Ride Safe: Higher fuel prices mean more motorcycles on the road, and the potential for injuries

By BRUCE ALSOBROOK, News-Telegram Managing Editor

July 17, 2008 - Sulphur Springs Police Chief Jim Bayuk doesn't pay lip service to the concept of motorcycle safety gear. He speaks from experience.

A freak accident on his 2001 Honda Gold Wing a couple of years ago left him with multiple broken ribs and soft tissue damage to one leg. But it could've been much worse, judging from the left side of his helmet, where the surface was essentially scraped off.

That could've been his face that was left on the side of the road instead of some clear coat paint and polycarbonate plastic.

"I don't get on a bike without a helmet, long pants and boots," said Bayuk, who now rides a Harley-Davidson.

Paying $4 a gallon for gasoline has a lot more Texans taking to the roads on two-wheels today, and that's cause for concern in the safety arena.

The rise in motorcycle registrations has caught the attention of the Texas Department of Safety, the state highway department and others involved in the industry of public transportation.

Motorcyclists only make up about 2.5 percent of all licensed drivers in the state but are involved in serious crashes at a much higher rate.

In 2006, the latest year that complete statistics are available, 346 motorcyclists were killed on Texas roads, or about 10 percent of all fatalities. Of those 346, a full 63 percent weren't wearing a helmet. The Texas Department of Public Safety estimates 82 of those lives would have been saved if helmets were worn.

The Texas Department of Transportation this week announced it was partnering with the Texas Motorcycle Roadriders Association on a motorcycle safety campaign encouraging drivers to take extra caution watching for motorcyclists on roadways. Television and radio commercials and billboards along interstate highways will urge drivers to look twice for motorcyclists.

"Registered motorcycles are at an all-time high in Texas," said Carlos Lopez, TxDoT's traffic operations director. "We're reminding drivers to be on the lookout for the nearly 400,000 motorcyclists on Texas roadways, especially at intersections where many crashes happen."

It would help if there were a way to make drivers of cars and trucks -- "cagers" is the term many bikers use -- could be more aware of motorcycles and scooters.

According to the Texas DPS Motorcycle Safety Unit, more than half of motorcycle accidents occur because a motorist simply "did not see the motorcyclist coming." People in cars and trucks tend to look for other cars, not for motorcycles, and because of a smaller profile, bikes can be harder to see. Motorcycle riding patterns are also different from other vehicles, and factors like traffic and road conditions mean bikers will respond differently on the highway than other vehicles would.

The reality, Bayuk agrees, is that the burden of safety has to fall on the person riding the bike.

"I'm always on the defensive, always watching, looking for an 'out' if I need to take it," Bayuk said.

The type of bike being ridden can present dangers, as well.

"Be familiar with what your riding," Bayuk said. "Don't get a motorcycle that has too much power to handle."

Modern bikes can make astounding amounts of horsepower at the rear wheel. About five years ago, a motorcycle magazine pitted a Suzuki GSX-R 1000, then the world's premier superbike, against a Corvette. The Suzuki was able to go from zero to 100 mph, then come to a full stop before the Corvette could accelerate to 100 mph.

Kawasaki and Suzuki have since introduced sport bikes that create an even higher horsepower-to-weight ratio than that GSX-R.

"My big question is, how many people who are riding really do have their motorcycle endorsement?" Bayuk says.

He doesn't just say that because he's the chief of police and it's the law. At a minimum, gaining the "M" endorsement on a driver's license means a person has passed a written test and studied up on the rules of riding, and that covers information specific to motorcycle safety -- how to ride in tandem, for example, and how to handle certain road surfaces.

They also have to take a driving test, unless they've taken a state-sanctioned motorcycle safety course. The department of public safety recently reported record numbers are taking both the basic and advanced motorcycle operator training offered by the DPS Motorcycle Safety Unit. Last year, 33,697 Texans took either the basic or advanced course, setting an all-time record number for the 13th straight year. A listing of the 81 permanent locations and nine mobile sites across the state can be viewed online at www.txdps.state.tx.us/msb.

There's no denying the advantages of motorcycles. They're efficient transportation, help cut down on traffic congestion and can be an absolute thrill to ride. But for those who take to the streets on two wheels, the never-ending advice remains simple: "Ride safe."

"As a whole, I think most riders are cognizant of the dangers," the police chief said. "I love motorcycles and I love riding, but you've got to be careful."

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