Few occurrences in life will yank your pucker string harder than that of your motor vehicle suddenly and without a flinch of warning shutting down completely in heavy, fast-moving traffic. And when that happens repeatedly—say, four times in 150 miles as it did to me on a 2005 Big Dog Pitbull I was riding home to Sonoma County one fine Friday in the winter of 2004—that string gets stretched to the breaking point.
When the bike quit the first time I instinctively turned the petcock to reserve, and when that had no effect, I rolled to the side of the road and turned to option #2: complete befuddlement. The bike fired right up again, but due to the reengineering of the control switches that BDM had instituted for the 2004 model year, the only way to restart the stalled bike was to hit the kill switch, then hit the on switch, then hit the starter button. It was an odd starting sequence unique to Big Dog, and while it was best executed while stationary, I discovered after the second shutdown that it could also be done with the bike still in motion if you were extremely alert, dexterous and desperate.
And thus I soldiered on, staying in the right lane closest to the shoulder for quick get-offs should the power fail again, and mostly worried about the stretch of highway that crosses the Golden Gate Bridge, and then runs up through the Waldo Tunnel. None of that stretch has a shoulder or any other escape valve for the vulnerably disabled in a sea of frenzied Bay Area commuters. I managed to run that gauntlet without incident and kept rolling along uneventfully and even getting a sense of fool’s confidence that the bike had (as bikes miraculously do from time to time) fixed itself, and so when I found myself stuck in the right lane behind a double-trailer gravel hauler 15 miles from home that was spewing gravel all over the Pitbull’s $5K paint job, I decided to throw caution to the wind and blast past the bastard. I zipped into the passing lane and got abreast of the gravelly beast running hard, but with yet another gravel truck coming up quickly behind me, the bike once again went stone cold. And the road was narrowing just as quickly as an overpass with no shoulders approached and I was essentially coasting on a 300mm rear tire, which, I note, doesn’t coast very far. I had to get off the road before I got run over or slammed into the viaduct’s guardrail and I couldn’t get over to the right shoulder because it was entirely blocked by the double-trailer rig.
So I swallowed hard and veered onto the grassy median, which was actually a grassy mud bog after the heavy winter rains of late. It didn’t look good, but I rode it out enough to get clear of the roadway before unceremoniously dumping it in the muck… with me under it. And in that short time frame I’d been desperately trying the rolling restart routine I’d discovered, and it finally worked. So now I was under a running Pitbull with a buzz saw-style CNC rear wheel spinning menacingly just beside my right leg. Good times. A good Samaritan biker saw my predicament, pulled over, and helped extricate me, and I was back in the saddle and on the road with my front end tweaked and my headlamp shell stuffed with sod.
Home and a bit muddy and bruised but none the worse for wear, I phoned up BDM HQ in Wichita and they immediately dispatched a transporter to California to retrieve the down Pitbull. Back at their research facility they did the electrical forensics, found a worrisome glitch and informed the NHTSA of the defect. They then conducted a voluntary recall of every 2005 model they’d produced at that point in time and began repairing the problem.
It was shortly before my wild ride and rodeo tumble back in 2004 that an article appeared in The New York Times, in which the reviewer of the 2005 Chevy Cobalt pointed out with some alarm that the test vehicle in their possession had experienced a critical failure that extinguished all electrons and rendered the car dead as roadkill—and similarly positioned. But unlike a Big Dog, when those vehicles lose their power they lose their ABS, air bags, power steering and the rest of their modern marvels. The NHTSA took no notice of that news item, nor of similar criticisms appearing in other reputable outlets. They also largely ignored consumer complaints and refused to conduct an investigation even though the root of the problem was something as simple as the ignition switch design and positioning. If your knee bumped your steering column, or your key chain caused your key to droop into accessory mode, the car would die. But people were dying too—including a lot of teenagers. Ten years later we still don’t know how many (GM claims a dozen; the Center for Auto Safety has counted 303 so far), and we don’t know how many were seriously injured, or how many just found themselves motionless on the highway a long way from home or help. That could change. As word finally gets around about the apparent negligence of both the company management and the government oversight agency (the reviled NHTSA, arch nemesis of motorcyclists nationwide), a number of incidents, injuries and fatalities that never saw the official light of day because of the NHTSA’s blind-eye policy will doubtless be revisited and reexamined. A recall is now in effect 10 years late, and affecting a staggering 1.6 million vehicles. The lawyers are lining up.
The whole affair made it to the pages of The Times yet again, only this time it ran as the front page lead story last Sunday (March 16), and took the NHTSA to task for their incompetence and their callously officious responses to complainants of failures and mishaps on the affected models.
It’s cold comfort for all involved to consider that the stubborn emphasis the NHTSA has put on force-feeding helmet laws to statehouses, and the vast resources it has poured into that crusade for the last two decades could have and should have been devoted to doing their damn job.
It’s all right here in the diaries…