The Guardian, 12 March 2003
It’s a classic dilemma: your teenager is pestering you for a motorbike, so do you say yes? After her son’s third crash, Monica Porter seriously regretted her decisions. But now she’s not so sure
It must be the ultimate nightmare for any parent with a teenaged son: the day he asks for a motorbike. I’m afraid when it comes to child-rearing, I’ve never mastered the art of the unequivocal ‘no’ – a common failing, I believe, amongst parents of my generation, brought up in the liberal-minded Sixties.
I was confronted with this dilemma two years ago, and the sheer awfulness of it was compounded by the fact that I was a single mum and my son Nick was in my care. So, to ride or not to ride was up to me, and you could say it was the mother of all decisions.
Nick wanted the motorbike for his 16th birthday. He argued that the buses were woefully unreliable, and a bike would ensure his prompt arrival at school each morning. It would be pricey, he added, but I’d be saving money on his monthly travel pass. Hmm. Nice try, but I knew the real reason: along with his mates, he thought motorbikes were cool and fun, and he reckoned owning one would do his image no harm – especially with the girls.
I sounded out my friends. They stared at me in horror. ‘I wouldn’t let my teenager get a motorbike,’ they said. ‘Far too dangerous.’ They all had their stories of relations or acquaintances who had come a cropper on two wheels. And hundreds of teenagers were seriously injured – or killed – on Britain’s roads every year.
Even middle-aged male friends who rode motorbikes themselves advised me against it. This was not hypocrisy, they claimed. Those who had been riding since their youth said it was very different when they started – there were less congested, safer roads. And as for the ‘born-again bikers’, they insisted that maturity and good sense were needed to negotiate a bike through London traffic, and teenagers had neither.
Nick’s father, my ex-husband, was appalled by the idea. ‘Would you ever forgive yourself,’ he demanded, ‘if something awful happened?’ Predictable response from a lifelong Volvo-driver.
But the most fervent anti-biker was my brother-in-law Stephen, who related in graphic detail his own motorcycle accident at the age of 17, in which he was thrown up in the air at 60 mph after losing control on a slippery highway. He had to crawl for ages to get help. ‘It was a miracle I didn’t break anything. But I was covered in bruises for six months. I stopped riding after that.’
I told Nick his uncle’s story, hoping to jolt him into changing his mind, but he only shrugged and gave me a smirk. ‘That’s Stephen for you,’ he said. ‘What a drama queen. Crawling for help, oh please.’
For weeks I agonised. Was my son commendably fearless – or just unthinking? And was I a bad mother, irresponsible for even considering getting him one of these potentially lethal machines? Meanwhile Nick pleaded and cajoled, charmed and persuaded.
In the end, nervously and against the advice of everybody, I agreed to let him have the bike. You can’t protect your children from risk forever, much as you’d want to. I knew I would worry about his biking around town, but then I always worried about him waiting at lonely bus stops late at night – he’d already been mugged twice.
And so he brought home his shiny red Aprilia RS50 – technically a moped – and took to the roads.
At first, each time he rode off, I was all nerves until I heard the vroom-vroom outside the window and knew he was back. It reminded me of when he was 10 and first started walking to school, having to cross a major thoroughfare near our house. Then, too, it took me a while before I learnt to relax. But you can and do get used to having a biker for a son. I even began to see it as a natural step on Nick’s way to adulthood and independence. And his helmet and black leather biking jacket were, I admit, funky additions to the coat-rack in our hallway.
But in the third week he skidded on some spilt oil and fell off, bruising his leg and damaging the handlebars. I immediately went back to being anxious. Then, a few days later, came the second mishap, when he hit an icy patch on a roundabout one night. This time the bruising and bike damage were worse. I began to regret not heeding the warnings, and having let Nick ‘twist my arm’.
His third accident – a side-on collision with a car at a badly-lit junction – was the worst. The bike was no longer rideable, and Nick was badly shaken. Eventually he admitted that he’d been driving a little too fast. ‘But so was the other guy,’ he quickly added.
It seemed that the euphoria from whizzing around on his first set of wheels, coupled with inexperience, had been a dangerous mix. The Aprilia was a write-off.
You can imagine the endless ‘I told you so’s’. Even Nick’s own friends advised him against riding again. ‘You’re just not fated to, mate,’ they told him. Reluctantly, he agreed to give it up. I was relieved that the whole episode was at an end, and Nick could stop being Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones.
But as it happened, it wasn’t over yet. With surprising alacrity, the insurance company replaced the old bike with an even faster one. Had they learned nothing? Nick explained to me that, as he was now 17, he could legally drive the superior model, and the lure of the road was, quite simply, irresistible.
Oh no, I groaned, here we go again…
But to give him his due, he was more cautious and sensible the second time ’round. The shock from that final accident turned out to be the best thing for him – just what he needed. Without it, his unchecked over-confidence might have led to real disaster.
He got a Saturday job as trainee mechanic at a motorcycle garage, learned all there was to know about bikes and acquired a new respect for them. He reserved the more adventurous aspects of the pastime for the noisy videos of motorbike stunt riders which he and his pals hooted over in our living room.
As for me, I felt vindicated in the face of all the naysayers (although secretly I sensed that it was less a matter of my having made the right decision, than of Nick having had a few lucky escapes).
And the best thing is, I hear my ex has just got himself a scooter…