Opinion: Accidents happen

My mom told me once that she welcomed November. “You’ll put your bike away, and I won’t have to worry for a few months,” she said.

She knew I was as safe on a motorcycle as I could be, but it didn’t matter. “It’s not you, it’s the other driver,” she’d say. I’d assure her that on a motorcycle I’m more aware of other drivers, not so distracted as when I’m in a car, but it didn’t matter. Sometimes, as with anything, accidents just happen.

There’s always a reason, of course, and it’s true that there really aren’t any accidents on the road, just collisions caused by a chain of avoidable events. For Scott Robertson last year, the chain of events appears to be that he was riding his Kawasaki ZX-14R at 4:30 a.m. in Saint John, New Brunswick, with the July sun rising behind him, when he collided head-on with a Ford Escape.

Scott Robertson was killed instantly when he collided head-on with John Ford’s SUV in Saint John, New Brunswick. (Photo courtesy CBC)

As we reported last week, the man driving that SUV, John Ford, was eventually convicted of leaving the scene of the collision and sentenced to 28 months in prison, plus an additional three months for misleading police when he tried to claim somebody else had been driving. He fled the scene on foot, leaving 54-year-old Scott dead beside his bike, and returned with a woman who claimed she’d been driving the Escape. Anne-Marie Savoy has been charged with perjury, obstructing justice, and public mischief; she pleads not guilty and will stand trial on these charges in January.

A police expert in collision reconstruction testified in court that Ford, 47, who was delivering newspapers, must have been in the wrong lane when the crash occurred, swapping over to Scott’s oncoming lane briefly before intending to make a left-hand turn.

The Crown originally charged Ford with dangerous driving causing death, but dropped the difficult-to-prove charge to concentrate on throwing the book at him for leaving the scene. Ford has a two-decade criminal record, including a 2013 conviction of failing to remain at the scene of an accident, and two convictions of public mischief by making false statements.

Scott and Joanne Robertson. (Photo courtesy Fundy Funeral Home)

Scott Robertson was on his way to work at the time – he was a chef at a local nursing home and needed to prepare breakfast. His wife Joanne worked as a nurse at the city hospital and left the house an hour later; she was diverted around the site of the collision without realizing it was the scene of her husband’s death.

“As with most of these types of incidents, it was a tragic series of circumstances that caused his death, the absence of any one of which would have likely prevented it,” says Scott’s friend, Gary Stackhouse.

“It happened at dawn and he was riding west out of the morning light, which made him much less visible… The accident happened just around a slight bend in the road to the right, meaning Scott wouldn’t have seen (Ford’s SUV) until it was far too late. Scott was the second most experienced motorcycle instructor in Canada (more than 20 years, more than 200 courses taught.) There is nobody in the country who would have been any better prepared to avoid that accident if it had been avoidable.”

Larry Grodsky

If it could happen to Scott, it can happen to anyone. After all, in 2006, Larry Grodsky, the “Stayin’ Safe” columnist for Rider magazine and the author of Stayin’ Safe: The Art and Science of Riding Really Well,” was killed in a collision with a deer in Texas.

“Larry was the most talented, experienced and competent motorcyclist in the country, but this is the one thing he knew he couldn’t do anything about,” said his girlfriend, Maryann Puglisi, soon after his death.

“Just a few weeks ago he said to me, ‘That’s how I’m going to go, it’s going to be a deer.’ He could deal with all the idiot drivers, but at night when a deer jumps in your path, that’s it and he knew that.”

It can happen to you. All motorcyclists know this. CMG’s founding editor Rob Harris knew this, and we talked about it one summer evening in 2015, a year before he was killed on a motorcycle, colliding head-on with an obscured, slow-moving truck. We agreed that if we could know in advance that we would die on a motorcycle that we’d give up riding immediately, but the risk can be minimal and worth it for the satisfaction and fulfillment of riding. We’d do everything possible to lessen those odds – ride defensively with All The Gear, All The Time – but ultimately, if your number’s up, it’s up.

“When I heard the news [of Scott’s death], I was actually waiting for Scott at the bike course,” remembers Gary. “My first reaction was, ‘If this can happen to the very BEST of us, what chance do the rest of us have?’ I almost left my bike there and called it my last ride. That was very quickly replaced by the certainty that Scott would never have wanted that to be his legacy.

Scott Robertson had 20 years of experience teaching motorcycle safety. (Photo courtesy Fundy Funeral Home)

“As we teach in the Gearing Up course, it’s all about the amount of risk you’re willing to take. I’m also a driving instructor as well as a riding instructor, and I use Scott’s accident as a teaching tool for my young driving students to ensure they understand the difficulty of seeing at dawn and dusk, the importance of actively looking before making any maneuver, and the potentially tragic consequences of one seemingly minor mistake.”

And as we should all do, Gary’s taken a direct lesson from Scott’s example.

“I’ve personally chosen NOT to ride at dawn or dusk,” he says. “Just as many riders will stop during the start of a rainstorm, I will pause at dawn or dusk and wait until it’s either fully light or fully dark.”

That’s good advice, and hard learned. It will help to drop the risk of riding even farther, down to practically nothing. But just as with riding a bicycle, or driving a car, or jumping out of an airplane, or walking the dog, there’s always a risk, usually decided in a split-second. Gary knows it and I know it, and we’re prepared to accept it. Now you know it if you didn’t already, and I hope you’re prepared to accept it, too – it’s worth it. But never forget it. You owe that to Scott, and Larry, and Rob.

Rob Harris, CMG’s founding editor.

4 thoughts on “Opinion: Accidents happen”

  1. I witnessed a person being charged with impaired driving who had 9 previous convictions. Prison is obviously too easy and the stay too short. Any repeat offenders should be treated to a separate venue of extremely long and incredibly harsh punishment. Addiction does not weigh in ahead of the safety of the general public.

  2. I’m a firm believer in “when it’s your time, it’s your time” Survived getting rear ended by a drunk driver on my 1st bike at the beginning of my 2nd season; 2 years later I hit a deer @ 100 kmh, on Highway 27 just North of Kleinburgh by Copper Creek Gold course, & somehow managed to keep the bike on 2 wheels. That was at 12:30 in the afternoon. 2 years ago when riding with a buddy out here in Alberta, once again around noon, I just missed hitting my 2nd deer at 100 kmh & this time, she cleared the bike by about an inch or so. Yes I pulled over to calm my nerve,s & the nerves of my young friend behind me, who couldn’t believe what he had just witnessed. I guess I haven’t “done” whatever it is that I’ve been put here on earth for. I think I’m a pretty decent rider, never drink & ride & never do drugs & limit most of the risks as best as I can. My choices in gear have definitely improved over the years, but I’m still not an ATGATT rider

  3. What perhaps makes us most frustrated and angry with regard to the sentence Ford received is that following Scott’s accident, between the start of the trial and sentencing, he was caught ONCE AGAIN driving on the wrong side of the road… THIS time with a suspended license… and STILL only got 31 months. “Remorse”, my ass. Clearly he’s someone who has taken NO lessons away from the tragedy that he, himself, caused.

    1. We seem to have little to no respect for driving and drivers in this country. Kill someone and it’s ” ah well, it was just a mistake” , unless of course you’re speeding then look the fuck out. I don’t expect people to get life in prison but with this guy’s record maybe he shouldn’t be driving anymore.

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