Safety in Numbers

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Photo curtesy Mike_tn flickr

We’ve all seen those nature films showing large schools of fish or flocks of birds while a narrator drones on about safety in numbers. As social creatures, we humans also tend to flock together for safety. When my wife and I started riding motorcycles again, I felt more comfortable in groups. There were certainly some advantages to having other bikes close at hand. There is a greater pool of knowledge for riding and eating locations. That same pool might come in handy in the event of a mechanical breakdown. At least you can probably get a ride back to civilization. And you are less likely to be targeted by a bad guy looking for a random victim.
But there are down sides as well. Riding and eating locations were selected by group consensus, and were rarely my top choice. With differing skill sets and levels of experience, the rides were never optimal for everybody. We were going to slow for the more adventurous riders, and too fast for the more cautious ones. More experienced, or less cautious, riders would often ride much closer to me than I felt comfortable with. We often made decisions as a group that I would not have made on my own. For almost every safety plus, there is a safety minus. Optimal safety requires a ride so structured it is almost impossible to relax and enjoy.
Even when we are in our car, there is often a tendency to clump up on the road. Especially if you’re exceeding the speed limit. In the nature videos, most of the fish in a ball are safe as the sharks eat a few of the unlucky swimmers at the edge. Just like in the nature videos, you are usually safer from the LEO sharks if you’re in the middle of the school. As a group, we’re willing to sacrifice a few of our members on the fringe so that the rest can speed along in safety. But occasionally one of the predators will dart through the center of the ball and grab a victim from the middle.
I was recently taking my wife to a doctor’s appointment in Shreveport when I experienced this phenomena. I was in the middle of a pack of cars. I’d been following the guy in front of me for more than 15 miles, and the guy behind me had been there for at least that long. There were several more cars, both in front of and and behind us.
As we met another long string of cars coming from the other direction, I spotted a state Trooper snugged in behind a tractor-trailer truck. As soon as we came even, I saw him hit his brakes. I was sure he was coming after me, and I was right. It took him long enough that I though I might luck out, but he eventually got turned around and caught back up to me.
To be absolutely clear, I was speeding. If fact, he only ticketed me for doing 70 mph when I suspect I may have actually been going a little faster. I believe that that 1 or 2 mph meant the difference in a road side ticket and a trip to jail so the guy was really giving me a break.
Even so, when he asked me, “Why were you going so fast?” I was a little put out. I couldn’t say, “Because everybody else was going that speed.” so I mumbled something about talking with my wife and not paying sufficient attention to my speed. But I had to wonder why he asked. He knew as well as I did why I was traveling at that speed. I was in the middle of a pack.
He was courteous and professional. Even through my feelings of being picked on, I knew that I was in fact guilty of the infraction he was citing me for. So I too was courteous and polite. Resuming my journey, I reflected that even though there is generally safety in numbers, on this particular day, I was the fish that got eaten.

- Guy Wheatley

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