The season’s first clear, sunny days can tempt motorcyclists in the Pacific Northwest to hit the road after storing their bikes all winter. But, especially for fair-weather riders, spring fever can be fatal.
Safety experts warn this is the start of the most dangerous stretch of months for motorcyclists. More crashes start to happen in spring because many riders are a little rusty, Washington State Patrol Trooper Jeff Sevigny said.
You can greatly reduce your chance of becoming a statistic by taking a couple of days to refresh your skills and remember the rules of safe riding before you hop back on your hog.
Sevigny has years of experience riding with the patrol’s motorcycle unit in Eastern Washington, but still, he said, he and his cohorts prepare for weeks every spring before starting their official patrols.
In empty parking lots or on quiet roads, they practice speeding up, slowing down, turning, braking and making evasive maneuvers. They re-familiarize themselves with the feel of the brakes and the clutch. They make sure their bikes are running right and their gear is solid.
“Whether you’ve ridden your whole life, or you’re new to it, everyone needs to put in some practice,” he said.
Motorcycle riders, unsurprisingly, fare far worse than car drivers in crashes. They’re smaller, less stable and lack the protection of a closed vehicle.
In 2016, the number of deaths per mile traveled on motorcycles was nearly 28 times the number of deaths per mile traveled by car occupants, according to federal data collected by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the Highway Loss Data Institute.
Fatalities among motorcycle drivers and passengers are on the rise. In 2017, the most recent year data is available through IIHS, 5,172 motorcyclists died in crashes, more than twice as many as in 1997.
A few decades ago, fatally injured motorcyclists were far more likely to be young men. But the percentage of older men killed while riding has steadily risen. Men aged 50 or older now account for a little more than one-third of motorcycle deaths, compared to 13% in 1997 and 3% in 1982.
That may be a reflection of an aging baby boomer population, but Sevigny said it also could be affected by the current availability of supersized, speedy motorcycles that can be beyond some riders’ capacity to handle.
“In my 22 years of being a trooper, I’ve seen the gamut from young riders to older riders,” he said, “and one thing we see a lot of is riders getting on a very powerful motorcycle and getting themselves into trouble.”
High-performance capabilities sometimes encourage riders to speed or make risky maneuvers, according to the IIHS.
A 2010 study by the organization found that motorcyclists who drive supersport motorcycles — a small fraction of registered motorcycles that can reach 160 mph — are overrepresented in fatal crashes, with a death rate four times higher than the rate for motorcyclists who ride cruisers or standards.
Sevigny said two of the most common avoidable factors in many deadly motorcycle crashes are alcohol or other intoxicants, and speed.
In 2016, according to the institutes, 43% of the 1,846 motorcycle drivers killed in single-vehicle crashes were speeding, and 37 percent had blood-alcohol concentrations of 0.08% or higher.
Nearly half of all motorcycle rider deaths involve just the motorcycle and no other vehicle. But when other vehicles are involved, the most common scenario is a vehicle turning left into the path of the motorcyclist.
Sevigny said he’s haunted by some of the tragic, and preventable, fatal crashes he’s seen.
“The ones that stick in my mind as the most tragic are the ones where the riders are simply over their heads, driving at excessive speeds on roads they’re not familiar with,” he said.
He acknowledged that many riders sometimes speed, but he urged people to get familiar with the roads before opening the throttle.
“Get the right helmet, wear appropriate gear and long pants even if it’s a short distance; ride with the mentality that nobody sees you, and pay attention. Be on your game,” he said, “because there could something you don’t expect right around the corner.”