Born to be wild — but riding to be safe

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Warm weather heats up need for safety for motorcyclists and other vehicles

By Corinne Westeman

Memorial Day is cloudy and cool, with a bit of wind out of the north. People on the boardwalk along Main Street in Evergreen watch as a motorcycle tools by every few minutes. Sometimes the bike is accompanied by others; sometimes it’s alone; sometimes it’s playing music through a speaker; sometimes it’s moving to the tune of its own melodious engine.

This scene is a staple of summer weekends. And with summer fast approaching, more motorcyclists will frequent Jefferson County’s canyon roads to enjoy the mountain scenery.

However, Colorado Department of Transportation officials report that the state saw a record 106 motorcycle fatalities last year.

“It’s easy to reduce that to a number, but each of them was a person,” CDOT highway safety manager Glenn Davis said. “One hundred and six is too many. One is too many. All of us can do something to make the road safer.”

Davis recommends that motorcyclists attend a safety training course, adding that CDOT recognizes 12 certified motorcycle operator safety training, or MOST, centers throughout the state.

“Motorcycle driving is a perishable skill,” he said. “It’s important that motorcyclists know they are up to the task, physically and mentally, because for many people, it’s a hobby.”

In fact, Davis recommends that all motorists attend skills courses.

“I think attending it makes you a better driver,” he said. “Because even if you’re not a motorcyclist, at least you can understand what it’s like from their perspective.”

Dangers of the road

Jeffco sheriff’s Deputy Fred Haggett, who is part of the motorcycle patrol unit, says that during the spring and summer there is a massive increase in motorcycle traffic along canyon roads in the county. Highway 74 between Evergreen and Morrison is one of the most popular, he said.

“They’re fun roads to ride on,” Haggett said. “Motorcyclists enjoy riding through those low-speed corners, with all the beautiful scenery. But they are easy corners to get into trouble, because people misjudge them.”

“Motorcycle crashes account for 17 percent of total traffic fatalities in Colorado,” Haggett continued. “Many are caused by motorcyclists either using excessive speed or not negotiating corners correctly, or some combination of the two. Yes, many accidents involve motorists, but most fatalities involve only the motorcycle.”

Haggett described a fatal crash last summer in which a motorcyclist who had a history of excessive speeding died while going 85 mph at Pleasant Park. Haggett said he has seen too many crashes like that one during the summer months.

Many riders, he said, don’t have the knowledge or skill level they should, saying he has encountered motorcyclists who were afraid to counter-steer, or lean, their bikes and/or use the front brake.

“I’ve been riding motorcycles for more than 40 years, and I still train every month and re-test every year,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you ride every summer or every day; you should constantly be improving your skill level.”

Haggett and colleague Mark Techmeyer told of several encounters when they ticketed motorcyclists exceeding 100 mph. Techmeyer said he once clocked a motorcyclist doing 164 mph near South Kipling Street and West Ken Caryl Avenue.

“I asked him why he had been going that fast,” Techmeyer said. “He told me, ‘Because my bike can.’ If he had gone down, there would’ve been nothing left of him.”

“Getting an adrenaline rush is dangerous,” Haggett said. “And if people continue these behaviors, sooner or later they’re going to get hurt. As a motorcyclist, your defensive driving must be above and beyond what it is in a car.”

From the cyclists’ perspective

In Evergreen, Steve Woolley and passenger Karen Vocke climb off his motorcycle after a Memorial Day ride. Woolley, from Thornton, said he’s been riding motorcycles for four years, and rode dirt bikes as a kid. He said he inherited much of his motorcycle knowledge from family members.

Woolley said that while he had never been in an accident, several of his friends had.

“The highway scares me as much as anything — lots of people going so fast,” he said. “But curvy roads with a lot of gravel can be problematic as well.”

Woolley and Vocke pointed out that motorcyclists can be endangered by things that might not affect motorists, such as small potholes or pebbles flying up from a vehicle in front of them.

“A rock or a bug hitting you at 60 mph does a lot of damage, whether it’s on your face, chest, arm or hand,” Woolley said.

Tom Coyle, who was taking a break from his Harley 1200 Sportster on the holiday in Evergreen, said he enjoys driving up Highway 74 through Bear Creek Canyon.

“I’ve always wanted a motorcycle, ever since I was a kid,” said Coyle, who is from the southwest Denver area.

Coyle said he was interested in possibly taking a motorcycle safety course, but said much of it boils down to being respectful of fellow road users.

“What is it our moms always told us? ‘Treat people the way you would want to be treated,’” he said. “Motorcyclists need to look out for potholes and rocks, but motorists should look out for us, too. Everyone needs to be aware and respectful.”

Coyle said he had never been involved in a motorcycle accident that wasn’t his own doing. He admitted he never wears a helmet.

“I’d like to think I can tuck and roll, if I’m in a situation where I need to,” he said. “Although, if an accident’s that bad, a helmet might not do me much good.”

SEEing ahead

Bill Souder, owner of the Motorcycle Riding Training Center in Lakewood and a 2010 Harley-Davidson Street Glide, says that after 40 years of riding he knows, and stresses to others, the importance of motorcycle training.

“I meet a lot of people who, essentially, have been riding with one year’s worth of experience for more than 20 years,” he said, “because they never bother to update and expand their skill level or knowledge.”

However, Souder does posit that, to some degree, safe motorcycling has less to do with experience and more to do with “good rider character.”

“You can have people who have been riding for years who make poor decisions, and then you can have novices making good decisions — when to stop, slow down, look ahead, etc.,” Souder said. “Everything starts with your eyes. Are you looking ahead and identifying the risks? Are you making good decisions on a moment-to-moment basis? That is the foundation of good rider character.”

Souder says he teaches motorcyclists to “SEE”: search for risks; evaluate what impact they could have; and execute a response plan. He adds that the MRTC and similar institutions offer courses for all experience levels, which cover how to safely handle corners, road hazards and other safety topics.

“Motorcycling can be dangerous, but it can also be very relaxing and enjoyable,” he continued. “There’s a freedom to it. The wind on your face. Being in nature, rather than just next to it in a car. There’s something about it that people don’t understand until they’re out there.”

Advice for bikers

Advice to motorcyclists from CDOT, the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office, motorcycle training course instructors and fellow motorcyclists:

  • Be sober and alert while driving a motorcycle.
  • Obey all traffic laws and posted speed limits; do not use excessive speed; adjust speed based on road and weather conditions.
  • Be mindful of your skill level and your motorcycle’s capabilities; know your limits.
  • Keep your motorcycle well-maintained, and check the tires every season.
  • Learn how to properly brake and negotiate corners, especially tight ones.
  • Maintain a safe distance from other road users and avoid blind spots.
  • Be mindful of road and weather conditions before and during your ride.
  • Look ahead as much as possible for motorists, potholes, rocks, animals, and other road hazards.
  • Take breaks so as to avoid riding cramps.
  • At night or in poor weather, wear clothes or gear that increase visibility; wear helmets that reduce wind noise and allow peripheral vision.
  • Pull over, when safe, if traffic is building behind you on a one-lane road.
  • Before taking a route you are unfamiliar with, check CDOT’s Motorcycle Skill Rating Map to assess the route’s difficulty rating.
  • Take a motorcycle safety course to refresh and update your skill level.

Advice to motorists

  • Be sober and alert while driving.
  • Obey all traffic laws, and be courteous to other road users.
  • Do not text while driving.
  • Give motorcyclists as much space as other vehicles.
  • Be aware of motorcyclists who will be frequenting the canyon roads during the spring and summer.

CDOT statistics

• Over the last four years, about 68 percent of fatal motorcycle accidents were the fault of the motorcyclist.

• 25 percent of fatal crashes involved drugs or alcohol.

• In fatal crashes, 65 percent of motorcyclists died because of head injuries.

• More than 30 percent of fatalities involved a motorcyclist who was not endorsed by the state and was driving illegally.

• 50 percent of all motorcycle accidents involved intersections.

• Jefferson County saw almost 1,450 accidents involving motorcycles from 2010 to 2014. According to CDOT, 72 percent of these accidents included injuries (to one or both parties); 25 percent were property damage only accidents; and 3 percent were fatal.

• The above Jeffco statistics included 139 accidents--or 9.5 percent--where the driver at fault (whether motorist or motorcyclist) was impaired by drugs or alcohol. Additionally, of these accidents, 664--or 44 percent--were motorcycle-only accidents; and 155 of them were attributed to driver inexperience.

• Clear Creek County saw a total of 84 accidents involving motorcycles between 2010 and 2014. According to CDOT statistics, 66.7 percent of those accidents included injuries; 31 percent were considered property-damage-only accidents; and 2.4 percent were fatal.

• The Clear Creek statistics include 56 motorcycle-only accidents, accounting for 66 percent of all motorcycle-involved accidents.