Wave. Dammit.

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When I first took my motorcycle safety course in Ottawa, I learned a few biker-exclusive signals. One was that if you needed help, it’s as easy as placing your helmet on the curb or roadside: Other bikers would recognize the call and come to your assistance.

Little did I realize dying near the roadside didn’t count. Apparently, a helmet on the roadside still attached to the head of the rider doesn’t count.

In a newspaper article titled “Drivers ignore dying victim of car crash,” Stephane Massinon noted that people ignored an injured (and dying) person on the roadside, just minutes away from a Calgary hospital. Most drove past and didn’t stop, never mind dialling 9-1-1.

OK, so maybe the new laws against dialling while driving has some folks terrified, but come on, people. If you see someone dying on the roadside, for goodness sake pull over and punch in those three easy digits!

In the Calgary incident, car after car drove past the dying man and yet there was no rash of 9-1-1 calls. And even more shocking is that this isn’t an isolated event. Imagine for a second that your motorcycle-riding child has gone down. Or your mom, or your dad. Wouldn’t you be upset if no one stopped? If no one bothered to call for help?

I’ve ridden my bike one-and-a-half times across this fair land of ours, and I must say that the Canadian biking community at large is a friendly one.

I remember back in my passenger days, the absolute thrill I got when I did the passenger-to-passenger wave. I upgraded to an incredible surge of joy when I graduated from the passenger to the rider seat and partook in the rider-to-rider wave. It mattered none that I was on a 250cc Honda Shadow. The Ottawa biking community saw me — and waved to me — regardless of bike make or size.

In Newfoundland, the wave was the same but the nod was slightly different. It took me a while to understand that the sidewise knick with chin jutting left was an easy hello, and not a negative judgment on my riding skills or on my beat-up 650 Nighthawk. In Manitoba, I sat in cafés and had numerous discussions with a range of bikers. In Saskatchewan, I easily joined in on a HOG group ride and departed with waves-a-plenty. And Alberta saw my first speeding ticket. But I digress.

I’m happy to report that the happiest bikers are from B.C. Crossing the Rockies and into the Interior I was greeted with incredibly big, full arm waves, as though they had something to be happy about. And they do! What a beautiful place to tour!

And I’m equally disappointed to report that the coldest community appears to be here at home, on Vancouver Island. Only about half the riders here wave. Somehow, crossing the strait kills our joie de vivre. Maybe B.C. Ferries does us in. But I doubt it. Anyone who gives free front-of-the-line service is contributing to a biker’s joy.

OK, I’m grasping at straws as to why Island bikers are so cold. Perhaps the winding roads have us too terrified to lift our soggy hand from the heated grip. Perhaps the nod here is more secretive, one that I have not yet picked up on. Perhaps (God forbid) bikers don’t see other bikers because their pipes are too loud so they don’t even bother looking. Perhaps their novelty helmets are screwed on too tight. (Perhaps they know it’s me and don’t agree with my views on loud pipes and helmets and just plain don’t want to wave. But that doesn’t explain the previous 9 1/2 years.) Really, I have no idea.

So what in the heck does waving have to do with driving past dying people on the roadside? A lot, actually.

Imagine for a second we all started acknowledging that we share an experience here, and that we started looking out for each other. And imagine we all initiated waving instead of waiting to see if the other guy will wave first. We can start a movement, like an old Arlo Guthrie song I know! And, in no time, we’ll even out-friendly the interior of B.C.

And then you can rest assured that should you or anyone you love ever goes down, then goshdarn it (yes I just wrote that) you’d at least know the caring people in our motorcycling community would stop and call for help.

Look for me, rubber side down. I’m the girl (OK, middle-age woman) on the quiet yellow Magna wearing a full-faced helmet, with one big wave and two long horizontal braids flying out behind me. And for goodness’ sake, try waving back.

– Britt Santowski

Britt Santowski is a former chief instructor with the Vancouver Island Safety Council, where she trained instructors and taught riders for almost a decade. Santowski is also a keynote speaker, workshop facilitator, speaker, consultant and author.


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4 Responses to “Wave. Dammit.”

  1. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:52 pmD

    Response received by email


    Just read your article today in the TC. You have a good point. I was wondering the same thing.

    I ride a sport bike (Kawasaki ZX10r) and I can tell you that you would be hard up not to find someone on a sport bike more than willing to toss you a wave. Problem is the “Harley Crowd”. I have lost count of the Harleys I waved at this year just to get snubbed. Here they are, riding down the road on their Road King, or whatever 1000 lb chunk of iron and they are all dressed like they are off to a HA picnic and they are carrying this attitude.

    So, I don’t wave at Harleys any more, unless they wave at me. Sport bikes and everyone else gets a big high five.

    Check it out next time and tell me who you think the wave snobs really are.


  2. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:53 pmGR

    Response received by email


    It was, and remains, one of the joys of riding a bike; that casual wave to a passing rider. Sometimes it’s a lazy, low drift of the arm to the side. Sometimes it’s a high, wrist twisting, arm, most impressively done as one counter-steers through a turn. And all the personalized signs in between.

    But, sadly, not all join in Do you wave to scooters? Do they ever wave back? Or those, in skull-cracker helmets, on the big bikes, who look like they wouldn’t smile at the sun after a passing squall. Or the leathered, graphic helmeted riders on their wrist breaking crotch rockets. Or the newbies, who haven’t recognized its inclusive warmth. Any way, I’ll keep doing it as a roll by on my ’82 Suzuki GS 650L .


    P.S . I only recently started reading your column after my wife, also a rider, pointed it out to me. Thanks for writing it.

  3. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:54 pmP

    Response received by email


    Hi Britt

    I got my licence a few years ago and my bike will be coming to me in the very near future.

    I just wrote to say this…

    I’ll wave to ya!!!

    good article, thanks


  4. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:58 pmJ

    Response received by email


    I’ve been reading your column in the paper for the past few weeks, and finally I just had to write to you. I couldn’t in all honesty let you say the things you say without replying to them.

    First of all, a little background on myself. I am 57 years old. I have 7 grandchildren, the oldest is a 17yr. old granddaughter. I was born in D- and pretty much lived here my whole life, except for a 12 year stint in P-.

    I got married at 17, and got my motorcycle license when i was 18 on a 1972 750 Tiger Triumph, bought from DS when his shop was still in front of the C— High School. My husband bought the bike, I picked it up from the shop and DS quickly showed me that the brake and shifters were on the opposite sides of the bike, compared to the 450 Honda I had been riding up to that point, and it was a kick start.

    I rode that bike for quite awhile, both of my daughters rode on it with me, one before she was born. My oldest would sit in front of me, while I was pregnant with my youngest. I got quite a few looks while riding in that condition.

    I just wanted to tell you that, to let you know that I have been riding for nearly 40 years now.

    I currently ride an 1985 1100 Shadow. I bought one new in ’85, rode it and bought another one 5 years ago!! because I liked the bike so much.

    My husband and I just returned yesterday from a 10,000km trip to Ohio and back. And this morning I read your article about riders NOT waving. I have never had any problems with riders ON THE ISLAND not waving. There are always a few who don’t, but that was the way all the way to Ohio and back!!! A lot of the newer riders and younger people, don’t really know that it is the ‘thing’ to do.

    They ‘don’t’ have to wave at you. Why do you feel they do??

    I wave, I wave back, and sometimes like yesterday when I was riding the freeway in Vancouver at 100km in the pissing down rain, I waved at NO ONE because I was busy concentrating on where I was going!!!

    As for loud bikes, my husband rides an ’88 Harley, the pipes are louder than mine, and mine are louder than the original ones on the Honda. I don’t really care either way. If you like quiet pipes, use them, if you like noisy pipes, use them.

    For the most part people that complain about noisy pipes have nothing better in their life to do anyhow.

    People say to me, “why don’t you have a harley?” and I usually reply that I ride what I like and it doesn’t make any difference to anyone what anyone else rides. The fact that you ride, is good enough for me.

    I don’t have a chip on my shoulder and I have NOTHING to prove to anyone that I am a woman riding a bike. When I lived in P.G. I routinely rode down on my 4 days off to visit my parents. I would leave P.G. at 6am, ride all day, catch the ferry, visit for 2 days and ride back again on the 4th day.

    Never gave it a second thought!

    And now for helmets, I have worn every helmet from an old 3/4 open face, a full-face, a newer ‘shorty’ (DOT approved) to the one I wear now, which is NOT DOT approved, but is the most comfortable helmet I’ve ever worn and the most weather proof.
    I had an accident 5 years ago, where I was hit by a jeep head on, and my neurologist told me, that had I been wearing a full face, or heavier helmet at that time, I would have broken my neck and quite possibly have been dead, at the very least a parapalegic!!

    I also drove ambulance for 7 years on the Malahat and on Saltspring Island, and I was a Safety Officer in a pulp mill for over 10 years, so I am very familiar with all safety aspects. I am not someone with a novelty helmet screwed on too tight! I wonder if you have ever had to take a full face helmet off of a person that was in a motorcycle accident, without compromising their neck or any injuries they may have suffered to their face. Let me tell you it is a very nasty thing to have to do. We had to take special training to do it properly so we didn’t break their neck while removing their helmet. I understand that if you have an open face helmet, you may and probably will suffer injuries to your face.

    People will wear all of the required safety paraphenalia to ride their motorcycle, padded jackets, good boots, gloves, full face helmet, chaps…etc. but there is NOTHING out there that protects your neck, and that is the most vulnerable part of your body.

    They have been trying for years to make lightweight DOT approved full face helmets, because it is usually the weight of your helmet that snaps your neck! Any high speed collision with a motorcycle is going to do major damage, mostly to the person’s internal organs. I fractured my scapula, broke three ribs, punctured a lung, broke my C3 bone in my neck, pulled all the nerves to my right arm, it did not work at all for over a month, did some major soft tissue damage to my right leg and bruised my spinal cord so that I was not allowed to bend my neck to look down my body. And I severed all of my olfactory nerves that allowed me to taste or smell. I landed on the top of my head and my back, most injuries to my right side. This was a 40km collision.

    I was in ICU for only three days and then I went home. I was not going to lay around and moan about my injuries. I started on the road to recuperation almost immediately.

    If I didn’t tell you all of this, you would not know that I had ever been in an accident. Since I attended at the scene of over 300 motor vehicle accidents in my years of ambulance work I can tell you that you will never know what will kill you and what won’t. Some people died because they didn’t have their seatbelt on, some because they did. Some walked out of car crushed so bad you didn’t know what it was, and other’s were dead in a car that didn’t look like it had been hit.

    I may live if I have a full face helmet on, or I may die because I did. These are all factors and there is no sure answer to any of them and there never will be.

    I believe having good foot wear on, is a more important safety feature than a helmet. You put your feet down on the ground many times a day while riding. You may never put your head down on the ground ever. Of course if you don’t wear a helmet you take that chance. While riding in the states I saw many people without a helmet. I personally feel better with my helmet, even if it isn’t DOT approved. I know that it saved my life. It may not next time (and yes, I bought a new one). But if you have flip flops, sandals or even running shoes, you may go to put your foot down, your shoe ‘gives out’ and you lose control. It may only hurt you, but you may run into a pedestrian and injure them. You may be out of control causing another vehicle to swerve to miss you and cause further damage to others.

    I do not like to be told that as an adult I must adhere to what YOU tell me. I am the most safety conscious person you may ever run across, and I will most likely tell you to put proper footwear on, before I care what you wear on your head. Your helmet will only save you. Your footwear could save others. And I doubt very much that you will ever read about that anywhere.

    I spoke to a young man riding a scooter with PLASTIC flip flops on, and told him his footwear was very dangerous. He looked at me like I was from Mars!!!

    If I am in an accident with my bike, what I am wearing will ultimately determine the amount of injuries I recieve. What I am wearing will not protect anyone else involved in that accident. If you are driving your car, you may recieve head injuries in a roll over, and if you had a helmet on, you may not have recieved head injuries, but they are unlikely to make people in cars wear helmets. I believe that if you are under 16 years old, there should be rules for your safety because you may not be able to determine what is the best for you, especially children. But I believe that once you are of age, you should be given the choice.

    You should not have to have these things forced on you. In the states they have realized that an adult can make the decision to wear his or her helmet if he or she chooses. If they die because of their decision, that is sad, but ultimately it is their decision.

    My neice showed me her new full face helmet. I tried it on, and once it was on I could not hear her talking to me anymore. Yet they say that it is safer. I cannot hear cars coming beside me, I cannot hear sirens behind me, but I guess it’s ok, because I cannot hear loud pipes and we all know how awful they are. Unless a person is sitting in front of your house at 5am gunning their motorcycle for half an hour, why do you care if a loud bike drives by? Why do you care if 5 loud bikes drive by? They are gone in seconds along with their pipes.

    I believe that there are too many people that spend all of their time trying to decide what everyone else should or shouldn’t do, based on what they like or want.

    I’ve listened to many bikers talking over the years and I can tell you in minutes whether they actually know how to ride a bike or not. Many bikers talk a big talk, but cannot ride. I can tell you by looking at a person as they ride by, whether they can ride their bike, or whether it even fits them.

    I think it’s great that more women are riding, but the problem these days is that they take that course on a little bike, and then they go home and that little bike doesn’t look ‘macho’ enough for them. They go and buy a big bike. They can’t back it up, they can’t turn it around, they can’t pick it up if it drops, but damn they look hot on it. They have absolutely no experience riding, yet they have these huge motorcycles that some of them can barely touch the ground. Their legs are stretched so far forward that they can hardly shift gears, but damn they look hot!!!

    As an instructor why don’t you tell women how to ‘fit’ their bike??? If they have never ridden before, they have no idea what you are talking about. I spoke to a gentleman at the ferry just yesterday that asked me how I liked my windshield because the windshear from his, battered his glasses around so badly he couldn’t see. I like my windshield, but I’ve ridden enough to know how to make it work for me. In my case I cut it down 2 inches. Most people want to look ‘through’ it and you should never do that.

    It’s hard to know what to do if you’ve never done it. I am talking 40 years of riding experience here. We went through very high winds across North Dakota and I was carrying a lot of gear. It pushed my bike all over the road, but I wasn’t concerned because I’ve been riding a long time, I’m comfortable on my bike and I know what it will do and how it will handle. And don’t get me started on how people ‘pack’ their bikes for traveling. Unless you have hard bags and trunks, then there will always be the people that have NO idea how to pack their bags properly or attach them properly! We rode 500-800km days every day and I was never tired at the end of the day. My bike fits me, I fit it! If I wanted to, I can take my bike and ride it down the road, even take long winding corners on it, without ever touching my handlebars, that’s how well balanced my bike is, and how well attuned I am with it. I don’t do that because it’s not a safe thing to do, but I can do it. Most people hang on to their handlebars so tightly that within a year they have wear marks in the rubber. My last 1100 shadow I owned for nearly 20 years and there wasn’t a wear mark on the handle bar rubbers at all!! You don’t need a death grip to ride properly, but most people don’t know that either!!

    I’ve never seen you ride, but if I was to go solely on what you write, to say whether you were a good rider or not, you would probably get a failing grade from me. First of all because even though you teach and have been riding for a number of years, you still carry a big chip on your shoulder about the fact that you are a woman riding a motorcycle. Not sure why that’s such a big deal. Back in the second world war there were a lot of young women riding very rough motorcycles in very rough conditions and no one ever thought anything about it. All of a sudden everyone is supposed to pay ‘special attention’ to you (or me) becaue we are a female riding??? The sooner these women get off that high horse they are on, because they’ve actually ridden a motorcycle the better off we will be. Sometimes when I read articles about riding bikes, written by women, I cringe!!! It makes me ashamed to be a female riding because I don’t want to be painted with the same ‘ditzy’ brush they seem to like.

    I read an article once about a woman who went on to say how many nice guys were out there, because they always ran to help her when she stopped her bike because she kept tipping over on it!!!! MY GOD!!! and she had the audacity to write it like it was the most natural thing in the world to tip over every time she stopped. And some stupid motorcycle magazine published it!!! I don’t want anyone to read something like that and put me in that same camp. It is very embarrassing. Everytime my husband reads your column he cringes!

    So, this letter may be long but if all you can find to write about is why no one waves at you, you really need to get out and just enjoy your bike. Don’t worry so much if anyone is looking at you ride just because you are a woman!!! If someone waves, I wave back. Sometimes I wave and they don’t. Sometimes they wave and I don’t. Sometimes they don’t see you til the very last second and they may wave, but you are already by and didn’t see it. GET OVER IT!!!!

    I’m only sorry that they pay you for the column you write. Seems like a good waste of money, but hey, I can’t fault you. They don’t know anything about bikes either, so they don’t know if what you write is good or not.

    It’s good entertainment for us to read every weekend if nothing else. The only sad part is, some people may take it as the gospel truth and think there is something wrong if no one waves at them!!!! FER CRYIN” out loud lady, I can’t believe you cared enough to write a WHOLE column on it.

    Keep the shiny side up…J.

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