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Officials warn motorcyclists to be wary as weather warms

POSTED: May 10, 2013 1:04 a.m.

As part of efforts to keep drivers and motorcyclists safe, law enforcement officials and highway safety advocates gathered Thursday in Buford to promote motorcycle safety awareness.

The event was part of a national motorcycle safety awareness campaign. Every May, advocates for highway safety across the country observe Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month.

“With its mountains, long summer season and abundance of rural roads, Georgia is one of the best states in the country to ride a motorcycle,” said Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. “But if you don’t know what you’re doing, a motorcycle is a dangerous, dangerous thing.”

Georgia experienced fewer motorcycle deaths overall in 2012, but motorcyclists in the state are killed at a rate disproportionate to their counterparts in passenger cars, according to an analysis by the office.

Crashes are more likely to kill riders of the more than 200,000 registered motorcycles in Georgia than they are passengers of any other vehicle.

Sgt. Kiley Sargent, head of the criminal investigations division at the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, knows the dangers of motorcycling all too well.

A crash in July 2010 left him in the hospital for five days and bedridden for months.

“Having to basically go through all the rehabilitation and learning how to use my leg again, all of that could have been avoided by riding a little bit safer and paying attention,” Sargent said.

Sheriff Gerald Couch said the office is aware of the dangers posed by the county’s geographic proximity to the mountains.

“Busiest are the main thoroughfares through town and through the county, (Interstate) 985 through (Ga.) 365, and all the major state routes — the concentration of everybody coming from the metro area traveling through Hall County going up into the mountains, so we see a lot of increased traffic there.”

Sgt. Kelly Edwards, who heads the traffic enforcement division, said visibility is a key factor in motorcycling danger.

“The biggest thing is people don’t see motorcycles, if another car on the road is positioned a certain way, then it will completely hide the motorcycle from the view of the car trying to pull out, and they’ll just assume that nobody’s coming and not see the motorcycle behind the car,” Edwards said.

Sargent echoed the issue of visibility, and offered straightforward but critical advice.

“If I can say something to the other riders and other vehicles on the roadway: We get so used to seeing cars, and people see headlights, but they don’t necessarily expect to see motorcycles. But they just need to watch out for the single headlights, and motorcycle riders need to ride defensively, and be prepared for anything the road throws at them,” he said.

Last year, some 132 motorcyclists died on Georgia roads.

The 2012 death toll is slightly smaller than the 148 recorded motorcyclist deaths for 2011, but Blackwood said Georgians should not be content with only a slight decrease in fatalities.

“We are seeing the numbers of motorcyclists killed in Georgia decline, but consider the families of these 132 motorcycle riders,” Blackwood said. “Surely, they do not feel as if Georgia’s roads are safer for motorcycles today than in 2011.”

Motorcycle deaths made up some 11 percent of all deaths on Georgia roads, but account for only 2.3 percent of vehicle registrations across the state, the office said.

Nationally, motorcycle registrations represent about 3 percent of vehicle registrations, and in 2011, motorcycle deaths made up 14 percent of U.S. highway deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Motorcyclists are 30 times more likely to die in a collision than passengers of any other vehicle, according to the administration.

Motorcycle deaths rose nationally by 2 percent from 2010 to 2011, resulting in a total of 4,612 motorcyclist fatalities across the country, according to NHTSA.

Preliminary data for 2012, not yet verified, predict a 9 percent bump in motorcyclist fatalities in 2012.

Helmets were another stressed safety subject of the day: The proper helmet can be the difference between life and death or a debilitating brain injury, experts said.

Patrick O’Neal, director of health protections for the Georgia Department of Public Health, urged riders to forgo looking cool for safety.

He said “novelty helmets” often seen on riders are less safe than Department of Transportation-approved helmets.

O’Neal attributed helmet use to improving motorcycle crash victims’ survival rate in Georgia trauma centers.

In 2005, O’Neal said 10.1 percent of the 600 motorcycle crash victims who were taken to Georgia trauma centers died.

In 2011, 5.7 percent of the 900 crash victims taken to Georgia trauma centers that year died, O’Neal said.

“Hopefully, this is the start of a positive trend,” O’Neal said. “DOT-approved helmets make a major improvement in survival rates.”

Proper education and licensing are also factors in motorcyclist fatalities across the country.

Twenty-two percent of motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes in 2011 were riding their vehicles without a valid motorcycle license at the time of the collision, while only 12 percent of drivers of passenger vehicles in fatal crashes did not have valid licenses, according to NHTSA.

A valid motorcycle license includes a rider having a valid driver’s license with a motorcycle endorsement or a motorcycle-only license.

“High fuel prices and the beautiful weather unfortunately bring out a lot of people who may not know how to handle a motorcycle,” said Jim Kelly, coordinator of the Georgia Motorcycle Safety Program for the Georgia Department of Driver Services.

He cited resources available from his office for people seeking motorcycling as a new hobby; Georgia’s Department of Driver Service operates 22 motorcycle safety training sites and certifies 14 private sites across the state.


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