A question of safety

As soon as the motorcyclist twists the throttle, dangers of the road charge into full gear. Larger vehicles can smack into the bike in an instant, sending the rider hurtling through the air. Chances of getting hurt or even killed are much higher for a motorcyclist.

Motorcycle training instructor Don Holt rides along a country road south of Red Deer.

Motorcycle training instructor Don Holt rides along a country road south of Red Deer.

As soon as the motorcyclist twists the throttle, dangers of the road charge into full gear.

Larger vehicles can smack into the bike in an instant, sending the rider hurtling through the air. Chances of getting hurt or even killed are much higher for a motorcyclist.

A 1995-2006 medical study — comprised of data from the Alberta Trauma Registry, the Alberta Office of the Chief Medical Examiners and the Department of Infrastructure and Transportation — shows that motorcyclists are at least 3.5 times more likely to get injured or die than other drivers. All injuries occurred during summer months, leading to an adjusted risk of almost eight times that with other drivers.

RCMP Staff Sgt. Frank DeHeer, regional traffic commander for Hwy 2 and Central Alberta, came close to death a week ago when a pickup truck driver drove through a Red Deer intersection, without apparently looking. With 40 years of riding experience, DeHeer instinctively knew what to do.

He laid his Harley-Davidson down on its side, skidding out of control. The friction on the road caused him to stop ahead of the truck, which took off at some point. DeHeer, who had protective gear on, was treated in hospital for back pain, soft tissue injuries and bruising.

“It would have been more serious if I would have run into him,” said DeHeer. “I’ve never had a close call like that on the road.”

Motorcycle enthusiasts say there are bad apples with all drivers. Motorists in cars and trucks don’t pay attention to the smaller motorcycle.

Then there are bikers who like the thrill of speeding despite the risks around them.

Derek, who didn’t want his last name used, said he’s travelled in rural areas “pretty close to the potential of what the bike can do.”

Sport bikes like his can reach around 300 km/h.

“You’re not going to hurt anything,” said the 26-year-old local resident. “You’re just going to hurt yourself.”

Sport bikes are also known as crotch rockets because of their high speed. Plus the rider is hunched over.

“You can do anything you want on them basically,” Derek said. “There’s the excitement factor to it. You can ask anyone who rides two wheels and they pretty much say the same thing. It’s a way different experience from being in a car — actually smelling trees and seeing stuff with a whole different view.”

Sometimes that huge adrenaline rush can land them in trouble with the law — or worse, kill them.

During the night of Aug. 21, a motorcyclist was fleeing from Red Deer city RCMP when he crashed into a median. The 32-year-old from Eastern Canada later died in hospital. The bike was reported stolen.

In May, Delburne-area resident Tanner McKay Schalin, 22, was arrested and charged after being chased by police at speeds of up to 220 km/h on Hwy 2 near Leduc. He wasn’t supposed to be riding, having had a one-year driving suspension for too many demerit points. Earlier this month, he pleaded guilty to three charges and was fined almost $9,000.

Cpl. Gord Baker, a reconstruction analyst for K Division Traffic Services, attends a number of bad crash scenes through the region, including last month’s fatality in Red Deer. He believes that rider couldn’t make a curve due to speed.

“If you look at all the motorcycles in Red Deer and the percentage of them going too fast, it’s probably small,” said Baker, who is based in Red Deer.

Several other factors can lead to motorcycle crashes, he said.

Four riders were killed in Central Alberta in the last year after motorists made left-hand turns in front of them, police report. One of those riders killed was William Tomlinson. Rocky Mountain House area resident Linda Tomlinson is now seeking tougher criminal laws after her husband’s death in September 2010 resulted in a motorist being fined only $115 — the maximum the law allowed.

Baker said drivers of cars and trucks are looking for a bigger vehicle and that’s why they think it’s safe to turn.

“We just forget about motorcycles,” Baker said. “We should all be driving defensively.”

DeHeer figures the pickup truck driver was just not paying attention.

“I’ve got three headlights on my bike, so it’s very well lit up. It’s got a big fairing on it too,” said DeHeer, referring to the protective shield. “It’s a big Harley-Davidson so they’re pretty hard to miss. They’re almost as big as a car.”

Motorcycle crashes cost Alberta’s health care system in a significant way. The medical study on motorcycle-related trauma revealed that motorcyclists accounted for 10,760 bed days during the 1995-2006 period. Assuming the patient was not admitted to intensive care, each admission cost $9,200.

Dr. Hugh Hindle, a physician in the emergency department at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, said the hospital sees motorbike crash injuries on a regular basis. Patients come from as far away as Rocky Mountain House and Castor. Some of the more seriously injured are transported by STARS air ambulance to Calgary or Edmonton.

Frequently, they’ll come in with minor road rashes after skidding, he said.

“Over the last two years (in 2009 and 2010), we have seen 28 people with injuries from motorcycle crashes,” Hindle said. “They either needed to be admitted into hospital here or onto Calgary or Edmonton for further management. That would involve anything from internal bleeding to severe head injuries, spinal cord injuries and broken bones. And unfortunately, it includes some fatal injuries.”

Prevention is key in reducing injuries and fatalities.

For some, it means not riding a motorcycle in the first place.

“It’s certainly not something I would ever consider or would want my children to do,” said Hindle. “I think there’s an inherent risk to just being on a motorbike. Very often, unfortunately and sometimes tragically, the collision is of no fault to the driver of the motorcycle.”

Red Deer city RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Kathe DeHeer, whose husband is Frank, said police see a lot of motorcyclists who don’t wear helmets approved by the Department of Transportation (DOT).

“If the coverage isn’t adequate and the helmet falls off (during a collision), it doesn’t serve its purpose,” she said. “And we encourage motorcyclists to ride defensively and make every effort to enhance their visibility.”

DeHeer said public awareness is also key towards improved motorcycle safety, including cautioning riders to slow down. She referred to a June 2010 fatality in which a 28-year-old riding a sport bike tried to make a light at 32nd Street and 47th Avenue when he hit a truck turning left.

“More education needs to be done, with respect to the police and community organizations,” she said. “Speed does play a role in all collisions, quite often. When it comes to motorcycles, there needs to be more education on proper gear and how speed affects them.”

Others who ride motorbikes or sell them would agree safety awareness is important for all.

“I hate it when bikers get a bad rap,” said Troy Dezall, salesperson for Turple Bros. Ltd. in Gasoline Alley. “I know a lot of them do speed but there are a lot of guys in cars that speed. A lot of accidents are caused by people not paying attention and pulling out when they shouldn’t. And with bikes, when you see one headlight coming, it may be hard to judge distance with how far they are away.”

Dezall said he would like to see a graduated licence so that beginners are only allowed to have bikes with smaller engines.

The shop sells a Suzuki touring bike that can clock upwards of 300 km/h on 1,300 ccs. The manufacturer intends these for the race track, but the bikes do end up being ridden elsewhere, Dezall said.

Gladys Weiland, events co-ordinator for Gasoline Alley Harley-Davidson and a rider herself, said she “honestly don’t blame motorcycle accidents on speed.”

Instead, she blames collisions mainly on ignorance for all kinds of drivers. Some riders are inexperienced, she added.

Motorcycles are a smaller target so they are harder to see, Weiland said.

“We have to be defensive all the time,” Weiland said. “Everyone has to pay more attention.”

Derek, the crotch rocket rider, said he’s often had people cut him off or change lanes without signalling.

“Just as a lot of drivers don’t pay attention to bikers, there are bikers who speed and do stupid stuff,” he said. “I think (crashes) are a combination of everything.”

Don Holt, co-founder of Alberta Motorcycle Training at Springbrook, said all drivers have to think less selfishly because it seems people are always in a rush to get to their destination without thinking of others. Operating a motor vehicle is a shared responsibility, said the former Mountie.

“I don’t like to lay blame (on either motorcyclists or other drivers),” Holt said. “We all make mistakes. Unfortunately, some of them are so tragic that there is no recovery. It’s just sad. We’ve got one kick at the cat and what kind of kick do you want in life?”

ltester@bprda.wpengine.com

— copyright Red Deer Advocate