Use your head for thinking, not bouncing off the pavement

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- "You've got to be kidding me," I thought to myself as I pulled onto Highway 98 for the traffic-clogged journey to work after a long, pleasant leave.

Usually, this thought comes as I catch a glimpse of the heavy traffic flow that clogs the highway for miles on end. On this day, however, traffic was dense, but I hardly even noticed. Instead, my preoccupation resided with the individual ahead of me, riding a pristine, cruiser-type motorcycle, without a helmet.

Even without a military uniform on it was easy to infer, considering the time of day, the haircut and the camouflaged backpack, that the unsafe rider was most likely a member of the armed forces. Call it a stereotype, but we military members kind of give ourselves away, especially when we leave our finely-cropped melon exposed to the elements, and the ever-present asphalt, instead of sanely donning an approved helmet like we should.

Despite this guy's lack of judgement, I must give credit where credit is due. The vast majority of military members seem to obey the rules. It may be that they feel so inclined because having their safety gear on is their ticket into the gate each day. Whatever the reason, they are only helping themselves. Wearing a helmet, gloves, boots and other safety equipment will save your life.

I know this from personal experience.

The majority of my riding experience consists of off-road excursions. I currently have a small scooter that gets me from point to point on occasion. However, my on-road experience is basically limited to taking out my future brother-in-law's brand new street bike about 10 years ago. I wouldn't have gotten the opportunity to ride such a machine for my first road bike experience were it not for the fact that he was still trying to impress my sister.

It wasn't a good sign that it took me close to 20 minutes to get the bike into gear and rolling down the road. I should've realized from that short timeframe alone that riding on the street can be very difficult, even though I have to admit I was truly enjoying myself. I was enjoying myself so much, in fact, that I somehow never saw the curb that reached out and grabbed me as I attempted to make a turn. 

Hitting the curb sent me sprawling over the bike into a large bush in the front yard of some lucky homeowner. The bike immediately fell on top of my leg, leaving me three quarters of the way upside down and completely devoid of power to get off the ground with my head in the bushes and my foot pinned underneath the bike. I probably looked like a turtle that had been flipped onto its shell, kicking my legs into the air frantically.

I'm not sure if it was the squeal of the tires, or the girly squeal that I emitted in between gasps for air that roused the homeowners on the crisp spring morning. All I know is they came out of their house and picked the bike up off me and allowed me to get on my way again, albeit at a much safer pace and a more direct route back to my house.

I was young. I was stupid. But above all, I was lucky. If it wasn't for the boots and gloves I was wearing to cover my extremities or the helmet that I had fastened securely to protect my grill, I could've been seriously hurt. Instead, the biggest pain I had to deal with was looking at my sister's boyfriend's face when I pulled up on his scratched and dented motorcycle the day after he took it off the sales lot.

As much fun as a motorcycle can be, it's always dangerous. If you were to randomly poll any rider, they'd probably tell you that if they haven't been in a crash in their lifetime, they know someone who has. The odds are nearly 100 percent in favor of crashing. Despite these odds, there are those individuals who continue to flirt with disaster when operating a motorcycle.

As I've already mentioned, I do not write this as strictly an observer. I really enjoy riding. The thrill of riding down the road on two wheels while the wind and the Florida bugs hit you in the face-- and sometimes your teeth, which can be quite embarrassing upon exiting the bike-- is unlike any other feeling in the world. The sense of freedom, of joy, of living a completely unadulterated existence is truly one of the greatest ways to spend a day. I believe that riding a bike is awesome. I am just a firm believer in riding smart.

I recently completed the basic rider's course at Hurlburt Field. The course is a two day introduction to motorcycle safety and skills development. In the civilian world, this course would easily cost a couple of hundred dollars. Lucky for me, it's offered free to military members. The training culminates in both a written and skills test that, if passed, garners a motorcycle license.

It surely is no coincidence that the first topic covered in the course is safety. Far and away, safety is the topic discussed the most. In fact, students in the course can't even mount the bike without first donning their safety gear which includes helmets, gloves, over the ankle boots, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt.

I'm not sure if the gentleman riding ahead of me has attended the BRC or not, but it doesn't really matter. Just because it is not a state law to wear a helmet while riding, it is an Air Force policy, on and off base. Besides that, it just makes sense. No, there isn't anyone that can go around and check up on military members who ride, nor should they have to. Riders should take the initiative upon themselves to make sure they are riding safely.

I am not alone in proclaiming the importance of motorcycle safety.

"It makes absolutely zero sense for Air Commandos to act foolishly and operate a motorcycle without taking the proper safety precautions," said Col. Greg Lengyel, 1st Special Operations Wing commander. "Our people are our greatest asset and they are far too valuable and far too important to risk injuring themselves due to unsafe behavior. Air Commandos can take simple precautions to minimize the chance of an off-duty accident."

Some motorcycles have air conditioning, mp3 players and integrated hands-free devices. They can have expensive paint jobs and custom chrome work. However, no matter how many niceties might be included, a motorcycle is not a car. They are smaller, less stable, more lightweight and far more difficult to see on the road.

In other words, a motorcyclist is already at a significant disadvantage while they are riding. Not protecting yourself with proper gear is akin to playing Russian roulette with more than one bullet.

Being protected from a catastrophic incident should be enough of a reason to wear your safety gear when you ride. However, for those that need even more encouragement, I leave you with a message from your wing commander.

"All of us must continue to remember safety is a priority in everything we do," said Col. Lengyel. "Hurlburt Field Airmen found operating their motorcycle in an unsafe manner will lose their on -base driving privileges for an extended period of time."

Wear your protective gear when you ride. The open road is dang