What We Learn From Mistakes

By Jay D. Johnson

I don’t know who first said “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” They may have been right, but I would amend that to read “What doesn’t kill you makes you SMARTER.” You survive and learn how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you sure should not ride a motorcycle!

I’ve had four motorcycle accidents that have impacted my life. That’s one accident for every decade I’ve been riding. Every accident has had a moral, a lesson for me and for everyone who rides. Four accidents in forty years is not a particularly good record even though I was not legally responsible for any of them. But they were ALL my fault. “My fault” because I could have prevented them and I didn’t.


It was the summer of 1960. I was a twenty-year-old college student. I’d been commuting between home, school and work on my little Honda 50 for over a year. It was early Saturday morning and I was riding to my job in downtown Seattle. It was a gray, misty morning but the streets were dry. The traffic was light.

This was in the days before our state law a required motorcycle headlights to be “always on.” Mine were not on that day. The road was a four-lane residential main street, but there were cars parked in the curb lane. I was riding toward the right of the traffic lane close to the parked cars. A small VW bug approached toward me, moving along very quickly. I didn’t give him a second thought until suddenly, without slowing or signaling, he cornered hard to the left directly into my path. We were about to have a head-on impact. I braked hard, both on the front and rear wheel brakes. The tires locked and tried to grip the blacktop. The little motorcycle started to slide. The back of it was coming around to the left.

I knew the front bumper of the bug was going to take off my left leg. I shifted my weight to my right foot peg at the same time pulling my left leg up out of the way. Before I could get my leg all the way up the VW struck the little Honda cycle and me.

If I’d gotten my leg up another three inches it would probably not have been injured too badly. As it was, my calf shattered the glass headlight and opened a slice in the muscle 4 inches long and a couple inches deep. My shoulder and back hit the upper part of the windshield and I was thrown high into the air above the VW as it slid to a stop several feet beyond the point of impact. I came down next to the sidewalk about 20-25 feet from where I was stuck. Hitting the ground I did something quite remarkable.

You see, in high school I was on the track team. But, I never lettered because while I should have been training for the 220, the 440 and the sprint; I was practicing the high jump. Even though I’m only 6 feet tall and did not have the body built for that event, I loved to jump. So I spent hours after school at the high jump pit trying to jump my height. So on that gray Saturday morning, when I found myself flying through the air, I simply did what I often did when high-jumping; I tucked as I hit the ground and rolled up into a standing position. Unfortunately, there was no one there to see my “human cannonball act.”

From where I was standing I looked around, but I could not see my little motorcycle. Apparently, it had traveled in a different direction than where I landed. The VW driver came running over to see if I was badly injured. I started to say that I was OK, but when I tried to take a step I couldn’t feel my left foot. I looked down and saw my jeans were torn and there was a lot of blood on my leg. By this time, people were coming out of the nearby houses and I was soon on my way to the hospital.

The moral of this accident (and I still have the scar on my left leg to remind me) is to always be as visible as possible. Always have the headlight on. Have extra lights and extra chrome. Wear bright colors. Ride the lane in a position of best visibility (usually to the left). Don’t ride close to parked cars because (a) you tend to blend in to the scenery, and (b) one of those parked cars just might pull out in front of you, or (c) open a driver-side door into you. Always assume the driver of the other vehicle doesn’t see you and is going to do something stupid and unexpected, particularly if he (or she) is in a VW bug.


Almost 15 years after the above incident, I had to learn things the hard way again. I’d just had a new rear tire mounted on my Suzuki GT750 “Water Buffalo.” For those not familiar with this model, it was Suzuki’s masterpiece in 1974. A water-cooled two-cycle engine with three cylinders, which would wind up past 10,000 rpm as quick as you could think about it. It was a pure joy to ride and I did so at every opportunity. I was single at the time and working as manager of a Seattle radio station.

After I’d had the new rear tire mounted I rode to work for a couple of days and on the second day my new tire was soft. I re-filled it with air and it seem to be OK again. The next day was a Saturday. That morning I decided to join a couple of riding buddies and see how far up toward Steven’s Pass we could go before we hit snow. The plan was to ride to the snow line and then turn back and stop for coffee.

It was a beautiful Fall morning when we started out. We had ridden as far as Monroe, Washington (about 30 minutes) when I noticed my rear tire was soft again. My better judgment told me I should ride straight to my Suzuki dealer and have him check the whole installation. This was the second time it had been soft in a week. I decided I would have it checked later that afternoon on the return home from the ride up to Steven’s Pass. I filled the tire again with air at a gas station in Monroe and we three rode east on Highway #2 into the Cascade Mountains.

About 15 miles later we were leaning into the curves of Highway #2 out of the town of Gold Bar headed toward Index. Highway #2 is a twisty two-lane mountain road. Traffic was fairly heavy that day, but moving along at a brisk pace. I wasn’t sure, but the back end of my bike began to feel a bit strange through those curves. I wondered if the tire was going soft again. I tried to twist around in my seat to see if the tire looked low. But I couldn’t quite see the tire from that position. I was riding second of the three bikes so I motioned to my friend behind me to look at my tire. I didn’t want to pull over yet because there was no shoulder on the road. He started to raise his hand to motion me to stop, but I only saw his hand begin the motion. Suddenly, the back end of my cycle started to swing to the left. I was going into the on-coming lane of traffic.

I’m not sure how, but somehow I got the back end of the bike to kick around in the other direction. With that maneuver the bike went down on its side, sliding on the “crash bars.” I gripped the handlebar and held on for dear life as my Suzuki slid into the ditch. It made a sudden stop when the luggage rack slammed into a tree stump. I continued up the ditch, which was fortunately full of fallen leaves and finally came to a stop nose-to-neck with an empty beer bottle. (Rainier long neck, I think!)

On departing from the motorcycle, I had broken off the windshield with my ribcage. There were no broken bones, but the pain from the rib separation kept me on my girlfriend’s couch for about 10 days. After nursing me back on my feet she decided she preferred dating guys who had safer lifestyles. (Her next boyfriend ended up in the hospital as the result of a knife fight. Go figure!)

It turns out that the numbskull at my Suzuki dealership who mounted my new tire managed to pinch the inner tube creating a slow leak. When it leaked enough air to go soft the second time, the tire slipped and tore the valve stem off the tube. The result was that the tire lost all its air at once and came off the rim just as I was twisting around in my seat trying to get a look at it. WHAT AN IDIOT! Never again will I fail to stop if I suspect there’s a problem with my motorcycle. AND, I’ll never ride on a suspicious tire. My Suzuki dealer was all heart, he gave me a 10% discount on the repairs to my motorcycle and the new tire and tube. He’s out of business now.


My third accident happened in late summer of 1996. It was just before the beginning of the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Maybe you remember where you were then. I was in Vancouver BC, Canada. You see, every year at this time I spend a week in Vancouver recording a series of lectures that are presented on the campus of the University of British Columbia..

The conference lasted seven days that year. The program of scheduled lectures began on Sunday and extended through the following Saturday. This particular Saturday I had a scheduling conflict. My relatives were holding a family picnic about 100 miles away in Marysville, Washington at the same time I was supposed to be recording the last of the lectures up in Vancouver. But, I had a plan.

At that time, my best friend was also my business associate, Dick Dietsch. Dick actually worked for me, but ours was not really a boss/employee relationship. We were more like partners. I’d met Dick through our Northwest motorcycle-touring club. He and his wife Cheryl had been along on a couple of my Canadian Rockies Tours and he usually rode on our monthly day-trips. In 1991 Dick had been laid off from the computer service company where he worked. At that time I needed help with my recording business. Dick’s knowledge of equipment and computer systems fit beautifully with my needs. So he became my first full-time employee. Soon, we were traveling together around the country to recording assignments. Often, if we had two meetings scheduled at the same time, I would cover one meeting and Dick would go to the other one. When we weren’t working together, we were on our motorcycles together.

My plan to handle the recording commitment on the final day of the meeting at the University of British Columbia and still attend my family reunion in Marysville was simple. I asked Dick to ride my Cavalcade up to the UBC campus in Vancouver on Friday afternoon from my home near Seattle. Then Saturday morning I’d ride the Cade to the picnic. Dick would cover my recording duties at UBC. Then I’d return that evening to help Dick pack up all our equipment and we’d both return home Saturday night, me in my motor home, Dick on the Cade. Things started going wrong on that Friday afternoon. They were about to get a lot worse.

It was just after Friday’s lunch when I learned that the Saturday lecture was going to be moved to a different location of the campus. This meant that all the equipment and supplies I had been using all week would have to be moved, and “No, there was no place to store it over-night on the campus.” I had way too much equipment to store in a car. Plus, I didn’t have a car, I had a 40 foot motor-home which was parked in a church parking lot about 10 miles away through heavy city traffic from the campus. I didn’t want to make two round-trips with that big motor home, so I asked if anyone at the conference had a van or pickup we could use to move the equipment out that evening, store it overnight and bring it back to the new location in the morning.

As luck would have it, one old gentleman volunteered to handle the equipment move with his pickup truck, a Toyota that was just about as old as he was. I was quite “ticked-off” with the whole situation and if the meeting sponsor was not a dear friend, I might have just blown off the whole thing and left. I was that tired and upset! At least I knew Dick would be there that afternoon with my Cavalcade and could help me pack everything into the pickup.

Dick was supposed to leave Seattle at noon and meet me on campus at 3:00 that afternoon. When he wasn’t there at 3:00 I figured he had been delayed at the US/Canada border. At 4:00 o’clock I started to organize and pack my equipment. At 5:00 the lectures were over and I started hauling everything out to the truck. My equipment and supplies filled the back end of the little pickup. I phoned home and learned that Dick had left Seattle at 12:00 o’clock as planned. Vancouver is a three-hour ride from Seattle. I began to worry. Dick owned a Gold Wing. The Cavalcade was a bigger bike. He’d never ridden it. Maybe he had an accident!

At 6:00 o’clock the driver of the pick-up and I were sitting alone in the parking lot. I was tired. I was hungry. I still upset at having to move my equipment. And, I was getting more and more worried about Dick. At 6:05 Dick finally rode my Cavalcade into the parking lot.

I’ve told you all the above so you can understand my upset state of mind that summer evening. I should have gotten into the pickup and let Dick follow us the 10 miles through town to my motor home. But he had been on the bike a long time. He had been delayed almost three hours at the border because of heavy traffic there. Plus I was anxious to ride and Dick didn’t know where we were headed. So, I had Dick climb into the pickup with the old man and I mounted my Cavalcade.

About a mile down Marine Drive, traffic was moving briskly. I was following a beat-up old pickup truck driven by an old man, with my best friend in the passenger seat and 400 pounds of my recording equipment and supplies in the back. The Cavalcade radio was tuned to a Seattle AM radio station which was now about 130 miles away and the reception was poor. “How could Dick have listened to that?” I decided to switch it to a FM jazz station I knew there in Vancouver. I looked down to punch the AM/FM button. I was wearing new sunglasses with a bifocal lens. At first glance I couldn’t locate the AM/FM button, so instead I turned off the radio’s power switch. I’d deal with the FM switch later.

As I looked back up to the road, the pickup was now directly in front of me and totally stopped in the middle of the road. There was no time to do anything but get on the brakes as hard as possible. I had read years ago that you are better to ride out an impact at “full brake” than to attempt to lay the bike down. That way you maintain control and reduce the impact as much as possible. With no maneuver available, it seemed my best choice. I’m sure it was. The braking bike slowed a lot, but not enough. I slammed it into the back of the pickup.

The impact stopped the bike, but I continued forward and hit the top of the tailgate hard with my face. My nose must have just cleared the top of it, but my mouth “kissed” the tailgate and bent it forward about 4 inches. Bike and I both landed on our left sides on the centerline in the middle of the road. I could hear the tires and feel the breeze from the cars going past me in the other direction. They were passing inches from my head. Then all the traffic stopped.

I looked up at the branches of the trees that formed a canopy of leaves above the road. The late day sun shone against them from the west. They were particularly beautiful. After a few of seconds of gazing at the waving leaves, I decided to wiggle my toes to see if I had any feeling there. I DID!

Suddenly Dick’s face was directly above me. “Jay, can you see me? Are you badly hurt?”

“I can feel my toes. My back and neck seems to be ok. I don’t think anything is broken. But, I’m not sure.”

“Don’t move Jay, the Medic Unit is on the way.”

Then a few seconds later I asked, “Dick, help me get this helmet off!”

“No Jay! Don’t take your helmet off!”

“Dick, I know you are not supposed to remove an injured rider’s helmet, but laying on my back like this is bending my neck uncomfortably and I’m sure nothing is broken.” We carefully removed the helmet.

Minutes later the emergency aide crew was there and used a “spine-safe” clam-shell stretcher to pick me up off the street and slide me into the back of the aide unit. The medic confirmed that I was OK except for a badly cut and bloody mouth. Later that evening, a trip to the hospital ruled out serious injury. Although by then the bruises on my left side began to appear and the muscle pain I would endure for the next few days was taking over.

I spent the next three days and nights on a couch in the living room of my friends in Vancouver watching the Olympic games on Canadian television and swallowing a lot of aspirin. A couple of weeks later I came back to Vancouver to recover my motor home. It was a couple more months before I brought a trailer up to Vancouver to claim the remains of my beloved Cavalcade. That began the long process of returning this classic motorcycle to its former condition. (But, that’s another story!)

What are the morals of this accident? First, don’t get on the motorcycle if you are tired, upset or distracted. AND! Always keep your eyes on the road and everything around you, especially in heavy traffic. OH YES! Why had the old man stopped for no reason in the middle of that busy highway? To let a j-walker cross the road in front of him! Later he threatened to sue me for the damage to his truck. I settled with him for $1,000 cash. (More than the whole truck was worth.) And I still don’t think he had working brake lights. But there was nothing I could do. You see it turns out I didn’t have proper insurance for riding in Canada. Another mistake I’ll not repeat


I was more injured by this fourth accident than all the others combined. I almost gave up riding after it. But, I made the decision that I would not allow fear to rule me, not my own fear, nor the fears of my friends and family. I respect their concerns. But if this accident taught me anything, it is that the joys of our lives are greater than the fears of our lives.

It was a sunny Friday afternoon going into the long Labor Day weekend of 1997. You will remember where you were that weekend when I remind you of events in another part of the world. Since my accident in Vancouver, I had not had a motorcycle to ride and Dick allowed me to use his Gold Wing from time-to-time. We had been traveling for business a lot over the past few weekends. In fact, Dick and his wife Cheryl had been with my wife, Bridget and me in Phoenix the weekend before. It had been several weeks since either of us had been on the motorcycle.

With the three-day weekend at hand it was the perfect time for a pleasure trip. Dick and Cheryl had arranged to ride up to Eagle Lake in British Columbia Canada to join a “Retreads” group out of Seattle. They were camping-out and Dick planned to take his tent and camping gear. I would’ve loved to go too, but with no motorcycle that was not an option. We had however, talked about Dick using my trailer. I knew his Wing could pull it because I had pulled it for six years with my own Gold Wing. He had installed a trailer hitch, but had not wired the Wing for trailer lights. So on that sunny Friday afternoon he and I were wiring his bike for taillights, brake and turn-signal lights.

We got the taillights working first. Then we attached the wires for brake lights and turn signals. We tested everything and all seemed to be in proper working order. It was almost sunset when everything was complete. I patted Dick on the back and wished him a great weekend and safe riding. I watched with envy as he rode the 500 feet down my driveway to the road and disappeared around the corner.

The next day was Saturday. I spent the whole afternoon doing yard work. At and about 3:00pm I thought about Dick and Cheryl. If they had left at 8:00am as planned, they would just about be at Eagle Lake then. Eagle Lake is about a half-hour east of Kamloops, BC. With a couple of coffee breaks, small lines crossing the border and a leisurely lunch, it would take them about six or seven hours to reach their destination.

Although at that time it was only 3:00 in the afternoon in Seattle, it was midnight in Paris, France. Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed were getting into their limousine at the Ritz Hotel.

I was wrong about Dick and Cheryl. They were not yet near Eagle Lake. They had been delayed on-route. After they crossed the border, they had stopped for lunch in the town of Hope, BC. After lunch, Dick had a bit of difficulty starting the Wing. It barely kicked over and was running rough. After a few miles he decided to return to Hope and see what was wrong. He suspected a failing battery. Sure enough, the battery tested very weak at the local Sears store.

By the time Dick replaced the battery with a new one, they were behind schedule. But, there was no reason to hurry the trip. They had plenty of daylight before they had to set up their tent at Eagle Lake. And they were not alone. Another rider was with them. Traffic on the highway was light. It was a beautiful late summer day. Conditions were ideal for motorcycle touring. The Coquihalla Highway is a modern express highway build through the Cascade Mountains of British Columbia. It’s a toll road, but it cuts two hours off the trip from Hope to Kamloops. It is all four-lane divided highway with an extra lane on the right in the up-hill portions for slow-moving traffic.

The two motorcycles maintained a constant speed on the highway, riding at about 60 mph. Riding up one of the inclines on the highway they passed a flat-bed semi-truck with a load of lumber strapped down on it’s trailer. They topped out over the incline and continued down hill at the same speed. About half way down the semi with it’s load of lumber passed the two bikes and continued beyond them until the highway again began it’s up-hill rise. Half way up the incline the motorcycles again passed the 18-wheeler maintaining their steady 60mph. This pattern continued for several miles. The semi would take the slow lane up hill and the bikes would pass it. Then on the down-hill side the road became two lanes in that direction and the truck would pass the motorcycles.

I finished doing yard work about 6 o’clock. Bridget and I decided to eat out that evening and headed for the near-by town of Issaquah. On the car radio we heard a news bulletin. The early report was that Princes Diana had been in a traffic accident in Paris and may have been seriously injured. During dinner the waitress came by our table and informed us that Princess Diana had been confirmed killed in the Paris wreck. That was sad news and we discussed it a bit on the ride back home.

The next day I had not yet put on the coffee when my telephone rang. The woman on the telephone identified herself as the wife of Dick and Cheryl’s traveling companion. Had I heard the news?

“About Princes Diana?”

“No, about Dick and Cheryl!”


“Jay, I’m sorry to tell you that they have both been killed.”

Her husband had called late Saturday night with some details. Naturally he was quite shook up. Details were very sketchy then. But after some phone calls and a trip to the place where it happened, I now believe I know what happened, although no one will ever know for sure.

At the moment Princess Diana’s limousine had struck the wall in that Paris tunnel, Dick and Cheryl were on an up-hill climb getting very close to the town of Kamloops. There were three lanes on the northbound side of the highway. The semi was in the lane for slow traffic doing 32 miles per hour. The first motorcycle approached from behind in the center lane of the three northbound lanes. The rider noticed that one of the straps on the trailer was lose on the back end and was hanging down. It was in the back of the truck, not on the side, so it was not a hazard to the passing motorcycles.

The first rider slowed to match speed with the semi. He waved at the driver and motioned toward the back of the rig. The driver mouthed “I KNOW! THANKS!” With that, the motorcycle resumed speed as they approached the top of the hill. The second motorcycle with Dick and Cheryl aboard was approaching from behind. There were no other vehicles in the area.

Dick’s Gold Wing had a throttle lock. This is a device that is supposed to act like a “poor man’s” cruise control. You flick it on or off with your right thumb. In the down position it grips the throttle and keeps it from moving even if you take your hand away. You must use your thumb to release it in order to allow the spring, which returns the throttle to its idle position, to do so. On long trips a lot of riders use the throttle lock to relax their hand and limit fatigue in their right wrists. I believe Dick had it in the “locked” position and that was a major contributor to the accident.

The first motorcycle was accelerating ahead. The semi driver looked in his left mirror. He saw the Gold Wing and trailer passing next to the semi. As the motorcycle began to pass under his mirror, he returned his eyes to the road and then felt a bump. He saw the Gold Wing continuing past the truck. It was upright, but the rider and passenger were gone. The bike and trailer continued for some distance, leaving the road and falling into the ditch to the right of the road where the trailer separated, spinning around, landing right-side-up next to the Wing which was pitched over to the right. The engine stalled.

Somehow, both rider and passenger had been thrown from the motorcycle under the wheels of the semi. They were killed instantly.

Ironically, the only mechanical damage was a broken mirror on the Gold Wing and a broken hinge on the trailer. There were a couple of other marks on the bike that helped us determine what must have happened.

Approaching the semi uphill from the rear, Dick had probably set the throttle lock. Suddenly he saw the first motorcycle in front of him, closer than he expected and still not fully back up-to-speed. Instead of switching to the center lane and passing both vehicles on the left, he panicked and hit the brakes hard.

The braking front wheel gripped the blacktop hard causing the front of the bike to drop. The back wheel was still driving at full throttle forcing the bike to pitch over violently to the right. The right front faring struck hard against the side of the truck. The fender edge over the four drive wheels of the cab left a narrow slit in the faring where the bike struck it. This impact bounced the diving motorcycle back into its upright position. As soon as the rider’s hand left the brake, the dynamics of the running motorcycle stabilized and so it continued ahead riderless until it left the road.

This accident was investigated extensively, both by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the local jurisdiction and the accident investigation team which studied all the evidence. The semi driver was found not at fault. The loose strap was found not to be a factor in the accident other than being the cause for the first bike to slow down.

I went to the location of the accident and spend a long time talking to the Mountie who was on the scene. I rode Dick’s Gold Wing back home and satisfied myself that it was mechanically sound. One thing I did discover was that we had wired the trailer lights wrong. We had reversed the polarity on the taillights and this is what has caused the battery to fail. The new battery Dick had installed started failing and I had to unhook the trailer lights to get back home.

I asked the Mountie if he had ever seen an accident with so many opportunities to avoid the tragic result. He had to admit that it was very unusual and probably could not be repeated if you tried to stage it a thousand times. But, he also observed that almost all accidents are the result of a series of small, avoidable events that combine in a unique way to create an unfortunate result.

Ten minutes after Dick and Cheryl were killed, Princess Diana was pronounced dead. In some of my more distressed moments I have wondered if God wanted a motorcycle escort for her into heaven.


I titled this account “Four Accidents and A Funeral.” The funeral I want to conclude this with is not the funeral I attended for Dick and Cheryl. Even after three years it is difficult for me to review that event. I spent most of that day trying to keep myself emotionally together so I could deliver the comments I wanted to make to the attending family and friends. Bawling like a baby is what every fiber of my being wanted. And I know everyone would have understood. But I had prepared some words I very much wanted to deliver and somehow I managed to do it. The grieving continued a long time. It still does. No, the funeral I want to discuss here is much less of a tragedy and much more a celebration of a life enjoyed to the fullest.

One of my personal heroes and a mentor was Bill Orth. Bill and Lois rode with our Puget Sound touring group quite often. Bill was in his 80s and had a heart condition. His own heart valve had been replaced with the heart valve of a pig. Whenever we would eat breakfast, Bill would always avoid the bacon. “Professional courtesy!” he would exclaim.

Bill had two motorcycles, a Gold Wing and a BMW. Both were maintained in superb condition. Regardless of which motorcycle he was riding, I always knew where Bill would be. Because I was tour leader, most of the time I was out front. Bill would be exactly four bike lengths back in the second position on the opposite side of the lane. I could ride fast or slow, Bill was always right there. His riding skills were outstanding. He was aggressive without pressing the lead. I was always delighted to see Bill arrive to join our group. I knew who would be in second position and that I wouldn’t have to worry about him. I could focus on the rest of the group and not worry about my back.

Bill passed away a couple of years ago. I don’t know his age but he had to be approaching 90. I wish I’d known at the time because I would have loved to attend that service. Bill was my hero. He had every reason in the world to quit riding, weak heart, advanced age. But he LOVED to ride AND he was GOOD! He was on a motorcycle not long before the day he past away. Today I would love to be on the highway again with both Dick and Bill. I know who would be riding second!

But it’s not Bill Orth’s funeral I referred to in the title. The funeral I’m thinking about has not happened yet. With luck it won’t happen for several years. But when it happens I want people there to say: “I can’t believe he kept riding a motorcycle at his age!” and “He sure loved touring and did a great job sharing it with others.” I’d like them to say “He took us on some great rides and showed us the beauty of God’s countryside.” and “Even though he survived some accidents, he didn’t live in fear. He learned from his mistakes and was a better rider as a result.” I’d like them to say; “He made a difference in my life.” And finally, “He was a good Christian man, who loved his family, cherished his friends and enjoyed his life fully and completely” ….because they would be right!

Ride Safe Everyone,