Ten Seconds Dead

cycling, motorcycles are everywhere, wear your helmet, road safety, near death experience

Ten seconds—that’s how long Jonathan Footerman was dead after he flew over the handlebars of his motorcycle.

Over-familiarity, said Guy, in Honda, who sold it to me seven years ago, and told me his own story. Everybody has one, you see.

Not long, ten seconds. I could scarcely believe the stocky, helpful man who estimated that I was on the tarmac for no longer than that. He should know—he had seen me dive over the handlebars. But I was sure I had died and gone away, dragged back after some interval by a contrary instinct that would not let me sleep in the middle of the carriageway. How could a mere ten seconds have passed before I sat up wondering why I had refused the sandman’s invitation?

I was tired after a patch of poor nights, and rode my 600cc motorcycle into an island which I know is there on a stretch of road that I ride every day. Over-familiarity, said Guy, in Honda, who sold it to me seven years ago, and told me his own story. Everybody has one, you see. The bloke in the cafe who gave me a cup of tea had one, and showed me the road rash under his forearm. Well, I had a swollen left wrist which had taken the impact through the handlebar, a watch ripped off the strap, a metal spectacle case flattened in my jacket pocket, a little finger bleeding from the cuticle and a big toe swelling up in my right shoe. Also, pain from the sternum to the left armpit from a severe impact on my chest. That is what killed me.

There is a period between impact and taking stock which is blank. I have to admit I am familiar with that, a few moments of excess sensory input which the mind is not quick enough to organise and retain (well, perhaps I should say that my mind is not). I cannot even recall the impact, or where the bike went. I just go from front-wheel-about-to-hit-massive-kerb to I-am-flat-on-the-ground-and-cannot-breathe. I was aware of more or less how I got there and not especially upset as I reserved thoughts about repairs for later. But there was a heavy, cramping pain on my chest that would not let me inhale, like being severely winded; except that when you get a smack in the solar plexus, you wait for the pain to pass and heave a noisy breath. I had such an experience as a teenager when a late pass of the rugby ball led to an unbroken fall under the weight of my large tackler. The referee, who could hurl a javelin to Olympic distances without moving his feet, stood my ten stone body up like a toppled ornament and began waving fingers at it, demanding how many. I knew the answer, and would have said so if only I could get my breath back.

On this occasion, I also wanted to breathe, knowing that I ought to, without the sensation of panic that normally accompanies oxygen starvation. The cramp on my chest, which was coloured the green of summer hay before it dries (not as lush as Irish grass, I thought inconsequentially), seemed to be permanent. I relaxed, and looked for muscles that might bypass the cramp, without success. There was no point in trying to move until I could breathe, I thought, but I felt quite comfortable. No other sensations, no sounds or smells were demanding attention or disturbing me, and in such a vein I drifted away on the waters of unmindfulness, and died.

I never knew how easy it would be until it happened. It does not seem fair. Dylan Thomas might urge us not to go gentle and I agree, but how do you fight if you don’t know the battle is on? There was an instant of pleasure, of release and muscular abandonment that is familiar as the moment before sleep, a mental not a physical sensation that is best in the easy flow of childhood, or after a day of exertion. But I did not choose to go: I simply felt no worries, in the antipodean idiom, and before I knew it was imminent I knew nothing at all. The moment came and went without notice, and I left with no last message in mind. Departure, but no farewell. Death is like that: abrupt, discourteous.


Reboot. Tarmac in close-up. That’s odd. Hmmm. Going back to sleep. No, better not. Why not, I’m comfortable? It’s cold. Tut, it’s very nice except for that. Better have a look. Oh, all right then.

Traffic noise. What is happening? No idea. Who am I? Leave that aside for a moment. Where am I? On the ground, beside an island, nice lady, strong man, hairy arms. What is happening? Ah, I just got it. Chest hurts. Wonder if I can stand.

People must have spoken, but no voices crossed my perception until someone said “He’s getting up.” I tottered to the pavement with the help of the two angels, sat down on a low wall while some men manoeuvred the bike into a parking space, bleeding coolant from a broken hose and oil from a smashed engine casing. The ambulance was coming, delayed by another motorcycle accident in the same road at the same time, with serious injury. Credit to the emergency services: what might have caused terminal confusion was competently dealt with. I waited in the nearby cafe, and spent the afternoon in A&E where X-rays revealed nothing requiring more than anti-inflammatories and pain-killers.

In my 60th year, I carry 100 lbs in addition to the 170 lb I ought to, and hit the ground at speed with a rucksack on my back, without breaking any bones. I must be part Neanderthal, I observed to my girlfriend.

“Nah,” she said pithily, “you bounced.”

Can’t argue with that. I was ten seconds dead. But I seem to have bounced.

Read more on Men and Machines on The Good Life.

Image credit: sprklg/Flickr

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About Jonathan Footerman

English, unmarried, born 1953 and classically privately educated, independently minded and "difficult", Jonathan Footerman left home and school at 17. Chartered Accountant and IT specialist with KPMG, he went to France in 1985 with Gillette and fully absorbed language and culture. Latterly a trouble-shooting CFO in French subsidiaries, he gave it up in 2008 (too unhealthy), began to write, learnt to sail, went solo around the UK in a 21 ft boat in 2010, and now needs a publisher for a sailing book, a novel and a collection of short stories from the High Savoy.


  1. @ 13 I was hit by a car & had my 1st out if body experience, looked down at my body and the cop standing over me and somehow zipped back into my corporeal presence. I was gone long enough for a cop to show up…

    • TonyHitchnz says:

      Yeahp. Almost identical to mine. Went over handlebars. Was doing over 50mile an hour (70 or 80km/h) on rear wheel when lady pulled out in front. Got front wheel down just in time to hit the front of her car. Flipped five or six times. Friend says eight or nine. First flip, thought “I can land this”. Second flip “uhmm”. Third flip came and I just relaxed and shut my eyes. No way anyone was going to control this anymore! As fast as you can say “ground sky gorund sky ground sky” out loud is as fast as it was going. Hit head first, then back, then legs came down like a slingshot. “Oooppph” is about as close as I can verbalise that feeling. ALL your breath is knocked out. EVERY joint in your body has just gone from 70 to zero in 0.00001 against concrete road. Apart from your legs. Which probably were doing twice the speed due to rag doll effect.

      Second out of body “death” of mine actually. Similar experiences. Totally the same as above post. But, no cop. AMBULANCE. I was looking at myself and a old lady with an umbrella and the top of an Ambulance. When I got back into my body I stood up almost instantly (I’m good like that) and was surprised to see the bottom of my foot looking up at me from where it held itself, relatively painlessly, next to my hip!

      The lady with the umbrella disappeared and an old gent arrived, just as I fell over again. He held my leg in a certain way whilst the ambulance people scurried about us. By the time they convinced him to let go and let me move I could stand and take weight on my leg again.

      He was some sort of World War 2 medic. Never saw him again, sadly, as he walked slowly off with a polite bow to catch a bus. I got on the back of my friends motorbike and to this day have a lump the size of a squash ball where my glute apparently got ripped from the hip. Some people think I have a super muscle bum! Not recommended.

      Luckily my accident was right outside a motorbike shop and they had all heard the noise my highly tuned two stroke made as I came around a sweeping corner on the rear wheel. They gave me $500 for the motor on the spot and the insurance for the lady who pulled out in front gave $2500 later.

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