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Reflections on a motorcycle accident

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Greg Peck
April 24, 2014

I think about motorcycle safety quite a bit for someone who has never operated a motorcycle. To be honest, the day I got my driver's license shortly after I turned 16—using Dad's Corvair to take the test—I got home, pulled out with our family's sporty 1972 Mustang, collected my buddies, and we were off on a road trip to Waterloo, just four miles from Marshall. We were cruising Highway 19 when I got behind a rather slow vehicle. I was itching to show off to my friends and zip around it. But what was that up ahead? Was another vehicle coming? I couldn't tell because of the mirage given off by heat haze on the pavement.

I stomped on the gas nonetheless—only to realize too late that a motorcycle was coming at us. Fortunately, I was able to complete the pass without striking the oncoming biker. But that near miss shook me and led me to be more cautious in all the years since.

The Gazette's editorial Friday, on the heels of last Sunday night's crash that killed two young Janesville men, will offer commentary on how motorcyclists and all drivers must share safety responsibilities during this motorcycling season.

Below is another story revealing why I think a lot about motorcycle safety. I wrote this column a decade ago. I hope it offers another poignant reminder about the need for caution:

 

Lessons in life include value of helmet

More than 30 years have passed since Jim Winters first stepped in the doors of my high school in the little Dane County community of Marshall. He was an English teacher, fresh out of college, with long hair and good looks. He taught my journalism class, and I am indebted to him for a career that has spanned more than a quarter century.

I played varsity basketball, and Jim sometimes joined my teammates and me for pickup games or practice. Jim and I were about the same size, so our one-on-one battles were lively.

In my senior yearbook, he wrote: “I hope this book and all it represents leaves you with some good nostalgia. Good luck in your writing career. J.W.” The words were just like Jim, always thoughtful, offering encouragement, perspective.

The years passed, and Jim and I maintained a relationship that any teacher and student would envy. Once a year or so, we'd gather just to chat about lives and loves, wins and losses. Our conversations flowed easily, the time quickly.

Jim moved on to teach at Middleton. A fine woodworker, he built his own home between Cottage Grove and Stoughton. I helped him work on the house one weekend when his friends gathered to share skills and sweat.

Jim finished a basement recreation room and filled its walls with trophies, awards and medals. He thrived on canoe racing, cross country skiing and triathlons.

But he collected his last award sometime before that fateful motorcycle ride on Sept. 26, 2002.

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You've seen them already, this sure sign of spring. Not bulbs emerging from the earth, nor buds from branches, but motorcycles emerging from garages and storage units. Many bikers thumb their noses to concerns about safety, preferring to ride without helmets, their hair flying in the spring breeze. They'll howl with fury over any proposal to require helmets.

That's despite the fact that 100 people died in motorcycle accidents on Wisconsin roads last year. Seventy-five of them weren't wearing helmets. The death toll was 22 more than in 2002.

Many motorcyclists harbor a rebellious streak. They demand their freedom, the right to choose. It's the image of the tough Harley rider. Some bikers claim they can see and hear better, thus avoiding hazards, without a confining helmet.

At Middleton High School, two students asked Jim why seat belts are required and motorcycle helmets aren't. Seat belts, he explained, protect passengers and those in a vehicle your car may collide with. Motorcyclists argue that they'll likely only kill themselves in an accident.

Jim always thought he was a safe rider. He thought that if he was aware enough of his surroundings, he could avoid trouble—it had worked other times through the years.

But he also knew that most cycle accidents are serious in nature.

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Jim Winters was motorcycling north on County N at about 4:30 p.m. that autumn day of 2002. Heading toward Sun Prairie, he planned to meet another of my former teachers and her husband. They wanted to roller ski, to work out.

He was only a few miles from home and had crossed Highway 12. He was nearing Natvig Road as an oversized vehicle, perhaps a tractor, approached. Behind it was a string of cars. Among them was a Buick, a 16-year-old girl at the wheel. As the big vehicle passed Jim's Yamaha, the girl turned left in front of Jim. She apparently didn't see him coming. Jim locked his brakes, leaving 70 feet of skid marks. Then he realized it was too late, let off the brakes and tried to swerve around the car.

Jim's cycle clipped the corner of the car. The impact crushed his left leg. He flew 60 feet in the air and landed in a field, on the side of his face.

In Sun Prairie, Jim's friends were wondering why he didn't show up.

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Feel no pity for Jim Winters. That's not the way he would want it.

He survived the crash. His days of serious competition may well be over. But he'll still go up north skiing for pleasure. He'll still pedal a bicycle 20 miles on the back roads of Dane County. He'll still race canoes but would struggle to compete if he had to portage the craft.

Jim lost his lower leg in the accident. But he didn't lose his life. He wore a helmet, which likely saved his life, Cottage Grove police officer Douglas Kenney said. Still, the tremendous impact required plastic surgery on Jim's face.

Noting the outpouring of concerns from students, co-workers and those from the past 28 classes he's taught, “I learned that having people care about you is way more important than a foot.”

Jim maintains an amazingly positive outlook on life. He wouldn't sue the girl or her family. He realized doing so would only hurt her chances of going to college.

He maintains his sense of humor. During a recent visit, Jim flopped his artificial leg on the table, startling me much like Heather Mills, new wife of Beatle Paul McCartney, startled Larry King on TV.

“Are you getting a leg up on the competition?” I may ask him. Or, “Are you getting taller? I'd swear you've grown another foot.”

We'll laugh.

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These days, Jim Winters owns no motorcycle. He has no plans to buy one.

Will he ever ride again?

“No, it's too dangerous,” he tells me with a little grin.

“My mother would kill me.

“She would.”

You can be sure, however, that if he ever did ride again, Jim Winters would strap on a helmet.

The Gazette published the above column March 8, 2004. Last year, Jim Winters moved to North Carolina.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.



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