November 2 - November 8, 1995

B y  J e f f  S m i t h 


AS YOU MAY know, I'm not from around here. I was, but I moved. Where I moved to is way the hell and gone out in the weeds, at the far end of a twisty stretch of two-lane blacktop known as Highway 83. It's the Sonoita/Patagonia scenic highway and it is a weekend favorite of sight-seeing tourists and touring motorcyclists. To the latter group it's also sometimes known as Squid City.

In motorcycling parlance a squid is short for "squirrely kid," meaning someone who rides over his head and is a likely candidate for organ donor. I've seen more than a few motorcycle crashes along Highway 83, at least one of them fatal.

Another widely observed phenomenon along 83 is construction and maintenance. This may be the most intensely "improved" 25 miles of highway in Arizona. I've never seen the surface in anything remotely like bad shape, but every few years they repave it anyway. Then, after it received the State Scenic Highway designation, crews began installing guardrails outside every curve wash, culvert or anywhere else the Department of Transportation or some contractor felt time and money could be spent needlessly.

Hence, what you see now as you drive the road is not distant scenic vistas and lovely flora lining the serpentine byway, but essentially a tunnel of galvanized steel, put there putatively to keep cars and tourists' motorhomes from venturing off into the weeds and ditches. It's ridiculous.

I can understand guardrails on mountain roads where a course deviation means a long drop and certain death, but Highway 83 has guardrails virtually anywhere the road veers five degrees from dead straight, or the shoulder is two feet below horizontal.

This would distress me as a taxpayer who hates to see money spent on busywork or for the sole purpose of enriching some contractor, but as a motorcyclist my concern is of a more life-and-death nature. Simply put, the standard highway guardrail, designed to keep passenger cars on the road, is a dead-cert killer for a motorcyclist.

The height of a guardrail is above the center-of-gravity of an automobile, but generally below that of a motorcycle, and definitely way below the center of mass of the rider of that cycle. A lapse of attention that would net a car driver a scuffed bumper and a quickened pulse before he veered back into his lane, will render a motorcycle rider an instant amputee, or more likely, a corpse.

And that's just the sort of legal-speed "oops" that happens, unreported, dozens of times a day. In any really serious accident situation, these guardrails absolutely guarantee a motorcycle is going to be totaled, and its rider seriously injured. There's no longer any chance of riding the bike off the pavement and into the boonies to avoid a collision, or to correct a skid and turn a near-wreck into a harmless off-road excursion: You're going to get sliced from your bike from the waist or the knees down. Period.

Which means that the first part of you to contact anything solid is likely to be your skull. And no amount of riding skill can save you.

It's clear our so-called highway safety engineers have made the conscious decision to sacrifice the lives of motorcyclists in order to keep four-wheeled travelers from wrinkling a few fenders and cutting a few cords of mesquite.

I think somebody needs to get sued.

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November 2 - November 8, 1995

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