Dan Nielsen: Summer driving enjoyable but dangerous

Dan Nielsen

Summer road trips can be fun. They also can be dangerous — even if you perform at your best, other drivers may be distracted, angry, careless or reckless.

Driver training instructors warn students that they need to watch out for the other guy. Experienced drivers know that all too well. Defensive driving is the best way to stay out of trouble. New drivers lack experience; parents should take pains to talk with teens about road safety.

AAA Michigan sent a press release last week highlighting what it calls the "100 Deadliest Days" season. They're referring to summer — blue skies, warm breezes and drivers in a hurry to escape from traffic so they can relax at the beach.

It's also a prime season for commerce, particularly here in Michigan. Consumers need to be safe and uninjured to enjoy anything they buy. Summer provides all kinds of business opportunities to sell stuff: kayaks and kaleidoscopes, barbecues and bikinis, Mai Tais and motorcycles.

I used to have a weakness for motorcycles. I bought my first bike when I was in college. My parents discovered I owned it after I'd been riding for a month.

I knew they wouldn't approve, so I kept my newly purchased six-year-old Honda CL350 parked on campus and continued to drive my VW Beetle to and from home until the semester ended. I wasn't really sneaky, I told myself; I was just being mildly non-forthcoming about an exciting new experience that would make my parents uncomfortable. They still don't know about a few things I did back then.

That first motorcycle was a joy. It was reliable transportation that called me to the open road.

Late that summer it carried me from Grand Rapids to Oberlin, Ohio, then up to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula, all in one glorious extended weekend. It was the most adventurous road trip I'd taken up to that point.

The traffic around Detroit was scary, what with my jeans-clad knees frequently within spitting distance of semi-trucks cruising at 70 mph. But moments of fun outnumbered moments of fear. I can still feel the cool pre-dawn mist swirling past my chin as northern Ohio pavement curved through fields of corn. A day later and 400 miles north, I reveled in a feeling of exploration as I trundled along a two-track through the deep forest near the Two Hearted River.

A few days later, perhaps overconfident from my epic journey, my rear wheel spun out from under me while trying to make a left turn off 28th Street. The bike gently tipped on its side. I stood straddling the machine, left foot planted on oil-slick pavement, right foot atop the machine as if I had just proudly scaled a mountain peak. I picked up the bike, which was still idling, and gingerly complete the turn, then stopped to catch my breath in a nearby parking lot. A broken gearshift lever was the only casualty.

Overconfidence caught up with me again a few years later. My latest bike, a 10-year-old street-legal Yamaha 250, had helped me almost finish a 50-mile cross-country race in northern Nevada. I was disqualified 40 miles in because I was too slow. But I enjoyed the experience, and it apparently built up my bike-handling confidence a bit too far.

A few days later, I cruised to the top of Winnemucca Mountain to admire the view of town 2,400 feet below. On the way back down, I realized I was going too fast when I felt both semi-knobby tires slipping sideways on the pavement. The bike slid off the edge of the mountain. I ended up sitting on the pavement with a sleeve ripped off my jacket, a nasty scrape across my helmet, a sore shoulder and a throbbing headache. A minute or so later, my head cleared and I heard the Yamaha's engine racing. I looked over the edge and saw the bike 50 feet down the steep cinder hillside, handlebars buried and rear wheel spinning. I scrambled down and hit the kill switch.

After making sure all my body parts were still reasonably intact, I horsed the bike to the bottom of the steep slope. I was able to ride home, but immediately decided it was time to sell the motorcycle. It was gone days later, and I thought I would never own another.

But a decade later, fueled by nostalgia, I spent a winter rebuilding a decrepit CL350. I finally got it running and had a minute of open-air riding joy. But before I got five miles down the road, that joy was replaced by fear. The moment on the mountain flew right back into my head. That bike, too, soon was sold.

Motorcycling is fun. Age and experience, though, overpowered that feeling of fun with a context of danger. I'd still enjoy a quiet, relaxed two-wheel cruise on a back road. But I'm too frightened of crossing paths with a bad driver to enjoy riding a bike in traffic. No more Hondas or Yamahas for me.

Motorcycles don't have fancy safety gear like seat belts and fenders. Cars do. And I'm glad auto manufacturers are yearly adding better safety technology. The new additions should help young drivers survive those dangerous first years behind the wheel — even if they do become distracted or come up against someone else who isn't paying attention.

AAA Michigan says nearly 3,500 people have been killed in crashes involving teen drivers in the last five years between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

New data from 2013-2107, the release said, shows that major factors contributing to fatal teen crashes in the summer months include speeding (28 percent), drinking (17 percent) and distraction (9 percent).

To keep roads safer this summer, AAA encourages parents to talk with teens early and often about abstaining from dangerous behavior behind the wheel, such as speeding, impairment and distracted driving; teach by example and minimize risky behavior when driving; and make a parent-teen driving agreement that sets family rules for teen drivers.

Contact Business Editor Dan Nielsen at 231-933-1467 or dnielsen@record-eagle.com.