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Rider safety: How to reduce motorcycle fatalities

Sharing the road can be fraught, but experts have a few ideas of how to make riding safer for all involved.
The New York state police, along with other law enforcement agencies, joined forces on June 13, in a continued quest to reduce the number of crash-related injuries and fatal accidents on Western New York roadways.

Following that, one of the New York State Governors Traffic Safety Committee’s 2014 initiatives, “Operation Saddlebag III” was put into action. While this initiative focused on motorcycles and their operators, it also focused on other vehicle traffic around motorcycles, in an ongoing effort to increase safety by increasing awareness.

The initiative objective was based on the collaboration of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to run traffic details simultaneously on various Erie County interstates. Participating agencies included: United States Customs and Border Protection, the New York State Police in Troop A and Troop T, Erie County Sheriff’s Office, Buffalo Police, Cheektowaga Police, Amherst Police, town of Tonawanda Police, Hamburg Police, West Seneca Police and the Orchard Park Police.

Specific objectives included:

Providing community outreach and education surrounding the “sharing the road” safety message that motorcycles are vulnerable to larger vehicles, New York state motorcycle-related laws, focus on aggressive and dangerous driving behaviors being performed by both passenger and commercial vehicles causing an increased risk to motorcyclists.

Motorcyclists as well as passenger vehicles were targeted for inspection and enforcement as they traveled Interstates 90, 190, 290, and Expressways 5, 33, 219, 400. Additionally, a stationary checkpoint was conducted on the Peace Bridge access road, within the City of Buffalo.

The stationary checkpoint at the Peace Bridge saw more that 2,100 vehicles pass through, with more than 300 inspections conducted. The four-hour collaboration resulted in 118 vehicle and traffic citations issued, including but not limited to: unapproved helmets, speeding, unsafe lane changes, driving on the shoulder, driving the wrong way on a highway, aggravated unlicensed operation, texting and cell phone use, and one operator was arrested for unlawful possession of marijuana.

We’ve all seen the yellow signs on lawns, posts and bumpers: “Look twice, save a life.” We’ve also all probably been caught off guard by a motorcycle sweeping out from a rear blind spot while driving, or weaving between lanes on the highway. Motorcycles can be a fun way to see Western New York this summer, but all of us, two- and four-wheelers, have to be safe around them.

My dad rides a Honda and four of my brother’s friends ride Kawasaki bikes. More often than not, while we both lived at home, I came home to a bike or two parked in the driveway and its young adult owner sprawled out on our couch with a beer in hand, watching the game.

My parents made sure they never rode those bikes home after drinking alcohol and to my knowledge, they never have.

Every summer, my dad takes a cross-country motorcycle road trip with his buddies, going out to the West Coast, down South and this year, up to Prince Edward Island in Canada. He and I have put quite a few miles on the bike over the five or six summers he’s ridden one, and I love the immersive feeling of cruising past familiar landscapes without a steel shell.

But with great privilege comes great responsibility. In a study conducted by AAA, 2011 preliminary data found that motorcycle fatalities increased substantially in the first quarter and decreased moderately in the second and third quarters. Through nine months, fatalities decreased in 23 states and increased in 26 states and the District of Columbia, with one state remaining unchanged. States with fewer fatalities attributed that to poor weather, reduced motorcycle registrations and travel, increased law enforcement, rider safety training and education.

National data from 1976-2012 showed that motorcycle fatalities track registrations closely and that registrations, in turn, track inflation-adjusted gasoline prices. With prices near record highs, that seems to suggest that fatalities are also set to rise.

One way to buck that trend is helmet use. According to that same study, when used, helmets can prevent 37 percent of motorcycle operator fatalities and 4 percent of passenger fatalities. In 2010, use of helmets meeting Department of Transportation safety requirements was 84 percent in states with laws requiring use and 50 percent in other laws. Oddly enough, only 19 states and the District of Columbia have those laws, and seven states have repealed them since 1997. Repeal bills have been introduced in five additional states in 2012, and no state has enacted a new helmet usage law since Louisiana reinstated its rule in 2004.

When one such law is repealed, helmet use drops substantially. After their laws were repealed, motorcycle fatalities increased by 21 percent in Arkansas, 81 percent in Florida, 58 percent in Kentucky, 108 percent in Louisiana and 31 percent in Texas. Pennsylvania’s 2003 universal helmet law repeal decreased use among riders in crashes from 82-58 percent, which accordingly increased the death rate from head injuries by 66 percent and increased the number of riders hospitalized for those injuries by 43 percent. In Louisiana, when that state reinstated its helmet law, helmet use went from 50 percent to nearly 100 and there was a drop in fatal and severe injuries.

It may be hot, it may be uncomfortable and it may impede the wind in your hair, but New York state has a universal helmet law for a reason: To keep something between your noodle and the road that’s thicker than your skull.

Reducing alcohol impairment can also reduce fatalities. In 2010, 29 percent of fatally injured riders had a blood alcohol content above .08 percent. How to make sure motorcyclists don’t drink and ride? Some states have suggested requiring impaired drivers to participate in mandatory education programs, pumping up enforcement like local forces did last Friday, and instituting stricter penalties, like vehicle impoundment.

And how about that legendary need for speed? In 2008, 35 percent of all motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes were speeding, compared to 23 percent for passenger cars and 19 percent for light trucks. Surprisingly, almost half of all motorcycle fatal crashes did not involve another vehicle, and experts say speed was likely a key factor in those collisions.

Check points and increased law enforcement presence has been recommended to discourage excessive speed. Those Kawasakis may look cool streaming down the street, but those colorful wings and screaming engines are less enticing wrapped around a tree.

Finally, law enforcement has said that education is key, when it comes to keeping both riders and drivers safe on the road. Programs like the “Share the Road” program and those yellow signs that pop up all over the place this time of year are two strategies that can help drivers and bikers become more aware of one another.

Crack-downs like the governor’s initiative are one step on the road to safer riding, but it takes a village to keep all of us safe. Aggressive driving on the part of motorcycles is a problem, but cars can be just as bad. When you see a motorcycle on the road, either in the lane in front of you or coming up from the rear, give it space and time to maneuver.

Just like drivers, motorcyclists are not automatic experts at operating their vehicles, and you never know whether you’re looking at a first-season rider or a seasoned pro. Even those who have been ruling the road for decades can make mistakes, misjudge distance or overcompensate, so give motorcycles an extra car length or so, just in case.

A lot of car drivers get nervous around bikes, but don’t let your anxiety tempt you to speed up and around the bike. That can cause a rider to brake suddenly and he or she may lose control of his or her vehicle.

The warnings on those yellow beacons can make a difference. Take the extra minute to look twice on each side, especially for bikes coming from behind that may look smaller than you expect them to. Use the same caution you would with pedestrians or cyclists, and share the road accordingly.

Unfortunately, not all motorcyclists are courteous riders, and not all drivers are as gracious as they could be, which can lead to dangerous situations.

With a combination of awareness, education and just plain common sense, we can have ride (or drive) safely into the sunset, this summer rubber-burning season.

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