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LIFE ON WHEELS

Bikers Say Mobility Outweighs the Risks

October 19, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

"I hate traffic," says Michael Filicicchia of Santa Ana. "I hate Lookie Lous and Luanns stopping or slowing down to rubberneck at Officer Chip writing up Fred Ferrari--(you know how) traffic comes to a complete stop for anybody stopped on the side of the road."

Who doesn't hate traffic jams? But we all have to suffer through them, don't we?

Not Filicicchia. "When traffic stops, at least some of us can still move," he says.

Filicicchia keeps moving because his vehicle is a motorcycle, easily--albeit somewhat dangerously--maneuverable through all but the smallest spaces between cars. Motorcyclists call it "lane-splitting" or "white-lining," and in California, it's perfectly legal because there are no restrictions on the number of vehicles allowed in each lane. For Filicicchia and many other two-wheeled commuters, the benefits of motorcycle mobility far outweigh the risks involved.

"I ride because I can't stand the traffic congestion," says Rex King of Dana Point.

"Riding a motorcycle isn't crazy," says Alan Tong of Seal Beach. "Sitting in endless traffic jams when there is an alternative is."

"I'm more sane than 90% of those jerks in small imports zipping back and forth between lanes," Filicicchia says. "I obey laws, wear a helmet--better believe it!--and watch mirrors and wheels for people trying to run me over."

Of course, Filicicchia knows that other drivers aren't intentionally trying to run over him. But it's safer to assume so anyway, he has learned.

"I, for one, don't trust anyone when I'm on my cycle," he says. "Not even my mother driving beside me."

Filicicchia says he is accustomed to drivers who "cut us off, squeeze us out and ignore us like we're not there. And I don't buy the excuse that everybody uses that they didn't see us."

"I've learned to ride defensively," agrees King, who admits being "somewhat apprehensive" when he rides between lanes through slow or stalled traffic. A motorcycle rider for 22 years, King says he much prefers the open road, especially in the mountains or on back roads. But even in heavy traffic, King, a licensed marriage, family and child counselor, says motorcycle riding is "therapeutic. I don't have to talk to anyone or listen to anyone except myself."

"Any thoughtful person who rides accepts riding as a risk activity and takes whatever precautions are necessary, including regarding any driver as a homicidal maniac bent on taking out the first motorcycle he sees," says Jon Thompson, who commutes by motorcycle from his home in Glendale to his job in Costa Mesa five days a week--a 110-mile round trip.

"There is a quality to riding a 100-horse machine totally exposed to the elements that can only be understood by doing it," says Tim Wakely of Huntington Beach, who commutes 36 miles round trip each day to Tustin. "When I ride, I must operate in a state of heightened awareness. What passes for skilled operation in a car simply won't cut it on a bike. On a bike, the only one responsible for safety is me, with no margin for error.

"I split the lanes on the freeway if I have to," Wakely says. "If the traffic is crawling or stopped, there's no reason for me to just sit there. Boy, does your perception have to be sharp for this. You get real sensitive to other drivers: the quick glance to a mirror, the feint of the shoulder before yanking the wheel, the anxious tailgater bent on exploiting any sunshine in the lanes. White-lining demands all the attention I've got. When I arrive at my destination, I know I've lived."

Lane-splitting "seems to arouse some drivers," Thompson says. "I can't imagine why." Thompson says he splits lanes only if traffic is moving 45 miles an hour or slower. "I figure I'd rather be doing that than be mired in traffic. It keeps me moving, and it keeps me from being another commuter whose car is contributing to the traffic problem while occupying 10 times the freeway space my bike occupies, and burning, easily, twice the fuel."

Tong is even more cautious, cutting between lanes only when traffic is moving at less than 30 to 35 miles an hour. Any faster, he says, and "that's when people decide to change lanes without looking."

Tong points out another advantage to motorcycle commuting: "Parking is easier," he says.

But Tong concedes that "motorcycles require a certain respect from their users. They are much, much more dangerous than cars in unskilled hands. He has completed two motorcycle training courses, and "I always wear a helmet, boots, gloves and other appropriate protective gear."

"Motorcycling is risky," Wakely says. "I'm not a complete fool. I wear a helmet. The helmet was very expensive and, as helmets go, sometimes even comfortable. That does not mean I enjoy wearing it. I don't. It is simply, for me, a further hedge against fate. Besides, it keeps bugs and flying cigarette butts out of my eyes."

Helmets aren't mandatory in this state, but every biker in this sampling says he wears one.

"The problem with protective devices is they can start to make you think you're invulnerable," Wakely says. "The skill of the operator is what makes the difference, not his wardrobe."

"I'm not trying to come down on car people," Filicicchia says. "If they enjoy sitting in gridlock for hours with the air conditioning and stereo blasting away, I say more power to them. But I work for a living, and if I wanted to stay idle, I'd stay in bed."

This is the final Life on Wheels column, but the discussion we began here a year and a half ago will continue in Street Smart, a column appearing Mondays in the Orange County section of The Times. Please keep those comments and questions coming. Call Eric Bailey at (714) 966-5944, or write him c/o Street Smart, The Times Orange County, P.O. Box 2008, Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626. Include your full name, address and day and evening phone numbers.

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