Tragic year: Fair weather in Minnesota brings uptick in motorcycle crash fatalities
MOORHEAD -- It's been a tragic year for motorcyclists in Minnesota. Already, the state has seen 51 riders die in motorcycle crashes, compared to 46 in all of 2014. Bill Shaffer, motorcycle safety coordinator with the state Department of Public Sa...
MOORHEAD - It’s been a tragic year for motorcyclists in Minnesota.
Already, the state has seen 51 riders die in motorcycle crashes, compared to 46 in all of 2014.
Bill Shaffer, motorcycle safety coordinator with the state Department of Public Safety, said that’s largely due to increased popularity and temperate weather. The state’s number of registered motorcycles is at an all-time high, and even early March boasted warm weekends.
“People are just out a lot more on their bikes,” he said.
But as motorcyclists know, the simple act of being out on a bike often means taking a risk.
“You don’t have the crash protection that you have in a car. There aren’t airbags, there aren’t seat belts,” said Lonnie Bertsch, who runs the North Dakota Motorcycle Safety Program. “What you have is your skills and your crash protection that you wear and your reaction time. That’s what you’ve got.”
And gear can only do so much. Of the eight riders killed in North Dakota this year, four were wearing helmets, and at least 12 of the riders killed in Minnesota were doing so.
“A helmet gives you a false sense of security,” Bertsch said. “They are protection, yes, but it still may or may not save your life.”
North Dakota hasn’t seen the same uptick in motorcycle fatalities as Minnesota, but “even one fatality is obviously too many,” said Ashlee Doan, safety public information specialist with the North Dakota Department of Transportation.
Shaffer said his Minnesota program is planning to combat the issue next year with increased advertising about safety training - a measure that Bertsch, too, sees as the No. 1 thing a rider can do to stay safe on the roads.
“You’re never done learning on a motorcycle, and the more formal training you can get, the better off you are,” Bertsch said.
Bertsch’s program will train 1,850 people this year and offers courses for experienced riders, too, though “unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of people take advantage of those classes,” he said.
In North Dakota, only riders under age 16 are required to take a safety course, and in Minnesota, only riders under age 18.
“Other than that, nothing,” Bertsch said.
About 60 percent of Minnesota riders earn their permit by taking a course and just 40 percent by taking an exam, Shaffer said. They have the option of doing one or the other.
Shaffer and Bertsch both recommend regular training - every year or two, Shaffer said, after the break between seasons. Not only does riding a motorcycle require more coordination and skill than driving a car, it’s also more dangerous.
“If you rear-end somebody in your car and you weren’t paying attention and maybe you got slowed down to 20 mph, you’re probably going to be fine,” Shaffer said. “But a motorcyclist does that or gets rear-ended in that same situation, and there’s a good chance they’ll be injured.”
Training might not prevent a situation like that from happening, he said, but can teach you strategies to avoid harm. Here are a few examples:
What bikers can do
• As with any vehicle, don’t drink and drive, don’t drive distracted and follow speed limits.
• Refresh yourself on the basics with a safety course. Bertsch said most single-vehicle crashes stem from a lack of skills, such as problems negotiating a curve or corner.
• Wear bright clothes, drive in the middle lane and realize motorists might not see you. “People have a tendency to look through us to look at larger objects in the background,” Bertsch said. “Always be ready to react.”
What motorists can do
• When changing lanes, check blind spots and make sure you don’t overlook a motorcycle behind a large vehicle. The most-cited factor in Minnesota police reports about motorcycle crashes is motorists failing to yield the right of way, Shaffer said.
• Studies show that motorists tend to misjudge the speed and distance of motorcycles, so keep that in mind when pulling out in front of one or driving behind one.
• Avoid distracted driving, which makes it more likely you won’t see a motorcyclist nearby. “I see a lot of heads down when I’m out on the highway, and I find that scary,” Shaffer said.