Monday, July 7, 2008

Aging baby boomers ride again -- on risky motorcycles

Lee Bywater recently bought back a chunk of his youth – a motorcycle. A big, loud one.

With a push from his wife – You want it, just do it! – the Elk Grove postal service supervisor plunked down more than $25,000 three months ago for a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Classic and accessories.

Bywater, 47, thus joins California's growing "re-entry rider" crowd, guys of a certain age who decide it's time to feel the wind in their faces again.

"It feels great," Bywater enthused after a weekend cruising through the Valley and foothills with fellow hog riders. "It's exciting."

It's also, he knows, risky.

Motorcycle crashes and fatalities are on the rise in California, and over the past decade, motorcycle deaths have doubled nationwide.

With a record one million-plus Californians now licensed to ride, and a substantial number of unlicensed motorcyclists on the road, officials say time is overdue to make motorcycling safer.

Higher gas prices have boosted motorcycle sales, some dealers report, and more motorcyclists are pulling their weekend bikes out of the garage for their congested weekday commutes.

"It is just a very dangerous situation," said Chris Murphy, head of the state Office of Traffic Safety.

Twice in just two months, cars have run Bywater off the road. Now, he says, "I constantly drive defensively. I won't drive next to a car."

California roads saw 429 motorcycle fatalities in 2006 – more than any year in more than a decade, the California Highway Patrol reported. Another 9,765 motorcyclists were injured.

The average age of riders in motorcycle fatalities has crept up to about 40, CHP Chief Jim McLaughlin said.

He and others say that's attributable in part to the increase in middle-aged guys with rusty skills on heavy-duty bikes, some built like living-room lounges – with plush upright seats for aging backs, heated cushions and handlebars, cell phone connections and even cup holders.

A Bee review of recent Sacramento-area crashes, and interviews with dealers, riders and state officials offers a broader view: Motorcycle mishaps happen among riders of all ages and on all sizes of bikes.

Speeding and other risky riding often are key causes, as well as motorcycles mingling in heavy traffic with cars and trucks.

Among the five most recent motorcycle fatalities in Sacramento County, three happened when cars pulled in front of motorcyclists.

In another instance, a 28-year-old Elk Grove motorcyclist died when he hit a truck pulling into a driveway after skidding for 300 feet in a futile braking effort, police said.

One involved a rider reportedly on a stolen motorcycle who careened off the Capital City Freeway while zig-zagging through traffic.

Alcohol also is a worrisome factor, officials said.

In May, a 55-year-old Orangevale man on a Yamaha suffered serious injuries when he hit the center divider on Hazel Avenue and flew off his bike. The man had been drinking, CHP officials said.

Of the nearly 200 motorcycle crashes chronicled this year by the CHP in Sacramento County, motorcyclists were thought to have been at fault slightly more than half the time.

State Office of Traffic Safety and CHP officials are planning a public campaign to encourage new and experienced motorcyclists to voluntarily take classes in basic riding techniques, risk assessment and avoidance skills.

One message will be directed to older riders, CHP's McLaughlin said: "Hey, you're not a kid anymore. You've got a lot to lose."

Several veteran motorcyclists say they were surprised at how much they learned from refresher courses.

State worker Ron Miller, 43, rode motorcycles when he was young, then raced bicycles for years. But when he recently bought a 786-pound Harley Street Glide, he failed a self-administered weekend test in the DMV parking lot course.

He took a $250 riding class sponsored by the CHP and Motorcycle Safety Foundation, then tried the slow-speed DMV test again with his Harley.

"I nailed it!" he said.

Motorcyclist rights advocates with ABATE of California say they are leery of moves by the state to increase safety, fearing more "nanny" government restrictions such as the mandatory helmet law.

The group particularly guards against suggestions of banning the controversial maneuver called lane-splitting, where motorcyclists cut between cars in congested traffic.

CHP officials say that maneuver is legal as long as cyclists are not going faster than what is considered safe for the conditions.

BMW rider Dennis Allstead, 54, of the Placerville area, is big on safety gear. He wears a full-face, CHP-style helmet, boots and body armor in his clothes. "If I hit the ground, I'd like to get up."

But there are limits, he said. "I still wear black, I just can't wear the yum-yum yellow clothes, sorry."

Allstead won't ride his motorcycle to work in Highway 50 traffic, where, a few years ago, a 41-year-old Harley rider died when he clipped a pickup truck changing lanes and fell under a dump truck.

"I take a vanpool," Allstead said. "I'm better off."

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