A Vicious Cycle

In Colorado, insurance offers little protection to badly injured motorcyclists.

Dan Leventhal has always considered himself a safe motorcycle rider. He makes it a point to obey all posted traffic laws and doesn't take advantage of his bike's superior maneuverability by cutting off other motorists or splitting lanes to trace the white line. For Dan, who's in his late twenties and has been riding for a decade, his motorcycle isn't a recreational vehicle, but his main form of transportation. As such, he treats it much as cowboys circa the mid-1800s treated their horses: with admiration, with respect, with affection -- and with an awareness that the two of them are traveling through a dangerous world.

Dan knows that since he's not protected by steel framing, padded dashboards and air bags, he's especially vulnerable to injury or worse. And in his mind, the popularity of mammoth sport utility vehicles and equally large trucks only adds to this threat. After all, SUVs ride so high that many of their drivers have difficulty seeing motorcyclists, period, and the sheer size of these roadway leviathans can do an awful lot of damage to anything that gets in their way. That's why Dan tries never to ride when he's angry or emotional -- any loss of focus can be fatal -- and prefers to pilot a motorcycle with a boxer twin engine, which juts out on either side of the bike's frame. The design isn't as sleek as those of sportier motorcycles (dubbed "crotch rockets"), but in a collision, a car might hit the engine instead of the driver's legs -- and that could mean the difference between walking away and never walking again.

Dan also outfits himself in $1,500 worth of protective gear, but he resents having to do so. "It doesn't seem right that I have to dress like I'm going to war to ride my motorcycle," he says. Yet each day before he hits the streets, he dons the ensemble. A leather jacket that's reinforced with Kevlar body armor. A kidney belt. Jeans -- never shorts. Custom-made knee-high boots padded with foam that's specifically designed to absorb impact. Gloves also lined with Kevlar.

 
Danny Hellman
 
"Beemer" Dan Levanthal is still recovering from a motorcycle accident last year.
John Johnston
"Beemer" Dan Levanthal is still recovering from a motorcycle accident last year.

And, finally, a helmet. Dan's not opposed to Colorado's helmet law, which gives motorcyclists the right to ride without this headgear; he doesn't like the government telling people what they should and shouldn't wear. But he started putting one on regularly several years ago, after a young, healthy, helmetless friend of his was smacked by a van -- poor guy hasn't been the same since. His resolve was strengthened further after he himself became an accident victim and discovered firsthand just how at risk motorcyclists are.

He's learned a lot of other things since the crash, too. Most of them bad.

The lessons began on May 27 last year. The day was bright and clear -- beautiful conditions for riding -- and after waking, Dan opted to motor a few blocks from his Denver home, near Eighth Avenue and Clermont Street, to a barbershop. He put on his protective gear before departing, with the exception of his helmet. The place was so close that strapping on a helmet seemed unwarranted. Why bother, he thought.

At the time, Dan owned a 1996 BMW boxer twin, which he kept in top condition; whenever he switched it on, the engine purred with delight. That morning, a little before 10 a.m., he revved it up and headed out, but he arrived too early: The joint wasn't open yet. So Dan swung the bike around and headed to a nearby Einstein Bros. Bagels for breakfast. He was rumbling west on Eighth toward Colorado Boulevard when the signal at the intersection turned red. He waited there for it to change to green, and when it did, he nudged the motorcycle forward at the same moment that Thomas Comcowich, a 34-year-old resident of Leadville heading north on Colorado Boulevard in a 1995 Chevrolet pickup, accelerated in a belated effort to beat the light.

An instant later, the pickup slammed into the motorcycle, hurling Dan approximately thirty feet. (The motorcycle wound up wedged under the truck.) Dan landed in the right lane of northbound Colorado and was dazed as a result of a potpourri of wounds even his protective gear couldn't prevent: multiple fractures of his left tibia and fibula, a fractured hip, and a severe concussion that affected the part of his brain governing vision; he had trouble seeing without pain for weeks afterward. He also sustained serious bruising and a large cut over his left eye where his face hit the truck, and a large bruise on the right side of his head where it smacked the pavement.

There were plenty of witnesses to the accident, including several with medical training; when Dan tried to drag himself out of the street fearing that other cars might run over him, two pros held him stationary and kept the other vehicles at bay. A moment later, a buddy of Dan's, who was riding his bicycle in the neighborhood, happened upon the scene and immediately used his cell phone to call Dan's longtime companion, Lisa Polisher. I'm at the corner of Eighth and Colorado, he said, and it's not good. Lisa, now a clinical research coordinator at National Jewish Medical and Research Center, jumped in her car and arrived in time to see Dan being loaded into an ambulance for transport to Denver Health Medical Center -- the beginning of two and a half weeks of emergency care, surgery and treatment that also included a stay at Rose Medical Center.

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