatalities dipped slightly in 2005, it was headed back up in 2011 and up again in 2012.
The motorists are more often to blame than the cyclists, but so what? The cyclists die. As for accidents and injuries, it’s harder to find good numbers, but common sense, and the experience of the professionals here, suggests that people riding around in the open air who get hit by thousands of tons of metal and steel don’t fare as well as those who are inside those vehicles and cushioned by air bags in every direction.
Years ago, when my children were small, an older mother taught me a lesson I never forgot: If you make a lot of rules, she said, it’s too easy for your kids to break one, and once they break one, the rules aren’t really rules. So keep the list short and absolute.
I asked her what her list was, and she replied almost automatically: No heroin. No motorcycles. I added drunk drivers.
Susan Estrich is a law professor in Southern California and managed the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis.