My friend Rob Harris was killed five years ago this week, on May 14, 2016, during Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month. He died when he rode his motorcycle over the crest of a narrow gravel road and hit a pickup truck that was driving slowly toward him, obscured in a hollow on the other side. His ribs broke and pierced his heart and he died within a heartbeat.
There’s a pair of small wooden crosses to mark the spot, beside the Old Hastings Road just south of Bancroft, Ont., and every May since his death, I’ve ridden a motorcycle up there to check on them. I do it to remember my friend, but also to remind myself to stay focused for the riding season ahead – just one misjudged decision can take everything away.
Motorcycles can be dangerous: There are no recent Canadian statistics, but in 2019, 56 people in Ontario were killed in motorcycle collisions, which was about 6 per cent of all vehicle fatalities. Motorcycle injuries were less than 2 per cent of the total for vehicle injuries, which shows the greater likelihood that a collision for a bike will be fatal.
Rob was a very experienced rider and a motorcycle journalist, the founder of the online site Canada Moto Guide. He was 49 years old and when he died, he left behind his partner Courtney, who was back at home in New Brunswick with their two daughters Cate and Chloe, 8 and 7. His friend Jim was riding behind him but was too far back to witness the crash. No fault was ever determined and no charges were laid.
I went to the site two days later with Courtney and Jim and some members of her family; she had just come from identifying his body at the hospital in Kingston. There were still some plastic pieces of motorcycle at the side of the road and a splash of blood in the sand. I spoke to the owner of a hunting cabin nearby. “I heard the crack of a motorcycle throttle, and then I heard a backfire,” he said. “Except it wasn’t a backfire. It was the sound of the gentleman’s helmet hitting the pickup truck.”
Rob paid the ultimate price, but he was not the only victim that day. The next year, I returned to the crosses and found the man who had been driving the pickup truck, who lived just down the road. His family had been with him in the truck: his wife and their daughter, and her husband and their seven-year-old daughter. Rob died instantly, but the driver and his son-in-law worked CPR on him until the ambulance arrived from Bancroft; his wife and daughter shielded his granddaughter inside the truck from the sight.
“I think about it a lot,” he said. “Every time I drive the road, of course, and see the crosses, and sometimes just when I wake up in the night. You never forget something like that. We thought we’d have to move away, pack up and be rid of this road, but we’re still here.
“My wife though, she has the hardest time of it. She’ll be thinking about it a lot on the anniversary. There’s another route we can take into town that’s a few kilometres longer on a different dirt road, and she usually goes out of her way now to take that route. She doesn’t want to see the crosses.”
This year, I phoned Courtney before riding up to Bancroft. “It doesn’t seem like five years,” she said. “It seems like just last month.” She came to live in Ontario, to find support with her family, but recently returned to New Brunswick and she thinks now she’ll stay. Even so, it’s been five years of grief counselling and single parenting and constant reminders of the unfairness of it all.
In Rob’s many years of riding, he probably made billions of decisions out on the road: Slow down here; move over there; cover the brake now. It would be the same for the driver of the pickup truck, but when it all comes down to it, one split-second mistake is all that matters and you have to be prepared for that.
This is why I check on the crosses. To remember to stay focused, not distracted, because every single decision has a consequence. I could choose to not ride a motorcycle but that just means the decisions will be different and besides, I’m not alone on the road.
In Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month, at the start of the riding season, I remember my friend Rob, and Courtney, and the driver of the pickup, and I remember my responsibilities as a rider who shares the road with others. It’s a lesson for us all to live by.