In Riberalta, children invariably go through the same rites of passage as they grow older. First they learn how to crawl. Then they learn how to walk. Then they learn how to ride motorcycles. Indeed, if one were to sit down to enjoy an ice-cold acai in the main plaza, one would immediately notice the robustness of the motorcycle culture here. In the evenings, teenagers and elders alike double up on their bikes and circle the palm-lined streets, chatting away about their day as they collectively participate in a massive, swirling, end-of-day ritual.
The matter in which riberaltenos ride motorcycles is a manifestation of the city’s laid-back vibe. With entire families stacked onto a single motorcycle, the fathers upshifting and braking in flip-flops, infants slung over the tank, and children dangling their legs off the rear-rack, safety does not strike one as a top priority. Yet virtually all Riberaltenos can share a motorcycle horror story, either through talk of a friend or cousin who was maimed or killed in accident, or through the scars of road rash found on their knees and elbows from accidents past.
In this vein, we had the privilege today of speaking with Kike’ from Radio Amazonia about how important motorcycles are to Riberaltenos, in addition to sharing a few tips that locals can use to protect themselves while on the road. Each year, the Beni Department experiences 7 motorcycle deaths and over 329 motorcycle injuries, which are due to a wide variety of different factors. We were surprised to learn that, while most locals would attribute most accidents to poor road conditions or mechanical failures, in actuality over 95% of accidents are the result of human error. The most prevalent of these errant behaviors is excessive speed; we had a frank discussion with Kike about how folks often don’t know the limits of their machines and their abilities, so that they drive too quickly and are unable to react properly when an emergency arises. In descending order, alcohol use, imprudent driving, drug use, distracted driving, and mechanical failures are also major causes of vehicle accidents.
One of our volunteers, Miles, who is on a motorcycle trip across the entire South American continent, spoke at length about the importance of wearing a helmet. Even if it’s hot outside, even if you’re going a short distance, he tells Kike’, a helmet is essential. Because the human head is so dense and heavy, it will almost always strike the ground in an accident as it continues to accelerate even when the rest of the body has stopped. With 97% of Riberaltenos opting out of wearing a helmet, Miles sees this as one of the most important changes that individuals can make to protect themselves. Miles also expressed some concern about the local practice of acceleratingthrough a traffic light a few seconds before it has completely turned green; the time delay provided by the yellow light is an important buffer that allows everyone to safely travel through a crossing. Miles shared a story that a local told him, where his rear brake failed and he was carried into the cross-walk. With motorcyclists on the other side accelerating prematurely while the light was still red, there was not enough time to avoid an accident, and he was struck.
One of our volunteers, Vicky, believes that education is an important step towards improving overall helmet use. She suggested that the municipality could engage in a public health campaign promoting helmet use as an alternative to driving unprotected. To be sure, for locals to view helmet use as a normal behavior rather than an unusual one would go a long way towards improving the rates of helmet use within the city.
We are grateful to Kike for taking the time for speaking with us and giving us the platform to speak to the city directly. We know that he could have shared motorcycle stories with Miles indefinitely, such is the love that he and the locals share for life on two wheels. Miles has already spent hours swapping stori
es with local mechanics and motorepuestos store owners about his travels, and is still giddy from all the motorcycle activity in the area, compared to his country where transportation is terribly boring and motorcycling is almost nonexistent. We hope that Riberalta’s love affair with motorcycles continues to be as passionate as it has always been. Motorcycles will never be completely safe-but perhaps it is that small element of risk that makes them so exciting. We have a vision, of someday in the future, featuring throngs of Riberaltenos circling the plaza in the evening, smiling through their shining helmets as they gently perform their signature dance.